Hating Muslims In The Age Of Trump

Reproduced from Tikkun this piece by Juan Cole challenges the Trump view of Islam and immigration. 

The New Islamophobia Looks Like the Old McCarthyism

These days, our global political alliances seem to shift with remarkable rapidity, as if we were actually living in George Orwell’s 1984. Are we at war this month with Oceania? Or is it Eastasia? In that novel, the Party is able to erase history, sending old newspaper articles down the Ministry of Truth’s “memory hole” and so ensuring that, in the public mind, the enemy of the moment was always the enemy. Today, there is one constant, though. The Trump administration has made Muslims our enemy of the first order and, in its Islamophobia, is reinforced by an ugly resurgence of fascism in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and other European countries.

It’s hard today even to imagine that, in the late 1980s, the rightwing Christian Voice Magazine published a “candidate’s biblical scoreboard,” urging its readers (and potential voters) to rate their politicians by how “biblically” they cast their ballots in Congress. One key measure of this: Did that legislator support the anti-Communist Muslim jihadis in Afghanistan, a cause warmly supported by evangelist Pat Robertson in his 1988 presidential campaign? Now, attempting to appeal to twenty-first-century evangelicals, President Trump has announced that “Islam hates us.”

The kaleidoscope of geopolitics and Islamophobia is now spinning so fast that it should make our heads spin, too. At times, it seems as if Donald Trump is the anti-Ronald Reagan of the twenty-first century, idolizing former KGB operative Vladimir Putin, but seeing former U.S. allies in the Muslim world like Pakistan as purveyors of “nothing but lies and deceit” — until, that is, with bewildering rapidity, he suddenly gives us the “good” (that is, oil-rich) Muslims again, willingly performing a sword dance with the Saudi royals, seemingly entirely comfortable with the scimitar of the Saracen.

Islamophobes Galore

While the president oscillates between abusing and fawning over the elites of the Muslim world, his true opprobrium is reserved for the poor and helpless. His hatred of refugees uprooted by the horrific Syrian civil war, for instance, stems from his conviction that this population(predominantly women and children, as well as some men fleeing the fighting) might actually be adherents of the so-called Islamic State group (also known as ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) and so part of the building of a secretive paramilitary force in the West. He’s even speculated that “this could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe.”

This summer, he also tweeted: “Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” And a day later claimed it had risen by 10%. Though immigrant communities can indeed produce some crime until they find their footing, the crime rate in Germany, despite the welcoming of two million immigrants in 2015 alone, has fallen to a 30-year low, as have crimes by non-German nationals.

Nor, of course, is there an army of terrorists the size of the active-duty forces of France or Italy among those hapless Syrian refugees. Still, that outlandish conspiracy theory may be part of what lay behind the president’s blatantly unconstitutional 2015 call for a “total and complete shut-down” of Muslims coming to the United States. Consider it a great irony, then, that some significant part of the turmoil in the greater Middle East that helped provoke waves of refugees and an Islamophobic backlash here and in Europe was, at least in part, the creation of this country, not Muslim fundamentalist madmen.

The Islamophobes like to argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion, that its adherents are quite literally commanded to such violence by its holy scriptures, the Qur’an. It’s a position that, as I explain in my new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, is both utterly false and ahistorical. As it happens, you would have to look to far more recent realities to find the impetus for the violence, failed states, and spreading terror groups in today’s Greater Middle East. Start with the Reagan administration’s decision to deploy rag-tag bands of Muslim extremists (which al-Qaeda was first formed to support) against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That set in motion massive turmoil still roiling that country, neighboring Pakistan, and beyond, decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Of course, al-Qaeda notoriously blew back on America. Its September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington were then used by American neoconservatives in the administration of George W. Bush — some of whom had served in the Reagan years, cheering on the American-backed Afghan fundamentalists, as well as their Arab allies — to set the United States on a permanent war footing in the Muslim world. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, promoted on the false pretext that Saddam Hussein’s government supported al-Qaeda, kicked off a set of guerrilla insurgencies and provoked a Sunni-Shiite civil war that spread in the region.

Hundreds of thousands would die and at least four million people, including staggering numbers of children, would be displaced over the years thanks to George W. Bush’s boondoggle. The al-Qaeda franchise ISIL (formed initially as al-Qaeda in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion) arose to expel American troops there. Ultimately, its militants made inroads in neighboring Syria in 2011 and 2012 and the U.S. allowed them to grow in hopes of putting pressure on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

As is now all too clear, such policies created millions of refugees, some of whom streamed towards Europe, only to be greeted by a rising tide of white Christian bigotry and neo-Nazism. There’s no way to measure the degree to which America’s wars across the Greater Middle East and North Africa have, in fact, changed our world. When, for instance, British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed on to Bush’s illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, how could he have foreseen that he was helping set off events that would result in a British withdrawal from the European Union (a decision in which anti-immigrant sentiment played an outsized role) — and so the diminishment of his country?

