Trump and the Muslim “other”


Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (11 February, 2017)

I was in Doha while writing this column, in transit from India to New York City. The United States my wife and I return to feels significantly different from the one we left nearly a month ago. Since his inauguration on January 20, Donald Trump has shaken longstanding international alliances, railed against the constitutional checks to his power, and sparked a mutinous mood across the country. Reports speak of confusion in the White House and anxiety in many government departments. Both in the halls of power and in the court of public opinion, America is wracked with convulsions.

No single action of Trump’s young presidency has incurred as much backlash as his ill-considered and callous order to ban refugees and migrants from several Muslim-majority countries. Hamid International Airport in Doha, from where I write, has in the past week been home to devastating scenes. Despite its gleaming, space-age design, this airport like all airports is a modern purgatory, a liminal space between nation-states. Many travellers from the countries on Trump’s ignominious list have been stopped and stranded here, blocked from the lives they once had or the lives they dreamed of having.

I was disappointed, if not surprised, by the somewhat heartless reaction of many Indians to news of the ban: “Why not Pakistan?” they wondered, as if displeased that Trump had missed a chance to rankle our neighbours. But the absence of Pakistan and, for that matter, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (from where many of the 9/11 hijackers came) does indeed point to the logical inconsistency of the ban. Trump’s order has little to do with security. Numerous state department and military figures have insisted that the ban actually makes the United States less safe, not safer, playing into the hands of Islamist extremists. Instead, the ban was devised to set the tone of the Trump presidency, to announce the rise of a decisive, strongman ruler tough on Muslims.

The ban faces stiff challenges from the American judiciary, which has, to Trump’s chagrin, risen to the task inscribed in the US Constitution of checking the power of the president. But no matter the fate of that executive order, the new administration’s obsession with “Islamic terrorism” is a good deal more apocalyptic than the stances of the bellicose Bush and Obama administrations.

The role of Steve Bannon, the far-right ideologue who now serves as Trump’s chief strategist, looms large here. He has brought a brand of “civilizational” zeal, long cultivated on the fringes of American politics, straight into the Oval Office. Bannon believes that “the Judaeo-Christian West” is in “an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” That language pretends to a kind of precision, but it’s obvious that Bannon and Trump (who Bannon has described as a useful “instrument”) want to convey the impression of a much wider, more generalised threat in which jihadists in particular become inextricable from Muslims in general.

To that end, Trump has sought to paint Muslim refugees fleeing from war and terror as an existential danger. His administration has also recently proposed renaming a federal programme aimed at countering “violent extremism” within the country to one only aimed at “Islamic extremism,” never mind the growing and serious threat posed by far-right white nationalist violence in the West, as evidenced by mass shootings at a Sikh gurudwara in Wisconsin, a left-wing youth camp in Norway, an African American church in South Carolina, and last week at a mosque in Quebec that left six worshippers dead.

Trump has said almost nothing publicly about the Quebec killings, but his administration took the extraordinary step this week of releasing a list of 78 Islamist attacks it felt deserved more media coverage. This list had the effect of combining two of Trump’s favourite pastimes, inveighing against the inadequacies of the media and scaremongering about Islamist violence. It includes the infamous attacks on Paris, Brussels, and Orlando that were inescapable, headline news everywhere. With very few exceptions, the incidents included in the list were covered extensively in the international press. The list omits, of course, the far more significant numbers of Islamist attacks on Muslim civilians, which undermine the sense that Islamist terrorism is only trained in a purposeful way against the West.

For all their policy failings, both the Bush and Obama administrations rarely invoked such a grisly spectre of Muslim terror. What’s remarkable about the list is not just its amateurish compilation (it is full of misspellings, including the word “attacker” which is spelled “attaker” many times), but that it suggests that the Trump administration actively wants to scare the public. It wants the American people to feel terrified, in this case of the Muslim “other.”

This doesn’t bode well. In an earlier era of rising global authoritarianism, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt announced in 1933 that the only thing Americans had to fear “is fear itself.” With Trump at the helm, Americans now have reason to be afraid.

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