Of all the potential catastrophes awaiting us in the coming Trump era—from the rescinding of the Paris Accords on global climate change, to the overturning of the affordable care act, to a re-vamping of the Supreme Court—the intensification of Islamophobia stands out as particularly salient given that Trump’s campaign has already caused it to start happening. Reported incidents of bullying, discrimination, and hate crimes directed toward Muslims, and those perceived to be, are rising. But where does presidential rhetoric on Muslims match up with a re-empowered white base of Trump supporters?
How much Islamophobia Trump will produce when he takes the White House is difficult to tell because of his erratic personality and the social media-led communication apparatus based on a reactive rhetorical posturing formed in protest against the media establishment. On the one hand, the field is completely wide open, but we have to remember what we know about how presidential rhetoric toward Muslims functions when white America has a conservative president. Presidential rhetoric toward Muslims, both in America and abroad, sets an important tone that can in fact stabilize Islamophobia domestically. It’s not clear that a Trump presidency has any interest in adopting a positive rhetorical position toward Muslims, as both Obama and Bush have done.
Given the countless unknowns facing a Trump presidency, it is essential that Muslim, Black, Arab, Sikh, South Asian and the wider ally base of these communities begin preparing strategies for dealing with the Trump era. Thankfully, we have a lot of polling and social science data on Islamophobia in America, so we know a great deal about its ebbs and flows in the post-9/11 period: polling on views toward Muslims show that Americans have grown more willing to accept Muslims’ civil rights and respect them as neighbors. As author Dalia Mogahed’s analysis shows, the war on terror and political posturing during election seasons and run-ups to wars drum up Islamophobia to a greater extent than domestic acts of terrorism. The most telling proof of Americans wider acceptance of Muslims as citizens and compatriots came last summer during the Democratic National Convention when Khizr Khan and his wife, the parents of a fallen soldier, waved the U.S. constitution and denounced Trump’s proposed ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Trump lost some momentum at that moment and had to scale back his plan to ban Muslim immigrants from America.
While Trump was forced to scale back his rhetoric on the Muslim ban because it didn’t appeal to large swaths of traditionally conservative voters, the rhetorical posturing toward radical Islam and his insistence on conflating Islam as a religion with the acts of ISIS remained central to his platform. We can expect the coming Trump era to completely destroy the Obama platform of positive rhetorical engagement with Muslims that was kicked off after he assumed office in 2009 at the “Cairo speech” prior to the eruption of the Arab spring protests. The Cairo speech was Obama’s signature address to the wider Muslim world that set a tone for his subsequent engagement, a tone that was eventually negatively off set by his policies, particularly the drone program.
Obama’s rhetorical posturing toward Muslims around the world and at home partially consisted of deploying a set of positive frames based on a refusal to associate Islam with terrorism in any manner. But Obama’s campaign went far deeper than that. It was following the lead that George W. Bush set by engaging Muslims in America and abroad in a cultural partnership program that sought to forge partnerships with grassroots Muslim leaders. Critics of this program charged it with creating a wedge amongst Muslim communities, where some Muslims were labeled ‘moderate’ and eligible to collaborate with, while others were outside the pale of collaboration.
But for all of Bush’s imperialism and reckless policies in the Muslim world, we should remember that Bush’s rhetoric on Islam and Muslims apropos the War on Terror was very tempered and balanced. Bush’s rhetorical balance served a strategic purpose: intelligence gathering among American Muslim communities as his administration unrolled an unprecedented surveillance operation of American Muslims. Immediately following 9/11, Bush spoke at Washington’s Islamic Center and said “Islam is a peaceful religion” and that American Muslims are our allies. What accounted for Bush’s cooperative position vis-à-vis American Muslims was tied to the fact that Muslims were early supporters of his campaign and key American Muslim leaders formed a cooperative relationship with his inner circle of advisors. How will Muslim leaders approach the question of collaboration with a Trump presidency, given all indications show that he will run a smear campaign against mainstream American Muslim organizations and may erroneously try to associate mainstream Muslim organizations with the Muslim Brotherhood?
The premise of a free and open collaboration between the government and American Muslims communities caused a great contradiction and sparked internal disputes among American Muslim leadership during the last eight years. These disputes have been largely inter-generational rifts among community leaders over whether Muslims should participate in Countering Violent Extremism programs, or whether collaboration equals empty capitulation with a set of policies that undermine Muslim empowerment. But in a Trump era, these disputes will change and hinge on whether any contact with a Trump administration will be possible, let alone advisable.
The divisive debates over CVE under the Obama era were very important as they led to the development of a new and enforced critical strategy of Islamophobia activism that refused the survivalist approach to working with power that many immigrant community leaders reflexively adopted following 9/11. Younger American Muslim leaders have boycotted Obama’s White House engagements in protest of the ongoing secretive drone war in Muslim majority societies and against the larger CVE program itself. In the coming Trump era, Muslim organizations need to ask if a return to the survivalist strategy of working with a government completely anathema to their interests is even feasible. A more critical, resistance-based strategy may be the only viable path to a Trump presidency. What is clear at this point is that alliances with grassroots allies must be wide and far-reaching.
The Bush era can teach us that rhetoric stabilizes the spread of Islamophobia in important ways. White America now feels re-empowered; they think they have re-gained power lost under Obama. This will influence racism in important ways. But Islamophobia may actually stabilize in different ways with Trump now that white America feels re-empowered. One can envision a new type of condescending tolerance emerge in America, one that is not necessarily inclusive of Muslims, or includes Muslims on the basis of a strict, disciplinary inclusion. Much of the far right advisors Trump has consulted during the campaign argue that everyday Muslims should be saved from the totalitarian and repressive religion of Islam they follow. One can imagine the only good Muslim in the eyes of the Trump administration as being the Muslim that has taken a distance to the core of their own tradition and practice. For the far right, Islam is an exceptionally intolerant and violent religion that Muslims must renounce and thoroughly secularize. If Trump’s foreign policy advisors are any indication, we can expect the normalization of a highly conspiratorial and radically racist ideology to seep more and more into the mainstream.
Under the first Black president, white America underwent an imagined existential crisis that was deeply fueled by a perceived loss of racial and cultural power. This created a climate of paranoia where Islamophobia functioned as the tip of the iceberg to a much wider fear over the “browning of America.” Islamophobia grew more insidious with the rise of a network of pseudo experts, racists, and conspiracy theorists gaining unprecedented cultural and media attention. Muslims embodied the point at which white America said, “enough is enough, we can’t accept them into our country any longer,” and the fact the Black man in the Oval Office appealed to them and sought their friendship became the sign of his failure to effectively project strength on the global stage.
What does a Trump presidency foretell in terms of rhetorical postures toward Islam and Muslims? What little we know about Trump’s foreign policy advisors show that he is stacking the deck with an inner cabal that is deeply entrenched in a conspiracy theory driven by a far rightwing Islamophobia network led by Walid Phares and Frank Gaffney, who have conflated all American Muslim organizations with the Muslim Brotherhood and declared that American Muslims desire to bring sharia law to America.
The Muslim card will remain a very central trope for the Trump presidency to deploy as it mobilizes the base. But the only possible silver lining for Muslims and allies lies in the fact that the Trump base may begin to feel back in the driver’s seat. It’s pretty clear that there will be no compassionate conservative inclusion of Muslims, à la Bush, nor will there be an active collaboration with Muslims, à la Obama. There will be exclusion and/or brutal, disciplined inclusion. Depending on what lies ahead, carving out back channel lines of communication among American Muslim leaders with the Trump presidency may be a necessity.
But is that a table that any respectable Muslim or ally wants to sit at?