Blog Post

"Make America Hate Again": Islam and the Politics of Presidential Campaigns

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III ) 

We’ve all been privy to grumblings that the mainstream media has ignored Bernie Sanders’ inspiring campaign while lavishing attention on the sideshow that his Republican contender for the nomination, Donald Trump, has been running over the past several months. Trump’s bigoted campaign is of course beneath my contempt but its xenophobic hatemongering has done palpable harm to the American society and beyond, and I feel compelled to respond to the travesty.

If you are a Muslim woman or man living in America today, the odds are not in your favor. What usually passes as an everyday normative behavior to citizens living in a liberal and civilized society is far from normal to a Muslim living in the US or Western Europe: from burning mosques to harassing Muslim women for wearing the hijab to non-ending profiling and depriving Muslims of equal rights. Add to this the silent unease of carrying a mus-haf (Quran) on you, or growing a longish beard, or responding to your Arabic speaking mom who wants to ensure your safety as you’re about to board a plane, or just landed, or passed the security line at an airport. The feeling is that you cannot speak Arabic at airports or on any public transportation; that you must hide your faith in your pocket like a secret; that you must justify your faith to everyone; that your humanity is forever summonable and inquisitionable every time a crazy fanatic or a militant group named Boko Haram or whatever, one that you most likely did not even know existed, commits a hideous crime in the name of your religion.

The feeling is that no matter where you live in the global West and what your profession is, a marine, a firefighter, a nurse, a doctor, a business owner, a college professor, an international student, a falafel cart owner, you know what anxiety the next day will summon for you and your children if Islam ends up, as it always does, in Wolf Blizter’s Situation Room, receiving more coverage than, say, Bernie Sanders’s rising popular momentum. You know that the moment the so-called expert on “Islam and counter-terrorism” (yes, because there is a such a job now) pronounces the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ with an emphatically exaggerated “z” sound that you are doomed, that you had better switch off the TV and pray your friends and colleagues don’t give in to the mainstream and turn against you, or not exactly against you, but against that part called Islam that comes with you.

You know that the foreignness and perversity of the /z/ sound has destroyed every opportunity for objectivity and dialogue. You hear them speak of IZLAAM as if they are talking about something completely alien to you and your family. You find yourself wanting to say: “I am Muslim, but I’m not dangerous/ but I’m not a terrorist/ but I’m not a homophobe/ but I don’t really practice/etc.” You realize that “I am Muslim” has now become the most incomplete statement in American parlance. Just like when people ask you “what’s up” and you have to say “not much,” you are now expected to say “I am Muslim, but...,” as if being a Muslim is a condition of inevitable modification, as if your very citizenship, your devotion for your own country and family means nothing at all, erased from everyone’s cultural memory and leaving no traces but that of the MoZlim in you, the terrorist or better yet the sleeper, the most dangerous one of all, who pretends to be the friendly and docile neighbor while secretly harboring hatred and scheming a fatal plot to be carried out many years from now.

Unlike the peaceful terminality with which we say: “I am Christian,” “I am Jewish,” or “I am an atheist,” this horrifying conjunction makes Islam a religion that always questions itself. There is a mainstream conviction in Euro-America that Islam alone is not safe enough, that it must be followed by a contrastive, exceptional, and contrarian “but” in order to appropriate what you just said. “I am Muslim” is now officially (and perhaps even grammatically) an incomplete sentence, an utterance that must be finessed with a comma and another embedded sentence to mitigate the dismaying associations of the word “Muslim,” even if you pronounce it soundly with a soft /s/ sound and with a friendly, non-threatening smile on your face.

Not only do we live at a time when the simple tools of Islamic practice, a sibha [Muslim version of a rosary], a holy Qur'an, or a prayer rug, have, somehow become equated with terrorism and a Machiavellian plot to destroy our freedom and democracy, but more horridly we are witnessing a renewed demonization of Islam in the same pernicious way it happened in the last decade under the Bush Administration. This time the new antagonist of Islam is Donald Trump, and for reasons I find hard to grasp. An obscenely rich and privileged corporate money hoarder like Trump has neither the time nor the brains for ideology. It is quite confusing, I must admit, to see Trump hating Muslims and projecting them as a problem when he himself has never had an issue with Muslims (the rich ones) before he decided to run for president.

