Anti-Islam agenda promoted from the top in US – former unofficial adviser to Obama

The heated language of Trump’s presidential campaign is affecting American Muslims, who find themselves increasingly on the receiving end of hate crimes. A year into Trump’s presidency, how will his words and decisions affect the country’s Islamic minority? We ask Trita Parsi, former unofficial Obama administration’s adviser and head of the National American Iranian Council.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Trita Parsi, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you on our program.

Trita Parsi:  Thank you for having me.

SSSo, it’s been a year since Donald Trump was elected. During his campaign, he made quite a lot of anti-Islam comments. But so far, none of these have really been acted on. Was it all just a ploy to fire up his base or does he really hold some kind of grudge against Muslims?

TP:  I think it’s incorrect to say that it’s not been acted upon, because it only took him about roughly ten days to put into place the first Muslim ban, which ended up, of course, being deemed unconstitutional in the court. It went all the way up to the Supreme Court, but then Donald Trump himself pulled it and presented a new version of that ban which is also now being blocked and will probably end up going to the Supreme Court. So I think it’s… He clearly has acted on it. I think that he does so, largely, because he has a base that has been fed some of this islamophobia and wants to see it acted upon. But we haven’t seen him necessarily do anything concrete in the region yet, short of, of course, decertifying the Iran deal, making the future of Iran deal very uncertain, as well as what now has been happening with the alliance with Saudi Arabia, in which Trump so far has backed everything Saudi Arabia is doing.

TP:  Well, I think it’s quite clear that this is not something that is coming from the bottom up but is actually being promoted from the top. Even during the Bush era, after 9/11 there was an increase in anti-Muslim hate crime, but it didn’t actually really start to rise up until during the Obama years, when you had a Republican party, that was very much using the language of islamophobia. Now you have a president, who got elected on a platform of islamophobia. So it is quite predictable, that when you have leaders using language of that kind and, essentially, giving a green light for these types of bigoted sentiments, that that is going to lead to these types of crimes in society.

SS:  But, obviously, a lot of people accuse Trump of spurring anti-Muslim sentiment across the country, but a search from the Pew Research Center shows that a growing number of Americans are actually becoming more sympathetic towards Muslims. Is Muslim discrimination a part of the U.S. mainstream media’s hysteria or is Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric is simply, I don’t know, maybe having a reverse effect?

TP:  I think it is having a reverse effect, because a lot of people starting to see that discrimination against Muslims in the U.S., or people of Middle-Eastern background, a lot of people that are being discriminated against are actually not Muslims, they’re being perceived to the Middle-Easterners and Muslims. There’re a lot of people who are starting to realize that there’s no difference from the discrimination that earlier and continuously is taking place against African-American community or other communities, and as a result, it should be opposed in that same way. But while the number of people who are opposed to islamophobia have increased, it doesn’t mean that islamophobic attacks and crimes will not increase. That small minority that hold those views, feel emboldened and empowered by the rhetoric and by the policy initiatives of the Trump administration, and I think that’s the reason why we’re seeing an increasing number of such crimes.

SSSo, we are now witnessing a rise of the extreme right America – white supremacist groups fuelled by racial tensions. Do you think this stand-off is going to be strictly left vs. right, antifa vs. neo-nazi or are Muslims in danger as well?

TP:  I think we first have to recognize that while there is a minority that is perpetuating some of these crimes and while there is a political element, essentially the White House itself, that is, to a certain extent, allowing this to happen and even promoting it through their policy initiatives, the United States as a whole, as your own statistics showed, is actually starting to unite against these types of crimes. We saw how people were protesting at the airports when this was happening, we saw how the courts have shut down President Trump’s efforts to institutionalize discrimination against Muslims and Middle-Easterners through the travel and the Muslim ban, for instance. So I think that elements inside the American society that can actually battle this and can bring about a much more tolerant society, definitely, are there. I think, actually, they are having momentum on their side. But the reason why we’re seeing this is because they don’t have the presidency on their side right now.

SS:  And then there’s another side of islamophobia – the fact that it is brought up any time someone says something critical about Islam. Do you feel that the non-Muslims majority’s concerns and fears aren’t being addressed properly, since people who’ve raised their voices are branded bigots instantly?

