Global Currents article

The Trump Administration’s Terra Incognita for American Muslims

President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration is terra incognita for American Muslims. Never before has an American president embraced such blatantly discriminatory and dangerous views against Islam and Muslims. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, has called Islam a “cancer” and a “political ideology” that “hides behind the notion of it being a religion.” Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, has said that “the toxic ideology of Islam” is the largest threat confronting the United States.

Trump’s clear articulation of a dangerously Islamophobic worldview paradoxically presents an opportunity for American Muslims. Muslims, since 9-11, have been cast into one of two binaries: followers of a uniquely violent religion, or apologetic defenders of a simple “religion of peace.” The reality is that Islam is a multifaceted civilizational complex that exists in human history and is undergoing specific sets of dynamics in specific locations. Trump’s era gives Muslims the opportunity to articulate this truth, and in so doing, enjoy the same presumption of complexity and nuance of other communities.

The notion that Islam is a “religion of peace” can be traced back to former President George W. Bush, who aimed to exonerate Muslims following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, eager to contest the notion that “Islam” itself was responsible. Bush’s reasons for this seemed both sincere and strategic: sincere because there is little evidence that Bush and the Bush family itself harbor particular animus toward Muslims; strategic because that administration knew that it would need the assistance of several Muslim-majority countries to prosecute their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I take issue with Bush’s pronouncement not because I believe that Islam prescribes terrorism and violence as a foundational kernel of the faith. This latter notion—one that has steadily taken hold in American political, military, and civil society discourse over the past fifteen years—is the most dangerous philosophical instantiation of Islamophobia in American society today, and one that Trump repeats with characteristic bluntness. I take issue with “Islam is peace” because the statement is a non-sequitur that removes the civilizational complex of Islam from the historicized field of politics, accidents of history, Muslim subjectivities and myriad interactions and intersections with non-Muslims that make up the messy soup of that which constitutes contemporary Islam and Muslims. In other words: sometimes Islam manifests itself peacefully. Sometimes, Islam manifests itself violently. And so on for every example of organized human society.

Embracing nuance and complexity is Muslims’ best hope in the Trump era. To do this, I endorse the progressive Muslim movement’s notion of “double critique”. An ontology of double critique is premised on two notions:

  1. Contemporary Muslims have a serious problem with jihadi groups who use violence to advance their agenda. This violence is predicated on a particular ideology, which cherry picks from the Islamic tradition to produce an exclusionary, supremacist world view that disparages and devalues non-Muslims, women, sexual minorities, and minority Muslim sects. Indeed, in my opinion as an intellectual historian of the Islamic tradition, Islam, in this sense, is in its dark ages.
  2. These challenges are in part produced by and compounded by western colonialism, imperialism, and for Muslim minorities in the western world, white supremacy. Not only do imperialism and colonialism visit violence, war, support for autocratic dictators, and land theft on Muslim nations and societies, but perhaps even worse, Muslims have had to contend with the “colonization of the mind” that attends the process of colonialism: a feeling of inferiority, learned helplessness, and a fear that Muslims cannot solve their own problems.

Donald Trump did not win the popular vote, and is a hopelessly polarizing figure. It is hard to imagine that many of his declarations will be taken seriously by the majority of Americans who did not vote for him, or by most world leaders, many of whom are confused by our presidential choice. As Trump inaugurates what many pundits call our “post-fact society”, his Islamophobic posture will be met with the same incredulity most of his statements and positions will elicit from those still committed to thinking. This theatre of the absurd leaves a space for American Muslims to maneuver within the paradigm of double critique. I believe, therefore, that they should take the opportunity to advance the following during the Trump years:

  1. Build an Islamic theology that emphasizes love, mercy, acceptance of all others, charity, service, humility and kindness—all traits that are found easily and solidly in the Islamic tradition.
  2. Build Muslim institutions, develop intellectuals, nurture spiritual leaders who espouse the values in number one. I say this rather than say that exclusionary, violence-prone, chauvinistic versions of the faith should be “fought” or “resisted.” The reason is that resistance, especially if this is the primary activity, drains our energy without advancing a positive alternative.
  3. In the process, do not demonize any groups, including Muslims with a more conservative understanding of the faith. Conservatism is not the problem—jihadism, exclusionary world views against women and minorities, and violence are. (Ironically, or perhaps not, exclusionary world views and violence against women and minorities also characterize the Trump era.)
  4. American Muslims should partner with American institutions that safeguard civil rights and civil liberties.
  5. American Muslims should stand up for the rights of all minorities in the United States threatened by Trump’s regime, including undocumented Latinos, African Americans, religious minorities such as American Jews, Native Americans, and LGBTQ Americans.

I do not mean to be sanguine about the real dangers a Trump administration presents to American Muslims. We might face very dangerous and dark days, indeed. But, barring very difficult circumstances, the terra incognita of the Trump era can offer American Muslims the opportunity to emerge stronger, more self-articulated, and more inclusive and loving.


Photo Credit: Lion Multimedia Production USA “MichiganMuslims‬ are at the State Capitol!”

Sarah Eltantawi
Sarah Eltantawi is a scholar of Islam. She is the author of Sharia on Trial: Northern Nigeria's Islamic Revolution (2017, University of California Press), as well as articles on topics ranging from Shi'i Jurisprudence to concepts of Nigerian post-modernity to work on Contemporary Egypt and Gender. Dr. Eltantawi is an analyst of the Muslim-majority world on major media outlets, and Member of the Faculty in Comparative Religion and Islamic Studies (Asst. Prof) at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.

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