“If he ever becomes president, I’m leaving this country.”
“He doesn’t know what he is saying.”
“He is the biggest bigot I have ever seen.”
These are echoes from a room filled with American Muslims of Pakistani, Indian and Arab descent in a small Los Angeles apartment, and an hour’s drive from San Bernardino. And their libels are aimed at the man on their television screen, Donald Trump, the business tycoon and tv personality now in the running for Republican party’s nominee for the presidential candidate in 2016. You probably remember the red-haired billionaire snapping, “you’re fired” to contestants in his Emmy-nominated show The Apprentice.
With the primaries around the corner, both Republican and Democratic candidates are grappling for numbers. Some of the dominating issues in this cycle include tax reforms, immigration reforms, gun control, climate change, dealing with Syrian refugee crisis, the War on Terror and how the world’s strongest military power must deal with the enemy, both within and overseas.
Trump, like most Republican candidates has taken a harsh line — to the extent of suggesting that Muslims, not just Syrian Muslims, must be banned from entering the US — forcing the key Republicans to distance themselves from him.
Ben Carson, the only non-politician candidate, thinks a Muslim shouldn’t be the president of the US.
“I see Islamophobia within a frightening landscape of right-wing, pro-gun, anti-woman, white Christian privilege,” says Christine Fair, Assistant Professor Georgetown University, Security Studies Program; a privilege she believes has been “normalized” on an “unprecedented scale”. She sees this Islamophobia as only one aspect of “this majoritarian discourse which also includes: previously unseen misogyny; outright refusal to recognise the pervasive racism in this country as embodied by the Black Lives Matter campaign or countenance the state-sponsored violence they endure (e.g. by the police); and of course the unrelenting recourse to Christianity to legitimise their campaigns.”
According to Pew Research Center, Muslims are the least liked minority in the USA today. After Paris, an attack killing fourteen people was carried out by the American-born Pakistani and his Pakistani-resident wife in California. Not only has it awakened the authorities to the hitherto undermined threat of the US citizen being “radicalised” by extremist elements (although Faisal Shahzad, involved in the May 2010 Time Square car bombing, and Anwar-al-Aulaki, of Yemeni origin who was said to have joined al-Qaeda and died in a drone strike in Yemen, were both US citizens) but has antagonised the Muslim-Americans who feel betrayed when painted by the same brush as those Obama called a group of thugs and a death cult.
Muslims are looking for a counter-narrative, especially at a time when Americans — who see their ideal democratic values as a global model — are about to elect a new generation of leaders. What some are calling an acrimonious propaganda has reached somewhat alarming levels, probably the highest since 9/11.
Paris, and now San Bernardino, have freshened some sore memories. For most, its 9/11 all over again. “I have never seen so much fear and apprehension before,” says Anila Ali, President of American Muslim Women Empowerment Council (AMWEC), who also ran for the California state assembly in 2014 and has been chosen to speak on countering violent extremism at the White House.
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American-Muslims find themselves in a tight spot — the tightest really. Hate, Anila Ali believes, incites people and gets them out to vote. She feels that Muslims are further marginalising themselves by opposing policies and refusing to co-operate with law enforcement agencies.
While Republicans propose a more stringent vetting process while admitting more legal Muslim immigrants in the US, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both leading the polls on the Democrats side have repeatedly taken the more politically correct discourse by calling Muslims peaceful and patriotic, not to be compared with a violent few.
President Obama, in his address following the San Bernardino attack, has called for a collective rejection of discrimination as it conflicts with American values. Trump reacted with a tweet: “We need a new president, FAST.” Many Republicans see the present government’s approach to Muslims as an inherent flaw in the Democratic strategy towards terrorism and a complete opposition to American democratic values.
Notwithstanding, this focus on Islam’s co-relation with violence in the name of faith has raised questions for those familiar with scripture and those who are not. Amir, a father of three, originally from Rawalpindi, says he was repulsed by those Muslims who were convinced Farook and Malik were framed. He feels Muslims, instead of engaging in debate, prefer to be offended and bitter. “Unfamiliarity with an idea is bound to lead towards biased assumptions and so non-Muslim Americans understandably see Islam through the lens of al-Qaeda and ISIS because, frankly, Muslim-Americans feel they don’t need to defend Islam, which leads to further confusion and chaos.”
Amir says Muslims who expect to make religion the centre of their children’s life are almost always disappointed by the outcome, “because they forget to teach them about other faiths too.”
Mohammed El-Shwahyk, an Egyptian-American working as a para-legal, says he does not feel that “assimilation on the cultural level is necessary, which is typically the type of assimilation that most Muslims are resistant toward. Honestly the question of how Muslims can redeem themselves is a bit loaded because I don’t believe I have to overly emphasise that I am a decent person because of the actions of others who have less respect for human life.”
He says he doesn’t vote in the primaries and doesn’t affiliate with either party.
Anila Ali, however, sees this as a part of the problem: “Most Muslims need to get out of their comfort zone and meet non-Muslims. Just before the shooting in San Bernardino, Pakistanis were debating to decorate their homes for Christmas or not and majority agree that they shouldn’t because its haram, and why should they, since Christians don’t observe Eid. They need to realise they live in a western democracy where they need to inform, educate and engage people so they learn about their culture.”
Christine Fair connects this self-blame to the dominant right-wing narrative. “This Republican campaign has occurred amidst horrific attacks of terrorism (but few will call it “terrorism”) on women’s health facilities and African Americans. This loathsome right-wing, predictably, has blamed the victims for bringing this violence on themselves. This reminds me of how Pakistanis respond to attacks on Ahmadis and even Shias, by the way. Muslims in this country sit at the intersection of several adverse narratives from the American right because they are not Christian, are often non-White and, of course, Muslim, which the right has associated with a discourse of threat.”
Politicians are not the only key players in this anti-Muslim-hence-patriotic conundrum. The fourth pillar of state seems to be fidgeting too. Muslims protest under-representation by what Fair calls a “right-wing, pro-gun, anti-woman, white Christian privilege” incorporating mainstream media too.
Scott Bowles, a former staff writer for the USA Today who also teaches journalism at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) offers a historical comparison with World War II where media “was really biased — unified in its pro-American propaganda. And I think we are seeing something of a repeat — this time only in terms of Islam and Muslims. What we see happening is very similar to what we have seen in the media during wartime. We tend to demonise those states that we consider enemy. They were Germany and Japan in the two World Wars.”
The view from the other side like Al Jazeera, he feels, wouldn’t have existed 60 years ago.
However, Scott sees a much better variation of voice now than ever which he calls, “a lot of yelling at each other. Because there are so many outlets, it’s just a lot of yelling, it’s confusion. The media is doing no better at making the issue clear by presenting facts.” With a presidential debate at stake, “you have outlets like Fox News that clearly favour a Republican strategy which is more stringent than the other side of the Democratic Party. I’m very reticent to say that the media is fuelling anti-Islamic fenzy but some of the voices that are fanning anti-Muslim feelings, do exacerbate the problem.”
Donald Trump’s blatant opposition to the world’s second-largest religion is termed un-American, a far cry from the values that United States propagates as a world leader. But it does raise concerns about the direction of the US politics, ethics and cultural multiplicity. The last thing it can afford right now is to alienate Muslims or any other minority, while trying to build international consensus on fighting extremism. Fortunately, Trump isn’t its only choice.