Donald Trump’s recent pronouncements about restricting Muslim immigration to the US have shocked many. The notion that Muslims should be collectively punished for the threat of Islamist terror is completely wrong, and goes against US principles of civil liberty and freedom of religion. The criticism from Republicans in this case show he has clearly crossed a line.

Is Trump a fool? Lots of people might respond with a simple ‘yes’, and leave it there, but he has certainly captured the imagination of the American public. While his penchant for gaffes continues, he maintains a strong lead in the race for the Republican nomination. So he must be doing something right.

Is he pandering to the xenophobia of a nation scared by the increase in acts of terror around the world? In this, has he been influenced by the far right? That’s what Peter Beinart would have you think, in yet another straw man argument that traces Trump’s beliefs to Ann Coulter and other members of the far right. Coulter makes no secret of her anti-Muslim and anti-immigration biases. Beinart’s modus operandi is to connect the dots between anyone he disagrees with and anyone else he disagrees with even more.

But just as the left always seeks to blame US foreign policy for everything from 9/11 to the emergence of ISIS, perhaps the left needs to look at Obama’s oft-repeated defence of Islam to see how Republicans have positioned themselves relative to his stance.

Right from the start of his presidency, Obama became a self-appointed Defender of the Islamic Faith. He has stood up for Islam as a “religion of peace” more than any Muslim leaders. For years he has staunchly refused to recognize that acts of terror have any link to Islam, despite evidence to the contrary. He won’t even mention the ‘m-word’ when he discusses the threat of terror.

Obama’s approach to dealing with the Muslim world vis a vis the threat of Islamic terror is simple: he is in denial. He is hamstrung by his ideology and his self-emasculating approach to foreign policy. Obama has effectively positioned himself at the extreme end of the dove-hawk spectrum.

This may have led Trump to position himself politically at the other extreme to highlight the differences in their approach. To Obama, there is no problem with Islam. To Trump, it is the problem.

Of course the answer is in the many shades of grey in between. The starting point to finding the answer is the realistic approach that acknowledges that terror arises from a small subset of Muslims. That shifts the debate to important issues like:

  • How large, what and where is the subset?
  • How to deal with and ultimately defeat that subset.
  • How to reconcile with and engage with the rest of Islam and engage Muslims more effectively in the war against extremism.

That is the nuanced debate that neither Obama nor Trump are currently prepared to have. By positioning at the extreme, Obama has set the battleground on the issue to one of extremes, and has done this important issue a disservice.