Othering Islam and Muslims in America

Photo by Fibonacci Blue

Since its founding, the United States of America has constantly struggled to define its identity and to classify who belongs and who are the ostracized. From the first days of the republic, African Americans and Native Americans were not part of “We the People” and were denied full membership in the newly formed society, while white women, though included as members in the racial category, were denied equal rights and enfranchisement under the Constitution.

The structural exclusion and otherization was written into the DNA at the country’s foundation and continues to be the modus operandi utilized regularly to navigate and construct a national identity. Tracing U.S.’s history takes us through a long, windy and torturous road of otherization, violence and exclusion that affected every group that has made its way to the country’s shores: from Italians, Jews, Polish, Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Koreans, Mexicans, Cubans, El Salvadorans and all the way up to the present-day Syrians, Afghans, Somalians, Nigerians, Yemenis and other Arab and Muslim immigrants and refugees. Consequently, otherization in good old U.S. of A. is as American as apple pie!

What do we mean when we raise the issue of othering Islam and Muslims in today’s America? Othering is a multipronged phenomenon involving state sanctioned targeting of individuals and communities, intensive surveillance and securitization, tailored forms of legal restrictions, modes of civil society exclusion, heightened restriction of movement, and an elite and corporate induced barrage of negative media entanglement. Essentially, an otherized group is constructed to be an outsider to the defined national body, thus it is conceived and treated as an internal enemy that does not belong inside the nation.

Muslims and Islam are an otherized category in the U.S. with multipronged levels of exclusion and forms of racialized discrimination inflicted upon individuals and groups. The othering process directed at Muslims was unleashed by rightwing political elites that wanted to craft a strategy to contest power in a post-Cold War era. As the red evil empire came to an end, the machinery for crafting a green menace took shape and Huntington’s clash of civilization thesis provided the needed shift and the utilization of cultural racism as the basis for differentiation and hostility. Cultural racism, the basis for the clash of civilization thesis, is the rebranding of the pre-WWII des-credited biological racism and in the current period acts as a signpost for the same sets of racist attitudes and perspectives that were deployed in the earlier biological version.

In this context, otherization is less about Islam or about the Muslims themselves and their lives and hopes in America, but more about the unsureness of the society as whole. The ongoing otherization project is underway to define politics, culture, economy, religion and identity by magnifying the differences from Islam and Muslims, and then transforming them into an existential threat in the mind of the American public so as to forge a fictitious sense of patriotic unity. Here, the U.S. is less confident and unsure of its present and future considering all the global political, economic and social changes underway. The internal otherization of Islam and Muslims is the perfect diversion for the populists, who use it to slither their way into seats of power with venomous rhetoric promising restoration and greatness.

“Make America great again” is precisely a calling for a restoration to an idealized and glorified past where the political, social and religious order was situated around a singular identity to the exclusion of others. What caused America’s weakness, according to the populist rightwing, is the wrong-headed multi-culturalism, political correctness, identity politics, refugees, illegal immigration and burdensome regulations. Added to this list is the constant blame levied on Mexico, China, Japan and Europe for cheating America on trade deals or not being fair on the market. Notice that all these point to someone or something other than the country’s elite, which has plundered the U.S., ravaged the earth of its resources, conducted endless interventionist wars and squandered the hard-earned money of hard working people across this great land. The populists mobilize ignorant bigotry to obfuscate the real causes for country’s circumstances.

As Republicans lost the White House to Obama, and the Congress and Senate in the 2008 election, the populist otherization strategy was deployed using Islam and Muslims as the foil to drive rightwing anger for a supposed loss of the country. Former President Obama was the ideal target for rightwing otherization strategy considering the complexities of his identity, past and readily documented connection to Islam through his father. The “taking our country back” moto was born immediately after Obama’s election and laser focused on Islam and Muslims as the culprits.

Conveniently, the rightwing domestic attacks on Obama as a closet Muslim was mirrored with a demand to correctly reframe the war on terrorism as a war on radical Islam and some demanded a war on Islam itself. President Bush’s “Islam is peace” days were long gone and were replaced by a clamoring to otherize Islam and Muslims while entangling all of Obama’s agenda. The increasing visibility of Islam and Muslims in America’s landscape provided a further opportunity to draw the distinction between the ideal past and the problematic and diverse present represented by the Obama administration.