How did things get to this point? Although I don’t think that we were ever automatically seen as “good” in the U.S, even back then when Muslim ancestors entered this country as slaves, when did the two become mutually exclusive? These images and statements are painful enough to evoke the unutterable disappointment of the six million Muslims who live in the USA and of the one billion Muslims around the world. But the mainstream US media again still laughs the matter off and gives Trump enough coverage to say whatever he pleases as long as he is winning the votes. What cultural elements or predispositions would allow for the willful disrespect and tarnishing of an entire religion and all its adherents for political profit? How did Islam become a sanctioned label for “banning and a total and complete shutdown” of the country’s borders to all Muslims”? Does one have be a Muslim to be offended by this rhetoric? Adding insult to injury, a recent poll now shows that a majority of Americans agree with banning all non-citizen Muslims from the United States.

In good faith, Trump reminds me of the Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck, the world’s richest duck in the well-known fictional Disney family of cartoon ducks. In translated versions of the comic books, Scrooge is appropriately known among Arabs as ‘Amm Dahab (Uncle Gold), an avaricious, greedy, money-hoarding misanthrope, who has climbed up the financial ladder by all means possible, amassing a huge fortune for which he has built a Money Bin, where he practices his self-congratulatory diving-in-money rituals on a regular basis.

If you take away the hackneyed Scottish stereotypes of good old Disney, the similarities between Scrooge and Trump become even more striking: both are horrifying symptoms of the cancerous growth of capitalism; both are single-minded: money smart but ill-educated businessmen; both are driven by the desire for “more” than what they already have. Nothing will satisfy their insatiable hunger; both are always chasing “another rainbow,” as Carl Barks describes Scrooge, and will grow more and more angry if there is nothing powerful and exploitative left for them to acquire; both resort to aggressive, destructive, and deceptive tactics and will take no prisoners in reaching their narcissistic goals; both are ruthless risk takers and seasoned manipulators of people and events for their own benefit. Both have fans!! The obvious difference is that one is a fictional character and symbolizes a comic capitalism gone awry and the other lives among us and is running for the Oval Office.

That is why I consider Trump to not be genuinely Islamophobic but rather a capitalizer, or in crude business terms, an investor in the rising hot stock of xenophobia. It is hard to know which is worse, to be an Islamophobe or to sell Islamophobia in order to win the presidency. According to a November 2015 poll by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, 56 percent of Americans believe Islamic values are discordant with American values and 76 percent of self-identified Christians or Republicans hold these beliefs. These numbers are hardly surprising, as illustrated in the rhetoric of “Islam versus America” that Trump and his fellow Republican challengers espouse on a regular basis. These opinions, which are becoming socially acceptable, reflect a lack of historical awareness extant in current discussions and understanding of civilizational and/or religious conflicts.

Is this then Trump’s argument, that there is a fundamental clash of religions and civilizations, or am I giving him more intellectual credit than he deserves? Has there actually ever been a clash of civilizations, or is this one of the most absurd mantras ever used to terrify the public and win their support in the name of fences and antagonisms? This is what Samuel Huntington did back in 1992  when he re-proposed the commonplace thesis of the Clash of Civilizations, which turned into a bestselling book in 1996. Taking advantage of the ethno-religious hatred between Catholic Croatians, Muslim Bosnians, and Christian Orthodox Slavs, Huntington contrived an argument that this conflict was a manifestation of conflicting civilizational identities that is far from over: “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Is it even possible or sensible to write history in mutually exclusive, civilizational terms? After all, the development of modern Europe would have been impossible without the Islamic world. For if we consider Islam to be a “religion” in the 19th century meaning of the word, then we must acknowledge that not only are civilizations themselves inherently multicivilizational, but our civilizations are much more interconnected than we may naively perceive them to be. The key then to understanding our own multiculturalism is not through succumbing to recycled xenophobia and exploiting public tragedies committed by groups that do not care about human lives and have indeed killed more Muslims than non-Muslims if that matters, but rather by being intelligent consumers of knowledge.

