Why these seven Muslim majority countries? A Marathon Runner’s Guide to Middle Eastern Politics, part 2

The New York Marathon was the first marathon I ran in the USA. That was in 1998. I have two strong memories from that event, aside from the pain of the final stretch through Central Park. The first was the international run the day before the marathon. This short warm up event is for the thousands of non-US runners. It started in front of the UN headquarters and almost every member nation must have been represented, including many Muslim majority nations. I recall spotting the flags of some of them in the riot of colour and goodwill. The New York Marathon is exceptional in the large proportion of places it allocates to foreign runners. The second vivid memory is from the event itself. The course takes you through all five boroughs and even more neighbourhoods. I remember passing through crowds consisting almost entirely of Orthodox Jews at one point, Koreans at another point, Latin Americans, many other ethnicities and yes, Muslims.

When I started this blog last week, I could not foresee the worlds of running and the Middle East would sync quite as quickly. The long distance runner Mo Farah has become, at least in the UK, the most high profile symbol of the idiocy of President Trump’s travel ban. Farah is clearly not a threat to US security. Nor more importantly are the thousands of ordinary people from the seven countries subject to the ban who work in the US, pay their taxes and whose skills and expertise, the US has decided are needed for the country’s economic benefit. The negative reaction of large US corporations across a wide range of sectors shows the risk to business from the ban.

But why these seven countries? Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and. Somalia. There are other states and territories in the region whose citizens are known to have participated in terrorism. Indeed almost any state or territory in the region and far beyond could be included on the list. There are reports that others may be added to the list. Several reasons have been advanced for the exclusion of some states e.g. Saudi Arabia or Egypt, including Trump’s past business dealings with those states.

Whatever the reason, the list shows the knee-jerk nature of the executive order and harks back to a different era in Middle Eastern politics. There are currently only three states on the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. They are Iran, Sudan and Syria. In the past, Iraq, Libya and Yemen (or rather South Yemen when it was a separate state) have all been on the list. Cuba and North Korea have also been on the list in the past. Somalia has never been on the list despite the disastrous US military intervention in the country in the 1990s.

The inclusion of Iraq and Libya also recall past US military interventions that did not end well. Iraq is now supposedly a US ally in the region. The ban on Iraqi citizens is a particular blow to those thousands that supported the US military and civil administrations, sometimes at great personal risk. The ban on Iraqis also fails to understand the situation in the country. Yes, Daesh does control parts of the country, particularly Sunni Arab-majority areas. A large part of the population, perhaps the majority are not Sunni but Shia, Kurdish and Christian as well as a tiny Jewish community. Even among Sunnis, Daesh is not universally supported and many of its adherents have joined from other countries.

Even if the ban is not extended beyond its current 90 days period (which seems unlikely), it will have sent a shiver through many Middle Eastern governments and companies. However friendly they are with Trump now, they could be one tweet away from his displeasure and inclusion on a future ban. There are likely to be long term consequences for the willingness of governments and individual citizens to engage with the US and collaborate with them. Why bother when the risk of future ostracisation hangs over you? Concern over the future direction of Trump’s policy towards the region is likely to dull the appetite for investment and business links.

Finally, this year’s New York Marathon is likely to be a little less colourful and a little less representative of the nations of the world. The event, marathon running and the US will all have lost a little of their characters.

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