During his 2015 State of the Union address to Congress, President Obama called for respecting human dignity. This call was met with applause. Obama then called for a rejection of anti-Semitism. Again, uproarious applause ensued. In the very next sentence, Obama called for a rejection of offensive Muslim stereotypes. Suddenly, dead silence. Apparently every politician and government official in the room, whether Democrat or Republican, was on board with stereotyping and profiling Muslims.
Fast forward to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. A father and mother of a slain American Muslim soldier spoke about their sacrifices for the country. And everyone there cheered and has been cheering ever since. Besides them, the convention included five other Muslim speakers including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Sherman Jackson, who both referenced hate and prejudice against Muslims in their addresses while Democratic Party members cheered.
So why the difference? What changed between Obama’s 2015 State of the Union and the 2016 DNC? Why did Obama’s call for tolerance get the silent treatment but the same call is cheered and championed a year later?
As American Muslims, should we attribute this shift in attitudes to Hillary Clinton and the DNC organizers? Should we thank them for bringing about a new commitment from Democrats for diversity and tolerance of different faiths?
In reality, our actual benefactor — the one who is really responsible for putting Khizr and Ghazala Khan on stage that night — is someone much more orange in hue.
Here is a question: Would the Clinton campaign and the DNC have showcased seven different Muslims in the course of the convention if Donald Trump hadn’t made bigotry against Muslims so central to his campaign? There is no way to tell for sure, but if we understand the nature of oppositional politics in this country, there is much to suggest that American Muslims should be thanking Trump.
The “Islam Means Peace” Rule
As in the world of physics, in the world of presidential politics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Trump’s action is that he broke a long-standing rule about how to talk about Muslims in political discourse. I call it the “Islam Means Peace” Rule (or IMP Rule for short): You can denounce “radical Muslims.” You can imply that there are “extremist” interpretations of Islam and “violent Islamists” who adopt those interpretations. But you must never, ever imply that Islam itself is the problem. You must never, ever suggest that Muslims in general are terrorists or are sympathetic to terrorism. You must insist that “Islam means peace.”
In one of the first speeches that Bush made after the 9/11 attacks, he laid out the IMP Rule and thereby set the tone for respectable political dialogue about Islam and Muslims for the next 15 years. Throughout this time, there were always the Pamela Gellers on the right and the Bill Mahers on the left who shrilly warned that the problem was not “radical Islam” but Islam itself. But these voices were roundly ignored by a mainstream media committed to the Rule. Previous Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney also stuck closely to the Rule, but Trump became the first mainstream politician on the national stage to flout IMP in his clumsy crusade against “political correctness.” Instead of limiting his remarks to the “radicals,” his pronouncements are directed to Muslims more broadly. This is why the Muslim community around the world sees Trump as an apocalyptic harbinger of doom and destruction. The good news is, as a violator of the IMP Rule, Trump is seen by other politicians, both Democrat and Republican, as well as the mainstream media in the same light that most Muslims see him: As an uncouth bigot who must be opposed at every turn.
The Power of IMP
Understanding the IMP Rule and its power is the key to seeing how beneficial Trump really is to American Muslims. The most powerful moral narrative in the American conscience is the fight against racism. Racism is seen as the ultimate evil, universally regarding as a threat to civilization. The two greatest historical manifestations of evil in the collective American understanding is slavery and Nazism, and both manifestations were animated by racial discrimination. As Muslims, we recognize this as a part of our moral compass as well, as the Prophet specifically called out the damaging ignorance and backwardness of mistreating others on the basis of skin color.
In the context of skin color, the odiousness of racism is clear, but outside that context, things become more murky. The racism narrative is so powerful that all varieties of interest groups and political parties attempt to tap into that narrative in order to mobilize people for their particular cause. The LGBT activist movement, for example, has been very explicit about this. Frank Bruni, the NYT’s first openly gay op-ed columnist, has argued that discrimination against people on the basis of sexual tendencies is tantamount to discrimination on the basis of skin color and that LGBT activists must use the language of the civil rights movement in order to advance their cause.
Muslims too have taken advantage of the racism narrative, arguing that discrimination on the basis of religious belief is tantamount to discrimination on the basis of skin color. But simply making the argument is not enough for society at large to believe that these are instances of racism and vile prejudice. The public has to be convinced that the group in question is the subject of systematic abuse, subjugation, violence, and unjust treatment in general.
