Today’s post comes from a larger one I wrote on Trump’s threat to people I care about and to our democracy. At the end I will make a few additional comments about more recent developments in the last few days.
I worry for my Muslim friends, especially my former refugee clients. As a student in grad school for social work, I interned this last year at an agency that helps resettle refugees here in Chicago. The case worker I interned under is Iraqi and many of the clients we worked with were either Syrian or Iraqi.
Refugees by definition have fled their home country because of a well founded fear for their lives. The situation for refugees in America is a little different than in Europe. We are not directly connected to Africa or the Middle East, so we can better control the volume and flow of people coming here. Refugees go through a vigorous screening process before they are given the ok to come.
Yes, it’s not always possible to obtain original documents and no screening process is one hundred percent reliable. But the refugee process is more rigorous and time consuming (it can take two years) than any other way of coming here. There are easier ways for foreign terrorists to slip in and US refugees have rarely been implicated in terrorism. As of October 7, 2015, only three of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the US since 9/11 have been caught plotting terrorist acts.
If that still sounds like a scary number, it’s worth noting that, statistically speaking, terrorism is a minor threat compared to other everyday risks. Americans are more likely to be killed by lightning or peanuts than they are to be killed by terrorism. Its also worth noting that most US domestic terrorism is committed by white Christians (self-professed, at least). But we know its ridiculous to stereotype all such people, right? No population is completely free from potentially dangerous elements. It’s unfair to expect that or scapegoat entire populations based on the actions of a very few.
As a side note, the refugee crisis is broader than the Middle East and it is only going to get worse. We can’t fix everything, but many less affluent countries are doing much more than we are. And in light of our environmental habits and foreign policy choices, I think it would be hard to dispute that we bear at least some responsibility for what is going on.
And for the most part, refugees and immigrants more generally do not take jobs away from American citizens. They often add to a countries economy as they did in Germany. Many other common notions about immigrants, such as the idea that they bring increases in crime, are wrong or at least simplistic.
Donald Trump has consistently whipped up fear and hatred toward Muslims and refugees. He called for a ban of all Muslims from entering this country, suggesting that any one of them could be a terrorist. He has entertained shutting down Mosques, registering Muslims, and insinuated that they know who among them is a terrorist (i.e. even innocent Muslims are in some way culpable if one of them commits an act of terror). According to him, “Islam hates us.”
He insists that terror attacks committed by fringe Jihadi groups and which violate the Qur’an and Hadith be branded “Islamic.” (How would we feel about someone insisting that the KKK be labeled a “Christian terror” group?)
Although he will not tell us what his plan to defeat ISIS is, he is clear that he wants to bring back torture and also kill the families of terrorists, even if they are innocent. Trump has indicated that he is willing to violate the Geneva Convention and even steal invaded countries’ resources. The way he describes Muslims, and especially refugees, is as an invading horde or an infestation. He regularly lies about refugees not being screened and being a Trojan horse for terrorists. He has promised to deport all Syrian refugees we have taken in.
Many of the advisors and cabinet Trump is choosing to surround himself with also hold extremely Islamophobic views. For example, his chief strategist Steve Bannon is an “alt-right” white nationalist who, as executive chair of Breitbart, spread anti-Muslim hate speech.
General Michael Flynn, his pick for national security advisor, once tweeted that, “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” According to the New York Times, Flynn appears to believe that:
“Islamist militancy poses an existential threat on a global scale, and the Muslim faith itself is the source of the problem, he said, describing it as a political ideology, not a religion. He has even at times gone so far as to call it a political ideology that has ‘metastasized’ into a ‘malignant cancer.'”
I can’t imagine how terrified many of my Muslim and refugee friends must feel right now. Their futures and possibly their very lives hang in the balance. Where will they go and who can take them in if they are deported? Their home countries are war zones and most surrounding countries are flooded with refugees. How will they survive (let alone thrive)? And if they remain here, they are subject to discrimination, harassment, and even violence. If, God forbid, another terrorist attack occurs, they will likely be scapegoated mercilessly.
