Trump and the Muslim Question

Ensuring a humiliating defeat of Trump in November would be America’s only penance for its growing Islamophobia, says Sohini Chatterjee.

America couldn’t have anticipated the arrival of Trump. The presumptive Republican nominee for the 2016 US Presidential Election is a breathing embarrassment to America’s self image, whose assertion of being a “true” American rests on the dismissive neglect of liberal values of liberty, equality, justice and tolerance, which have survived in American democracy despite the countless oddities, and theatrics, of time. Trump is the personification of every myth about American greatness that has ever been debunked. He wears his bigotry on his sleeve, or as badge of honour, for he claims, and claims to believe, that the rabid Islamophobia, misogyny, ignorance and violence that he promotes unabashedly would “Make America Great Again”.

That America could bring such a renegade onto the national platform could not have been surmised. At least, not in 2012, when there seemed to be a possibility of Trump running for President. Would such an unlikely Presidential candidate find favour with America, which prides itself on its multicultural social fabric? However, catastrophes demonstrate an astounding potential for normalising the grotesque. Trump’s lack of a coherent socio-cultural and political vision makes an unholy combination with his hate-spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric, which, as much as it is denigrated by liberal intellectuals, seemed to have entranced en masse a conservative faction of American population, whose suspicion of terror linkages of American Muslims in particular, and Muslims in general, is on a steep rise.

However, Trump’s anti-Muslim self-radicalisation was sudden, but apparently, not unfounded. While campaigning in Iowa on 19 September 2015, Trump unequivocally professed his love for Muslims. But immediately after the Paris attacks in November, Trump’s brazen Islamophobia seemed obligated to make its formal appearance. There was little doubt that his love for Muslims had been trumped by his love for the nation: the very nation, which he had refused to take a chance at governing in 2012 because he had better things to do, like hosting The Apprentice.

Catastrophes demonstrate an astounding potential for normalising the grotesque. Trump’s lack of a coherent socio-cultural and political vision makes an unholy combination with his hate-spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric, which, as much as it is denigrated by liberal intellectuals, seemed to have entranced en masse a conservative faction of American population.

Trump in 2016, however, is a different person. He believes he has a sound understanding of American politics and its social needs. Riding high on his bravado, he has come a long way. However, unlike him, his policy suggestions, have failed to come of age, despite having evolved through his various inconsistencies.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, Trump floated the idea of having a watchlist in place, which would increase surveillance of American Muslims and keep a tab on their every move. Many found the suggestion reeking of Nazi authoritarianism. That his idea was even being compared to Nazi rules—which compelled Jews to wear a Yellow Star badge for identification—should have embarrassed Trump and his consorts. However, since a lesson in reason escapes Trump’s comprehension; he seemed to have been bolstered, evidencing his perilous incorrigibility.

Following the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California, by a Muslim married couple last December, which killed 14, Trump proposed a temporary blanket ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, until political elites had deciphered the nature of this problem and carefully weighed the threats it posed to American society. He categorically stated that he would go so far as to make it an obligation for customs agents to enquire people about their religious identity, in order to identify Muslims and swiftly turn them away from American airports, ensuring a quick fix for the “Muslim problem” America finds itself so overwhelmingly mired in.

Trump in 2016, however, is a different person. He believes he has a sound understanding of American politics and its social needs. However, unlike him, his policy suggestions, have failed to come of age, despite having evolved through his various inconsistencies.

That such an exclusionary and unreasonable policy could even be suggested by a presidential candidate in the United States seemed to take the world by (unpleasant) surprise. Too outrageous and insubstantial to have any purchase in reality, the proposal could easily have been dismissed as one of Trump’s many radical political upsets if it had not become the highlight of his election campaigns, subsequently winning him unforeseen electoral fortune. Trump has scored more than 13 million votes in the GOP Primary, more than any Republican candidate has managed to secure for themselves in all of American history.

 

In the wake of San Bernardino attacks, Trump had said he was convinced the Muslims hated America, even though he confessed to have been unaware of its cause and origin.  In ‘Imperial by Design’, a 2011 article published in National Interest, opining in the context of America’s interventionist policies post 9/11, John Mearsheimer wrote that then-President George Bush was convinced America was hated by terrorists for being the land of great freedoms. He viewed the attacks as the result of a quintessential clash of civilisations, since those living in non-Western countries nurture an obdurate hatred for America, its democratic plurality and liberal ethos, which results in bloodshed.

