President-elect of the United States Donald Trump’s regime is shaping up with its earliest appointees for top cabinet and White House staff positions. It is already alarming enough to confirm our worst fears and to give lie to the wishful thinking that his campaign bluster was just for electoral purposes and would disappear once he is in office. At best, we can hope for his aspirations prove as unproductive and under-delivered as Obama’s slogans of “hope and change”.
For now, we must rely on the unfortunate logic that every crisis presents an opportunity. With the inner maelstrom of the Democratic party, Muslim-Americans can re-define their politics and take a leading role in the progressive opposition. Muslim voices will matter more than ever so they must project it against the forces that wish to silence them into submission.
There is good reason to be worried. The highest reality TV star of the land has extended his harshly xenophobic campaign talk with a parade of aides and executives even more committed to scapegoating and vilifying minorities of all stripes. They personify the street sentiments that a great America is one where white people, and straight men in particular, are made to feel supreme again, while anyone who is different knows his or her place. Their vision of great America appears to be a mythologised 1830s.
Starting with Trump’s campaign manager-turned-chief-strategist Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the right-wing rabble rousing digest Breitbart News, he believes Islam is not a religion but a political ideology. He likened those promoting Sharia to “Nazism, fascism, and communism”. One might think this is a narrow charge; who after all advocates for Islamic law in the US? But, this is a broad attack. He frequently published the lunatic fringe’s claims that US President Barack Obama actually implemented Islamic law. The evidence he presented for his claims proved to be nothing but a thin veneer for an underlying, sick paranoia.
The whole cast of characters may be slightly less vulgar, but are as terrifying. Retired general Michael Flynn, who was named National Security Adviser, became something of an ideologue who peddles Muslim-baiting. As he tweeted in February, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”. Unless he meant ‘rational’ for opportunistic politicians, this is a baseless claim given that Americans are exponentially more likely to be harmed by automobiles, Christian Americans with handguns, their diets than by any Muslim.
There are more names to add to this frightening list. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is in line to serve as America’s top lawyer and prosecutor, the attorney general, while equally extreme Congressman Mike Pompeo will head the CIA. But they only prove the same point that this administration will have a peculiar taste for race-baiting and fear-mongering.
Equally disconcerting is that sad fate of Trump’s close supporters and appointees who actually had some sensible positions. One of the early converts to the Trump campaign, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had previously ridiculed the Islamophobes’ fixation on the fictional spread of Sharia in the US. He complained that it “is just crazy and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies”. Now the crazies are in charge, while Christie sees himself pushed out of Trump’s centre circle due to unrelated reasons.
Another relatively decent figure has tragically turned for the worse. When he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Preibus dismissed the call for a ban on Muslim immigration. Since being announced as Trump’s chief-of-staff, he warmed up to the idea of a ban in a modified form. On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, he warned they may “temporarily suspend” immigration from particular nations “until a better vetting system is put in place”. He seemed to be put in place to bring a warmer, gentler touch that the party could accept, but even he must dance to the tune of hate politics.
Preibus, in particular, is the canary in the coal mine. He reveals the gravity of the early consensus that Muslims will be the regime’s scapegoat. Every autocrat needs a group to vilify, to turn popular animosities against, to distract from the thievery and loss of rights that will ensure Muslims make for easy pickings. Already, this election has unleashed a tide of anti-Muslim hate on the streets of America. Social media accounts and civil rights groups are documenting the torrent of hate messages, vocal abuse ordering Muslims to go back to where they came from, hijab-pulling and other acts of hateful cowardice. Trump is the ultimate expression of this popular sentiment. Many who voted for him did so as a hate crime, while others did so out of fear.
Muslims may see the coming era in the US as one defined by the rule of Islamophobia, but it will not be the only driver of Trumpian repression and exclusion.
Muslims are just one of the politically and socially vulnerable groups that will feel the wrath. They are not as endangered as undocumented immigrants, over-policed urban communities and the most impoverished — those whom the law already has at its mercy.
African-Americans will also be on the receiving end of this venom, but they are better organised, represented and influential to withstand it and demand institutional protections.
Other ethnic groups, such as Asian-Americans, including those of Indian origin, Latinos and Native Americans, political dissidents, intellectuals, members of the labour unions and the press will also experience the backlash that produced Trump’s electoral victory.
The Trump administration’s victims are sure to be many. Muslim-Americans, however, could be the glue to forming a progressive umbrella that unites the multiple targets of opportunity, to help them build a wall — pardon the metaphor — against the rising forces of hate.
First of all, Muslims overlap with all other groups, with the exceptions of Jews. Given the overt Christianisation of white nationalism — the Ku Klux Klan is even re-branding itself as “Christian” — they will have to combine forces to preserve religious diversity. This means becoming even more extroverted and committed to multi-sectarian activism.
Second, Muslims have been becoming less marginalised in social and political terms over time and enjoy tremendous economic power. The only thing that could stop their growth is if they react with fear rather than unity and action. They can build upon a foundation of community involvement in key cities developed in the past few decades.
Third, Muslims are among the most visible of the targets and the others will respond well to their leadership. Muslims could define how the opposition takes shape given their symbolic leadership, but only if they assert themselves as the community that should be at the forefront. They should stir up those inclined to solidarity, while expressing their own union with the other groups.
Muslim-American communities are very close-knit and inherently well-organised, charitable and active, but it will not be easy. There are multiple divisions, from nationality to race and class-based differences, to degrees of interpretative strictness, and so on. There is also baggage in the form of internal distrust wrought by years of surveillance and infiltration by law enforcement and bad actors, of course. They are still politically immature. So the Muslim-American moment will not be easy. If these hurdles can be overcome in the name of taking a leadership role in the opposition to Trump, Muslims will re-define American politics in a way that forces their long overdue inclusivity.
For too long, Muslims have quietly accepted the exclusions, the treatment of them as unwelcome guests in America. They internalised their othering by both the Right and the meek Democratic Party — too afraid of being ‘Muslim-baited’ to let them in to the party’s top ranks. Those who celebrated the White House iftar as a mark of progress, championed their own position as a political sideshow. That performed marginality came at the cost of meaningful, ground-up participation. Now, that space is closed off and all Muslims are left with is the ground-up. The only position they can take is one of opposition and from it, Muslims will have to re-imagine themselves as progressives to build a society that embraces them and allows them to flourish.
Muslim America’s time is now.
Will Youmans is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.