Trump Should Meet This Islamic State Foe He Nearly Banned

Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi-Iraqi lawmaker now in in Washington, can explain how the travel ban is hurting the fight against jihadists.

The great Yazidi hope.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

When President Donald Trump first issued his ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations, Vian Dakhil was one of the executive order's unintended victims. As I wrote at the time, the Iraqi lawmaker was scheduled to travel to Washington to receive the Lantos Foundation's human rights prize for her work calling attention to the plight of the Yazidi religious community facing genocide from the Islamic State. But because of the ban, she couldn't attend the ceremony.

The State Department quickly corrected the error. On Saturday, Dakhil was notified that she would be exempt from the executive order, and she arrived in Washington on Monday.

Now that she's here, she would like a meeting with Trump. In an interview Tuesday, she told me she wanted the meeting to make the case that the travel ban should exempt religious minorities and other Iraqis who are fighting jihadists.

"I agree with President Trump that the U.S. needs to protect his country and his people from terrorists," she said. "But we should not forget the Iraqis who are not terrorists and who are fighting the terrorists."

It would be smart for Trump to seize this opportunity. To start, he can learn a lot from Dakhil, who has painstakingly documented the campaign of murder, enslavement and rape against the Yazidis, a religious group in northern Iraq and Syria of mostly Kurdish ethnicity. As a representative of one of the Islamic State's most vulnerable victims, she has insights into how the U.S. can better fight them.

She told me that an expanded military campaign against the Islamic State was insufficient. "To eradicate these jihadists, we should fight their mentality," she said. "Radical Islam is not just something we can just fight militarily."

One idea Dakhil proposed was a new effort to rescue the children stolen by the Islamic State and deprogram them, the way Western organizations will treat people who have joined dangerous cults. "A lot of our Yazidi children are being taught to kill their own parents and families," she said. "They have brainwashed them."

This idea hews closely to Trump's own views on the long war. Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump deliberately says America is at war with "radical Islam." Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, has also talked about the importance of waging an ideological war and not just a military one.

Aside from the substance, it's also good politics for Trump to take a meeting with Dakhil. He has said that, after a 120-day freeze on processing refugees, he will give priority to religious minorities from across the globe who apply for refugee status. The American Civil Liberties Union and other opponents of the executive order claim this is tantamount to a Muslim ban. This will be one of the arguments federal judges will hear in the coming days in the court challenges to the executive order.

Dakhil told me she wanted a similar carve-out for the current travel ban, so Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and other faiths could travel to the United States. "Minorities should not be included in this order because we have been suffering for the last two years from terrorists in Iraq," she said. "Now they are designating our minorities the same as terrorists, and we are the victims of the terrorists." 

There is something to this. Even though many Iraqi and Syrian Muslims also suffer at the hands of the Islamic State -- as well as those of Shiite militias, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force -- religious minorities face special persecution because of their faith. When Trump tweets about this or talks about it in interviews, he certainly excites his base. But he isn't really breaking through to his domestic critics. Dakhil, on the other hand, has impeccable credibility with more liberal audiences. 

Finally, a meeting with Dakhil could help show the rest of the country that the initial excesses of the executive order have been reined in. In that first weekend, border agents applied the travel ban to U.S. permanent residents. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security walked that back. The U.S. military also sought and received exemptions for translators and others who helped U.S. forces in Iraq. A meeting with Dakhil could be further proof that the Trump administration can adjust to criticism.

Dakhil is scheduled to travel back to Iraq this weekend. Trump should find some time in the next few days for a meeting with someone who represents the victims of the jihadists he has vowed to vanquish.    

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

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