Trump and the violent, enraged Muslim ‘other’

Much has been said about the implications of the executive order signed by President Donald Trump that bans immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, indefinitely ends the acceptance of Syrian refugees into the United States, and suspends the U.S. refugee program at large for a 120-day period. Even amongst friends who generally align with Trump’s charades, it has been difficult to find a single individual that takes no issue with the order: if not with the policy itself, then with its heedless execution. Arguments ranging from the impacts on the U.S. economy, historical parallels to the horrendous 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and a compromise of fundamental American values are all issues that have been rightfully raised.
Similarly, there is a general consensus by opponents of this order that, by far, its most destructive immediate impact applies to displaced populations who will perish as they attempt to seek refuge and asylum in a world that ferociously denies their very existence. I completely agree. However, it is also necessary to call attention to the “race branding” of Muslim populations, of which this order is the manifestation par excellence. This is no novel phenomenon. United States politicians have always struggled to speak of Muslims as anything other than products of a cultural milieu, or Islam as anything other than a manifest political ideological project. Politicians across the spectrum have always encouraged Muslim communities to seek out the “Bad Muslims” amongst their ranks. This feeds well into the narrative of an imaginary cultural war against an enlightened western world and the other half that ostensibly “lives in the dark.”
To begin, othering Muslim populations is no novel concept. Western academic discourse has a tradition of granting Muslims subaltern status as an extension of a larger imperialist project. One need not travel far to read the words of the Guardian article by Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in which he explicates, “why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.” Lewis’s essentialist speculative discourse defines a “Muslim subject” that possesses little volition of their own who is programmed by an external political ideology that replaces their blood with violence and rage directed, of course, against the enlightened peace-loving west. Similar orientalist and imperialist predilections carry through future works such as Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” in which he predicts cultural wars under the assumption of western cultural superiority and its right to establish global hegemony. These orientalist renditions of enraged Muslims, their supposed ideological predilections, and their imagined ontological inferiority are what inspire the policies of Trump and his cabinet appointees.  
In the context of this stream of orientalist thought, Trump’s campaign rhetoric against Muslims is not all that surprising, yet its incorporation into mainstream presidential rhetoric is all the more alarming. In a December 2015 rally in Charleston, South Carolina, he boisterously shouted, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”  Here, Trump searches for the means by which “Lewisian enraged Muslim subjects” are being mass produced.
Further testament to Trump’s staunch commitment to target Muslims is seen in his cabinet picks. Newt Gingrich, a top Trump ally, claims, “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.” Furthermore, Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor, proudly exclaims, “Islam is a political ideology masked behind a religion, using religion as an advantage against us.” This fabricated imagination is sadly Trump’s and his advisors’ shared reality, yet it is not an entirely newly held belief. Rather, it is a continuation of a time honored tradition, tracing back to Lewis and Huntington, that is now being further normalized, popularized, systematized, and operationalized. The parallels between these efforts and the underpinnings of past examples of ethnic cleansing and genocide are unnerving.
The use of the word “mask” by Flynn captures the scrutiny under which Muslims are continually placed by governments and citizens alike. According to Flynn and his cronies, Muslims are always concealing and conspiring under the guise of a religion, Islam, which makes claims for peace, but in reality is an ideological project that plans to undermine global peace. Such suspicion of Muslim communities crosses traditional party lines. Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton in one presidential debate stated, “Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community. They’re on the front lines, they can provide information to us that we might not get anywhere else.” As to what lines the American Muslim community occupies and what information they possess is unclear, but the suspicion of communally shared secrets hidden behind an Islamic veil is certainly not a novel phenomenon.