The Danger of Escalating Violence
To be honest, I fear that Trump’s belligerence toward Muslims will incite more radicalization; and this in turn could endanger more people (including Westerners) and snowball into escalating violence.
We know that terrorists often come from marginalized groups that feel oppressed. We know that both Jihadi radicals and many far-right conservatives want to sow a “clash of civilizations” narrative where (Western) Christianity and (Eastern) Islam are irrevocably at war with each other. Not just extremists on either side, but the cultures in toto.
We know ISIS is already using Trump in their recruitment videos. They are saying (essentially), “look how much they hate you. Look how they treat you. You will never be accepted there. Join us and have your vengeance.”
We have seen how Western colonialism and violence have bred anger and responding violence. More terrorism. (Not unlike what their terrorism and historical violence has done to us.) If Trump enacts policies that violate the civil rights of Muslim Americans and is willing to target innocent Muslims, bomb Iran, etc.; can there be any doubt this would invite push back? Trump can kill groups of terrorists, but he can’t “bomb the hell” out of an idea, an impulse.
What happens when new terror groups rise up and new terrorist acts are committed? Can we count on a Trump administration to make careful distinctions in policy and rhetoric between extremists and Muslims in general? Why would we, given what he’s already said and done.
And what happens if Trump’s domestic promises of restored jobs and greatness fail to materialize? Can we expect Trump to take the blame or advance a nuanced account of the challenges we face? Of course not. He will find a scapegoat like he’s consistently done. And Muslims are easy scapegoats right now in the cultural milieu we find ourselves.
Constituting only 1% of the population, many people don’t have daily relationships with Muslims. So they revert to stereotypes. Such a small demographic lacks political power. Since most Muslims in the US are ethnic or racial minorities, racism and xenophobia come into play with Islamophobia.
As my friend Brian points out, one difference between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the West is that some Muslims actually do legitimately harmful things. Most Jews are not committing acts of violence against Westerners. (Though to be fair, Israeli Jews often do harmful things against Muslims, and vice versa). Terrorist acts are visibly and undeniably evil.
Fear and hatred toward Muslims is more widespread than we would like to believe. FBI data shows that hate acts against Muslims have tripled just in the last year. There is an entire cottage industry of books and websites trying to argue that Islam is inherently violent and totalitarian. Muslims that seem nice are either not being consistent or they are crafty, just biding their time to impose Sharia on you.
I’ll never forget some of the comments I saw on a post by Evangelical leader Franklin Graham. In the post Graham is agreeing with Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from immigrating to the US. The post got a lot of push-back, but it also got 167,000 likes and a lot of chilling cheers such as some of the following:
“…This is about a culture of evil power lust based on the twisted teachings of the Quran!…Islam teaches you need only kill people for Allah to be brought into heaven…All Islam carries this demonic seed!!”
“Ship all of them out of OUR COUNTRY, ENOUGH OF THEIR MADNESS!!!!!!”
“Pastor Graham I would go one step further, deport them all. I would feel a little sorry for any peaceful ones, but they had a chance to help this country out by reporting on where the other ones are located.”
“Remember the story of David and Goliath?? David killed him with a sling shot with God’s power. This shows that when your life is in danger you do away with the evil by destroying them. In the Bible times you find walls around the towns. Why? To keep the enemy out!”
“…they only teach hate and death to other religions in there…so yes get rid of all mosques.”
“The man advocating the quarantine of dogs does so not out of hate for the dogs. Rather it is because he knows that many are rabid and a threat to human life….The solution in such a case is not to kill them all, for which a strong argument exits, but to exclude them…”
“Unlike the Judeo-Christian faiths, Muslims are not bound by truth. They are not only permitted to lie, they are commanded to; it’s called Al-Taqiyya. To Muslims Mohammed is the perfect example and they are to follow his example similar to the way Christians are to follow Christ’s example. According to the Hadith…Mohammed was a terrorist, murderer, deceiver (lier) racist, misogynist, rapist, and pedophile and promoted the same for the advancement of Islam. That’s a historical fact…any Muslim that does not subscribe to terrorism, rape, racism, ect. either is not in fact Muslim at all (AKA Secular Muslim) or they are practicing Al Taqiyya to deceive the Kufar (Unbeliever). Allah is referred to in the Koran as ‘The greatest of deceivers” (AKA Liar). To deceive is a central value of Islam. Never forget that.”
