Islamophobia in the US has increased ever since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Discrimination and hate crimes against American Muslims skyrocketed immediately after the deadliest assault on US soil took place. Despite sporadic efforts by former President Barack Obama to bridge the religious and racial divides, anti-Muslim prejudice was further heightened after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, leading to what the Council on American-Islamic Relations described as a “sharp rise” in a campaign against “innocent Muslims, innocent immigrants and mosques.”
Robert McKenzie, a senior fellow at New America, a Washington-based think tank, said in 2018 that “political rhetoric from national leaders has a real and measurable impact.” McKenzie led a data visualization project that logged anti-Muslim incidents.
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A survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding shows that 62% of Muslims in the United States, including 68% of Muslim women, experienced religious discrimination in 2019. The Pew Research Center reported that an overwhelming majority of US adults (82%) agree that Muslims are subject to at least some form of discrimination in America. This includes 56% who believe Muslims are discriminated against “a lot.”
In 2018, the last year for which the FBI released official data on hate crimes committed across the US, anti-Muslim offenses accounted for 14.5% of 1,550 cases motivated by religion. Yet the actual number is believed to be much higher as many incidents are often unreported. President Trump’s comments and policies regarding Muslims — most notably his executive order in 2017 banning immigration from several Muslim-majority countries — are linked to the spike in Islamophobic attitudes.
Arun Kundnani is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. He is the author of the book “The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror.” In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Kundnani about the rise in Islamophobia and President Trump’s views toward Muslims.
Kourosh Ziabari: Bretton Tarrant — the alt-right terrorist who killed 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 — had described US President Donald Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” in a manifesto. Is Trump’s position on Muslims and his rhetoric on immigrants emboldening white supremacists and racists within the US and beyond?
Arun Kundnani: Most activists in racist, nativist and neo-Nazi movements around the world have seen in President Trump a fellow traveler, if not someone who completely shares their political agenda. His choice of advisers such as Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon confirms for them that he is an ally. His racist policies, such as the Muslim travel ban and his mass separating of children from their migrant parents, are seen as the first steps in the creation of an “ethno-state,” in which Jews, Muslims and anyone not considered white will be violently eliminated.
Trump’s presidency, along with the election in various European countries of racist political parties, is taken to be a sign that racist nationalism is on the rise. In fact, the rise of the far right in the US and Europe is rooted in the crisis of racial capitalism that has unfolded since the 2008 financial crisis. But Trump’s presence in the White House has emboldened organized racists everywhere.
Ziabari: As you said, one of the most controversial decisions President Trump made shortly after taking office was to introduce a travel ban against citizens of several Muslim-majority countries. Was the “Muslim ban” constitutional and reflective of the values that the United States stands for?
Kundnani: Liberals in the United States often assert that policies of racial or religious exclusion are incompatible with American values and the constitution. This ignores the more fraught relationship between American national identity and principles of racial equality and justice. The US Constitution expressed the values of a class of slave-owning settler colonists in the 18th century seeking to overthrow an older regime. It considers the right to bear arms important, for example, because of the need for settler citizens to eliminate indigenous populations from captured territory. Private property is sacrosanct because the American Revolution was carried out by a capitalist class which owned slaves.
Trump’s Muslim ban is, from this angle, not an aberration but consistent with the long history of US racism and colonialism. From another angle, there are indeed values of equality and religious freedom expressed in the Constitution. But for them to be valid today, they need to be unstitched from narratives of American exceptionalism and woven together in new ways for the 21st century.
Ziabari: In March 2016, President Trump appeared in an interview on CNN and claimed that “Islam hates us … there’s a tremendous hatred there.” Do you think what he said is true? Do Muslims hate the United States?
Kundnani: What many Muslims and, for that matter, many others around the world hate is not the United States as such but its imperialism. The Middle East is a region where resistance to the US is especially strongly felt, largely because of America’s deep support for Israel. After the Cold War, US foreign policy planners mistakenly interpreted this resistance as signaling Islam’s cultural incompatibility with modernity and imagined “radical Islam” as the new threat that was to replace communism.