Otherization of Islam and Muslims becomes the effective electoral strategy and Islamophobia is monetized into the Tea Party and rightwing votes at the ballot box. The leader of the Birther Movement is settling in the White House with the Alt-right arriving to Washington D.C. riding the Islamophobic ballot box, which was hitched to the clash of civilization cultural racism stage wagon right out of the gate. Mainstream Republicans played along with the bigoted and racist fringe so as to get part of their agenda adopted, but ended-up being devoured by it in the process.

Muslim Americans are under siege by the current administration and the cast of characters in the White House and the Executive Branch is a good reason to be doubly concerned in the days and months to come. The Executive Order that instituted the second travel ban is under challenge in the courts but the bigger impact is the institutionalization of the othering of Islam and Muslims by Trump’s administration.

Even without the ban, the Custom and Boarder Control Agency has become ideologically driven, showing a greater focus on all Muslims coming and going at all ports of entry. The stories of “random secondary screenings”, questions regarding religious background, and demands to access electronic devices of Muslim American travelers are on the rise. Among a certain sector of the rightwing, an openly hostile and violent attitude has become prevalent since Trump’s victory and it is often directed at Muslim Americans since they have been at the forefront of the negative campaign season. Trump’s victory is seen as a validation of the racism, bigotry and otherization of Muslims and his administration is in no hurry to change the national discourse or mood of the country on this issue.

Across some red states and counties, mosque projects are facing renewed resistance in the form of flimsy clauses used to deny building or expansion permits. Some of these cases will end-up in court for sure, but Muslim Americans can’t count on the Department of Justice to come to their aid on the grounds of religious freedom, considering the background of the current administration. While I took former President Obama to task on the use of drones and other issues, however, under his administration, the Department of Justice defended the rights of Muslim American communities to build mosques on constitutional grounds.

Immediately after the elections on the 8th of November, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented some 600 hate crimes cases across the country and a large number of them were directed at Muslim Americans, Sikhs and Latino immigrants. Due to their visible clothing and the hijab, Muslim American women were disproportionally targeted by racists and bigots following the election. More alarming, since Trump’s ascendency to power in 2017, the Muslim American community witnessed attacks on 23 mosques and Islamic centers, a number of which have been burned to the ground. In all of these recorded incidents, President Trump, the White House Spokesman Spicer and top administration figures have not uttered a single word in defense of Muslim Americans. Indeed, in today’s America bigots find more comfort and support from the White House occupant and leaders in his administration. Islamophobia and clash of civilization cultural racism are alive and well at the White House with Steve Bannon, Frank Gaffney, and Sebastian Gorka at the helm and Muslim Americans are ideologically, structurally and systematically targeted by this administration.

Adding to the above toxic mix is the drive to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and then use this to target American Muslim organizations on claims of associating with the MB and/or provided material support to it. The goal of the Islamophobic industry is to decapitate the Muslim American organizational infrastructure and its leadership so as to empty the stage for their distorted, conspiratorial and millenarian worldview. Trump’s administration approaches Muslims and Islam through a history of the Crusades lens with immigrants and refugees posited as a grand political strategy and an Islamic demographic Trojan Horse invasion of the West. Thus, Muslims and Islam are used as the trans-historical threat that needs an internal unification around a singular Christian identity or, more correctly, a White Christian identity. Furthermore, despite the inclusion and accommodation made for Israel, Zionism and by inference to Jews in the current administration, the conspiratorial worldview driving this Alt-Right train is deeply anti-Semitic and hostile to Jews to the core. The question for the American Jews would be if the support and defense of Israel is the only measuring stick for the administration or if a deeper critique would emerge in the days and months to come, as well as a real alliance with Muslims against the rising tide of fascism in the country.

Lastly, on a more positive note, the political, social, cultural and religious tide in parts of the country has swung toward Muslim Americans in very decisive and irreversible ways. Major segments of civil society across the country have coalesced around the otherized Muslim American community and began taking visible and measurable steps toward defiant acts of solidarity. One can’t underestimate the reverberations of all these civil society efforts that began during the 2016 campaign and, in my estimation, will reach a peak in the 2018 midterm election. The otherization of Muslims and Islam by Trump and his administration has awakened a sleeping civil society giant, a human decency guided by universal ethical and moral imperatives that soon will bring forward a counter narrative. It is this part of the society that will have the last words on the difference between facts and bigotry!