The purpose of the IMP Rule then is to prevent the public from seeing Muslims in this light. The Rule is meant to project an image of Muslim tolerance, even celebration. This is important because, without this rosy image, many of the policies and regulations that were implemented against the American Muslim community and Muslim societies abroad in the aftermath of 9/11 would be seen for what they are: unjust targeting and systematic violence against one particular group of people.
For the public to see this treatment for what it is would make the idea of “Islamophobia” as a subgenre of racism that much more compelling to the average American, who is, due to the racism narrative, highly sensitive to anything with the slightest semblance of racial prejudice. And once the average American gets even a whiff of that and starts to see Muslims as victims, that would create a chain reaction of support and political mobilization for wider Muslim acceptance. This is why Trump has been and will continue to be a boon for American Muslims so long as he keeps up his heavy-handed, off-the-wall demonizing of Islam and Muslims.
Obama, Master of IMP
For President Obama, the IMP Rule has been monumentally important. Well-off and politically connected American Muslims are reluctant to believe this, but Obama has been a disaster for American Muslim rights. There has not been a single substantive anti-Muslim policy created under the Bush administration that has not been continued, expanded, or accelerated by the Obama administration.
In terms of foreign policy, Iraq and Afghanistan continue to suffer from the presence of a US military force. Obama’s infamous drone program has extended this death and destruction to Northwest Pakistan as well as Yemen, Somalia, and other Muslim regions. Libya, of course, was invaded under Obama’s directive and has been smoldering ever since. Under Obama, Israel felt at ease brutally pummeling a besieged Gaza in three separate operations, genocidal aggression that Obama awarded with record amounts of military aid stuffed into the pockets of the Israeli murder machine. And the failings of the Obama administration to broker peace in Syria while also tacitly supporting the bloody military coup in Egypt and the Sisi regime has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster.
Hand in hand with the terror Obama has unleashed against Muslims abroad are his domestic “anti-terror” policies, policies which for all intents and purposes target Muslims and attack their civil rights. Obama’s Orwellian CVE program, which essentially saddles the entire Muslim community with assumed guilt for terrorism, is only the tip of the iceberg. His FBI has perfected and regularized an aggressive Muslim entrapment program which was used only sparingly in the Bush years. His NSA datamines Muslim online activity and communication and feeds that information to other agencies which disproportionately and unfairly target Muslims. Local police departments have, through generous grants and guidance from Obama’s DHS, spied on Muslims and created databases cataloging Muslims and their day-to-day activities. The secret No-Fly list, which lists predominantly Muslims, none of whom have any proven ties to terrorism, has ballooned to at least ten times its size under Obama.
By any objective standard, Obama has been a much worse president for Muslims than Bush Jr. But the American Muslim community itself seems to be completely unaware of this and will bitterly deny it. This is because they have fallen into the seductive web of the IMP Rule. Obama perfected the Rule. He made the Rule into a fine art. His paeans to the American Muslim community and even Islam as a religion are unmatched. That’s why Muslims love him — no politician has spoken more glowingly and more eloquently in praise of Muslims. No president has appointed more Muslims into his administration or invited more Muslims to have iftar or Eid dinner at the White House. Clearly a president who goes out of his way to recognize and celebrate Muslims is not actively curtailing their rights and sabotaging their interests!
Alas, the truth is not as picturesque as those lavish White House iftars would lead us to believe. What Obama has proven is the efficacy of the iron fist when it is wearing a velvet glove. The IMP Rule is precisely that velvet glove, and Obama has worn it masterfully. As a result, the “anti-terror” programs — which have stripped American Muslims of so many of their civil rights and which the Bush-era Democrats denounced as the “Shredding of the Constitution” — overnight transformed into bipartisan consensus once Obama endorsed them. And it is that bipartisan consensus that has increasingly shifted public sentiment against Muslims over the past eight years, up until last year’s State of the Union, where even calls for basic civility towards Muslims were met with cold, indifferent silence from the nation’s lawmakers.