Trump’s comments repeat the Washington foreign policy establishment’s tendency to regard resistance to the US as rooted in a clash of cultures, rather than a political desire for freedom. But the Palestinian movement is not ultimately a fight for religious or cultural values; it is a struggle for political liberation from Israel’s military occupation.
Ziabari: Many media people and scholars believe Trump built on anti-Muslim sentiment, among other appeals, to please his support base — mostly white Americans in Southern states — and boost his popularity. Will he intensify his anti-Muslim rhetoric in the run-up to the 2020 elections as a campaign tactic?
Kundnani: In 2016, Trump styled himself as the brave outsider willing to speak truths that no one else in the establishment would do. There were two kinds of “truths.” He was willing to defy political correctness and make explicit in his rhetoric about Muslims and Mexicans what had previously only been implicit in counterterrorism and immigration policymaking; and he was willing to attack “globalist” elites who he said had abandoned “ordinary” Americans.
The dilemma for his 2020 reelection campaign is that running as an outsider won’t work after being in the White House for three years. He will have to stand on his record. Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, his campaign would have focused upon lower taxes and an improving economy. Alongside that, he would have presented himself as a victim of a liberal establishment that tried to use the “deep state” to weaken him and attack the Democrats as now dominated by socialists in league with Muslim extremists.
With the economy devastated, that second part will be more significant. Anti-Muslim rhetoric will be used again, therefore, but in a different way from 2016. It won’t be about terrorists crossing into the US through weak borders but about accusing the Democratic Party of pandering to radicals — from Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who will be portrayed as anti-Semites and radical Muslims, to the “left-wing mobs” of Black Lives Matter.
Ziabari: Moving away from Trump, why do you think the acceptance of anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and the broader Western world has become normalized? Are anti-Muslim bigots held to the same standards that other racists, including anti-Semites, are held to?
Kundnani: All empires require violence to sustain themselves, and the US empire is no different in this respect. In the modern era, imperial violence has to be legitimized and rationalized. The main way this happens is through racism. When empires confront resistance, they typically frame it as the expression of an inferior culture that does not appreciate the “benefits” that empire brings. The normalization of anti-Muslim racism in the US is driven by this dynamic; its impetus comes from the need to provide an interpretation of conflicts that are the result of US foreign policy. Since the 1990s, the US public has been repeatedly told that Muslim populations harbor a religio-cultural threat that can only be met through war, torture and the suspension of human rights (anti-Muslim racism at home has been the necessary correlate of the US’ imperialism abroad).
But all racisms are, in the end, connected. For example, today’s Black Lives Matter activists are monitored by the FBI as constituting a threat of terrorism, building on the language and institutional apparatus that was established after 9/11 to target Muslims. Likewise, the conspiracy theories that anti-Muslim propagandists have circulated over the last 10 years — which hold that Muslims secretly control the US government and the European Union — are structurally similar to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that emerged in Europe a century ago. And their circulation today has helped create the space for anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish manipulation to return again to conservative political rhetoric.
Ziabari: What is the role of mainstream media in perpetuating and spreading fear of Muslims and antipathy toward them? Do you think the corporate media are to blame for the rise of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States?
Kundnani: The conservative corporate media have mainstreamed the most blatant racism against Muslims, giving credence to every stereotype and fear. To read and watch conservative media is to be presented with a view of Islam as violent, deceptive and hateful. The liberal corporate media is different but has also, in the end, enabled Islamophobia. Take, for example, an incident in 2019 involving Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. After she gave a speech in Los Angeles encouraging Muslims to be more politically active in asserting their rights, a few words were taken out of context and misrepresented in conservative media such as The New York Post, to give the impression that she did not take 9/11 seriously — an obvious Islamophobic slur. The liberal media condemned the attack on her. But the way it framed its response was to say that conservatives were wrong to characterize Omar as un-American and that her family had, after all, chosen to come to the US as Somali refugees.
What this does is set the terms of Omar’s acceptance by liberals: Were she to criticize US foreign policy in Somalia, for example, and — instead of expressing gratitude to the US— highlight America’s complicity in forcing her family to flee, she would then be cast as no longer worthy of defense. For liberals, the problem is one of conservative intolerance of a different religious identity held by a fellow American. But that means that victims of racism have to pass a national loyalty test before receiving support. And it erases from view the roots of anti-Muslim racism, not in religious difference, but in US foreign policies — such as drone strikes — that liberals have been eager to defend.
