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Islamophobia in the Age of Trump

Islamophobia did not originate with Donald Trump. It has its roots in Euro-American racism, as well as in colonialism. In Britain, France, and the United States (as well as Germany, the Netherlands, and others), it is part of extending the proverbial empire and of generally preserving the superiority of the “white man” over all colored people. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is found in British literature dealing with resistance to British colonialism in the 19th century. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 gave an edge to the centuries-old Christian fear of Muslim holy war. In the decades that followed, fantasies of a military anti-British mass movement focused narrowly on Muslims. Examples of fear of Mahdi movements are seen in A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers (1902), John Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916), and more recently A.J. Quinnell’s The Mahdi (1986). Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, author of the bestseller The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (1920) was not only a racist dividing the world into white vs. colored, but also an Islamophobe who argued in The New World of Islam (1921) that “Muslims posed a sinister threat to a hopelessly fractious and confused world.”

The war on terror became intertwined with colonial war. Niall Ferguson, Newt Gingrich, and others proposed training of American students to “govern” other countries, a la the British in their colonial era. Ann Coulter advocated, “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Close advisors to the U.S. president and British Prime Minister spoke of “Islamofascism,” with little to no understanding of either Islam, fascism, or how the two may be combined.

Writers of fiction joined the political assault on Islam. As Reeva Simon suggests in Spies and the Holy Wars: The Middle East in Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (2011), “from the 1990s onwards right-wing Christians in America ceased to think of Russia as the sole ‘Empire of Evil’ and turned their hostile attention towards Islam.” In recent decades the Nazis, who were getting long in the tooth, have been replaced as hand-me-down villains by Arab demagogues, fanatics and terrorists, although for a while Nazi and Arab villains co-existed in a few books, such as Ken Follet’s The Key to Rebecca (1980). The Palestinian villain in Thomas Harris’s Black Sunday has none of Fu Manchu’s redeeming qualities. He had no fear and no mercy, but he did have malice.

American political leaders even resurrected the myth of early 20th century European countries, as they colonized “less developed people” in Africa and Asia by claiming that they were bringing them civilization and light as part of the “white-man’s burden.” In the case of the U.S., it is now democracy and virtue. Ideas found in the Bible, including affirmation of Armageddon and the coming war between the people of God and the followers of Satan became easily translated into the struggle between “good” and “evil-doers,” as President George W. Bush would often say. Of course the outcome was known, as it would assure the triumph of good Christian soldiers over the evil militant Muslims, who incidentally had a holy book of their own and found an opposite view of the war to come.

The “white man’s burden” is coming back to the Middle East in a new form. Even the same language is being repeated, and now skeptically received. The U.S. said to the Iraqis precisely what General F.S. Maude told them as he led British troops into Baghdad in 1917: “Our armies do not come to your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” He reminded the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia that “your lands have been subject to tyranny,” referring to the 400-year long Ottoman occupation, and that the Iraqis, with help from British representatives, will now manage their affairs. It did not take long for the Iraqis to begin serious resistance to British military attempts to dominate their affairs, costing the British about 2,000 casualties. Overall, the British attempt at “nation-building” was largely unsuccessful, as have other subsequent British attempts to control Iraq’s destiny. The U.S. is now leading the civilized world in discharging its responsibility to undo what centuries of backwardness have done to Afghanistan, helping to free Christians in southern Sudan, or making Saudis respect the right of women, or even reform the Saudi educational system. Believing in its mission to spread democracy is one thing, but confusing this belief with the white man’s burden to bring enlightenment to “savage” is quite another matter.

Freedom of religion is one of the basic tenets of American life. It is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. America is one of the most open societies in which anyone may practice any religion of choice, or if one so wishes, to practice none at all. America is the first country to declare that it is not officially a religious nation; not Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, nor indeed officially known by any other religious designation. Its founding fathers were mostly Deists, individuals who valued religious freedom and religious tolerance. Benjamin Franklin expressed his belief in “one God, the Creator of the universe, that He governs it by his providence, that He ought to be worshiped, and that the most acceptable service we render him is doing good to his other children.”

American history has seen its share of religious intolerance, but has also seen its share of religious tolerance. The early European settlers included Protestants who came to America to escape various forms of religious oppression; many were religious fundamentalists, others less so. Some would not tolerate other Protestant sects; most did not tolerate Catholics. Few, if any, knew any Muslims, and most had but a vague idea of what Islam was all about. By the time of the American Revolution early American leaders were certainly better informed, especially by eighteenth and early nineteenth century standards. Thomas Jefferson acquired his own copy of the Quran (which is available in the Library of Congress). The idea of separation of church and state was communicated early to Muslims who were assured in the 1796 Treaty with Tripoli that the United States was “not founded in any sense on the Christian religion,” and that the United States “has not entered into any war…against any Mohammetan nation,” a view that was unanimously accepted by the U.S. Senate.

Most Americans today forget that the early American settlers, the Puritans, were no democrats. Rather, they aspired to the kind of government that is deeply implicit in both the Jewish and Christian scripture and especially in the book of Revelation. Many believed the book of Revelation to be the actual word of God, sent through Jesus to St. John, although some did not want it included in the formally recognized Biblical books. The book contains apocalyptic visions of the end of the world. It had a long history of gloom and doom during the medieval period and generated a series of seers who saw signs of the coming end of the world. In 19th century America the concept of Rapture became one of the basic beliefs of fundamentalist Protestants. Rapture gave fundamentalists a belief that the end of the world is not something to be feared, but something to be welcomed, for they and they alone would be immune from the disaster that would accompany the end of the world.

These theological moves became politically powerful in the twentieth century, when fundamentalists formed an alliance with Zionists. Prior to that, American Jews had traditionally been at the center of opposition to mixing religion and politics. They led in defense of religious freedom. Once Israel decided to expand its circle of “enemies” to include more than the Palestinians, by first considering Arabs in neighboring countries, the so-called Confrontation States, and then all Arabs, and finally all Muslims, as the enemy, Jewish leaders and others began to attack all Muslims and Islam itself.

The Trump ascendency was partially attributed to the support he received from both the Zionist and religious fundamentalists, and both received almost total support from the Trump administration in return. The long-term impact of these two movements on American society is still being written.

To complicate life for all, consider the budding close relationship with some of Islam’s most conservative communities: the Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. This is leading to an enmity for all Shi’a Muslims. It is not difficult to explain this deviation: the current leaders of these states seem to view Israel as less threatening than fellow Muslim Iran. Israel and its U.S. backer are not offering a brand of political Islam that competes with that advocated in the Gulf. There is also what appears to be joint monetary interest between the Gulf States and the Trump family business interests. An alliance of billionaires, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian, is led by the Trump family. Very rich Muslims seem to be exempt from the Trump administration’s dislike of Muslims. This is an uneasy alliance. Trump and Israel are now in close cooperation with tribal, dictatorial, and corrupt regimes. America’s Islamophobia must navigate the business interests of the Trump family. Could the Trump family reconcile their financial interests with their Islam-phobia? Could America?