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Condemning Donald Trump is not enough: The genealogy of demagoguery and Islamophobia

Elsadig Elsheikh, director, global justice program, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society | December 18, 2015

In a widely circulated article in the Atlantic Monthly from 1990, Bernard Lewis wrote about what he perceived as the “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” offering an analysis of the conflicting relationship between “Islam” and the “West.” Lewis wrote “we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them…this is no less than a clash of civilizations, the perhaps irrational but surely historical reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Lewis’s analysis assumes a position that both Islam and the “West” constitute a monolithic social, political, and cultural entity. His article set the stage for a “clash of civilizations” narrative that has been seized on by academics (Samuel Huntington), media pundits (Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly), legislators (Congressman Peter King), and a new crop of demagogues (Ben Carson and Donald Trump).

Lewis established an “us vs. them” framework for Islamophobic rhetoric in the U.S. political landscape that has been repeatedly used by American leaders (such as the Bush administration in the post-9/11 world), and has created a platform from which Islamophobia has arisen to its current state.

Islamophobia is contingent upon the construction and reification of a homogenized Muslim “other” who should be viewed suspiciously, scrutinized, dehumanized, and excluded from “our” societies. Muslims constitute a population of 1.6 billion, almost one in four people on earth, with different languages, traditions and histories, as Edward Said argued. This othering process is not simply an abstract theoretical concern— it has profound effects on billions of lives.

Such mechanisms of othering have been expressed in prejudicial views, discriminatory language, and acts of violence on Muslims and non-Muslims. Islamophobia has manifested in a policing regime that engages in the profiling, surveillance, torturing, and detention of people along racial and religious lines, and has allowed for the militarization of local police departments, as well as an unprecedented expansion of security that impacts all Americans. Islamophobia forms the basis of an ideological position that views Muslims as a threat to “Western” civilization and justifies their subordination and marginalization.

Such ideological positioning threatens to tilt the American political landscape to fascist tendencies. In 2011, Representative Peter King (R-NY) initiated the first installment in a series of Congressional hearings on the radicalization of Muslims in America. Representative King justified these hearings by saying that Al-Qaeda “is recruiting Muslims living legally in the United States—homegrown terrorists who have managed to stay under the anti-terror radar screen.”

He decried the lack of cooperation by Muslims communities with law enforcement. Immediately after the series of Congressional hearings on the radicalization of Muslims in America, multiple attacks occurred against New York Muslims. Furthermore, the controversy surrounding the Park51 Muslim Community Center, a project that many falsely referred to as the Ground Zero mosque, is another example of Muslims facing severe public scrutiny: despite the project taking place in a lower Manhattan neighborhood, people from all over the U.S. weighed in on its appropriateness, with anti-Muslim commentators shaping the discourse.

In the last 20 years, Islamophobic rhetoric has generated blunt and explicit physical attacks against Muslims that are far too many to list comprehensively. The following list highlights the regularity of such attacks:

  • After the Oklahoma City bombings, Muslims were initially blamed for what happened. This false claim led to more than 200 hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs in the three days following the attacks.
  • After September 11, hate crimes against Muslim and Arab people, and those mistakenly believed to be Muslim or Arab, increased from 354 attacks in 2000 to 1,501 attacks in 2001. Some of these hate crimes were fatal.
  • Between 2011-2013, anti-Islam bills were introduced in 32 states and the U.S. Congress.
  • In 2013, 37 anti-Islam bills were introduced in 16 states, and became law in 6 states (Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, South Dakota, and Tennessee).
  • In 2011-2012, two Department of Homeland Security Reauthorization Acts (S. 1546 and H.R. 3116) contained language that singled out American Muslims for additional scrutiny over the threat of violent extremism in the U.S.
  • In December 2015, following recent remarks by Donald Trump against Muslims, the Council on American-Islamic Relations offices in Washington D.C., and Santa Clara, California both received envelopes with white powdery substances along with Islamophobic messages.

The latest remarks from Donald Trump that call for registering Muslims into a database and banning all Muslims from entering the United States evokes a fraught history in the American political landscape. What began as demagoguery might shape the future of American policies. Whether Trump wins the Republican nomination or the presidency is not important as the danger that Trump has shifted the political discourse towards a dangerous rhetoric that utilizes demagoguery to shape current and future policies.  Such demagoguery has a long history in the US — recall the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

As our history has taught us, the pursuit of political power by some American political figures has been fueled by exploiting and exacerbating the fear of the other in order to gain importance and power.

In this sense, demagogues like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz, follow a long list of demagogues in the United States like Father Charles Coughlin (1930s), Major Karl Bendetsen (1940s), and Senator Joseph McCarthy (1950s), who are not altogether too different than the ones we see in France. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s campaigns in 2002 opened up the space for his daughter Marine Le Pen to assume power in French politics by rhetorically tilting “liberté, égalité, fraternité” into far-right political reality that France is now reckoning with.

The current political debates that depict Muslims as the Other who do not belong in “our” society, are not isolated instances but are rather part of a rhetoric rooted in the demonization of Islam and Muslims.  The power of this demagoguery is evident in the opposition to the construction of mosques in different parts of the U.S., or the outlandish fear mongering over the imposition of Shari’ah Law, or even the lingering belief and concern that President Barack Obama is actually a Muslim.

To grasp the motivation and main driving forces of Islamophobia, it is necessary to consider the underlying assumptions and attitudes.

The core of these demagoguery campaigns consists of cultural essentialism and homogenization based on a lens that views Muslims as an undifferentiated group with fixed characteristics, behaviors, and ideas. Identification of Muslims is not only a matter of religious difference but also relies on judgments and associations related to skin color, nationality, language, naming, and attire.

Constructing homogeneity makes it easier to assign collective blame to a group for the actions of a minority. The belief that Muslims are prone to violence or that Islam is inherently violent bolsters demagoguery and is accompanied by desperate calls for “moderate Muslims” to assert themselves. This is precisely how fascism spreads — not overnight, but by a process of legislative, media, and political campaigns that oftentimes seem laughable, until they are not.

This process eventually leads to similar trends against other groups — religious or otherwise.

Condemning Donald Trump and Islamophobia is simply not enough. It is equally important to build wide societal opposition to such rhetoric and policies in order to fight against the rising tide of demagoguery that has the potential to turn into outright fascism in American politics.

Comments to “Condemning Donald Trump is not enough: The genealogy of demagoguery and Islamophobia

  1. Trump is a demagogue and idiot. To try and jam his name next to that of Lewis shows a complete and profound misunderstanding (at the very least) of Bernard Lewis’ scholarship .

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