As citizens in a free society, we have a responsibility to stop exposing Muslim Americans, the Muslim world, its various histories, legacies, societies, and communities, to continued erosions, catastrophes, disasters, unjust wars, and mass migrations. We have a responsibility to condemn denigrated references to Islam just as we condemn the persecution of anyone based on their religion. We have seen what complacency and acquiescence did in Auschwitz 75 years ago, and we have heard Trump’s unoriginal “plans” for Muslim communities across America. Political expediency and irresponsible presidential campaigns could signal the pernicious return of the politics of hate and extermination. If academe staggers under the heavy hand of mainstream media in conveying sound information about the lived realities of our everyday communities, we must then work that much harder to create pathways that would confront divisive and harmful politics.

In a lecture on moral uncertainties, Theodor Adorno argues that “the human subject could be liberated only when it has achieved reconciliation.” Perhaps reconciliation is the solution to our current cultural debacle. It is what we need now to move beyond the building of walls and the tagging of innocent citizens to fully embrace a basic form of pluralism and more sanguinely a celebration of all our different ways of living without fear in our varied communities. A big part of this reconciliation rests on coming to terms with our contingencies of origin, generational differences, schooling, cultural formations, political affiliations, religious beliefs, and so on.

Something that was said before must be said again: the xenophobia and Muslim-bashing that runs rampant throughout the current Republican campaigns goes against the very values upon which this country was founded. The separation between church and state guarantees complete neutrality towards religion, although I would argue that it is not the principle in itself that matters but rather the responsibility and accountability of the government to treat all its citizens as equals, with equal rights and respect. This responsibility is crucial for the maintenance of liberal values of tolerating all aspects of difference whether intellectual, religious, sectarian, or sexual.

Instead of prompting us to interrogate and publically condemn his false narratives and xenophobic rhetoric, Trump continues to be credible, to receive massive media coverage and win more votes so that he is now officially the leading contender to become the Republican Party’s nominee. Where is the public responsibility towards all citizens? How do Trump’s voters allow themselves to believe that Islam exemplifies the permanence of a catastrophe in America, that there is among Muslims, as Trump says, “ a tremendous hatred out there that I’ve never seen anything like it?”

In the face of this alarming rise of Islamophobia, relatively few have come forward in our mainstream media to assert that Islam is not to be misunderstood as a religion promoting violence or terrorism, or that Islam should not be confused with the inhumane agendas of ISIS, Boko Haram, or al-Qaeda. No sense of an ethical responsibility remains when a religion and its people are used falsely to fuel hatred and harm innocent women, men and children, simply for the cheap expediency of gaining votes.

 

Associate Professor of Arabic, San Francisco State University

I received my PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. I was born in Alexandria, Egypt where I spent my childhood and adolescent years. After High School, I moved to Cairo to study at ‘Ayn Shams University, where I srudied classical and modern Arabic and received my BA and MA in Literature and Translation. I am a recipient of two Fulbright Scholar Awards. My interests include modern and classical Arabic literature, Quranic Studies, Comparative Cultural Studies in the colonial and post-colonial Arab world, as well as French and Egyptian cinemas. I have published in scholarly venues that include der Islam, SCTIW Review, JAL, ASJ, ALIF, and AHR. My book Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History (I.B. Tauris) and the co-edited volume, German Colonialism (Columbia UP) both appeared in 2011. My forthcoming books, The Qur'an and Modern Arabic Literary Criticism: From Taha to Nasr (Bloomsbury: Suspensions, Contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamicate Thought) and Islam and the Culture of Modern Egypt (Cambridge UP) will both appear in 2018.