The two-year campaign season leading up to the 2016 election was marked by a gradual crescendo of Islamophobia in the United States. Several presidential candidates exploited a string of terror attacks in Europe and the United States to their advantage, using inflammatory rhetoric to encourage suspicion of all Muslims, everywhere.
It wasn’t the first time that we saw an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment during an American election cycle, but it may have been the worst. Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States increased by 67 percent in 2015—the steepest surge since post-9/11. Many American Muslim leaders were saying that Islamophobia had reached an all-time high by the fall of 2016. At the same time, three resolutions were introduced in Congress to recognize the prejudice faced by Muslims in this country, two of which explicitly state that there are similarities with today’s climate and that which led to Japanese internment camps after Pearl Harbor (one of the House bills was introduced by California Rep. Mike Honda (CA–D), whose family was forcibly imprisoned when he was an infant because of their Japanese heritage). Four city councils unanimously passed anti-Islamophobia bills.
Muslims were not the only minority that was disparaged throughout the campaign; the growth of Islamophobia came as Trump’s candidacy brought extreme white nationalist views more into the mainstream than they’ve ever been before. His campaign targeted black people, Mexicans, Jews, and others. But he saved his most extreme rhetoric for the Muslim-American community.
And now Trump—the man who led the pack of candidates and pundits stirring fear of Muslims as a way of drumming up support—has been elected president.
Since the election, reports of harassment against Muslim-Americans and other minorities appear to have increased again, and a number of Muslim women are expressing fear about going out in public wearing the headscarf in the United States. Three women wearing headscarves have been attacked in New York over the past week, including an MTA transit worker who was pushed down the stairs at Grand Central Station by a man who called her a terrorist. There was a brief moment in the post-election haze when people optimistically suggested that Trump might not actually carry out the most extreme plans he discussed on the campaign trail, like banning all Muslim immigration into the country, creating a registry of all those already living in the country (his position on this has varied), and increasing surveillance on the community.
Three women wearing headscarves have been attacked in New York over the past week, including an MTA transit worker who was pushed down the stairs at Grand Central Station by a man who called her a terrorist.
But then he started making appointments. A look at the records of Trump’s appointees, and of those he is reportedly considering, reflect a determination to follow through with those plans. Many of his appointees have explicitly espoused anti-Muslim messaging and/or policies. His administration is not yet fully formed, and almost all cabinet-level positions will have to be confirmed by the Senate (although throughout U.S. history only nine have ever been rejected). But already, of the four who do not require confirmation, one ran an online news site that regularly posts anti-Muslim articles, one conflates Muslim extremism with the whole religion, and one was taken to court for trying to ban Syrian refugees from entering his state.
Trump Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is former chairman of Breitbart News, which he has called the “platform for the alt-right,” a movement that advocates for a white ethno-state and believes that immigration of any non-white Europeans should be stopped. In an opinion piece penned by Bannon on the site in July, he railed against Obama for “intoning against guns and ‘hate’” and “importing more hating Muslims” after the Orlando attacks. Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart has regularly published news defaming and disparaging the Muslim-American community, Muslim refugees, and Muslims around the world, including this highly unbalanced piece of recent reporting: “Arabic Translator: Muslim Migrants Secretly Hate Christians, Seek to Outbreed Them.” Pamela Geller, who the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” publishes regularly on the site, as does fellow anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney. Breitbart also follows news about Muslims closely even though not all of the articles published have an outright slant.
In February, Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn retweeted a video that lists terror attacks by Muslims and terror organizations with the message “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions.” Flynn is a retired Army Lieutenant General who served as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency until being forced out of his job in 2014 because of concerns about his leadership style (he says “it had more to do with the stand I took on radical Islamism and the expansion of al Qaeda and its associated movements”). Flynn brings over thirty years of operational experience, including directing the team that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and years spent in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban. He is extremely critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the war on terror, accusing Obama of being “obsessed with consensus-building” and afraid to name the enemy for what it truly is.
Throughout Flynn’s book Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, he conflates Muslim extremists with the religion itself and the entire Muslim world. “Criticism of Islam as racist, ethnocentric, or simply vile are all crammed together in the new category the politically correct crowd has turned into a new taboo: Islamophobia,” he says. In another chapter, he echoes the fear-mongering most prominently wrought by the mayor of Irving, Texas, whose city council voted to ban Islamic law after discovering that a private Muslim mediation council had been set up in Irving. Notes Flynn, “Muslims want to apply shariah law by using our own legal system to strengthen what many Americans believe to be a violent religious law that has no place in the United States…. Let us accept what we were founded upon, a Judeo-Christian ideology built on a moral set of rules and laws. Let us not fear but instead fight those who want to impose Shariah law and their radical Islamist views.” Flynn is also on the advisory board of ACT for America, a nonprofit organization that the SPLC calls the “largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.”
