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Trump and Islamophobia: discrimination fuels terror

For Trump’s supporters, what they believe to be the ‘truth’ is a matter of no small significance. Now, and as a matter of urgency, an effective way in which to counter prevalent xenophobic public opinion must be found.

Demotix/Mark Apollo. All rights reserved. Demotix/Mark Apollo. All rights reserved.Donald Trump’s views are sometimes farcical, and sometimes disturbing. His most recent infuriating comments about banning Muslims from travelling to the US were exceptionally reprehensible. A huge wave of reactions from across the globe denounced his ignorant and utterly repellent views.

But particularly troubling is the recent NBC, Telemundo, and Marist College poll showing that more than seven in ten Republicans believe Trump “tells it like it is,” while only 25 percent find him “insulting and offensive”.

The poll does not mean, of course, that Trump commands the support of 70 percent of potential Republican voters—but that 70 percent believe that he “tells it like it is” regardless of whether they will vote for him or not.

This stands in stark contrast to reactions from mainstream media outlets, foreign leaders, and social media users, who by and large find the views Trump expresses deeply insulting and offensive.

Freedom of speech guarantees the right to express and promote views that may be shocking to the public (the important question of whether Trump’s comments qualify as “hate speech” is beyond the scope of this discussion). But the real concern here is that Trump’s views—on Mexicans, Syrian refugees, Muslims—are not shocking to a majority of the Republican electorate.

The real concern here is that Trump’s views are not shocking to a majority of the Republican electorate.

But is this surprising? Is Trump actually saying anything we haven’t heard—or seen touted in election campaigns—before?

In truth, Trump is ‘telling it like it is’ for those who believe what he says. For those who disagree with his views, the ‘like it is’ is a racist, fascist, Islamophobic, narrow-minded, and essentially false perception of reality. But for Trump’s supporters, having someone of his stature, wealth, power, and media reach, state publicly on major news channels what they believe to be the ‘truth’ is a matter of no small significance.

This will fortify such views in the minds of those who genuinely believe Muslims are the ‘Other’ and who believe that the ‘Other’ is an existential threat to ‘American values’—and in other settings, a threat to ‘European’ or ‘western’ values.

Deeply rooted in such a discourse is a belief in the inevitability of the clash of civilisations, and also, in the futility of dialogue between worldviews deeply antagonistic culturally, politically, and ultimately militarily. There has to be a winner in such a clash, according to those who espouse such views, and war dictates knowing one’s enemy and not succumbing to watered-down ‘politically correct’ diplomatic attempts that only serve as distractions from the real issues.

Such opinions on Islam as being antithetical to western civilisation are also prevalent in parts of Europe and among some minorities in the Middle East and other parts of the world. There is a deeply-rooted belief that the notion ‘terrorism has no religion’ is just a politically correct, liberal attempt to dilute matters and to distort reality.

Thus, Trump is ‘telling it like it is’ because he is giving voice to opinions that have only rarely been overtly adopted by influential presidential candidates or presidents. Even George W. Bush made sure to distance his ‘war on terror’—in official discourse at least—from the religion of Islam.

As was noted by Chris Cilliza, each time there is a public outcry, media reaction and fact-checking vis-à-vis Trump’s ‘facts’, Trump’s stock increases in value because the perception is that the media does not ‘tell it like it is’. The net result is that “Trump's ‘facts’ are of more value because they aren't being filtered through the media's liberal filter.”

Are all Muslims potential terrorists?

So what are those “facts” that Trump ostensibly tells like they are?

I will limit my discussion here to “facts” about Islam, and by extension, refugees, immigrants, and foreign policy as it relates directly to Islam.

In calling for a ban on Muslims’ entry into the US, Trump is explicit in assuming that any Muslim—citizen or refugee—is likely to espouse radical views and may be a terrorist threat.

Although unsubstantiated by evidence or studies, pundits who agree with Trump promote the view (see video below) that a “large number of Muslims believe in this Islamic radicalism.” 

Another version of this is the idea that refugees are part of a conspiracy to invade Europe and the west in order to impose Sharia law. This runs completely counter to the fact that the number of extremists who identify as Muslim are a minute proportion of the world’s total Muslim population. Also, recent polls suggest exactly the opposite, namely that “in nations with significant Muslim populations, [there is] much disdain for ISIS.”

Furthermore, a recent study on ISIS recruits who have defected from the group cite the violence against, and killing of fellow (Sunni) Muslims as being a main reason for their disillusionment with the group. As has always been true, radical Islam continues to kill more Muslims than it does non-Muslims.

Strategically, the west needs to ally itself with the vast majority of Muslims who view ISIS as a threat to their religion. Promoting diplomacy and dialogue with Muslims in order to eradicate ISIS is the winning card in this war. President Obama—at least on this matter—is not solidifying ties with Muslim nations to be politically correct, but in order to defeat ISIS.

