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Former White House Senior Official on Trump, Travel Bans and Islamophobia
16 January, 2019
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Less than a month into his presidency, Donald Trump signed a controversial order banning nationals from some majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

The move was followed by a series of legal challenges, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that the order was “squarely within the scope of presidential authority,” according to Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the decision.

A federal law passed in 1952 – the Immigration and Nationality Act, aimed at protecting the US from potentially adversarial or subversive foreign nationals – gives the president broad powers.

"Whenever the president finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may, may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate,” it reads.

Immigration, racism, and xenophobia have been a highly sensitive topic in the United States for several decades.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Acting Special Representative to Muslim communities Adnan Kifayat speaks to Hromadske on April 23. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Adnan Kifayat, former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Acting Special Representative to Muslim communities, hopes time will improve the administration’s policies.

“Both [the George Bush and Barack Obama] administrations took some time to figure out how to deal with the world. I would like to think that the Trump administration is going through that period right now,” he said.

Kifayat, who is also a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the United States, believes the anti-immigrant sentiment is coming from a fringe view.

“I think there are some very very loud voices in the far, very extreme right who are driving the agenda. I think over time, what we will see is a softening and coming to the center on these issues,” he said.

Hromadske spoke to Adnan Kifayat back in April about the Trump administration, the anti-immigration rhetoric in the US and what can be done to combat radicalization.

I would start with the general. One of the first steps of the Trump government was to ban representatives of many Muslim countries from coming to the US. Courts, and others, called it discrimination. How would you describe the issue today? How would you describe the integration of the Muslim community in these turbulent times? When after 9/11 anything connected to the Muslim community in the US has become a sensitive and controversial issue. What is your assessment of the issue?

I would even say going back before the Obama administration, to the Bush administration, both of the previous administrations since 9/11 have been very adamant in promoting closer relations to Muslim countries, with Muslim communities overseas. I don’t think in the larger scheme of things the current administration doesn’t want good relations with Muslim countries, I think every administration in the US wants good relations. The problem that we’re dealing with is that there has been an anti-immigrant backlash in the US. There have been political trends in the US and it’s not just on the immigration issue. It’s on economics, trade, a number of things that we would all call globalist but they have become almost anti-globalist. So I would look at the anti-Muslim rhetoric and also some of the actions in the context of some of the anti-globalist trends, the political trends that are taking place in the US.

A protest against the travel ban on Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen outside the Supreme Court building in San Diego, California on June 26. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/DAVID MAUNG

But the anti-immigrant rhetoric is disproportionately high and it’s popular. Especially in the South, especially in rural America, there is this idea of a violent Muslim who can come and conquer our place. It’s happening all over Europe. So do you think anything has changed and how can we deal with it?

I think as government pulls back, or figures itself out. As this current administration figures out what it needs to do. I worked in the Obama administration, I also worked in the Bush administration, right after 9/11, there was a learning curve. Both administrations took some time to figure out how to deal with the world. I would like to think that the Trump administration is going through that period right now. They’re figuring out that the United States is one country among many countries. There are many many issues out there and that this reactionary anti-immigrant, anti-muslim fringe, and I think it is a fringe, I don’t think it is a mainstream view. I think there are some very very loud voices in the far, very extreme right who are driving the agenda. I think over time, what we will see is a softening and coming to the center on these issues. And I base that only having seen the last two administrations, not be as extreme at the outset, but I think come to the center at the end.

But why do you think this happens? Because it’s all about threats, it’s a political tool to mobilize your supporters when you put the picture of somebody making a scapegoat of all our troubles and it’s on the rise. And this is the very convenient target because the terrorist attack on 9/11 happened. Radicalism was there, ISIS was there, it’s in fact taking place in a lot countries...Why do you think things will change and what needs to be done?