With anti-Muslim sentiments like this so high, and now with an Islamophobic administration in power which has promised to do tangibly harmful things to Muslims, there are legitimate reasons for fear.
Addressing Some Common Misconceptions
The accusations in the comments above are scary, but are they true? It is beyond the scope of this post to give that question the attention it deserves, but in a word, NO they are not. A tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists and their brand of Islam is definitely dangerous. They and it deserve to be eradicated, just like every other movement of hate.
There are also other troubling norms that are reasonably widespread in the Muslim world: homophobia, dehumanizing treatment of women, intolerance of other religions, cruel judicial punishments, etc. We liberals need to be honest about that. Yet, these kinds of problems are not exclusive to Islam, not all Muslims fall prey to them, and in many cases there is legitimate theological debate about if they are true to the spirit of Islam.
On the other hand, most Muslims are peace-loving people. For millions of Muslims, their Islamic faith has transformed them to love God and be loving and compassionate toward others. I’ve seen this in my Muslim friends and also read about it in my study.
Are these people simply good in spite of an ideology that is really all about ruthless domination? Again, I don’t think so. The Al-Taqiyya claim that Muslims can regularly lie to deceive others is just wrong. The Quran everywhere calls for honesty, with extremely circumscribed exceptions. The doctrine of Al-Taqiyya is most prominent in the historically persecuted Shia branch of Islam and it has to do with being able to avoid torture.
There are definitely violent injunctions in places in the Quran. Beyond the Quran, Sunnah, and Hadith; there is certainly intolerance and imperial religious violence at times in Islamic history. Though to be fair, the same is true of Christianity and other religions that become intertwined with empire.
The question is, what is the context of these violent passages? Most scholars would agree that there are three main stages of early Islam under Muhammed. Early on, Islam was a tiny persecuted movement in Mecca. At this stage, Muhammed called his followers to pacifism and forbearance.
Later, after Muhammed fled to Medina, he exercised political power but was still in a precarious place, under constant assault by the stronger Meccan coalition. At this point, Muhammed believed Muslims were given the option to fight against those who opposed them – but only defensively and the way they fought was to be bounded by restrictions not unlike our “just war” school of thought: no killing of non-combatants, proportionality in violence, a preference for mercy and peace, no unnecessary destruction of crops, protection of holy places and leaders (including Jewish and Christian ones), and so on (Esposita 132-57; Dagli 1805-17).
After Muhammad retook Mecca (with virtually no bloodshed), he started to have much more control in the Arabian Peninsula. There are Quranic passages after this that strike many as more violent and unbounded than those that came before. For example, this is when the infamous “verse of the sword” was revealed.
There is debate about what passages like this mean and whether this new phase introduced a more aggressive mandate that “abrogated” earlier restrictions or, rather, if it was restricted to a particular situation and (contextually) more bounded itself than critics usually imply. Under the latter reading, earlier passages that urge peace and moderation in justified fighting are not abrogated but are meant to always apply.
Islamophobes and terrorists side with the former interpretation. Most Muslims and Islamic scholars I have read say the latter (for example, see here or read Caner K. Dagli’s essay “Conquest and Conversion, War and Peace in the Quran” in The Study Quran).
It’s important to note that Muslim belligerence sometimes stems in part from their sense of being under assault. Such a perception goes back to the crusades, but more recently it stems from events such as the following:
British massacres of Muslim in colonial India, invasion of Afghanistan, and economic exploitation of Egypt; French exploitation of Lebanon; the creation of the state of Israel (on which see below); the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and violent suppression of Muslims in Chechnya; ethnic cleansings of Muslims in Bosnia and Myanmar; and America’s oppressive Mid-East policies (e.g. propping up regressive regimes, CIA backed coups, dubious invasions with hundreds of thousands of lives lost as “collateral damage,” areas destabilized, drone strikes, carte blanche support for Israel – even when they engage in injustice, military bases throughout Muslim majority countries, etc..) (Goldschmidt 193-408; Aslan 225-77; Atmstrong 302-401).