TP:  I’m not sure if that’s the case, I don’t think I agree with your premise, but I do believe that you have a scenario on which if you want to raise question marks etc. There’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it. If you are essentially putting all one billion people in the same category or you’re essentially treating ISIS as if it’s a representative of one billion Muslims, then there’s clearly people that are going to be raising concerns about bigotry and quite correctly so. If there’s an academic conversation, a theological conversation on Islam, that would be a completely different thing. That’s not what we’re seeing. What we’re seeing is that if there is an attack by someone that has been radicalized in the United States, which was the case with the terrorist act in Manhattan two or so weeks ago, that immediately the political establishment under Trump pushes for new immigration measures that are completely unfounded. But, when you have a gentleman go in and massacre people in churches, we cannot have any conversation about gun control. I think you see that this is a political problem, this is not an issue in which people are shutting down debate or that we cannot have a conversation about Islam. Those conversations can be had, but not if they are put in the language of bigotry, then that’s completely self-defeating for those people raising it.

SS: Like you’re saying, the recent terror attack in New York was conducted by an Uzbek, radicalized in the United States, the Tzarnaev Boston bombers as well as San Bernadino attackers were the U.S. citizens. So with the latest terror attacks having been done by home grown terrorists, tell me why are American Muslims radicalizing?

TP:  Well, your question right there is false, you say “Why are American Muslims radicalizing?” You’re speaking as if every American Muslim is radicalized. That’s not the case. You have examples of people being radicalized in the Muslim community, you have examples of people being radicalized in non-Muslim communities – we saw an entire march of neo-nazis in Charlottesville, those were not Muslims who had been radicalized in the United States. So, when you mention that we can’t talk about Islam without being finger-pointed, without being bigots, well, if you phrase the question the way that you just did, then that is not a fair way of asking that question. That is, frankly, a bigoted way of asking that question.

SSOkay, exactly, the moderate Muslims, American Muslims, are trying hard to spread the message that Islam is a religion of peace. However, the actions of radicals, the radical people, are a hundred times stronger in persuading the public otherwise. Can you blame Americans for being scared of Muslims?

TP:  First of all, I am myself not a Muslim, I think question is not actually about Islam per se, we’re not having a theological conversation in the United States about this. I think, if the media is presenting perpetuators of terrorist attacks as representatives of an entire community or an entire religion, then, eventually, you’re going to have politicians who will try to benefit and further advance these bigoted notions and use it as a political platform for themselves that can get them to the presidency. That’s exactly what has happened. If we don’t want to see these things happening we should also start with the media having a much more neutral and much more academic and correct view of looking at these things. Because you cannot on the one hand promote the notion that any act that is taking place is a representative of an entire community and then be surprised that people might become scared of that community - that is a very logical link in between those two. The question is - are there networks out there that are deliberately promoting these types of views?

SSAnd then there’s also the use of word ‘terrorism’, that is used incautiously, I believe, towards Muslims, because the racially motivated shootings done by neo-nazis in America aren’t classified as terrorism by the authorities. White supremacist rams a car into a crowd and then the president blames both sides. But a similar attack done by a Muslim is immediately branded terrorism, which it undoubtedly is, of course, but why the discrepancy?

TP:  It’s a great question. Even in some cases in which there has been American Muslims who have been radicalized in the U.S. or in some cases may not actually have been radicalized, but may be suffering from completely different other issues and just use ISIS as a way of justifying the horrible acts that they’re doing - even then we’re quick to call that terrorism. Whereas when we have examples in which someone even walks into a church and expresses political motives, which is what happened in the south of the U.S., not this recent attack in Texas, but the previous one, in which he said that he wanted to have a racial war. He expressed clear political motives, and it was still not categorized as an act of terror. In fact, as the police arrested him they made sure that they could stop by at Burger King and feed him before he continued on into the prison. These are clear discrepancies, these are some of the things that are causing a lot of people a lot of concern about whether the law is being treated equally.

SS: Manhattan attacker said he was radicalized in response to the U.S. bombings in Iraq. Last year the Orlando club shooter said his attack was in response to U.S. bombings in Afghanistan. I mean, the logic of terrorists is, of course, hard to explain. But, is it maybe not too daring to think there would be fewer terrorist attacks in the U.S. if U.S. didn’t bomb all those places in the Middle East?