To be clear, I am not explaining away the Trump administration’s policies. I find them reprehensible, I think the executive order you mentioned in the beginning, the anti-Muslim immigrant ban has been challenged in the courts. It’s working it’s way though. I am optimistic because I see what’s happening outside government. I see what’s happening in the philanthropic sector, I see what’s happening in the corporate sector. Last year was the first year on record that philanthropies gave more than half a billion dollars in the US to anti-hate, anti-extremists programs. In the US, that is the highest number in recorded history for those kinds of programs. That to me gives hope. That to me says that despite what the government does and what the policies are, there is a non-government response to organizing, to promoting harmony, to promoting integration, promoting peace. To me, that’s optimistic because I am big believer in society. The United States is not some total of what the government says or what the government does, we have an entire society of what the business sector is doing, what the philanthropic sector is doing, what the think tank sector is doing. So I’m very optimistic because of those.

How would you explain the fact that in the West there were and still are people who have been radicalized in the mosques and who are traveling and becoming foreign jihadists? We can look at the core of that – there is poverty in the community, that people can’t identify with anybody so they travel. How would you explain that and what could be done?

So there are two data points. I think right after 9/11, in the last 15 years we did see a lot of radicalization take place in mosques and in religious houses of worship. What we’ve seen over time is that radicalization is not happening so much now in mosques, in brick and mortar places, it’s happening online. It’s happening on social media. It’s happening with Google, it’s happening on Facebook, it’s happening where conversations are taking place. And it’s very important, if we’re going to get ahead of this problem, to influence conversations. Because it’s in those conversations that people find opportunity to radicalize and eventually recruit people to terrorism.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Acting Special Representative to Muslim communities Adnan Kifayat speaks to Hromadske on April 23. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

And how would you explain the reason of the radicalization?

There are a number of reasons. One, as you said earlier is alienation. I would describe it as alienation. So when people feel alienated from their communities, when they feel disconnected from their communities, there are other people who are trying to, if you would, recruit them to their way of life, or their ideology. And we see this all the time. If you feel discontented. If you feel not a part of the larger community in which you are. Now you don’t have to be integrated or assimilated but you do have to live peacefully within that community but if you see that there is a push and pull and you are not welcome, it opens the door to many other groups that say, we will give you a home, just join our ideology. So we do see some of that. What we’ve also found is that there is a remarkable similarity between recruitments of jihadists, so violent Islamic extremist people who purport to be Muslims, yet commit terrorism and also neo-Nazi groups, violent far right groups, gang related groups. The message is the same. Be a part of our group, we’ll give you an identity, we’ll give you something cool, we’ll give you some adventure to do and what we need to do, is we need to break that narrative. We need to disrupt that cycle of radicalization and disrupt that cycle of drawing people into other ideologies.

What should be done after ISIS is more or less...There is success in finding ISIS in Iraq at least, there are issues in Syria. But the concern is that all these people will be back to their countries, to Tunisia, but also to European and American homes and that is a challenge. So how do you see this?

It’s a global issue, absolutely. The bigger threat is the online radicalization, but also the homegrown and the returnees. So the people who have travelled to fight on behalf of ISIS but are now coming back home. I would also say that in connection to those, are the people who are now being directed to become radicalized at home. So homegrown, stay where they’re at – we know very well looking at ISIS propaganda that they are saying to people: don’t come, don’t come to Syria, don’t come to Iraq, don’t come fight in our lands, stay where you’re at because we want you to conduct attacks where you are. And we’ve unfortunately seen horrible examples of attacks in Germany, and France and the UK and Canada and the US that have been attributed to ISIS. I think that we’re going to see some more of these and i think that there is a threat out there that is exhibiting itself.

What is your assessment, is the war on ISIS more or less won?

No, I would not say it’s won. I think, ISIS, yes, it’s organization, I think it has been diminished in its ability to conduct attacks on the west but its not eliminated. And I am a strong believer in [that] we have to keep our eyes on what comes after ISIS. Because it's an ideology.

What may come of ISIS?

Could be the daughter of ISIS, could be the son of ISIS, could be both. What we are seeing is Al-Qaeda re-surging. So what we are seeing is different regional affiliates, if you would, of the Al-Qaeda organization, reasserting themselves. You're also starting to see alliances form between regional affiliates of Al-Qaeda and now self-styled affiliates of ISIS fighting elsewhere. And so I think you're seeing a sort of morphing, and the problem is that you can certainly debate between what their fine points are in the ideology, but you cannot debate that they are finding common cause against a common enemy, and the common enemy right now is liberal western democracy. That is the biggest threat to ISIS and like-minded groups.