This suspicion is further manifested in the ubiquitously practiced post 9-11 “Good Muslim” “Bad Muslim” litmus test by which Muslims are tirelessly scrutinized in order to determine their degree of “radicalization” or supposed commitment to extremist doctrinal commitments. What politicians fail to recognize is that, sadly, the screening of Muslims is not only a governmental procedure. Muslims are being constantly vetted, even within their own communities. The ideal ‘Moderate Muslim’ that has just the right horizon of attachment and detachment to Islamic principles, however, can only be defined by the outside objective eye. The visual nature of many traditionally practiced Muslim aesthetics becomes a direct target of this screening. Trump’s rhetoric only strengthens these screening practices and provides them with institutional endorsement from the highest echelons of civil government. In doing so, many Muslims are constantly forced to live an increasingly apologetic existence. The social pressures placed upon Muslims to meet this imagined standard are suffocating and aim at producing groups of docile acquiescent subjects that constantly aim for outsider propriety rather than individual expression.
Trump goes to great lengths to differentiate between Christians and Muslims in the countries in his ban, and deems Muslims from these countries as ontologically inferior in his new foreign policy. He tweets in clear prose that refugee Arab Christians should be given preference over refugee Arab Muslims for admission in the United States. While he would be right to give voice to the unique pressures and struggles of Christian minority communities throughout Muslim-majority counties, Trump’s benign appearance relies less on affirming the struggles of Christian minority groups, and more on negating the suffering of both minority and majority Muslim communities throughout the region. This is clearly expressed in his move to release statements about allowing Christian admissibility in the United States directly following his statement about banning all immigrants from the seven Muslim majority countries. University of California’s Professor of Religion Reza Aslan encapsulates the bigotry embodied in Trump’s sentiment in his statement, “A Christian fleeing discrimination in Yemen would be given entry, but a Shia facing death and starvation would not.” Additionally, such statements only exacerbate existing fraught relationships and antagonisms between Muslim and Christian communities in these countries and compromises existing examples of solidarity and peaceful coexistence.
Trump’s new obsession with popularizing the adage ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ is tied up in the aforementioned power-relations. This is yet another clear attempt from Trump to ‘other’ Muslims and view them as a single collective unit rather than self-determining individuals. The adjectival use of the word ‘Islam,’ sandwiched between the words radical and terrorism is also a clear ‘race branding’ practice. This aims to permanently associate the words radical and terrorism with Islam in the public conscious. In essence, its use posits that Muslims only exist for Trump’s team as a collective herd that are constantly susceptible to alien forces that are attempting to push them towards ‘radical behavior.’ This, of course, implies that this is an inherent aspiration of Islamic discourse that must be actively combatted and resisted. Rather than citing dogmatism as an inherent human potential or a feature of globalized discourses, this phrasing localizes such critique on one such body of knowledge and in turn makes its practice stigmatized and taboo. This also completely disregards the dynamic exegetic practices of classical religious texts practiced by almost all religious communities. One must ask why such factors are being intentionally overlooked.
One of the most insidious effects of the current executive order is it role in promoting a typological study of Muslim subjects as solely products of a culture. Treating Islam as a culture radically opposed to western liberal democracies further creates antagonisms in areas where such tensions need not exist. This study of cultural conflicts also dismisses the roles of history, socio-economic factors, and other forms of western intervention that might have influenced the birth of the current political climate. Such a lens of study also undermines self-agency and individualism. This does not absolve local forces that spur acts of violence in these regions of blame, but rather, serves as a necessary contextualization that can help us better understand their rise.
As Trump continues to issue Islamophobic platitudes through both his Twitter and national speeches, we should be critical, wary, and alert of his regime. Such blatant race branding and scapegoating practices almost always carry underlying political motives. In service of such, we should recognize the origins of these sentiments and recognize the harmful effects of their global normalization in public discourse.
One of the most worrisome things I faced while writing this piece was a phone call from my aunt and, soon after, one from my mother. My aunt saw a Facebook post in which I mentioned Trump, admittedly one of perhaps too many, and out of worry called me to say, “You cannot say such things, we cannot, we’re Muslims—we are not safe.” Word travels quickly in my family, and soon after my mother was on the phone telling me, “they’ll take us away and no one will realize, we are in such small numbers.” I don’t know why I took their words so seriously. I generally don’t when it comes to these matters. However, I think their sentiment captures the fear and anxiety faced by first generation immigrants particularly well. Writing, however, is a strong form of resistance. In face of such injustice, it is important that our ink does not dry.

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