Trump’s Legacy for Muslim Americans
To the disbelief of many, Donald Trump will leave a presidential legacy. What that legacy will entail remains to be seen. But Trump’s hostile, rambling, and often bizarre 2016 presidential campaign has already had real repercussions on the American political landscape, especially as it pertains to minority groups. His antagonistic attitude towards American Muslim has cast an even harsher spotlight on an already marginalized group and penetrated the American Muslim political consciousness in a manner that few public figures have before him. The result is a mixed legacy of crushing fear and unlikely hope as unpredictable as the man himself. The arrival of Trump on the national stage may fundamentally alter the political role and public perception of American Muslims for years to come.
It is intuitive to think that Donald Trump has been an unmitigated disaster for the American Muslim community. And indeed, in many ways he has. Trump has normalized Islamophobic rhetoric on the national stage. Views previously regarded as fringe perspectives too uncivil to be uttered in public have become mainstream. Trump’s infamous proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, with its flippant conflation of race with religion, entrenched the racialization of Muslim identity in national political discourse. He spoke easily of requiring Muslims to carry special identification cards in a manner that many commentators found eerily reminiscent of Jews in Germany immediately before the Holocaust. He entangled himself in a feud as unnecessary as it was prejudiced with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a Muslim American soldier named Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.
But ironically, for all the debacle of Trump’s overtly racist pronouncements towards Muslims, his most damaging comments were his more subtle insinuations. After the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack that left 14 people dead, Trump falsely claimed that the attackers’ Muslim neighbors had foreknowledge of the event but failed to report it. This claim played into a broader trope, usually imposed unfairly by those who wish to discredit Islam and its followers, of holding American Muslims entirely responsible for preventing homegrown Islamic terrorism. Not only did such an expectation place an unreasonable burden on an entire religious group, it also presumed that Muslims, by virtue of their shared religious beliefs, would somehow always know if someone in their midst had radicalized, even if the best American intelligence agencies could not. That thinking, in turn, logically led to an insidiously damaging conclusion: that any successfully executed terrorist attack by radical Muslims must be blamed on the broader Muslim American community, because they had the knowledge to prevent it but did not. Such a narrative simultaneously undermines American Muslim’s legitimacy as loyal U.S. citizens while dehumanizing them by casting them as a hive mind that willingly abets violence. Trump’s repetition of this crucial talking point, that Muslims must be held accountable for any occurrences of terrorism on American soil, subtly perpetuated an image of American Muslims as an anti-American cult, as a sort of mass-scale terrorist cell infiltrating the American homeland for their evil Arab overlords overseas.
It is not that such brazenly bigoted language has never contaminated US politics before. Nor are Muslims strangers to such hateful rhetoric. But the difference was that a presidential candidate of a major political party was now aggressively spouting such talk, and had gone so far as to establish an overtly discriminatory policy as part of his basic policy platform. Before, discrimination of Muslims had often taken the form of covert surveillance operations, like the case of the NYPD spying program on Muslim college students, and normalized narratives of terrorism perpetrated by the media. What Trump did was turn anti-Muslim rhetoric up to eleven, giving private (and public) prejudices a platform from which to be heard, and, in the process, legitimizing bigotry that up until then had mostly been subtext. With such ugliness in the national spotlight, many people who felt similarly were emboldened to voice their own intolerance.
Words have consequences. Regardless of whether or not Trump meant the things he said about Muslims (some more generous commentators have given him the benefit of the doubt), his poisonous rhetoric has ultimately had materially detrimental impacts on the lives of ordinary Muslims. Hate crimes against Muslims increased by 67 percent in 2015. Obviously this rise cannot be solely attributed to Trump, but the fact that Trump stoked the fires of resentment and normalized bigotry against Muslims no doubt contributed to these unfortunate figures. Muslims, in turn, have often been made to feel like outsiders in their own country. The presence of a presidential candidate who embodies all the worst impulses of American attitudes towards Islam has produced sustained alienation among Muslims that is psychologically taxing. Trump poisoned a national climate already infected with fear and hatred, and Muslim Americans have suffered for it, physically and mentally.