Having helped spread extremism and set in motion massive population displacements, Western elites then developed a profound fear of the millions of refugees they had helped chase out of the Middle East. Executive Order 13769, President Trump’s abrupt January 2017 visa ban, which created chaos at American airports and provoked widespread protests and court challenges — many of its elements were, however, ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court — appears to have been premised on the notion that a Trojan Horse of Muslim extremism was headed for American shores.

In reality, the relatively small number of terrorist attacks here by Muslim-Americans (covered so much more intensively than the more common mass shootings by white nationalists) have most often been carried out by “lone wolves” who “self-radicalized” on the Internet and who, had they been white, would simply have been viewed as mentally unbalanced.

Still, realities of that sort don’t make a dent in the president’s agenda. In 2018, the Trump administration will likely only admit about 20,000 refugees, far less than last year’s 45,000, thanks to administration demands that the FBI carry out “extreme vetting” of all applicants without being given any extra resources to do so. Of the refugees admitted in the first half of this year, only about one in six was a Muslim, while in 2016, when 84,995 refugees were admitted, they were equally divided between Christians and Muslims.

On average, the U.S. still admits a little more than a million immigrants annually, of which refugees are a small (and decreasing) proportion. Since 2010, more immigrants have come from Asia than any other area, some 45% of them with college degrees, which means that Trump’s very image of immigrants is wrong.

His ban on immigrants from five Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia) was largely symbolic, since they were generally not sources of significant immigration. It was also remarkably arbitrary, since it did not include Iraq or Afghanistan, where violent insurgencies and turmoil continue but whose governments host American troops. It does, however, include the relatively peaceful country of Iran.

Trump’s Muslim ban has broken up families, even as it harmed American businesses and universities whose employees (or in the case of colleges, students) have been abruptly barred from the country. The restrictions on immigration from Syria and Yemen are particularly cruel, since those lands face the most extreme humanitarian crises on the planet and the United States has been deeply implicated in the violence in both of them. Moreover, Iranians who do emigrate to the U.S. are, for the most part, members of minorities or political dissidents. In fact, no nationals from any of those five banned states have committed lethal acts of terrorism in the United States in the last 40 years.

The Islamophobia of President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and others in the administration, aided and abetted by the megaphone that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News offers, has had a distinct impact on public opinion. Attacks on Muslim-Americans have, for instance, spiked back to 2001 levels. A recent pollfound that some 16% of Americans want to deny the vote to Muslim-Americans, 47% support Trump’s visa restrictions, and a majority would like all mosques to be kept under surveillance. (A frequent, if completely false, talking point of the Islamophobes is that Muslims here have a single ideology and are focused on a secret plan to take over the United States.) You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that such unhinged conspiracy theories are far more prevalent among Republicans than Democrats and independents.

Similarly unsurprising is the fact that Americans in the Trump era give a lower favorability rating to Muslim-Americans (a little over 1% of the U.S. population) than to virtually any other religious or ethnic group (though feminists and evangelicals are runners-up). By a spread of about 20 points, they believe that Muslim-Americans are both more religious than Christian Americans and less likely to respect the country’s ideals and laws. They slam Muslims for according women and gays low status, though a majority of Muslim-Americans say that homosexuals should be accepted in society, a belief that Muslim-American women hold in the same percentages as the rest of the American public. As for those women, they are among the best educated of any faith group in the country, suggesting extremely supportive families.

In reality, Muslim-Americans are remarkably well integrated into this country and have committed little terrorism here. In the past decade and a half, on average, 28 Muslim-Americans a year were associated with acts of violent extremism out of a population of 3.5 million and most of those “acts” involved traveling abroad to join radical movements. Muslim-American extremists killed 17 people in 2017, a year in which white gunmen killed 267 Americans in mass shootings.

Changing Bogeymen

The Islamophobia that Donald Trump has made his own arose in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, once the bogeyman of Communism was removed from the quiver of the American Right. The 1990s were hard on the Republican Party and its plutocrats (with a popular Clinton in the White House), and on the arms manufacturers facing a public increasingly uninterested in foreign adventurism with no sense of threat from abroad. The Pentagon budget was even briefly cut in those years, producing what was then called a “peace dividend.” (It wasn’t.) And though it’s now hard to imagine, in 1995 the United States was not involved in a conventional hot war anywhere in the world.

