“Nothing threatens America’s national security more than the perception that we are at war with Islam.”

That was my conclusion from the end of the Bush era, after the revelations of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo. When the CIA “torture report” was released a few years later, the statement still held true. I believe it is truer today than ever. If so, the new president has put us all in grave danger.

The executive order that plainly targets populous Muslim countries fulfills a campaign promise but does literally nothing to help our national security. As others have pointed out, over the past forty years there has not been one terrorist attack within our borders by an immigrant from the seven countries in the travel ban.

But the executive order has potentially enormous negative effects. Aside from the undue burdens it places on American citizens and permanent residents with familial ties to these seven countries, the order has several other negative consequences. It needlessly isolates millions of potential Muslim allies around the world. It offends our founding principle of religious liberty for refugees. And it radically and dramatically, in one stroke of a pen, undoes over fifteen years of painstaking, rhetorical needle-threading about the relationship between religion and counter-terrorism that was performed by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

That rhetorical work was absolutely crucial. What the previous two administrations knew and made clear was that we are not—nor have we ever been, nor could we even be—at war with the second-largest religion on earth. The very idea makes no sense.

There are Muslims in most of the world’s countries, with national, ethnic, spiritual, political, and linguistic differences too numerous to name. We certainly do not seek war with Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Nor have we even threatened war against Saudi Arabia, a repressive state from which came most of the 9/11 terrorists (yet is notably not included in the travel ban).

We also have Muslims in our Congress, our judiciary, the highest levels of our business community, as leaders in science and medicine, and—as the world was reminded in stunning fashion by the Khan family last summer—as “gold star” representatives of our military.

Though it has no practical reality, a supposed American war against Islam was exactly what Osama bin Laden and other like-minded terrorists wanted to provoke. ISIS wants the same.

The Bush administration worked desperately not to grant bin Laden’s followers that core ideological tenet that would aid their recruiting. And though it is true that some members of the Bush administration made grave errors that offended human dignity and freedom of religion for some Muslim detainees, its highest levels of leadership were crystal clear that the United States was not at war with Islam. And though the Obama administration has stoked anti-American animus through extrajudicial killings and drone-enabled proxy wars in the Middle East, its highest levels of leadership continued the self-evident position that we are not at war with a global religion.

Thinking back to September 2001, it remains profoundly impressive what Bush and his advisers did just six days after the attacks: a visit to a mosque and a moving speech about Islam. Speaking of American Muslim women who were afraid to leave their homes, Bush said: 

Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America; they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior. This is a great country. It’s a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth. And it is my honor to be meeting with [Muslim] leaders who feel just the same way I do. They’re outraged, they’re sad. They love America just as much as I do.

Muslims "love America just as much as I do," said the American president less than a week after 9/11. This is the kind of statesmanship that helps to prevent anti-Muslim massacres, like the one carried out yesterday by a white nationalist terrorist. This is the kind of statesmanship overturned by nakedly anti-Muslim executive actions.

It’s why those who helped Bush carefully craft his words and actions in September 2001 are beside themselves today. There is no tangible benefit to this administration's new stance toward Islam, but the negative effects of “targeting foreigners by their religion is immediate and considerable—worrying American Muslims and embarrassing the United States’ Muslim friends and allies in the world. When some radical cleric in, say, Central Asia, says, ‘The new American president hates Islam,’ he does not require a conspiracy theory to support his claim.”

Simply stated, this executive order is among the single worst actions that our new president could have done. It gains nothing, harms many, endangers all, abandons principles, helps our enemies recruit, and – in an ironic twist seemingly lost on this administration—it gives the worst terrorist to attack our country the precise thing he wanted.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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