But Trump has changed all that. Trump has no patience for the niceties of velvet. His talk of monitoring Muslims and controlling their movement in and out of the country have plenty of precedent in Obama’s policies. Ironically, in fact, Obama’s policies are sometimes even worse than what Trump claims to want to do as president. The only thing that is novel about Trump is the way he talks about Muslims. And as Muslims, we should welcome this frankness. Strategically speaking, we should prefer a president who will wear his hatred of us on his sleeve as opposed to one who smiles in our face while implementing all manner of policy against us under the table. Better the devil you know.
What If Trump Wins?
If Trump wins the presidency, the Democrats will likely latch on to the Muslim cause like never before. We saw shades of this during the Bush terms. Glenn Greenwald said it best:
“The Democrats have been opposed to so many things when Bush was President that they, since 2009, stand up and cheer when President Obama does them. I know that because I was working on civil liberties during the Bush Administration. Things like droning people to death, even Americans, on the grounds that they’re terrorists without having to go to court and present evidence. Obviously, not just keeping Guantanamo open, but continuing to imprison people without charges. These are all things, certainly spying on people without warrants, that Democrats pretended to oppose when George Bush was in the Oval Office that they now either quietly acquiesce to or vocally support now that there is a Democrat in power.”
As journalists like Greenwald have noted time and again, in the Bush days, the Democratic establishment actually took on pro-Muslim causes like closing Guantanamo Bay and opposing Muslim profiling and detention programs. But as soon as Obama became president, all that righteous concern went out the window. The Democrats no longer had any reason to oppose anti-Muslim policies once they were in power. And the GOP saw an opportunity to portray any last vestige of pro-Muslim sentiment on the parts of Obama and the Dems as being “soft on terror,” which had the expected outcome of making Obama even more reluctant to do anything substantial to roll back, much less overturn, the bevy of programs infringing on Muslim rights.
A Trump president, however, will bring that righteous pro-Muslim fervor back with a vengeance. The initiative to feature the Khan family at the DNC and the media success that followed proved to the Dems that they can once again use American Muslims as a stick to beat their GOP counterparts. The fact that Trump is so overtly bigoted, the fact that he shuns the IMP Rule so shamelessly, will only make Democrats respond with that much more sanctimonious intensity.
If Trump is president, expect a significant uptick in mosque visits from the Dems. Expect a lot more Congressional pushback on anti-Muslim policies that have hitherto enjoyed bipartisan support. Expect a lot more positive media coverage on the Muslim community in general.
Muslims are also worried that a President Trump means he will implement the ludicrous anti-Muslim policies he has proposed on the campaign trail, e.g., implementing special Muslim ID badges and banning Muslims from entering the country. This rhetoric should be taken for what it is: grandstanding bluster with no real chance of materialization. As I have argued elsewhere, the Obama administration has already facilitated far-reaching measures to catalogue and track religiously observant Muslims in this country, which is functionally equivalent to the issuing of ID badges, so Trump wouldn’t be adding much to what his predecessor has done already. Besides this, even if Trump wanted to force Muslims to get ID badges, he would face a firestorm of political opposition. Similarly with banning Muslims from the country, a proposal that even GOP leaders have denounced.
Only God knows, but to the contrary, four years of Trump could mean American Muslims as an identity group finally attain that elusive mainstream status, where it becomes politically incorrect to even imply that Muslims are inherently inclined to terrorism and therefore must be profiled, monitored, detained without charges, and controlled.
What About Hate Crimes?
Some have argued that if Trump were to win, that would vindicate his anti-Muslim rhetoric and bring out the worst in violent racists. Certainly, there has been an increase in violence directed at Muslims since Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. But, there has also been a marked increase in terror attacks on Western soil in this same time period. The national debate on Syrian refugees has also played a significant part in stoking nativist anti-Muslim bias. Outside of Trump’s rhetoric, both of these factors could independently account for at least some, if not most, of the increase in anti-Muslim violence.
But if, God forbid, the rate of such terror attacks remains consistent over the next four years, wouldn’t it be far better to have someone in the Oval Office who is less vitriolic to Muslims than Trump?
This is debatable. In actuality, there is not a clear correlation between presidential rhetoric and tenor, on the one hand, and hate crimes and bias, on the other. Obama’s presidency provides the perfect example of this. People expected that race relations would significantly improve upon the election of the first black president, when, as it turns out, the exact opposite occurred. Anti-black racism has significantly increased during Obama’s two terms than in prior years. There has been a surge in the number of white supremacist chapters and “patriot” groups around the country, which also correlates with an increase in bias attacks against different minority groups, including Muslims.