Though Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Trump had a public disagreement over whether to support a ban on Muslims, Pence has a record of his own as being opposed to Syrian immigration. After the Paris attacks, Pence, then governor of Indiana, was one of the governors to say that he would defy federal law and stop allowing Syrian refugees to be settled in his state, even after the Syrian passport found among the Paris attackers was discovered to be false. After directing his state’s agencies to deny federal grant money to refugee resettlement organizations to resettle Syrians, one such organization sued him and won both the original suit and a federal appeal. In the appellate ruling, issued in October, the judge wrote that Pence’s “nightmare speculation” was entirely unfounded and criticized him heavily for his actions. Pence’s spokesperson indicated that he disagreed with the ruling.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whose name was floated for Homeland Security Director before Trump settled on retired Marine General John Kelly, wants to bring back the controversial National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program he helped institute while working at the Justice Department after 9/11. The program, instituted in 2002, required adult males from twenty-five specific countries (all majority Muslim except North Korea) to register at local immigration offices for fingerprinting, photographs, and interrogations. It was widely criticized by civil rights groups and government officials and did not result in a single known terrorism conviction, though Kobach continued to support it. NSEERS was suspended in 2011 because the Department of Homeland Security deemed it redundant due to “new automated systems that capture arrival and exit information on nonimmigrant travelers to the United States.” Kobach told Reuters in a recent interview that he planned to bring back the program, and after a meeting with Trump, a photo of the documents under Kobach’s arm showed that he brought plans to the meeting to update and reintroduce the program. A prominent Trump supporter has specifically mentioned Japanese internment camps as a precedent for such a registry. Though Kobach missed out on the DHS position, it is possible that Trump will still offer him another role there or at the Justice Department.
The Islamophobia Network
A number of Trump’s appointees have been influenced by, or are directly related to, the $57 million effort to promote Islamophobia in this country through organizations and so-called experts who drown out any counter-arguments. “Fear, Inc.,” an in-depth investigation released by the Center for American Progress in 2011 and updated in 2015, revealed that a “small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts” is spreading Islamophobia throughout the United States through advocates, the media, and grassroots organizing. The largest of the organizations fueling the Islamophobia network, New York-based nonprofit The Clarion Project, has produced several anti-Muslim films including “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” which was distributed in a newspaper insert to 28 million swing-state voters before the 2008 election.
Trump cited a dubious poll taken by Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, another organization in the Islamophobia network, as evidence for his proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Trump’s statement said the CSP’s data showed that “25 percent of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51 percent of those polled, “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.” The poll was found by Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative to be administered using unreliable methodology through which the pollsters could not verify that the people taking the survey were representative of the population they claimed to be polling.
In addition, two analyses of media coverage of Islam and Muslims by major news outlets show that negative stories about Islam get more play, and there are few pieces on Muslim leaders or everyday stories about Muslims. 416labs, a Toronto-based consulting firm, released a study of two million headlines in the New York Times between 1990 and 2014, which found that 57 percent of the headlines containing the words Islam or Muslims were associated with negative terms, while only 8 percent were associated with positive terms. Media Tenor, an international media research firm, found that Muslim “protagonists” are rarely covered, while extremists are increasingly given airtime. Both studies conclude that the media is partially to blame for a perception that Muslims are a negative presence in our midst.
What to Watch For
Trump’s incendiary campaign caps off fifteen years since 9/11, and increasing Islamophobia has been matched by increasing outrage over infringements on the civil rights of Muslims in this country. Looking at the success of past advocacy campaigns and lawsuits against Islamophobia, there is reason to be hopeful that the next administration will face a fierce, dedicated opposition with the power to block at least some of its moves. Of the three promises Trump has made on Muslims, two have been tried before and shot down. Attempts to reinstate the NSEERS program should be challenged, if not just because they are blatant examples of racial profiling and they had a lasting effect on the communities of those who were sent home, because they were not effective the first time around. And attempts to increase surveillance on mosques have also been successfully challenged, as they were in 2013 when the American Civil Liberties Union sued the New York Police Department for its surveillance program on Muslim communities. (Trump has said “it was a lot of nonsense” that the program was discontinued, and he believes it should be reinstated.)
To ensure that today’s record levels of Islamophobia do not further develop into a McCarthy-era style of racism and witch-hunting, Americans will have to stay vigilant and reject attempts to further mainstream anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Unfortunately, at least one analysis shows that Trump would have the power to implement the most extreme of his promises, the ban on Muslim immigrants. He has amended the wording to be more vague, possibly because his original plan was too overt in its religious discrimination. He now says he will issue a ban on immigration from “terror-prone regions where proper vetting cannot occur.” The public must follow this closely and react against it however possible. The ramifications of such a ban would be hugely disruptive to diplomacy with such countries, and would certainly serve as an excellent recruiting tool for extremist groups like Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) and Al Qaeda.
To ensure that today’s record levels of Islamophobia do not further develop into a McCarthy-era style of racism and witch-hunting, Americans will have to stay vigilant and reject attempts to further mainstream anti-Muslim rhetoric. Thankfully, as Trump and his administration take office, a number of organizations that fought back on this topic during the campaign—such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center, Take on Hate, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Bridge Institute at Georgetown University, and MPower Change—will remain on the front lines over the next four years, keeping close watch on the administration’s moves.
Cover Photo: Flickr, Fibonacci Blue.