Why Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric will continue to endure

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Credit: Greg Skidmore.

Donald Trump proposes a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States“. The shift in rhetoric follows the shootings in San Bernardino, California. His proposed ban would also include Muslim tourists and citizens based abroad.

In a press release, Trump cited growing hatred of the United States in Muslim communities. The localities of these communities are not contingent to Trump’s argument – only a perception of truth matters. Recent data from Pew offers added nuance. It found the countries with the most unfavourable views of the United States were Jordan and Russia. Positive ratings in Turkey had increased from 19 per cent to 29 per cent. In Lebanon, 48 per cent of its Sunni Muslim population had expressed favourable views of the United States. Its Shia population, had for the most part, expressed anti-American sentiment.

Other polls from Pew point to a broad rejection of terror groups like ISIS and suicide bombing among Muslims across the globe. Pew data also found that many Muslim Americans want to assimilate into American culture.

It’s also noteworthy that 81 per cent of Muslim Americans hold U.S. citizenship, including 70 per cent born abroad. Foreign-born Muslims take up a higher rate of citizenship than other migrant populations.

Almost half of the American Muslims polled by Pew in 2011 felt the Republican Party was ‘unfriendly’ to them. That perception remains true. In 2014, Pew asked Americans to rate faith groups on a scale of 0 to 100, with a higher score indicating positive feelings. People who self-identified as Republican, or leaned towards the party, gave Muslims a rating of 33 – the lowest of any faith groups and lower than atheists. Democrats proved more positive – but an average rating of 47 put them in the lowest faith category.

Republicans are more likely to be open with their fears about Islamic terrorism. And believe that Islam is “more likely to encourage violence among its believers”. A separate poll found that 77 per cent of Trump supporters agreed that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life”. Compare that figure with 72 per cent of Republicans and 43 per cent of Democrats polled. A negative perception of Islam increases by class position. Two-thirds of white working-class individuals agreed that “Islam was incompatible with American values”. Around half of white Americans with a college educations agreed with that statement.

Donald Trump also finds higher levels of support in some working-class communities. His supporters are also more likely to see immigration as an important electoral issue. Trump’s populist appeal speaks to communities who feel ‘left behind‘ in a cultural and economic sense. Trump has also received endorsements from neo-Nazis, nativists and secessionists.

The other poll Trump cited, from the Center for Security Policy, had many methodological flaws and a sample size of just 600. Its founder and President, Frank Gaffney, remains a vocal Islamophobe, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Trump also said that “our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life“. The concept of Jihad, though, owes to its own histories and interpretations. To frame it along violent lines erases the non-violent expressions Muslims use to make sense of their faith. The lived experience of religion owes in part to our daily lives. A person applies the teachings in specific cultural contexts. Some will find the means to justify violence, as others do not.

In its essence,  Jihad means to “struggle”. Its etymological roots relate to the word mujahadah – which means struggle or contention. It also links to the word itijihad, which relates to the efforts of jurists to reach correct judgements in Islamic Law. Some believe they fight in the name of God by adding the phrase “fisabel Allah”. Other important Arabic words includes “Ribat” – which relates to piety. And also covers conflict – in so far of it offering a defensive, not aggressive approach.

Islam is not a pacifist faith; but its laws and rules of war are very clear and constitute:Non-combatants and civilians are not legitimate targets; the faith of a person is not justification for conflict; conflict must be defensive, in protection of sovereignty, or in the defence of innocents; war cannot colonise or force individuals to convert to Islam

The Prophet Muhammad had praised non-violent jihad. “The best struggle (jihad) is to speak the truth before a tyrannical ruler,” and “The best struggle is to struggle against your soul and your passions in the way of God Most High.” Though some scholars question the authenticity of these hadiths. In spite of that, other hadiths make the case for a spiritual life over the physical.

In classic Islamic law, hirābah goes beyond our own definition of terrorism as it covers both the direct and coincidental spreading of fear.  For Islamic scholar Timothy Winter, terrorism, and for example, 9/11, falls under hirābah and would be punishable with death.

This concept of hirābah also covers the strictest punishments in Islamic law (hudud).  Throughout the history of Islam, there are many examples of Muslim jurists finding ways to best protect their societies from individuals who seek to terrorise communities. Take for example, the words of the Spanish jurist Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (d. 463/1071):

 “Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption in the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate is guilty of hirābah… be he a Muslim or a non-Muslim, free or slave, and whether he actually realizes his of goal of taking money or killing or not

Again, Trump speaks to the anxieties and the prejudices of specific audiences. Trump turns complexities into binaries and simple solutions.  Part of this logic comes from his own writings. In a 1987 memior, Trump admitted how he ‘played’ with people’s emotions. He wrote, “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion”.

Trump’s appeal to ‘Make America Great Again’ speaks to facism’s ‘lowest common denominator’ – or as Professor Roger Griffin defined – a paligenitic form of populist ultranationalism.

Palingenesis means ‘rebirth’. This rebirth promises to remove those who impede the march to ‘brighter days’. The perceived corruption and decadance of the present will soon give way to this new era. Facism, as Robert Paxton argued, reshapes as it grows – not from dogma but action and its strong performative functions like symbols and rituals. Its cult of the leader and appeal to cultural violence, drew rank-n-file support – not for its ideological framework; but promise of empowerement through action. Paxton’s framework may not fit Trump at this stage; but his racist demogogical posturing and policies align to proto-fascism.

The power of myth remains an important tool. When Donal Trump claims “We have places in London…that are so radicialised that the police are afraid for their own lives,” he speaks to audiences who will either believe the statement without question, or influence individuals receptive to it. Trump’s not interested in the facts. It’s worth repeating that point. Perception remains important and Trump seeks to reassure his support bases that he shares their anxieties, hopes, and desires. Broad condemnation will not stop Trump spinning half-truths or making anti-Muslim statements – because he’s not speaking to us, he’s speaking to those who may turn out and vote Trump if he secures the nomination.

If Trump fails to secure the nomination, he’s already succeeded by shifting the debate further to the right. Trump merely recognises and exploits how anti-Muslim sentiment exists in the mainstream. In turn, Trump has catapulted the racialised Muslim body ito the mainstream through securitisation around fears of terrorism. The fear of terrorism from refugees, for example, is unfounded.

To shield against fascism requires an understanding of its past successes. As Paxton noted:”Fascists are close to power when conservatives begin to borrow their techniques, appeal to their “mobilizing passions,” and try to co-opt the fascist following”.