And how would you explain, I think for a lot of people watching us, it's still very unclear how ISIS is run. You worked with security services as a civil servant in the US, and a lot of people don't understand how come this is such a complex structure, international. There should be some kind of mastermind behind it. So what do we really know how ISIS intelligence is run, how is it taking place? There was Osama Bin Laden, what is there now?

Al-Qaeda was run in a very different form. ISIS being the sort of latest iteration of violent Islamist terrorism, is run primarily as a regional, geographic-based organization. But their influence goes way beyond Iraq and Syria because of social media, because of the online space. They have a network of what we call "fanboys", or people out primarily in North America but also in Europe, who amplify their messages. So in my mind they seem much larger than they are in numbers. So their numbers are very small because they are running a shrinking physical territory.

The board, located on the entrance to the Syrian city of Raqqa, reads "Attention! The border of the Islamic State" (in Arabic). This checkpoint is notorious because of the three years of public executions by the Islamic State that took place near it. October 18, 2017. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/YOUSSEF RABIH YOUSSEF

Who are those people?

It's various groups. There are rag-tag people who used to fight in Iraq, for example. They fought the coalition and liberation of Iraq. Some of them have been fighting or started fighting Assad in Syria. They are basically people who are discontent with the current status quo, and they have become increasingly violent. Now when they declared the Islamic state, it was as a way of pushing back both what they felt was anti-Islamic government in Iraq, and anti-Islamic government in Syria, and it's taken on more and more of a religious tone. I would say it's a rag tag of people who haven't connected with other organizations. I am not discounting them, I'm not saying that they have no strategy or they have no tactics. They're very sophisticated when it comes to propaganda, they're very sophisticated in even organizing their own territory, so we found that they have finance ministry-esque operations. They know how to tax people, they're ruthless in enforcing their rules on people, they will do public executions and so forth. So public administration is not absent. They do know how to run their territory in a very horrific way.

Is it the combination of some people who used to serve in previous government like Iraq and security service as well with this kind of fundamentalism, because it usually would be the fundamentalists as the people who are not well educated, who probably have extremism in their views, so would you also explain that? Because it requires an effort and a knowledge.

They are often the foot soldiers. So the people who are, and this is a gross generalization, but the people who are the foot soldiers and the people who are usually carrying out the day to day attacks are the ones who don't have the background in public administration. Yes, I think you are absolutely right, there are people who were part of the Iraqi government, who were displaced after the liberation of Iraq, the war. There are others in the region who have been displaced politically and have found a home. They have all come together around a central theme. One thing is true, and you mentioned this. They are not the ones who are on the front lines killing or beheading or doing the executions. They have foot soldiers, they have people who are easily lead, people who have been radicalized, and have been brainwashed into becoming their foot-soldiers.

I read in the first article, and in Ukraine it's not the most primary topic, speaking about Syria. So I'm reading the first larger articles speaking to the refugees from Syria in 2012, and it was one year since the start of the protest which just later had become violent, and much later had the foreign fighters come. And obviously still already then it was clear there would be radicalization. SO as somebody who has worked for the state department, at this time, what is the responsibility of the John Kerry administration in dealing with Syria, and the responsibility of the West. Because way then it was clear that not enough was done and the longer the conflict is going on, the more radicalism there would be. Now everybody would say "of course we can't do anything in Syria because it's so radicalized" or "you don't have a proper position, the real opposition is Islamist" so really what would you say on that? On the Western failure of being on time and leading towards what had happened? Because the demand to interfere was still there.

So there's no question that steps that could have been taken were not taken. But I think that that is just a symptom of a larger issue and that is the West thinking that it can micromanage or somehow set out the pieces in a way where the outcome is guaranteed. Ultimately, this is something that countries in the middle east have to figure out. This is not something in my view any one country or any group of non middle east countries is going to be able to dictate to Iraq or Syria or Lebanon. I think we like to quite frankly play a game in Western countries thinking that we can micro-manage other governments and control them and say "you should do this" and "you should have a peace process here" and so forth. Ultimately as we have seen, countries decide their own future. The role that we can play is to help countries whether it's with economic development, whether it's being an honest broker, whether it's bringing the parties together. And we have, in my estimation, failed in that regard. We have not brought the parties together. We have basically let it go and let it devolve deeper and deeper.