In this no-longer-so-new century, the Republican Party, like the Trump presidency, did, however, find the bogeyman it needed and it looks remarkably like a modernized version of the rabidly anti-Communist McCarthyism of the 1950s. In fact, the endless demonization of Muslims may be less a cudgel to wield against the small Muslim-American community than against Democratic opponents who can be lambasted as “soft on terrorism” if they resist demands to demonize Muslims and their religion.

In my own state of Michigan, Elissa Slotkin, an acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Obama years and a former CIA analyst, is running as a Democrat in the 8th District against Congressman Mike Bishop. Slotkin played a role in developing the anti-ISIL strategies that Trump adopted when he came into office. Nonetheless, our airwaves are now saturated with pro-Bishop ads smearing Slotkin, a third-generation Michigander, for her supposed involvement in President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and so for being little short of a Shiite terrorist herself. Similarly, in San Diego, California’s 50th district, the scandal-ridden campaign of Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter (indicted for embezzling $250,000 in campaign funds) continues to broadly intimate that his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Christian American of Palestinian and Mexican descent, is a Muslim Brotherhood infiltrator seeking to enter Congress.

Still, despite all the sound and fury from the White House, the U.S. Muslim population continues to grow because of immigration and natural increase. Over the past 30 years, between 3,000 and 13,000 immigrants have arrived annually from Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, and a handful of other countries. Their governments are close geopolitical allies of the U.S. and to interdict their nationals would be politically embarrassing, as Trump discovered when he attempted to include Iraq on his list of banned countries and was persuaded to change his mind by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Of course, not all Americans share Trump’s bigotry. Two-thirds of us actually disapprove of politicians engaging in hate speech toward Muslims. Some 55% of us believe that Muslim-Americans are committed to the welfare of the country, a statistic that would break the 60% mark if it weren’t for evangelicals. Two Muslim-American politicians, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, won Democratic primaries in Detroit and Minneapolis and so are poised to become the first Muslim-American women in the House of Representatives.

Such an outcome would be one way in which Americans could begin to reply to the wave of Islamophobia that helped lift Donald Trump into office in 2016 and has only intensified since then. The decency of Middle America has certainly been tarnished, but as the polls indicate, not lost. Not yet anyway.

➽Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


  1. A very simple question I ask of anyone who uses the Islamophobia smear : can you give an example of a criticism made of Islam that didn’t warrant this label?

    You will eventually realise it’s not Trump, the Christian Right or whoever’s specific argument or motivation that concerns Islamophiles, they simply object to any criticism.

    As long as we are up front about this and agree that Islam has a special protected place in society, or that perhaps uniquely among ideologies there is nothing negative about it to critique, we can save all this misunderstanding and time wasted researching the Koran/Sira/Hadith.

  2. DaithiD - but how many people are Islamophiles?

    Lot of good stuff in the above piece.

    Christophiles don't take too well to criticism either.

    This guy seriously challenges one of your core contentions - that the texts are to blame. I would be interested in reading the book.

    I think we would benefit from a debate between him and Douglas Murray.

    Did you notice this deranged Christian Title calling for people who defy biblical law to be killed?

    Better off without any of them and their sacred texts.

  3. AM, I guess I meant islamophile as shorthand for those who would attack those making a criticism of Islam, and there are lots, perhaps the majority in our Western institutions now, and obviously this includes many who not Muslim, like the progressives for example.

    I would suggest people read the texts themselves, instead of listening to others view on them. They are a click away for free on the internet. Also, Dr Bill Warner sells a set of Korans with chronologically aranged chapter making them easier to read.

    In terms of a debate, I don’t think it’s the right subject for such a format, especially with the starting level of understanding the average person has, and good orators often beat good arguments with emotional appeals to the audience.

    AM didn’t notice the whack jobs calling for death of those who diverge from biblical law, I imagine though very few would seek to minimise or negate their Christian identity and theological underpinnings the way they do for Muslims e.g. those who claim Islamic State and Saudi Arabia are not Muslim.

  4. DaithiD - there are plenty prepared to scream at any criticism of Islam.

    People should read the texts but there whole schools of Biblical/Torahic/Koranic interpretations of text that offer context/analysis - the text is best read against as many interpretations of it as possible.

    That is a poor excuse for no debate - Conor Cruise O'Brien used to make a similar argument against having republicans on TV.

    Islamic Statae and Saudi Arabia are Muslin - they occupy a space on the spectrum but it is not the widest band.

  5. AM, but the time constraints necessarily imposed on debates will lead to an essentialising of the arguments when really we need to treat them as we would any other academic pursuit, ideally in a lecture theatre over the span of months. If we are to discuss the texts content and draw inferences thereon, two people butting heads infront of an uninformed crowd is far from that academic environment. I feel the same way about the discussion of quantum physics in these formats. Still, it is a topic debated by some, and these can be sourced on YouTube for example, but I’ve seen little of value resulting from them since we are still no further along in the debate as a whole.

