Part I of “The Implications of American Islamophobia” (in 3 parts)
The swirling controversy that has arisen over the remarks made in recent weeks by Donald Trump regarding the place of Muslims in American society has far-reaching implications that extend well beyond the question of whether it has now become acceptable in certain circles to be openly Islamophobic. We had previously heard much about “the Muslim mind”, and among academics, and not only those who have been persuaded by the late Samuel Huntington’s thesis about “the clash of civilizations”, there were certainly some who had always thought that the adherents of Islam posed special problems in the narrative of American integration. But what has been transpiring recently, especially in the ranks of Republican politicians and their base following, is of a different magnitude than the arguments prevailing about Muslims in polite circles. In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks a little than two months ago, Trump described himself as open to the idea that mosques might have to be shut down in the United States. A few days later, he came out with what seemed akin to a suggestion that a national registry may have to be established for all Muslims in the United States. Trump has explicitly warned that American Muslims are incapable of extending their loyalty to the United States. Thus he has repeatedly circulated the discredited story that a large number of Muslims cheered when the Twin Towers were brought down by terrorists on September 11, 2001. Though not an iota of evidence lends credence to his narrative, Trump has sought to give it the stamp of veracity with the imprimatur of his own experience: “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down”, Trump told an audience in Alabama on November 19, “and I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building came down.” Trump would not budge from this story when he appeared on the ABC network: “It did happen, I saw it. It was on television. I saw it.”
We shall have to leave aside for the present the question, which would be of paramount importance to a philosopher and social scientist, of how experience is theorized, the evidentiary claims behind experience, and the nature of perception. All too often people have been heard saying that they saw ‘something’ unfold before their eyes, but a handful of “witnesses” to the same event may produce a handful of varying accounts. Some interpreters will be reminded of the ‘Rashomon effect’. It may be, too, that Trump remembers what he heard and saw on television as something that transpired before his own eyes, and there is of course the much simpler and far more attractive explanation that Trump is a congenital liar. To lavish too much attention on Trump is perhaps not very different than throwing pearls before swine. When Trump first announced his candidacy, he was dismissed as something of a buffoon; since then, his “staying power” has dazzled all his opponents and public commentators, even if some are convinced that each outrage from Trump is merely calculated to raise his stock precisely when it appears he might falter. Meanwhile, however, Trump’s latest pronouncement has rattled a good many people, and, not less importantly, given him a commanding lead over his Republican opponents. Following the murderous rampage in California, where a Muslim couple now believed to share the ideological sentiments that animate the Islamic State shot dead 14 people and wounded many more, Trump declared that he would ban Muslims from entering the United States. He has admitted that his statements are “probably not politically correct”, but adds: “I don’t care.” Perhaps hypocrisy at least is something that Trump is not excessively guilty of, though his case here furnishes demonstrable proof that hypocrisy, however insufferable, is far from being the greatest sin.
There has been, not unexpectedly, huge outrage around the world over Trump’s pronouncements. One of the more noteworthy responses has emanated from Britain, where 600,000 people thus far have signed a petition that calls for Trump to be refused entry into the United Kingdom. Any petition that draws more than 100,000 signatures is now required to be debated in Parliament and a discussion on the issue is scheduled for January 18th. If the English might be applauded for this daring piece of thinking, which is a rare enough thing in Britain, it should also be noted that 40,000 British petitioners have expressed their solidarity with Trump. But at least one other response to Trump’s call is worthy of attention. The most unlikely figures, none of them even remotely noted for their democratic credentials, such as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or the other half dozen Republican candidates who in varying degrees are convinced that Obama is a communist, have condemned Trump for his “insensitive” and “slanderous” remarks. Many ordinary Americans themselves have balked at his ideas, and the Detroit Free Press, which serves one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States, took the unusual step of issuing an unequivocal denunciation of Trump’s “rank bigotry and racism” in a front-page editorial. The newspaper’s editors noted that “some slurs are so heinous that they must be answered. And some lies are so vile that they become dangerous if not met with truth, and strength.” We can well imagine the response of the filmmaker Michael Moore, who is nearly singular in his suggestion that a country with an intense history of genocide mocks only itself with the insinuation that people of a particular faith are not deserving of being Americans. In a letter castigating the Governor of Michigan in the most forceful terms for backtracking on his previously announced commitment to welcome Syrian refugees, Moore wrote that “What you’ve done is anti-American. This is not who we are supposed to be. We are, for better and for worse, a nation of descendants of three groups: slaves from Africa who were brought here in chains and then forced to provide trillions of dollars of free labor to build this country; native peoples who were mostly exterminated by white Christians through acts of mass genocide; and immigrants from EVERYWHERE around the globe. In Michigan we are fortunate to count amongst us tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim Americans.”
(to be continued)