Update: President Trump issued a new Executive Order on March 6, 2017 removing Iraq from the list of countries whose nationals were included in the first Executive Order. The survey and writing of this article were done prior to the issuing of the second E.O.
President Donald Trump acted on his campaign promise to freeze travel of Muslims to the United States until comprehensive security measures are in place to minimize the risk of terrorist entry to the United states as refugees or on non-immigrant visa. Shortly following his inauguration, the President signed an executive order to ban the citizens of seven Muslim nations from entry to the Unites States (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan).
The Executive Order drew great criticism for many reasons. Many critics disagreed with the principle of categorically banning a group of people from entry to the U.S. and considered it a collective punishment. Others disagreed on the wisdom of banning the citizens of countries not known for involvement in terrorism on U.S. soil, while giving a pass to the nations, like Saudi Arabia, whose citizens committed the worst terrorist acts on U.S. soil, particularly the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The first claim might be arguable, because certain citizens from the nations which are included in the Executive Order have in fact had some involvement, or planning to be involved, in terrorism on U.S. soil. However, the second claim is beyond dispute. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Russia, have citizens whose involvement in terrorism on U.S. soil is well documented, and some of these countries, and others not on the list, have citizens who joined the terrorist group ISIS (the self-described Islamic State).
The executive order was challenged in U.S. federal courts and the challengers won the argument, temporarily. Instead of pursuing the same path, the White House is about to issue a new Executive Order shortly, which is going to be similar in spirit of the first Executive Order, but without the legal problems that led to stopping the latter in its tracks before it had any chance of being implemented. Whatever the nature of the new Executive Order might be, it is also expected to generate the same criticism and may also end up in court.
Having heard the dominant voices in the debate here in the West, I sent my team of researchers to ask Iraqis, who are the real people on the receiving end of the U.S. policy in question, what they thought about the Travel Ban. In this article, I will present a first glance at some of the results and some figures to illustrate the response of Iraqis to some salient questions. While each country has a different structure of public opinion, the results from Iraq may give us a hint of how the citizens of other six nations may react to the same policy. A full version of the survey and a more comprehensive analysis will follow in the coming days.
The survey was conducted in three Iraqi provinces south of Baghdad (Najaf, Karbala, and Babil). The population surveyed was random. About one third of the participants were females and two thirds males. The population of the survey were more educated than the average Iraqi society; 67% of the participants have a college degree or higher. The age of the participants was mostly between 18-35 years and 9% were 46 years old or higher.
When asked about the best media that covered the Travel Ban, most of the participants indicated that the highest coverage (50%) was by social media. Iraqi and Arab media came in distant second (20% and 22% respectively).
In fact, both Iraqi and Arab media gave the issue a great deal of coverage. However, the responses demonstrate the significant time young Iraqis spend on social media, especially on Facebook. It is also indicative of the diminishing influence traditional media are having on the Iraqi population that was greatly influenced especially by Arab media in the past. This phenomenon does not only have to do with the convenience and availability of social media in Iraq, but also with the fact that Arab and Iraqi media are having serious credibility problems. They are increasingly becoming crude propaganda outlets for the political entities that own and finance them.
One of the important, and straightforward, questions in the survey was asking the participants what they thought the motive behind banning Iraqis from travel to the United States. The choice of answer to the four options was a “Yes” or “No”. The options were taken from what was suggested by the Executive Order’s opponents and proponents. While 42% of the respondents answered “Yes” to “racism” and 59% agreed with the proponents who said the motive is “hate for Islam”, a large number of participants (47%) said the motive has to do with U.S. domestic politics, while a very unexpected 33% said it is a “legitimate security concern”.
This sentiment is confirmed by the responses to another question, when asked whether some, or many, Iraqis traveling to the U.S. may constitute a security threat, 25% of the participants said some Iraqis would pose a security threat if they travel to the U.S., and 7% said “many Iraqis would pose a security threat to the U.S.” Participants who responded in the affirmative to the question about legitimate U.S. security concerns generally said that some Iraqis, or many, can pose a security threat if they travel to the U.S. When combined, one third of the participants gave the U.S. the benefit of the doubt and acknowledged a legitimate U.S. concern for the security of its citizens. This sympathy may be explained by the personal experience of many Iraqis who have to live with the fear of terrorism every day of their life.
Another question was also drawn from the debate here in the U.S., regarding the countries that could, or should, have been added to the list. While 51% of the participants elected not to add any countries, most of the other half suggested the addition of Arab States in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia came highest if we consider individual and multiple listings. 21% of the participants added Saudi Arabia, 15% added Saudi and Qatar, and 8% added three or more members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC (most of those who suggested to add the GCC states said “except Oman”). Other countries that came in the listing suggestions, albeit by a very small number of participants (1-4 participants) were Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Israel, Tunisia, North Africa, and Nigeria). In all, 46% of the participants suggested adding one or more Arab States in the Gulf (GCC members). The exemption of Oman is not surprising, as it has maintained a good profile against terrorism and Iraqis often cite Oman and note that “none of its citizens was reported to have joined any terrorist groups” unlike its sister GCC states.
One final question I would like to include in this preview article is the question about whether the participants think the Iraqi Government should reciprocate by banning the travel of U.S. citizens from travel to Iraq. The participants were closely divided, with only 52% thinking the Iraqi Government should ban U.S. citizens from entry to Iraq, while 45% said U.S. citizens should not be banned from entering Iraq. Combined with the previous acknowledgement of legitimate U.S. security concerns, this is a very healthy sign of moderation and tolerance when 45% of the people answered in favor of allowing U.S. citizens to travel to Iraq despite being personally banned by the U.S. Government.
In conclusion, it seems that Iraqis, whom we surveyed show more understanding of U.S. security concerns than expected. But these numbers are not very re-assuring. The U.S. Government and its Iraqi counterpart need to do much more than what they are doing now to heal the wounds of the 2003 invasion and its aftermath and draw the two nations closer to each other. There is a great need to practice public diplomacy and increase the engagement of the two nations to make a better alliance and overcome the mutual mistrust. While the U.S. Government has many legitimate complaints about Iraq and the Iraqis, the other side too has its own legitimate complaints, and banning the entire population may just be the latest of these complaints. If there is a will to make the two countries better allies, there are many ways to do it. Some of the results in this study give us great hope, as they provide some warnings.
Abbas Kadhim is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University and Founding President of the Institute of Shia Studies in Washington. He can be followed on Twitter @DrAbbasKadhim
Hasan Al-Jabiri directed the survey team in Iraq. His due diligence and professionalism deserve to be noted.