TP:  Certainly, there are views inside of the U.S. government itself, we even saw some leaked memos, in which the former Bush officials made it quite clear that they believed that their campaign is producing more terrorists than actually eliminating terrorists. So, there’s definitely an element there that is difficult to get around, which is that all of these foreign interventions nevertheless tend to radicalize people and as a result bring some of that terror all the way back to the United States. But there are other elements as well, such as the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, that is essentially turning a blind eye to the tremendous amount of funding and other forms of ideological and logistical support that has been provided by Saudi Arabia to terrorist networks. And because the Saudis are allies of the United States, the U.S. essentially has to continuously turn a blind eye to that. And I think that that has created the situation that…

SS: Yes, talking about double standards, how can Trump say whatever it is that he’s saying about Islam and Muslims and then go to trips to Saudi Arabia and do great business with them. You are no stranger to diplomacy, tell me - are things like these just being mitigated by diplomatic language?

TP:  Certainly, not. I think this is a double standard, this is something that a lot of people here in Washington are also quite concerned about, that the U.S. currently, under the Trump administration, have essentially written the Saudis a carte blanche in which they can do almost anything they want and they can count on the U.S. support. What is happening right now in Lebanon is causing a lot of concern because it appears to be such that the Saudis are preparing for a military confrontation in some form of coordination with the Israelis, and whether have they received the green light from the United States or not, they appear to believe that they have it or that they will get it. And I don’t see how that is actually advancing stability in the region, nor do I see how that is advancing U.S. interests in the region.

SS: Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have recently scolded Iran for helping the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Trump is really friendly with the Saudi leadership. Does he view Iran through Saudi glasses?

TP:  I think that Trump had almost no perspective on Iran, be prior to running for office, and at this moment, it seems that his perspective is almost exclusively informed by the Saudis when it comes to Iran. And again, it’s not to make the argument that the Saudis don’t have legitimate concern, they do, and so do the Iranians. The question is where is the U.S. perspective in all of this. The U.S. is not and cannot be a proxy of the Saudis because they have their own interests and they are pursuing them right now. So I can’t understand why the Saudis perhaps thought that it is a good moment to escalate tensions. I don’t understand why that would be a good thing from the U.S. perspective, and that’s where a lot of concern is coming in, which is: is Donald Trump pursuing U.S. interests here or is he essentially just being led around by the Saudis on this issue.

SS: And of course the Iran nuclear deal, big topic Trump is now looking to sabotage, and it seemed to work well under Obama: U.S. didn’t get a nuclear Iran, Iran got the sanctions lifted. Why is that that this White House team is so hell-bent on scuttling this deal, isn’t it good for the U.S.?

TP:  I certainly think this is good for the U.S., you have the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I believe, even McMaster, all recognizing that it lies in the interests of the United States to continue with the nuclear deal. They may have some concerns about certain aspects of it, but that does not mean that a complete sabotage of the deal or a killing of it is in the interests of the U.S. This is entirely driven by Trump himself, and his motivations aren’t entirely clear. There are a couple of contending factors, there may not be mutually exclusive, such as the fact that he simply opposes anything that Obama has achieved, and as a result he is adamantly against this nuclear deal for no other reason that it has Obama’s name on it. You have the Israeli and Saudi factor again, the Saudis and the Israelis want the United States to come back into the region as a strong dominant military power and re-establish the balance of power that existed in the region prior to 2003. That necessitates no diplomacy with Iran, no deal with Iran, because any deal with Iran would actually resolve some of those tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and the Saudis don’t want to see that happening. They want the U.S. to come back in and provide Saudi Arabia with security and balance - Saudi Arabia’s own rivals in the region. That is part of the reason, I would say, the main reason as to why the Saudis have been so adamantly against a nuclear deal.

SS: So what do you think will happen? I mean, Trump never hid his feelings about the Iran deal but he never openly vowed to scrap it. He said the deal needs to be renegotiated.

TP:  No, actually he did [vow to scrap the deal]. No one will go for renegotiation. The Russians will not go for renegotiation, the Chinese, the Iranians, and the Europeans made it very clear during their visit here in Washington this week that they will not go for any renegotiation. And Trump said at his press-conference that he wants to see Congress change the terms of the deal. If Congress doesn’t do so, he said, he will ‘terminate’ the deal himself, that’s the words he used, he said he will ‘terminate’.

SS: How far will he go to kill the deal?

TP:  He can go the full distance. He could in December decide not to renew the waivers. U.S. sanctions have not actually been lifted, they have been waived, which means that every 90 or 120 days they need to be re-waived. The next deadline for that is in December, mid of December, if he doesn’t do it then the United States is in clear violation of the deal and one significant step closer towards seeing the deal being killed.

SS: So what level of hostile action is it going to take for Iran to consider the deal cancelled and renew its nuclear program?

