By Ghanim Khalil
The utility of powerful imagery to evoke emotional responses remains a powerful social and political method to promote reprehensible agendas that would otherwise be difficult to support. President Trump did just this when he retweeted three videos from Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the “mosque invading” militant nationalist group Britain First, who posted them from other anti-Muslim/Islam sites. The videos showed acts of violence in the Netherlands, Egypt, and Syria supposedly perpetrated by Muslims against non-Muslims and in one case a statue of the Virgin Mary. They were widely condemned for lacking any accurate context and promoting hatred and anger towards Muslims. A week later, Trump followed up with his announcement that the U.S. will officially and enthusiastically recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This set off a greater wave of condemnation around the world, including from strong allies and many within the domestic political and intelligence fields, like former Director of the CIA John Brennan. Many noted these two events as further evidence of Islamophobia within the administration.
Islamophobia is defined by Professor of Religion Todd Green to be “the fear, hatred, and hostility toward Muslims and Islam” . It is not a new phenomenon, but like antisemitism has an extensive history and reveals itself in various ways and times. Though Islamophobia in Europe and the U.S. ebbs and flows, observers note that increases occur typically during peak election times, whenever domestic or international acts of mass violence are committed by Muslims (or thought to be), and in relation to international political events in the context of U.S. or European foreign policies.
Trump’s campaign for the White House and his subsequent engagement with the Muslim world reveals his tendency to see things through an Islamophobic lens. He has made a number of disparaging remarks about Islam and Muslims, in relation to national security fears and the “war on terrorism”. “I think Islam hates us” was one his most telling remarks . What is problematic to him and many in his administration is not simply what they prefer to term “Islamic Terrorism” or “radical Islam”, but Islam itself as practiced by over a billion people worldwide. A careful review of his rhetoric and policies about Islam and Muslims illustrates the utilization of the “clash of civilizations” narrative, originally articulated by Bernard Lewis and then extensively theorized by Samuel Huntington . This narrative seeks to truncate the humanity of Muslims worldwide and reduce them to prevailing political and cultural stereotypes shared by liberals and conservatives alike.
Trump and some of his advisors also seem to conform to the “good Muslim, Bad Muslim” dichotomy explained by professor of Political Science Mahmood Mamdani, where good Muslims are those that live up to the expectations of Western foreign policy goals, regardless of how exploitative they are for ordinary Muslims, and bad Muslims are those who resist the exploitation in one form or another . The types of Muslims Trump does tolerate are dictators and monarchs who see Trump’s presidency as an opportunity to strengthen their own spheres of power while proposing political solutions to regional problems which are conducive to long term U.S. foreign policy goals. Under such conditions, millions of Muslims are left victims of local and international forces of oppression, which consequently empowers the counter narratives of militant and terror groups in the Muslim world.
To understand the current brand of Islamophobia as expressed by the Trump administration it is important to expose the agenda of what many call the “Islamophobia Industry”, a lucrative business of fear and hate run by “a small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts guiding an effort that reaches millions of Americans through effective advocates, media partners, and grassroots organizing” . Among the individuals behind this industry are Frank Gaffney (Center for Security Policy), David Yerushalmi (Society of Americans for National Existence), Daniel Pipes (Middle East Forum), Robert Spencer (Jihad Watch, Stop the Islamization of America), and Steven Emerson (Investigative Project on Terrorism). Heavily funded and interconnected with dozens of anti-Muslim/Islam groups nationwide, think-tanks, and charitable foundations they have provided right-wing politicians and media groups with a narrative ready to dominate the discussion about Islam and Muslims and shape policy towards them. Their views have often been known to be conspiratorial and racist.
The Islamophobia Industry portrays Muslims and almost all American Muslim groups as threats to the American way of life and depicts Islam as the ideological source of terrorism and hate. They advocate for the violation of the constitutional rights of American Muslims (through illegal surveillance, legalization of torture, indefinite imprisonment, the use of “secret evidence”, and the use of entrapment), oppose the building of mosques, oppose Muslim immigration into the U.S. and Europe, label Islam a fascist ideology bent on the Islamization of America, and some have called for readying internment camps for Muslims. Their hatred towards Islam and Muslims is also revealed in their irrational posture towards Palestinians and those Muslims who oppose U.S. funded dictators and monarchs in the Muslim world. In fact, when it comes to the Palestine-Israel conflict, Trump has adopted the Islamophobia Industry’s extremist positions, like openly justifying and encouraging illegal settlements, the collective starvation of Palestinians, and ignoring their basic human rights – all violations of international law and common decency.
Dozens of individuals within or otherwise involved with the Trump administration also have connections to the Islamophobia Industry, like Steve Bannon, Mike Pompeo, Michael Flynn, Sebastian Gorka, Rudolph Giuliani, and Stephen Miller . Collectively they have promoted the myths and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims to a very ill-informed and fearful public. Trump’s retweeted videos are therefore a symptom of a deeper condition in the American social and political landscape. It is a form of Islamophobia that is widely supported by the Islamophobia Industry and its religious and media allies. This type of support enables Trump to say “Islam hates us”, label all Muslim refugees as ISIS members, propose the idea of closing down all mosques in the U.S., stop Muslim refugees affected by war from legally coming to the U.S., suggest creating a special database to profile all American Muslims, keep the Guantanamo Bay prison camps open, promote torture, recommend killing the families of terrorists, misrepresent dozens of Muslim organizations as pro-terror, accuse American Muslims in general of advancing shariah law and harboring terrorists, demonize Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Somalis, Yeminis, and Iranians, and paint the conflict between terrorist groups and the U.S. as a civilizational war where Islam must be radically reformed in order to compliment Western political and cultural expectations.
To counter the influence of the Islamophobia Industry and Trump are numerous Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of Islam and the Muslim world, as well as grassroots organizations, veteran groups, think-tanks, civil rights groups, and various former diplomats/politicians who have likened the current wave of Islamophobia to pre-World War Two antisemitism. They warn of the perverse influence of anti-Islam/Muslim propaganda on elections and the creation of oppressive policies toward American Muslims and the demonization of Muslim countries abroad. Their work is less known yet far more accurate than the misinformation of the Islamophobia Industry “experts”. The movement to defend the rights of Muslims and expose and reverse Islamophobia is increasing throughout the U.S. since Trump’s election. Though several polls show that Americans generally don’t have a good opinion about American Muslims and Islam, this has potential to change as conservatives and liberals alike have criticized Trump over his distorted views and more secular and religious groups are joining inter-faith efforts to challenge Trump’s hate. For now, American Muslims and their allies as well as Americans who hold dear the principles of the U.S. Constitution must support each other in efforts to combat hate towards Muslims and promote mutual understanding and respect. Importantly, the teachings of Islam need to be understood in an unbiased and scholarly way, since it is the distortion of Islam that forms the basis of the Islamophobia Industry narrative.
Ghanim is a British born Muslim of Pakistani descent, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and New York Army National Guard, a peace activist, a lover of the natural world, and a student of world history and religion. He served as an Islamic lay reader in the Marine Corps, but during the build up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq he became outspoken against the war. Ghanim, now an anti-war and anti-Islamophobia activist, is a member of the organization Veterans For Peace and active in their Veterans Challenge Islamophobia campaign.