Paradoxically, however, Trump’s rise has, in some ways, been of vital benefit to the American Muslim community. This claim is controversial and non-intuitive, but plenty of evidence suggests that Trump’s hate-fueled rhetoric helped build support for American Muslims among broader segments of the American electorate and political parties. The Democratic party, faced with a candidate that actively alienated an entire religious demographic, saw an opportunity to court millions of potential voters to their side. Hence their inclusion of Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala at the Democratic National Convention, and the sustained outreach of the Clinton campaign to Muslim voters. The significance of this attention should not be underestimated. A major political party taking seriously the voting potential of Muslim Americans represents nontrivial progress for the community, in terms of establishing itself as a legitimate political force to be reckoned with in elections. Whether or not the Democratic Party’s courting of Muslim voters was sincere or pure political calculation is irrelevant; the end result is more concrete support and positive exposure for the Muslim community, which is needed now more than ever. Indeed, Khan’s speech at the DNC, where he memorably raised a copy of the U.S. Constitution in the air as he challenged Trump on whether he had ever read it, represented one of the most powerful moments of the entire presidential election season. That symbolic moment, in which a Muslim stood on national television and proudly declared himself a U.S. citizen in a direct rebuke of every cruel force that had ever tried to knock him or his fellow believers down, was broadcast and rebroadcast on millions of television screens across the country. That symbolic moment was made possible by Trump.
Negative reactions against Trump pervaded much of the liberal American media as well. Many news outlets wished to cast him as an irredeemable bigot whose words and actions violated fundamental American values, and highlighting his anti-Muslim rhetoric fit snugly into that greater goal. Thus, many news outlets consistently ran stories about the impact of Trump’s candidacy on Muslims with an added emphasis on their essential American-ness. These positive portrayals of Islam served as a counteracting force to Trump’s negative characterization of the religion. So, in an ironic twist, Trump’s mainstreaming of extreme Islamophobic rhetoric resulted in an equally proportional mainstreaming of positive media coverage of Islam.
Finally, the possibility of a Trump presidency was terrifying enough to instigate a massive movement within the Muslim community to become more politically engaged citizens by voting in the upcoming elections. The American Muslim community has long struggled to galvanize significant political participation within its ranks, for complex reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. For example, Muslim voter registration lags behind that of others groups at 60 percent, compared to at least 86 percent among Jews, Protestants, and Catholics. As a consequence of this inactivity, as well as the sheer multiethnic composition of the community, an influential Muslim voting bloc whose opinions political parties must take seriously has never materialized. With the looming shadow of Trump, however, an immediate incentive to mobilize suddenly existed where none had before, and several groups took up the mantle of rallying increased Muslim political engagement. In October, for example, a national initiative titled #MyMuslimVote Khutba Day had dozens of mosques across the country deliver Friday sermons centered on the importance of voting, a bold move that fused politics and religion in a direct manner rarely observed in American Muslim communities. Similarly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations launched a campaign focused on “ensuring that American Muslims actively participate in the 2016 election cycle by volunteering in election campaigns, registering to vote, hosting candidate forums, and by mobilizing other community members through “get out the vote” initiatives.” A FaceBook group called “Rock the Muslim Vote” encouraged Muslims to get out to the voting booths. Such a concerted drive for greater political participation could only be of benefit the American Muslim community in the long-run, and is a tangibly positive outcome of Trump’s bid for the presidency.
Trump’s most beneficial impact on the community, however, may only have come with his actual election to the highest office of the United States. As of this moment, Trump has transitioned from being a potential threat to physical reality. That, more than anything else, has ensured that Trump’s positive impacts on the Muslim community remain long enough to become more deeply entrenched. The negative repercussions of Trump’s presidential run would have remained even if he had lost the election. The sort of anti-Muslim bigotry that he has made standard in our public discourse would always have outlasted him. If anything, his more extremist supporters may have been motivated by his loss to indulge in harmful discrimination as a form of rebellion. The string of hate crimes that have accompanied Trump’s victory may very well have occurred even if he had lost. What was in far more danger of evaporating in the shadow of a Trump win, however, was the burst of energy his controversial run had injected into the Muslim American community. With Trump gone, complacency may very well have set in once again, and the status quo restored.
Now, however, Muslim Americans face an ominous reality: a minimum of four years presided over by a man who profited from insulting and degrading the most fundamental marker of their identities. Trump’s victory means that the newfound political activism of the Muslim American community is now unlikely to die. Moving forward, he will serve as a reminder of the cost of voter inaction. His presence will likely spur Muslim Americans to become a mobilized voting bloc whose voice can finally be heard, in order to effectively combat any proposed and enacted policies with the potential to harm their already marginalized community. In that sense, Trump’s arrival on the political scene has done a huge favor for the Muslim American community, by shattering its false sense of complacency once and for all. The future is uncertain, all the more so under the coming Trump presidency. But when all is said and done, Muslim Americans might have more to thank Trump for than not.