Bush could find an intellectual ally in Samuel P Huntington, whose famous thesis rests on his political prognosis that conflicts between civilisations would be a common occurrence in the modern world. Identity politics would become so momentous that it would come to establish the future course of the world through interactions and clashes between seven or eight major civilisations including the Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African, the tensions between their inherent cultural differentiations so implacable that they would not be peacefully resolved.

Mearsheimer explored the genesis of al-Qaeda’s odium for America more in political than cultural terms. Terror strikes against the state by fundamentalist outfits were more a result of “America’s support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War; US support for repressive regimes in countries like Egypt; American sanction in Baghdad after the First Gulf War, and the US invasion and occupation of Iraq” than any inherent hatred for American political values.

Disputing Bush’s claim that America is reviled because of its liberal values, Mearsheimer explored the genesis of al-Qaeda’s odium for America more in political than cultural terms. Terror strikes against the state by fundamentalist outfits were more a result of “America’s support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War; US support for repressive regimes in countries like Egypt; American sanction in Baghdad after the First Gulf War, and the US invasion and occupation of Iraq” than any inherent hatred for American political values, claimed Mearsheimer. Occidentalist pride reeks the supremacist assumptions of Bush and Trump, one could claim if they were to go by Mearsheimer’s astute political analysis.

However, Trump is no Bush. Trump sees an embryonic terrorist in every Muslim. He is far worse because of his unyielding ignorance, which counsels the coming of an aggressive state, more violent than what America had proved itself to be through its “War on Terror”, if Trump is to assume Presidency. In the same breath that Trump admits that the cause of the crises cannot be discerned without enduring obscurities along the way, either by him or his political associates, he forwards his religion-specific proposal for ban without realising the elemental need of identifying the problem devoid of costly incertitude. Does such a whimsical, and perilous, attempt at finding a facile way out befit the president of the most powerful state in the world? The answer is palpably in the negative.

Too many Americans had started asking themselves this question, probably that is why, in May, Trump seemed more cautious, having possibly realised the urgency of making slight amends, in an effort to pivot towards the general election. He said the ban was a mere “suggestion” that was unlikely to be applied to all Muslims without exception. It would be selectively implemented, exempting the likes of Sadiq Khan, the freshly elected London Mayor, and Trump’s “very rich friends”. It was a revolting idea. Was Trump suggesting, in all seriousness, that he would only make way for the crème de la crème of the Muslim society into America? Would he ignore his own misgivings about the Muslim community in specific cases? As much as the suggestion seemed to further add to the derogation and Otherisation of the Muslim community, his position, later revised, would become the acme of his unjustified ban policy.

 

On 13 June 2016, a new spin was revealed in Trump’s proposed ban, which bore testimony to his habitual indecision. After the Orlando shooting, Trump probably felt vindicated. He remarked that a temporary ban was required until a mechanism to devise proper screening facilities for Muslim immigrants to the US could be instituted. Trump also blamed Obama for soft-pedalling on the issue of radical Islam by blaming the terror attack on America’s lack of stringent gun regulations. Trump stated that the problem was not in the un-prohibited use of guns, insinuating Islam was responsible.

He later moved drastically from his position, stating that he would only ban people coming from certain “terror countries”, without specifying which these countries are or whether the religion-based criteria for exclusion would still be implemented. He has also said that he would let Muslims from peaceful ally countries of the US enter and probably stay in the United States. Trump has repulsed many, been admired by a few, but his shifting policy proposals have confused all indiscriminately. However, among the various uncertainties that still linger over his proposal, it is clear that Trump is not imposing the blanket ban on Muslims any more. This radical shift from his earlier stance can only be attributed to the growing public opinion, media messaging and intellectual detestation against his mindless policy proposals.

Trump’s branding of “terror countries” to deal with the problem of immigration is indefensible. In today’s world, due to globalisation and the revolution in communication technology, terrorists can afford to be thoroughly rootless. Their indoctrination often happens in the privacy of their homes, notwithstanding which country they live in. The terrorists of the Paris attacks were French and Belgian citizens, Omar Mateen—the Orlando shooter—was an American citizen, the terrorists of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were also French citizens. If Trump wants to let people enter the US from Western countries that he does not deem terrorist plagued, it would still not be an unfailing effort to keep terrorism at bay.