But besides that, you said that Muslim countries should decide themselves, but what you have now is that the Syrian peace process is run by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. And then, in Iran, negotiations are taking place and these are with important leaders, Putin, Erdogan, and Rouhani. So the vacuum is filled, so what do you think of that perspective that the Syrian case is lost and it's already run by the people who started the war and allied with Assad, while the West just stepped away?

I would love to see the West be more active, I would love to see a push from Western governments for a more genuine peace process, but I would also like for us to see us include the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. I would love for us to include Saudi Arabia at the table and not just include, but demand that Saudi Arabia would be at the table and take a more active role. Now, they are not always a positive actor but I think they can be a positive actor, I think that that is our role, to create the table around which the right players can come. We've abdicated in large part that responsibility.

When people start to speak on Syria, "it's too complex", "the war is too long", but in fact my question would be about the possible solution because it's not that complex in the end. We know that the Syrian opposition is diminished to a smaller territory, it's more or less surrendered, more and more territories are controlled by the government, and yet there were the strikes and now hear that with the support of the UK, and France, the US had to use air-strikes against the chemical weapons places. But really where you see the nearest future of what will happen in Syria, what might happen as we're looking in this peace process.

Look, absent a coherent strategy, even a basic strategy, among let's even say leading Western process, we will basically watch, and I think, watch this current process with Turkey, Iran, and Russia and the Assad regime just play out and probably de facto have some sort of an agreement. Absent a real strategy, that is how I see things playing out. The recent strikes that the Trump administration along with the UK and the French launched against chemical weapons in Syria, to me, seems a strike absent a strategy. There has been almost zero follow up, there has been no call to negotiation, there has been no call to some grand bringing out the parties together. One would think that if you launched missiles into a country, you would have some grander strategy of what happens the day after the missiles fall. It appears to me that there hasn't been a strategy laid out and absent that strategy we're going to see Russia take the lead and Iran take the lead as they are, and Turkey.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Acting Special Representative to Muslim communities Adnan Kifayat speaks to Hromadske on April 23. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

And now the Western approach towards the Muslim countries, if you speak of society, so the usual answer is to support the more, let's say, secular regime, but usually it's a regime like today in Egypt, like all over the place, like with before with Assad and everybody else, that it would be better to support a dictatorship which is playing the anti-terrorist, anti-Jihadi card. But it's somehow also a road to nowhere because it still radicalizes the community and doesn't make the lives of the people there better. So what would you answer on this kind of negotiation with the regime first of all, who play this anti-terrorist card.

I'll be the first to admit it, we in the United States have a history of supporting, as you just said, authoritarian regimes particularly in Muslim-majority countries. Whether it's Tunisia, whether it's Libya, Egypt, the list can go on and on. Our default is to support authoritarian regimes. And I will tell you, I think, this is really where realism starts to hit democracy and idealism, and so often, more often than not, we tend to think that Muslim populations are incapable of accepted or practicing democratic values as we see them, and there is a very soft and hard racism if you would, there's a sort of bigotry about Muslim communities that is very pervasive in US foreign policy. And this is not related to the current administration or frankly to the previous five administrations in the U.S. This has been a decades long orientation of our foreign policy establishment, and that is something we have to deal with, something we have to first of all admit, that we do look at a lot of Muslim populations as somehow incapable, coherently incapacitated towards democracy, and we have to challenge that notion. I think we have to do that and we have to be honest with ourselves.

Let me say that, I'm not speaking about blunt radicals or extremists like ISIS, but more conservative, orthodox groups, like Salafi groups, like Muslim Brotherhood in the region. There could be two different approaches. The Obama administration approach was really to kind of play, to talk and see what we should do to engage. At the same time we can see that this kind of policy could be seen as weakness, while for instance the open Trump policy of harshness could have more effect on doing something. This is always the question of how to deal with it, should there be a strong hand, or a soft hand in dealing? What would you say, what is working? Because sometimes, and I'm also comparing these to Vladimir Putin and the Russian "strong hand" approach. Some people would say that's working, because trying to play with people like that fails.

