Trump's Year in Islamophobia
In early 2016, Donald Trump declared to Anderson Cooper that “Islam hates us.” After nearly a year of Trump’s presidency, this belief has pervaded and shaped a new era of overt Islamophobia in American politics and policy.
From the Muslim Ban to endless wars in the Middle East, Muslim communities have come under attack in a variety ways — including through damaging rhetoric and policies that single out Muslims for differential treatment.
Here's just a few of them.
1. The Muslim Bans
Perhaps most famously, Trump began his presidency by fulfilling his campaign promise calling for the “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Dubbed Muslim Ban 1.0, the initial ban impacted 7 countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, banning citizens from these countries from the United States for 90 days. In this first iteration, it also indefinitely banned Syrian refugees. Though it attempted to hide behind classifications of national origin, this was a true Muslim ban — it exempted religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
After several court challenges tied up the first order, Trump signed a second one — Muslim Ban 2.0 — that included a few modifications. This time, the ban included citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days — and all refugees for 120 days.
Legal challenges tied up this second ban as well, but the Supreme Court issued a partial stay allowing it to proceed while the challenges circulated. The court then dismissed the case in October when it was up for review, saying that it had become moot because the ban had lapsed by then.
But this wasn't the end of it. This fall, Muslim Ban 3.0 went into effect — this time, with various restrictions placed on Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela, and North Korea. The addition of North Korea and Venezuela were understood by most observers as an attempt to obscure the obvious intention of targeting Muslims.
Unlike previous bans, version 3.0 is indefinite — and, once again, the Supreme Court has allowed it to be implemented while challenges wind their way through the courts.
2. Rebranding " Extremist" as "Islamic"
Trump’s Islamophobia didn’t stop or start with the Muslim Bans.
Early in his administration, there were indications that Trump intended to rename the Countering Violent Extremism program to Countering Islamic Extremism — thus excluding white extremists and solidifying the “Muslim threat.”
Under Obama, the CVE program was already seen as effectively targeting Muslims in the form of surveillance of mosques, conflating people's religiosity for a propensity to commit acts of violence, and deputizing imams and other religious leaders to tackle “extremism”— often meaning opposition to U.S. foreign policy.
The status of the CVE program remains unclear at this point, but the discussion itself — particularly after several high-profile incidents of white nationalist violence, in Charlottesville and beyond — underscores how closely Trump intends to link the terrorist threat solely to Islam and Muslims.
In December, the administration codified this approach when it released its National Security Strategy, which not only includes references to the “jihadist threat,” which the Obama administration had cut out, but which also declares: “Jihadist terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida continue to spread a barbaric ideology that calls for the violent destruction of governments and innocents they consider to be apostates. These jihadist terrorists attempt to force those under their influence to submit to Sharia law.”
This language is problematic not only because it comes from an administration that has already collectively demonized Muslims, but also because it uses "Sharia" to indicate extremism and violence — though Sharia, which has innumerable interpretations, is simply Islamic law that most practicing Muslims adhere to some form of.
3. Brutal Wars Abroad
Abroad, Muslims have fared no better.
Not only did Trump increase the use of drones by fivefold over the already prolific Obama administration, he also dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” — the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal — in Afghanistan. He's also indefinitely extended the conflict in Afghanistan, already the U.S.’s longest running war — and one based the conflation of the Taliban with Al-Qaeda.
Elsewhere, the Trump administration continues to enable the Saudi government's relentless airstrikes against Yemen, precipitating perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis on earth.
That war is being facilitated by the most massive arms deal in American history, a sale of some $350 billion worth of U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia. Though the relationship with Wahhabi-ruled Saudi Arabia complicates the Islamophobia nexus, it nonetheless draws on terrorist tropes and notions of "moderate" versus "extremist" Islam — a distinction that has little to do with religion and everything to do with which countries enjoy U.S. favor in the geopolitics of the region.
4. Extreme and Violent Rhetoric
On a more mundane level, Trump's rhetoric about and towards Muslims has been extremely and consistently violent.
Trump has continued to flame the fires of Islamophobia by, for example, tweeting anti-Muslim videos out from right-wing group in the UK called Britain First. When confronted with evidence that the videos may be fake, the administration doubled down on the tweets, saying that Trump was simply "elevating the conversation" on terrorism by Muslims.
Weeks later, Trump used a terrorist attack in Egypt by ISIS — an attack against other Muslims — to call for a Muslim ban once more, tweeting that, "we have to get TOUGHER AND SMARTER than ever before, and we will. Need the WALL, need the BAN!" So in other words, Trump used an attack in which all 300-plus victims were Muslims in service of his own Islamophobic agenda.
In early November, when Sayfullo Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan drove a truck into a bike path in Manhattan, the White House called for the suspect to be designated as an enemy combatant, while Trump called specifically for the suspect to be sent to Guantanamo Bay prison — both, of course, treatments reserved exclusively for Muslims.
Later that month, when a man named Akayed Ullah, a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh, committed an attack in New York, the response from the White House was to highlight his immigration status, calling for harsh restrictions on immigration by the family members of all immigrants.
5. Empowering a Coterie of Extremists
In addition to his own beliefs about Muslims, Trump surrounded himself with high profile individuals who also harbored anti-Muslim sentiments.
Individuals in this category include now fired Army Lt. General Michael Flynn, who once called "Islamism" a "vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised.” Then there was Sebastian Gorka, the former White House aide who asserted his belief that were no moderate Muslims, only those who'd already been radicalized or were on their way to being radicalized. Then, of course, there was the now fired Steve Bannon, the chief White House strategist — a well-known white supremacist and key architect of the Muslim Ban.
Though these three bad actors have since left the White House, Trump reportedly remains in contact with Bannon.
But still others remain, such as Stephen Miller, the White House policy aide who played a role in crafting the latest iteration of the Muslim Ban — and who, in college, started a "terrorism awareness project" with the goal of making “students aware of the Islamic jihad and the terrorist threat, and to mobilize support for the defense of America and the civilization of the West.”
All of these appointments, past and present, have helped normalize an extremely visceral anti-Muslim antagonism.
Total War, at Home and Abroad
Trump’s Islamophobia is hardly limited to the examples above. Other attacks include his revocation of DACA, the anti-deportation order that protects many Muslim recipients, along with the Latin American immigrants more commonly associated with the act.
In the less than a year, the Trump administration has enacted mass violence against Muslims domestically and abroad. While there have been many legal and political challenges to his policies and rhetoric, scapegoating Islam and Muslims has served to advance U.S. wars in the Middle East and embolden militarism at home.
With the administration’s new national security strategy supporting an ever more militarized agenda, Islamophobia will unfortunately remain central to Trump’s War on Terror.
Maha Hilal, Ph.D., is the Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s also a steering committee member of DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a board member of the DC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.