With Israel in particular, we are simply not thinking empathetically about how it would feel, psychologically, to have Zionism imposed from the outside. At the time of the Balfour Declaration, 93 percent of Palestine was non-Jewish (Goldschmidt 266). It had been under Muslim rule for thirteen hundred years. From an Arab perspective, the creation of Israel broke a previous promise England had made to them (Goldschmidt 202).
I remember reading about a Saudi King who asked President Roosevelt why a national homeland for the Jews could not be carved out from a part of Germany, since they were the ones who perpetrated the holocaust (Goldschmidt 236). Can you imagine how the Germans would feel about that, especially if the Israelis did there what they do in Israel/Palestine.
Or imagine if America became so weakened that some outside power like China could decide to give a good chunk of the American East coast (including culturally important cities like New York) back to Native Americans for a national homeland. We’d be shamed and incensed.
I’m not saying that Arabs, Palestinians, or Muslims haven’t done terrible things to Israelis; but they’ve had a lot of terrible stuff happen to them too. And as a rule, we are not even trying to understand their perspective.
And that ties into a final point. Much of the violence perpetrated by Muslims is as much based on economic, cultural, and geopolitical realities as it is Muslim doctrine. When various peoples are poor, oppressed, shamed, and desperate; they resort to scapegoating and (desperate) violent measures. Where there are power vacuums, they will be filled. Where people feel marginalized and disenfranchised, they will lash out. This is true for people in general, not just Muslims. We’ve seen it here in America too.
Likewise, Muslim attitudes towards those of other faiths is complicated. Islam is a proselytizing religion that seeks to convert others to its way of life. There are places and times it has been intolerant of other belief systems, especially polytheism. But in general, it has not sought to forcibly convert others. Jews, Christians, and Sabeans were protected “peoples of the book” who were allowed to continue practicing their religions under certain restrictions. Both Caner Dagli (1810-11) and Reza Aslan (271-72) argue that this protection was sometimes extended to Hindus, Zoroastrians, and others.
And since “there is no compulsion in Islam” (Surah 2:256 cf 109:6; 18:29; etc.), there is no conflict for Muslims in democratic countries tolerating people of other faiths or no faith.
Similar complexities revolve around the Islamic notion of Sharia. Like Judaism, Islam tends to emphasize orthopraxy (correct action) over orthodoxy (correct belief) (Esposita 159). This does not mean theology is unimportant to Muslims, nor does it mean they are merely “legalistic” (though of course some are).
Sharia has many meanings and is broader than just “Islamic law” – though it includes that. It is a body of Quran-based guidance that shows Muslims how to live. There are different schools of interpretation and different levels of rigidity in how Muslims approach it.
Traditionalists want to equate the early law schools with God’s own unalterable will. Reformers argue that only the Quran is completely divine. The other elements that go into Sharia are human and the products of social custom and human reasoning. As such, they are contingent on social and historical circumstances and are subject to change (Esposita 158-66; Aslan 164-73).
Even in terms of the Quran, as Reza Aslan points out, it was revealed in a progressive and flexible way: with new revelations superseding old ones and adapting to the Muslim community’s changing circumstances (Aslan 170-71). While revelation ceased with Muhammad, reformers argue that keeping true to this adaptive spirit and the (for the times) radically egalitarian ideals of the Quran and early Muslim community means emphasizing those aspects of it; seeing it’s values of justice, compassion, and mercy as the interpretive center and trajectory through which to approach the rest and be able to adapt it where necessary.
Some critics claim that certain communities in Europe with a high Muslim immigrant population have become “no-go” zones where non-Muslims are unwelcome and where regressive forms of Sharia are enforced. There are certainly poor, predominately immigrant communities that face challenges, including crime and a sense of alienation. These problems are as much socio-economic as they are religious (Esposita 233).