"Strong hand" doesn't work. I believe in diplomacy, I believe in engagement, but I don't believe in engagement for the sake of engagement. I think engagement is there because you want another country or another government to undertake some change, and that is something that I think Western countries, the United States in particular, need to be much more strong on, much more confident about. When we engage president Sisi in Egypt, our default is to rely on his authoritarian tendencies to be able to control the Brotherhood as you mentioned, to be able to control these radical elements or perceived radical elements on the ground. What we ought to be saying is, you may need to do that, that's your internal decision, but we also want you to pursue reform. That is a word by the way, that very few governments in the West use anymore. At the end of the Bush administration, we appointed an envoy to the organization of Islamic countries, the "OIC", fifty-four Muslim countries. We didn't send an envoy because we just wanted to engage with you, we sent an envoy and said very clearly to the OIC, we want to share with you examples of what our Muslim community in the US is doing on issues of science, technology, women's empowerment, democracy, civil society. We want to share those examples with you. That is not just engagement, that is engagement with the purpose of reform. With the purpose of best practices, if you would, with the purpose of sharing what we have done so that maybe you might have some ideas on what you should be doing. Not telling them what to do, so not the hard hand, not the sort of heavy handed approach but very much a "here's what we have done, what are you doing and how can we work together to get a better outcome for both of us?"

If not to speak about geopolitics and politics but the society, with what's happening in Europe after the refugees coming from Syria and from many Muslim countries, it's indeed an issue for a lot of members of the society because, yes, it's true the people are in need, they are coming, but at the same time a lot of them are conserving their policies. I'm speaking about the rights of women, and we understand that today, people are immigrating, they are protecting their own homelands. It could be that they live in the Netherlands or Belgium, but are not accepting any ideas about freedom of speech, human rights, or women who could be in Paris but live in the same conditions as in Saudi Arabia, and that sometimes is used as a legitimate concern of some of politicians. So how do you think that should be dealt with? In particular, and it's true that some of the human rights organizations are reluctant to get into it because they say it's a local way of life, but some what it indeed goes against what is considered to be Western values, so how would you act with that and how would you deal with that?

I think governments should enforce their laws, where they are at. I've heard stories of, for example, honor killings taking place in courts allowing it to happen or not convicting the perpetrators. That's horrifying to me. If you live in a society where there are laws then you must abide by the laws of the society in which you live. I think that there is, in some countries, a lack of self-confidence when it comes to enforcing basic norms. By enforcing I don't mind mean forcing other people to conform but standing up for the rights and standing up for the values that the country is founded on. I think we've had some horrible examples of assuming that certain practices are religiously protected. I think that there are certain things that are beyond the pale. I don't think that subjugating other people under the guise of religion is somehow an accepted practice, and I think that we should be stronger about enforcing our own values and standing up for our own values. We don't do that consistently.

Then how would you explain these, I won't say radicalization, but it's true that in many countries they are becoming more conservative. Egypt is becoming more conservative, Tunisia and many more. And they haven't been like that in the seventies, so what is at the core of that? Because besides, it's not about radicalization but it's true that the liberties which were there are there no longer. Even Palestine in that instance.

There are a number of answers, first, in my mind, having been in government for a number of years, we in the United States, have completely taken the pressure off of what we'd call public diplomacy. So, promoting our values overseas, promoting things like democracy, liberal values, even when it gets into the economic realm, open nest. We have taken the foot off of the accelerator, we are not promoting those things the way we have in the past, and that is having a predictable impact in other societies. Because guess what? There are other people promoting conservative values, there are other people promoting very top-down authoritarian control over their population. When there's no other pressure coming, no other voice that's being heard, I think the logical conclusion is that people will become more conservative, they will become more closed. You see this in Saudi Arabia, it's always been very political. You see this in other places.

Yet indeed maybe not to challenge that, is the generally Muslim world becoming more or less religious?