TP:  If Trump does not renew the waivers and if it leads to a lot of companies not entering the Iranian market or potentially even leaving the Iranian market, then the benefits for Iran to be compliant to the deal, which they currently are, will essentially have been evaporated. And at that moment I fear that we may see the Iranians taking the first step towards restarting the nuclear program. Which will further ratchet up tensions and further increase the risk of war. That’s the big danger here. This is not just about killing the nuclear deal. This is automatically putting the United States on a path towards military confrontation in the region.

SS: Well, like you wrote, when Obama was trying to make a deal with Iran he had a choice of nuclear Iran or war – Trump now wants to cancel the deal. Does that mean he wants war?

TP:  If he cancels the nuclear deal he will likely end up only facing two options: war or accepting the nuclear Iran. Since it’s clear he doesn’t want to have a nuclear Iran, one has to ask oneself: is he doing it because he wants to drive things towards a war?

SS: But from a security standpoint, with the U.S. involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, will a war with Iran be a disaster for those two campaigns? How’s it going to better for American security situation?

TP:  It will be a disaster for the United States, it will be a disaster for most of the region, it will be a disaster for the Iranians, obviously. The instability will spread elsewhere, potentially all the way to Russia. I think the only ones who calculated this could be beneficial to them are the Israelis and the Saudis, who believe that Iran has grown so powerful that they themselves are not capable of pushing back Iran or reducing Iran’s influence, so they want the United States to do it for them. And Trumps seems to be more than willing to play along with that game. But beside these two countries and potentially the UAE, I have a hard time seeing anyone calculating that this would be to their benefit. I also happen to believe that the Israelis and the Saudis and the UAE are miscalculating. I think this is going to end up a disaster for them as well. I don’t see any winners in this war.

SS: Tell me and show me the logic, what is behind the American establishment’s disdain of Iran. I mean, American Gulf allies have no fewer human rights problems or foreign policy mishaps than Tehran. Letting alone, that you yet have to show me a Shia Muslim terrorist who has blown up something lately, everyone who blows something up lately is from the other side. Yet it’s the Iranians who are seen as the face of evil. It seems quite irrational to me, why is it happening, who benefits from this?

TP:  You’ve mentioned something, we looked at the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations recently. And 40 plus organizations on that list are Sunni or Wahhabi organizations with one connection or another to Saudi Arabia. Only two have direct links to the Iranian government. Yet, as you mentioned, all of the focus is on Iran, and we’re doing everything we can to turn a blind eye on the very-very negative activities of the Saudis. Why is that? Well, Washington is a city that is susceptible to a lot of foreign influence, and, clearly, there has been a lot of Saudi foreign influence in the city. You saw under Obama that there was a deliberate effort to be able to reduce America’s dependence on Saudi Arabia. Now we’re going in the opposite direction. But I do believe that obviously there are historical reasons for the Iranians and the Americans to have bad relations, and it goes both ways. There are a lot of people inside the Iranian government that still cannot let go off the United States as an enemy. But what we’re seeing now is a deliberate effort to ratchet these tensions up, ratchet up these images…

SS: You’ve hit it on the nail! And tell me briefly, America’s distrust to Iran is mutual, like you said. Iranian leaders are also saying that America is Iran’s number one enemy etc. etc. Is any sort of deal between these nations just an illusion? Briefly, please.

TP:  No. On the contrary. We had a deal, we had a nuclear deal. It was put together by the U.S., Iran and five other countries. It was a tremendous success up until this point. There’s been eight reports by the IEA, who have stated that clearly Iranians are complying to the deal. If that diplomacy had been built upon, if it had been continued we could have also seen a reduction of tensions in other areas. I don’t think the United States and Iran ever would become partners, or allies, at least not under the current government of Iran. But, they could lose each other as enemies. They could tactically and strategically collaborate in areas of common interest and then compete with each other in areas where they don’t have common interests. But their relationship wouldn’t be characterized by enmity, it would be simply a much more complex relationship. That opportunity, to lose each other as enemies, is the opportunity that Donald Trump is destroying by going down the path of killing the Iran deal.

SSAlright, thank you very much for this interesting insight, Trita Parsi.

TP:  Thank you for having me.

SSWe were talking to head of the National Iranian-American Council and Obama’s administration informal advisor during talks with Iran discussing Trump’s Middle-Eastern policies and the future of the Iran deal. And that’s it for the latest edition of SophieCo, I’ll see you next time.