Muslims have been on the receiving end of bigotry, prejudice and assault since Donald Trump began running for the office of the President of the United States. The most recent example of his bigotry towards Islam and Muslim is his infamous retweet of a series of videos showing Muslims committing atrocities against Europeans and symbols of Christianity. The US media have already called Trump out for spreading anti-Muslim sentiments. The British Prime Minister Theresa May criticised Trump for giving legitimacy to the extremist British political party that posted the video. It has now been revealed that some of the videos were not even real! In fact, they were propaganda videos posted by hate groups. President Trump's retweet of the hateful videos was so outrageous that one British MP called him “racist, incompetent, or unthinking, or all three.”
This is not the first time Trump stirred anti-Muslim hysteria. He has been spreading a conspiracy theory that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11 terrorist attacks. He claimed that a tape of the celebration exists—except that the tape was nowhere to be found. The media challenged him to present those tapes but he evaded the questions. However, he continued to spread those unfounded rumours.
Trump making similar unfounded claims is not new. He pushed the so-called birther conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, for years. He claimed that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 presidential election, without presenting a shred of evidence. It's now a fact that Trump has a sketchy relation with facts. However, his rhetoric on Islam and Muslims is especially corrosive, because it undermines Muslim Americans' sense of belonging and their citizenship.
Muslims in the United States endured a major backlash after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The media did not cover those adequately but research studies have documented those amply. Donald Trump's ascendance made Muslim citizens nervous, given that he showed a tendency to rile up his political base by invoking fear about immigrants in general and Muslim immigrants in particular. He announced his “Muslim ban” proposal in a campaign rally amid the battle cry of his followers. Aside from inflammatory rhetoric, he also surrounded himself with people who showed anti-Muslim sentiments. Michael Flynn, his disgraced former national security adviser, took aim at Islam saying that Islam in fact is not a religion.
No citizen should be singled out for his or her background, belief or ethnicity by anyone, let alone the president. Sometimes majority groups do not fully grasp the trauma that incendiary rhetoric can cause. I vividly remember an incident when we were visiting a university where our daughter applied for admission. As we opened the door of our hotel room and turned on the TV, Mr Trump's voice greeted us with a shock. He was talking to a reporter and casually saying that Islam hates America. Tired and exhausted of travel, we looked at one another in dismay. It dampened our enthusiasm quickly. A sour mood and a feeling of extreme frustration gripped us. We sat there silent for a few minutes. Our daughter broke the silence. “I am not staying in this country,” she said. She is in college now and she is planning to settle in the United States, a country where she grew up. But her feeling at that moment was raw and real.
This was reminiscent of what I heard repeatedly during my fieldwork with Bangladeshi-Americans on the effects of the post-9/11 backlash. I documented those in my book titled The Bangladeshi Diaspora in the United States After 9/11: From Obscurity to High Visibility. Many parents told me at that time that they migrated to the US for a better life for their children. At the same time, they told me that they were concerned about the future of their children seeing constant demonisation of Muslims in mediated and political discourse. Bangladeshi-Americans, many of whom attained economic and professional success, invoked the nature of their citizenship in their adopted home country. They told me that in spite of their success, they felt that they would remain as second-class citizens in the country they called home.
President Obama showed extreme caution when he talked about terrorism. His government even stopped using the phrase “Islamic terrorism/extremism” arguing that the use of the phrase might perpetuate the negative image of Islam and paint Muslims as inherently associated with terrorism. The Obama administration, especially Obama himself, was bludgeoned by critics but the policy was not changed. Obama used his office to educate Americans about Islam, at times risking his political capital. It was shocking to Muslims to see that President Trump is not relenting on his rhetoric that most find to be anti-Muslim. His retweeting of the propaganda videos is the most recent example of his series of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes have spiked recently in the United States. Trump's rhetoric is adding fuel to it. It is unleashing the hate groups that already exist in the country. Trump's rhetoric gave rationale to those who already harboured anti-Muslim views. The mediated image of Islam in the West does not match the reality of Islam practised throughout the world. Islam has been under the spotlight since 9/11. Liberals and conservatives alike made references about Islam that did not accurately reflect theological and historical Islam and the lived experience of Muslims. A slew of academic research has pointed out that since 9/11 Islam has been portrayed narrowly, primarily through the prism of terrorism, in US media. And Muslims were being portrayed as the “Other” whose values were not compatible with American values. They were deemed as an “enemy” population who must be controlled.
Candidate Trump had reignited and accentuated the “Otherness” of Muslims to stir up his political base, which constituted mainly of the working class white population in the industrial states. This population was economically devastated because of joblessness due to globalisation, but they were also nervous about the changed identity of America they had known, due to non-white immigration. Donald Trump found it politically convenient to single out Muslims and even proposed to halt Muslims from entering into the country. Many believed Trump would scale down his anti-Muslim rhetoric once he became president. But he is not stopping.
There is a silver lining. President Trump is under media scrutiny because of a whole host of reasons. The media call out when he maligns Islam and Muslims. But can he be restrained?
Shafiq Rahman is a professor and the chair of communication and social sciences department at Chadron State College in Nebraska, USA.