Trump’s branding of “terror countries” to deal with the problem of immigration is indefensible. In today’s world, due to globalisation and the revolution in communication technology, terrorists can afford to be thoroughly rootless. Their indoctrination often happens in the privacy of their homes, notwithstanding which country they live in.

Trump fails to distinguish between peaceful Muslims and those who have been conditioned to think and act in the language of extremism. You may be a free thinker, a thought leader, an artist, a philanthropist, but Trump’s gaze prioritises the religious aspect of your identity, refuting every other facet, no matter how integral it may be to your own sense of self. In Trump’s America, having a Muslim name would make you a Muslim and forever imprison you within the confines of that identity. Lingering mistrust about the unrealised capacity of violence of your Islamic faith would follow you around, and you would have to live with the knowledge that this faith, which is your refuge in times of crisis, source of peace in times of turbulence, spiritual outlet in the age of material overconsumption, is being distorted beyond recognition by unrestrained prejudice; as its hapless victim, all you can do is silently comply when asked to go back to your home country from an American airport because of your Muslim name. You could have been an atheist all your life, who happened to be born in a Muslim family, but Trump reductionist view of individuals would not allow you the freedom to decide your religious or spiritual orientation—or your freedom to remain undecided—as for him “who you are” was decided at birth and its non-negotiable. To him, Islam is the problem and not its radicalisation or misinterpretation.

Muslims have suffered social misrecognition in America in the aftermath of 9/11; they have been victims of violence in America, like the Chapel Hill shooting where a young Muslim couple was gunned down by their neighbor, as well as in other parts of the world by extremists. In 2014 Talibani terror attack on school children in Peshawar, or the attack on Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in Swat Valley in Pakistan, or the recent terror spates in Bangladesh, have not spare innocent Muslims the atrocity of violence or grief of loss. When Trump suggests the institutionalisation of deliberate misrecognition of Muslims, he disregards their plight and devalues their struggles.

Trump, however, suggests that the ban he proposes stems more from national security concerns than anything else. However, security practice in world politics today has moved away from exclusively focussing on the nation-state, since in many cases, the state has not only failed to provide its citizens security guarantees but have also taken away their fundamental rights, like, fascist regimes did in the past. Hence, thinking about security today accompanies the consideration of unique human challenges to survival. Concerns of human security, however, are lost on Trump, as is history. In an excessive bid to secure America from terrorism, Trump has rendered vulnerable Muslims across the country, whose identity could be the cause of their victimisation by conservative sections of American society who can now hide their Islamophobia behind Trump’s policy. Trump has singlehandedly weakened the lives and acceptability of American Muslims in America.

In an excessive bid to secure America from terrorism, Trump has rendered vulnerable Muslims across the country, whose identity could be the cause of their victimisation by conservative sections of American society who can now hide their Islamophobia behind Trump’s policy. Trump has singlehandedly weakened the lives and acceptability of American Muslims in America.

Trump’s recipe for making America great is made with all the wrong ingredients. What makes a country great is its accommodative, tolerant socio-cultural milieu, where differences are respected and celebrated, rather than feared. Heterogeneity of culture has the wonderful capacity of provoking spontaneous dialogical exchange, where one learns of different lived realities of people, their value systems and their spiritual understanding, and the motivations they derive from it for living life in harmony with others. It could enrich our experience and understanding of each other’s struggles and successes, uniting people despite their respective religio-cultural affiliation. Such a peaceful social climate can lead a country to make wholesome, constructive achievements on the road to development. Without affirmation of a collective faith in multiculturalism, this could be difficult to merit.

Following the Orlando shooting, Barack Obama said, “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.” Trump would be an unworthy successor to Obama. No matter how many times this Social Democrat has slipped in pursuing his political values when in power, his powerful rhetoric against bigotry is of crucial importance, since it has an intensely influential authority among the American masses, who look up to their national leader(s) to imagine the nature of their social existence.

Trump would lead America’s liberal ethic to crumble into pieces by misleading people into needless hatred of the “Other” by invisibilising the existence of millions of peaceful Muslims in America. He has very little chance of winning the American presidential elections, given the growing public opinion against him, but the fact that Trump has won a significant number of votes and have gone so far ahead in this year’s presidential election is a cause of concern. Ensuring a humiliating defeat of Trump in November would be America’s only penance for its growing Islamophobia.

Sohini Chatterjee is currently reading for an MA in International Relations and writes primarily on gender, culture and politics.

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