While I cannot completely rule out the possibility of some such de facto “no-go” communities, many such claims have been debunked and most of the sources I see such claims in are Islamophobic and in other ways not credible. I and I think most Muslim immigrants would agree that they should follow the laws of whatever country they find themselves in, granted these laws are just. Regressive forms of Sharia should not be tolerated. For more on the challenges of Muslims in the West see Esposita 221-40.
All of this to say, Sharia has different meanings and is subject to a variety of interpretations and applications (not unlike Jewish halaka or even Christians’ use of the Bible). Just like them, some interpretations are more compatible with a constitutional democracy than others. But also just like them, it would be unethical and unconstitutional to insist that Muslims completely disavow Sharia. We would never say Jews had to disavow Jewish law or Christians disavow the Bible in order to live in or participate in our democracy.
Muhammad was a complex historical character. As a non-Muslim, I’ll freely admit that there are aspects of his life that I find troubling. Particularly his marriage to a young girl (although there are a variety of Muslim explanations of what this really meant and when it would have been consummated). And yet, there are also things I admire about Muhammad, like his honesty, compassion, and forbearance.
He was willing to fight and even be ruthless at times, but I think painting him as bloodthirsty is a distortion in light of his overall character as well as the historical and situational context he lived in (see Aslan 3-108). It’s also important to remember that the attributes of Muhammad most Muslims seek to copy are his benevolent ones (Goldschmidt 40-41).
Those who would seek to know more about Muhammad deserve to read from a variety of credible perspectives (including sympathetic ones and not just those out to damn him).
I could write about many other things. For example, I could write about how Muslims view God not just as a harsh judge, but also as profoundly loving. But the bottom line is this: Muslims are basically like everyone else. Some are good people and others bad. Likewise, as with other religions, Islam can be interpreted in a variety of ways. To some, Islam inspires violence and hatred. For others, it leads to love and kindness.
In contrast to Trump’s caricature, the refugees I have worked with are mostly good people. I’ve laughed with them, watched them kiss and play with their children, and even been invited into their homes for coffee and baklava. I know they are not the menace Trump and many of his followers imagine. I weep and rage at the hatred and ignorance I have seen spew forth from many against Muslims and particularly Syrian refugees. I fume at the privileged hypocrisy that cries “religious freedom” and would strip the rights of those of a different faith.
Since I wrote that a month ago, some of my worst fears have been realized. President Trump reiterated his wish that we would have stolen Iraq’s oil – even going so far as to suggest we might have another chance at that. He expressed his belief that the Muslim world hates us so much that nothing we do could make things worse. He expressed the desire to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This and other actions have signaled Trump’s disdain for Palestinians and his willingness to support Israel’s apartheid policies against them.
He signed an executive order that will ban immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries. The ban includes refugees who have already been approved to come, even seeking to turn away some who had just arrived at the airport!
It is also disingenuous and displays Trump’s corruption. To wit: citizens from countries banned have historically posed little to no terrorist threat to the United States whereas citizens from Muslim countries not included in the ban (for example, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates) have posed such a threat. Not coincidently, Trump has business connections with the countries excluded from the ban.
Trump also expressed his desire to give Christian refugees preferential treatment over others. As Alan Noble observes, his Executive Order on refugees includes:
“mandatory reports every 180 days on crime, radicalization, terrorism, etc. committed by foreign nationals. This is propaganda by Trump to justify his terrible policy. It’s a stacked-evidence fallacy…The idea is to exclusively report about the bad things done by a group of people. If this was an actual effort at transparency, the report would also include data on the successes and contributions of those foreign nationals. But Trump is not concerned with that because it doesn’t fit his narrative. These reports will breed animus towards Muslims.”
Scapegoating and demonizing minorities is nothing new. And it never ends with mere words. Already it is set to kill people. Coz that’s what this kind of action means in the real world. Such flagrant hatred and violence incites responding hatred and violence.
This unnecessarily endangers our service men and women on the front lines. It frays friendships we have worked to establish. It creates the virtual certainty of more terrorist attacks. That crisis can then be used by the Trump administration as a pretext for further solidifying power and “unifying” people for the crusade against Muslims that the Right has openly lusted after for years.