Obama countering Trump’s divisive and discriminatory discourse is sensible leadership in a situation where fear is rampant. In his December 6 Oval Address to the Nation he spoke about the responsibility

“to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL. Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes—and yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defence of our country. We have to remember that.” 

Obama’s address is strikingly similar to George W. Bush’s speech at the Islamic Centre of Washington D.C. only days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bush had the following words to say about Islam and conflating Islam with terrorism:

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world… America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country… In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect….Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behaviour.”

Furthermore, terrorism has been a political tool employed by various groups, religions and individuals, and not exclusively by Muslims or Islam. And from all the studies conducted on the rise and spread of ISIS, the eschatological dimension—while interesting and of partial significance—is secondary to other political, economic and psychological factors leading people to join such groups.

Even the head of one of the largest religious organisations in the world—Pope Francis—acknowledged during his visit to the United States that

“no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.” Instead, as he suggested, “[a] delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.”

His remarks are in line with numerous United Nations reports, statements, resolutions, and recommendations on the issue of terrorism and counter-terrorism, reflecting a consensus from experts and global representatives with very diverse points of view that the way to combat terrorism is not by attacking a single religion or by restricting fundamental rights and liberties.

For instance, General Assembly Resolution 60/288 reaffirms “that terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilisation or ethnic group.” Equally important, it reaffirms “that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” and the “respect for the equal rights of all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion” should go hand-in-hand with any counter-terrorism efforts.

The resolution goes on to discuss the underlying causes of terrorism, outlining measures that should be taken to “address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, including but not limited to prolonged unresolved conflicts, dehumanisation of victims of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, lack of the rule of law and violations of human rights, ethnic, national and religious discrimination, political exclusion, socio-economic marginalisation and lack of good governance, while recognising that none of these conditions can excuse or justify acts of terrorism.”

Thus, world leaders agree that Trump’s comments are not only discriminatory but also run counter to any reasonable strategy that should not counter a wrong with a wrong—in other words, to counter the threat of terrorism with the threat of religious discrimination.

After all, the mishaps and excesses of previous and current counter-terrorist measures have sometimes caused further radicalisation and have not succeeded in making the world more secure.

Trump is perhaps not an Islamophobe, but simply a good old-fashioned politician who 'tells it like it is' from the perspective of what potential voters want to hear.

From the images of Abou Ghraib, to the ever-present extrajudicial civilian casualties of drone attacks, and continued support for dictators who do not respect the human rights of their citizens, counter-terrorism efforts will be further derailed by a discriminatory discourse.

We must remember that prisons are breeding grounds for terrorism and turning a blind eye or being ‘politically correct’ with allies on that front is more damaging to peace and security. We must also remember the disaster that came about from freed prisoners in Iraq and their role in the formation of ISIS, as well as the recruitment of members from the dire conditions prevalent in most Middle Eastern state prisons.

Ultimately, Trump is perhaps not an Islamophobe, but simply a good old-fashioned politician who knows how and when to shift positions on key issues, in large part determined by what potential voters want to hear—by ‘telling it like it is’ from the perspective of those voters.

This is evidenced by earlier statements of his regarding Muslims, such as in The Atlantic, as recently as September 2015: “"I love the Muslims, I think they're great people." Would he appoint a Muslim to his cabinet? "Oh, absolutely," he said back then. "No problem with that."

But for those who believe Islamophobic notions, all the opposing voices in the world might not suffice to bring about a change of mind given the long tradition of Islamophobia in the west and the United States.

Perhaps, just as we speak about the need for education and democracy-promotion in the Third World, we must begin to treat the populations with Islamophobic notions and discriminatory practices as groups deserving international efforts to counter extremism and the spread of terrorism.

Armed conflicts fuel terrorism. Poverty fuels terrorism. Economic inequalities fuel terrorism. But Trump has reminded us that discrimination against Muslims will also fuel terrorism and will shape a counter-terrorism strategy that will fail and potentially backfire with unpredictable consequences.

Thanks to Trump, those concerned with working towards a more secure and humane planet must as a matter of urgency find an effective way in which to counter xenophobic public opinion. On the rise in many parts of the world, it seeks to find the most vulnerable scapegoats for heinous acts of terrorism: either refugees fleeing conflicts and persecution, or immigrants who cherish and abide by the rule of law in their new homes. 

About the author

Halim Shebaya is a Beirut-based analyst and researcher. He teaches in the School of Arts and Sciences at the Lebanese American University and has worked on social and political affairs for a number of local and international organisations. His articles have appeared in the World Post, Huffington Post, Al-Jazeera English, Jadaliyya, Legal Agenda, Annahar, Assafir, and Al Akhbar. He holds an M.Div. in Theology (NEST), M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies (SOAS), and an L.L.M. in Public International Law (Nottingham). Find him on Twitter @halimshebaya


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