I would say it's becoming more religious. But it's a different kind of religious. Because you're also seeing in 1.4 billion Muslims, you're seeing a youth bulge of something of 60-65% of the population under the age of twenty. Now imagine this group and the bulge that it will create in the world over the next two-three generations. This is a very vibrant community, this is a community that is looking for answers, looking for identity, they're looking for ways to shape their own culture and identity. You mentioned violent extremists, and Jihadists, they're out there, they're trying to influence this, but you also have a very strong push from what we could consider to be Western brands or Western ideals. Everyone who has an Apple phone, they're running around too. It's a battle.

It's a battle because on the Apple phone you could also have Twitter following ISIS.

You absolutely can. And it's a 24/7 battle. It's a battle of ideas, it's a battle of ideologies. Right now what I'm mostly concern about is that we are increasingly absent in that conversation, that battle. We have often entrenched, we are talking about walls, we're talking about putting up barriers, tearing down trade agreements, talking about supporting authoritarian regimes. We're not talking about the values that actually unite the Western world and I don't mean this in a geographic sense but in an ideological sense. We're talking about the things that actually push people away, so I'm deeply concern that in that global conversation, we are becoming absent.

How would you explain an appeal of some of these authoritarian regimes and the radicalism towards Russia? We can hear and we can see the rhetoric on social media, and usually they would despite everything which happened in Syria, we see Vladimir Putin as a strong leader, and of course it can be on the anti-American mood, but really to what extent is it now an issue? To what extent is Russia leading part of that?

The more we step away from the global stage and the more we retrench from being in the global, international conversation, and the more countries like Russia and I would put China as well, into that conversation, the more countries like that take a more center stage on global politics, the logical conclusion is that countries will look at them as strong leaders. They will respect that strength, they will respect that activity, that sense of being present. Being present in global politics is 90% of the challenge. Being there and people seeing you as an example is 90% of the challenge. Then you have the 10% conversation, but being present is essential. And right now whether it's Putin or whether it's Beijing, they're present and they're leading conversations and they're not abashed about what they stand for.

My final question, I've raised it before, but Ukraine has its own Crimean Tatar Muslim community and as someone who has traveled to Crimea and followed the issue, there is a huge violation against the rights of Crimean Tatars, particularly accused of extremism and terrorism because of the fact that they are a Muslim minority. And what we see, and what I saw, was that many law enforcement agents are coming from the Caucasus areas in Russia where there is violent extremism, it was never in Crimea. But when the law enforcement acts against the real extremists, it kind of starts the process when the community is alienated on the issue of religion, because we know that there are searches in mosques, and then there is a clash between the state and religion. My growing concern is, to what extent is it a risk to the community if in a secular community, the fathers would be arrested with the religious accusations? To what extent is it a risk for the kids if they don't see any other legal way to defend themselves?

It's a big risk. In the example that you shared, role models are important. Role models for the next generation are essential. If you don't have role models from your father's or mother's generation, where you see how I can model my behavior, progress, and grow. If you don't have that, or you see that being punished, or you see that being arrested and controlled, that has very negative consequences for how you will develop. And I would be very concerned. And it's not just in Crimea.

Do you have examples of that kind?

I think that we have seen in other parts of the world where communities have been harshly treated and you see houses of worship, regardless of which house of worship it is, it could be a synagogue, it could be a church, it could be a mosque. Let me just reverse it from a moment, in Saudi Arabia if there was a church, they don't have any churches in Saudi Arabia, or let's just say in Egypt, a Coptic church is firebombed or attacked, which unfortunately has happened where dozens of Christian worshippers have been killed. What does that do to the Christian community in Egypt? A. It makes them feel completely unsafe and welcome, and that is the design of the people who attack churches in Egypt. They don't want Christians, they don't want Coptic Christians in Egypt, they want them to leave. This is the radicalization of Egypt, and the government of course, I think the government is looking the other way while these attacks are happening. They look the other way when it comes to investigating who is conducting these attacks. It's the same thing as you've described to me in Crimea. When you go heavy handed against a religious house, when you go heavy handed against a community, the underlying message there is "you are not welcome", "you should change your religion or leave", or "whatever you're doing is no acceptable". That to me is a very troubling long-term trend which, if it's not checked, will create a generation of troubled souls."