Ziabari: A 2018 report by The Washington Post asserts that the majority of mass shootings are carried out by white males. This confirms the findings of a 2015 research study by the Northeastern University scholar Emma E. Fridel, who revealed that most mass shootings in the US are perpetrated by African American and white males, not immigrants and Muslims. When a Muslim citizen carries out an act of violence, the entire religion is blamed. When a white American kills several people in a shooting spree, the assailant is referred to as a “lone wolf” with a mental illness. Why is it so?
Kundnani: The reason for this obvious divergence is the prejudice that everything Muslims do is driven by Islam, as if it is a monolith that mechanically drives people who believe in it to acts of barbarism. But no religion works like that. We are all shaped by a complex mix of social, cultural and political conditions, and then from those conditions [we] attempt to mold ourselves according to our own personality. Acts of violence are individual decisions, products of culture and laden with political meanings.
It makes little sense to think of cultures in grand terms like “Islam” and the “West” but, if we do, there is evidence that Islam is less prone to violence. Polls of global public opinion suggest that whether one thinks that violence against civilians is legitimate has more to do with political context than religious belief; and such violence is considered more acceptable in the US and Europe than everywhere else in the world. In fact, “Islam is violent” is a false belief that has been used to legitimize US wars which, since 9/11, have caused the deaths of over 800,000 people.
Ziabari: What do you think needs to be done so that the gaps between American Muslims and the general public are bridged and anti-Muslim prejudice is eliminated? Are academics and advocacy organizations doing a good job in tackling Islamophobia?
Kundnani: Overcoming anti-Muslim racism in the US requires that we face up to the devastation that US foreign policy has inflicted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Palestine. We have to look squarely at the human consequences of war, torture and economic destabilization. We must not erase from these episodes in our history the victims themselves, their agency, their voices, their existence. Advocacy organizations and academics have spent too much time thinking of Islamophobia as a matter of individual attitudes and beliefs influenced by fringe publicity campaigns or right-wing politicians. The focus instead needs to be on the deeper drivers of anti-Muslim racism within the policies of US empire and the racial fractures of neoliberal capitalism.
The demand should not be for better cultural understanding of Islam or a more tolerant attitude toward religious differences. Instead, the argument should be that anti-Muslim racism is the means by which imperialist wars are legitimized and that these wars are not in the interests of working-class Americans. Ultimately, the issue of Islamophobia is inseparable from the question of how resources are distributed in the US: ending anti-Muslim racism means creating a US in which we use our resources to ensure the health, education, and well-being of everyone who lives here rather than to fund a military machine that serves the interests of corporate elites.
Ziabari: What do you make of President Trump’s response to the recent killing of an African American man, George Floyd, in Minnesota while in police custody and the ensuing protests against police brutality and racism? Does the president’s handling of nationwide protests and his reaction to Floyd’s death reveal anything about his broader worldview on the rights of minorities, including Muslims?
Kundnani: Historically, the role of the president in moments of what is euphemistically called “racial tension” is to deploy old clichés of overcoming. His function is to speak somberly of the “difficult” history of “racial animus” before uplifting us with pleas for “reconciliation” and “renewal” of basic values. Such narratives of “moving on” have enabled US white supremacy to survive to the present day by disguising itself as the past. No one will be surprised that Trump has chosen a different approach, painting the Black Lives Matter protests as acts of extremism and hatred.
One could be tempted to say that, in not expressing the usual establishment pieties, Trump is doing anti-racists an unintended favor: undisguised racism is perhaps easier to expose and challenge. But we should not ignore the extent to which Trump’s open defense of racist police violence empowers forms of racist oppression across US society, not least in law enforcement itself.
What’s more, the danger of Trump’s rhetoric is that, in our outrage at his statements, we fall into the trap of narrowing our focus to him alone. When that happens, we forget that the Black Lives Matter movement is about the need for deep-seated change to the whole way we deal with issues of safety and violence in our communities. We should not allow Trump’s statements to sidetrack us from pursuing this agenda in every way possible.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.