How do we explain this seemingly paradoxical increase in racism and violence under Obama? Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that much of the increase is tied to the anxieties of beleaguered working-class and middle-class white people who have suffered due to increasing income inequality and other economic factors. As these groups perceive society to become more diverse and less white, they react with anger and violence directed at those minorities imagined to be most threatening. In this way, paradoxically, a black president in power can increase anti-black racism while a white conservative, even bigoted president in power can actually decrease it.
A Trump presidency could have the same effect on anti-Muslim bias. Having him in office would do much to appease these racist white factions, which would lower anxieties and ease tensions, potentially resulting in less negativity towards Muslims and mosques.
Hate Crime Under Obama: The Case of Park51
As further insight into this dynamic, consider the year 2010, which saw 53 mosque attacks that year, whereas 2015, the year of the rise of Trump, saw 78 (data and bar chart below can be found here). Back in 2010, ISIS had not yet emerged and there had not been a single major Muslim-related terror incident in the US or Europe that year. 2015, in contrast, saw ten of them with death tolls in the hundreds and nearly around-the-clock media coverage throughout the year, not to mention the Syrian refugee crisis to boot. Why, then, was 2010 a horrendous year for American mosques with such a seemingly Muslim-friendly president in the White House?
Well, this was also the year of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, where a Muslim community center and mosque, Park51, was planned to be built two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. There was an uproar from both Democratic and Republican national leaders arguing that building a mosque in that place was a “violation of sacred ground.” At first President Obama seemed to support the building of the mosque, but after getting blasted by Republicans, he later backtracked and clarified that he would not comment on “the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”
This incident perfectly encapsulates the dynamics of American political discourse surrounding Muslims. When Republicans are not in power, they have great incentive to portray Dems as soft on terror and, like trained puppies, the Dems respond with cold indifference, if not outright callousness, to Muslims and their interests. This creates an antagonistic bipartisan consensus on Muslim issues which further feeds public paranoia and an atmosphere of anti-Muslim hate, which inevitably leads to mosque attacks and other acts of bias.
What If Clinton Wins?
A Clinton presidency would further anger white supremacists and other bias groups, making them feel like the walls are quickly closing in on them. This could have devastating results, as the GOP would, in the interests of oppositionalism and reactionary politics, shift further in the direction of nativism and racially-charged rhetoric in order to capitalize on the raw emotions of their disaffected base. They would also continue to paint Democrats as soft on terror, as the anti-Muslim elements across the country would be incensed, not quieted, that their beloved crusader failed in his White House bid.
In reaction to this, Clinton would shift right as well, which would all but ensure the continuation and likely expansion of Obama’s anti-Muslim policies. Of course, this would all be done with smiles and White House iftars galore, i.e., the IMP Rule in all its slimy glory.
Even without this shift, Clinton has more than proven herself to be hostile to Muslim interests, both abroad and at home, even more so than Obama, which is saying something in itself. Like Trump, she has embraced the term “radical Islam” and believes that a muscular surveillance state is key to national security and fighting “homegrown terror.” She has proven herself to be an arch-Zionist, even more antagonistic to Palestinian life than Bush, Obama, or Trump. Her hawkish stance toward the Middle East should be enough by itself to give any conscionable Muslim pause for concern. She has demonstrated support for the US-funded dictators across the Arab world, and has even befriended them.
Does all this mean that Muslims should vote for the odious Donald Trump? Muslims should definitely consider voting third party in at least the non-swing states. But if one is planning to vote for either Clinton or Trump in a swing state, then hopefully I have presented good reasons to consider voting for Trump over Clinton in particular. In strategic terms, sometimes going against the most outwardly obvious path is what will yield the most fruit at the end.
And, of course, there may be other reasons unrelated to Muslim interests to support Clinton over Trump, though as commentators like Mobeen Vaid have argued, American Muslims need to reconsider their reflexive alignment with liberals, while developing a political culture which is based on or at least informed by their religious values, instead of simply parroting “Red vs. Blue” political bickering.
Putting these concerns aside and focusing on the issue of which candidate, Trump or Clinton, is relatively better for Muslims in the short and long term, there is no question.