    In this respect I think the exclusion of Republicans from the media a different proposition, it was because they offered a clarity that contrasted the States need for obfuscation.

    And I’m not arguing for any exclusion either btw, just that some groundwork is needed before anything useful can come from them. I could be wrong.

  6. DaithiD - the same can be said about any debate. Your argument is one that invites oligarchy - the plebs are beneath it all. Why bother having juries when judges can do it all? Forget the news - read long academic dissertations on any subject that concerns us.

    Such debates are not tweets. The arguments are distilled for debate. And if we don't get the essentials what is the point in having a debate? The problem is not essentialising arguments but essentialising people which a lot of - anti Islam discourse does. It reduces people to some textual essence.

    Republicans were banned because we advocated an armed campaign that undermined the state not because of the quality of our argument which at times was piss poor. We obfuscated as much as the state. There are much more powerful arguments made against the state today on a wide range of issues and they are not banned. Of course it got to the point where we were not even able to be interviewed about gardening.

    What has either Cole or Murray to lose?

  7. AM,
    all logical points, I speak with no certainty on this aspect so I value the counter view you give. In terms of not even being allowed to speak on gardening, can you imagine Adams accidentally revealing his habits by digging a six foot deep hole and covering the base with lime when asked to plant some apple tree for the cameras?!?!?

  8. The crucial distinction to be made made in this debate is between "Islam" which is a religion based on texts, a deity and a philosophical/ethical world view. "Islamism" is a political ideology based on very particularistic and often very flawed interpretations of the Koran and the hadiths.

    I used to be wary of the term "Islamophobia" but now I am quite comfortable in recognising it as the "othering" of religiously observing and cultural Muslims and, by extension, those of Eastern origins which has always been present in the Western world and which is now the staple of Alt-Right or Trumpian movements of today. Edward Said's work on Orientalism structures the discourse and practice of this othering excellently.

    The work of the recovering British Islamists Ed Husain and Majid Nasaz for those needing to tease out the difference between the Islamic faith and Islamist political doctrine and to understand how and why Muslims need reclaim their faith from tendencies such as the Deobandi school and Wahhabism which have so disfigured it.

  9. Barry - good points.

    I am not comfortable with the term islamophobia since picking up on Brendan O'Neill's view that it is the pathologizing of dissent. I think a term other than phobia (which I associate with fear) could be more useful if it connotes hatred rather than fear. I also feel it is a wet towel used to suffocate alternative thinking.

    I once spoke with a senior NUJ guy who told me he was an Islamophobe - he hated Islam much as he hated all religions. He certainly was not discriminating. I think it is fine to detest a system of beliefs. Given your fine piece today on genocide you must despise biblical teaching. The god fella loved murder and plenty of it.

  10. DaithiD - apples for peace but he won't follow the example of Adam and bite one because he is a devout man.

  11. No mention of the real driving force behind this hatred and that is Israel....

  12. It’s not elitist to see ordinary people won’t be able to decipher this, and to think Douglas Murray promotes this guy as part of the solution to our current problems, a massive lapse in judgement on his usual sound reasoning in this area , not fatal yet though, his other work warrants further chances:


  13. Although these articles are welcome, the fixation with Trump is a bit much, he's probably not even islamophobic, just pandering to his core who got him elected. Non muslims had no problems hating muslims before Trump, is it worse now than immediately after 9/11? Trump's just another dickhead politican who will come and go and the system will remain. Focusing on him is counterproductive as far as am concerned. Might be trendy and get you nods of agreement in the bar but after two years of his presidency, what's different? Sure the travel ban is a breach of Muslims civil liberties but so is bombing them. I often wonder if the same outrage would have been heard if Obama had instructed the travel ban, but then he was eloquent, articulate not prone to saying "grab them with the pussy" and of course black. To hear some people yearn for him you'd think he'd brought peace instead of being just another neo liberal prick same as his predecessor and the dickhead that followed him.

  14. Let’s see the reaction Grenade O Connor (whatever her name is now) gets with this tweet just to see if hate is treated the same regardless of religion :

    “I'm terribly sorry. What I'm about to say is something so racist I never thought my soul could ever feel it. But truly I never wanna spend time with white people again (if that's what non-muslims are called). Not for one moment, for any reason. They are disgusting.“

  15. But let’s not forget the mean messages some Muslimah get in the West though, both sides need to stop targeting women: https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2018/05/egypts-disappearing-coptic-women-and-girls/