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My President Was an Islamophobe

The first year of the Donald Trump era was nothing less than a catastrophe for Muslims.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Thomas Jefferson was expecting a dinner guest. It was December 1805 and the nascent republic that Jefferson led was mired in a series of battles with the Barbary States of North Africa, whose pirates were intercepting vessels and imposing medieval punishments on passengers who refused to pay tribute. Jefferson’s guest this evening was Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, the envoy from Tunisia who had come to America for diplomatic meetings and whose presence had aroused the interest of locals. His robes and jewels—not to mention his Muslim faith—were entirely alien to the provincial town of Washington. Jefferson normally dined at 3:30 p.m. but he delayed the feast by several hours. “Dinner was to have been on the table precisely at sunset,” wrote John Adams in his diary, “it being the midst of Ramadan, during which the Turks fast while the sun is above the horizon.” The meal took place at the prescribed hour, and the Muslim guest was able to open his fast with the president of the United States.

Like much else, this episode has been polarizing and subject to vicious debate, provoked by Donald Trump’s decision this year to cancel the annual Iftar dinner at the White House. The left says that the Jefferson–Mellimelli dinner was the first Iftar at the White House, which is technically true even though the host was obviously not fasting. The right argues that this was little more than a diplomatic courtesy that has been exaggerated for politically correct reasons. But the moral of this little parable, at least to this reader, is clear: The founding father who had penned the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, who had authored the Virginia Statute For Religious Freedoms upon which the First Amendment was modeled, a slave-holding apostle of liberty and a libertine scholar who owned a copy of the Qur’an, had no problem eating with a Muslim at the White House. The first Treaty of Tripoli, signed in 1796, had the Jeffersonian spirit embedded in Article 11, which stated that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion—as it has itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims].” Incidentally, Thomas Jefferson was also the first person in American politics to be falsely accused—“smeared”—of being a secret Muslim.

This episode is particularly relevant as we come to the end of our first year with President Trump, a man who has shown only disdain for the Other—women, Latinos, blacks, the LGBT community—and has repeatedly singled out Muslims for attack. It is now cliched to pose the counterfactual of what would have happened if another president had behaved like Trump, so debased have our standards become. His amateurish and bigoted actions are difficult to square with the dignity of his office, and it is unfathomable to imagine George W. Bush or Barack Obama acting in similar ways. True, both those presidents have much to answer for when it comes to their disastrous policies in the Middle East, but neither went to the rhetorical and legal lengths that Trump has to alienate and target Muslims, who have become the quintessential Other. The vulnerability of the Muslim population is evidenced by the venom a public figure can spew against them without suffering any consequences. It may be quaint or unoriginal to point this out, but when one has brown skin and a Muslim name, the essential fact about the American president’s bigotry never loses its salience.

At times the president’s insults have been gratuitous: On November 29, Trump retweeted a video showing a Muslim migrant beating up a Dutch boy on crutches, which was followed by another video featuring a Muslim destroying a Virgin Mary statue and a third showing a mob pushing a boy off a roof. The organization the president had amplified to the entire world was Britain First, an ultranationalist right-wing group linked to British fascists that seeks to keep the United Kingdom a white and Christian country. One person who was elated by the endorsement was David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. “Thank God for Trump!” he croaked on Twitter. “That’s why we love him!”

Of course, the contents of the videos were later disputed. The attacker in the first video was not a migrant and likely not a Muslim either. The second and third videos were shot in Syria and Egypt, not the Netherlands, and the man in the second video was apparently linked to al Qaeda in Syria. But accuracy was not and never has been the point. The point was to propagate, from the loudest bully pulpit in history, the worst stereotypes of Muslims as bearded heathen coming to destroy Western culture and civilization. For Trump, it was simply a continuation of a pattern that began when he was a candidate and has only worsened since he’s been president.

Trump consistently conflates radical jihadists with ordinary Muslims, and has indicated that he believes Islam is an existential threat to America. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump said during the election, as if a constellation of ideas and beliefs, practiced by over three million of America’s own citizens, could actually have emotions. When Obama visited a mosque for the first time in his presidency last year, the then-Republican frontrunner remarked, “Maybe he feels comfortable there .... There is a lot places he can ago, and he chose to go to a mosque.” According to the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) pilot survey, the easiest way to determine whether a voter preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton was whether they believed Obama was a Muslim. The birtherist movement that Trump rode to the nomination and then the presidency was a racist conspiracy and a textbook example of Islamophobia: Obama wasn’t just born abroad and ineligible for the presidency, but also a Muslim and therefore an enemy of America. This is what Trump’s Islamophobia has in common with more traditional anti-Semitism: It diminishes the humanity of a minority group while claiming that the same minority is engaged in a global conspiracy to overthrow the Christian West.

The election was only the beginning. Seven days into his presidency, Trump signed Executive Order 13769 barring people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Airports around the world were thrown into chaos for a hastily written policy jammed through the system to catch Americans and the world off guard. In its original form, the Muslim ban—and that is what it should be called—would have banned green card holders and dual citizens. Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller’s fingerprints were all over the document, meaning that Trump’s first major policy was literally written by the far right. Though the Muslim ban was struck down, rewritten, and struck down again, it made its way through the lower courts, and the Supreme Court in early December ultimately allowed the latest version of the ban to go into full effect, thereby barring citizens from six Muslim-majority countries, plus North Korea and some people from Venezuela. Regardless of the early setbacks for the White House, this was a clear victory for the white nationalists. And there were no protests this time around.

This was not Trump’s only success. He has slashed the refugee program and imposed “extreme vetting” standards on mostly Muslim travelers. Refugee flows from Muslim-majority nations dropped by 94 percent from January to November 2017 and visas to Muslims—both immigrant and temporary visas—fell precipitously as well. The letter of the law will extend to more discriminatory security practices against Muslims and people who look Muslim (including Hindus, Sikhs, and Arab Christians) as they come into the United States. It will make travelers of the wrong hue or faith think twice before visiting the land of the free.

Trump’s rhetoric and policies have also filtered down to the thugs on the street. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardinho, found anti-Muslim incidents had doubled since 2014. The center’s director, Brian Levin, told The New York Times that there were more white nationalist rallies in the last two years than the previous two decades. Perhaps most maddening is that all this is happening while Trump sells billions of dollars worth of arms to the Saudis, effectively giving the original underwriters of Salafism and jihadism a blank check.

We should not take Trump’s bigotry lightly. He may be the least curious, most oafish president in modern history, but he is also is the descendant of a long intellectual tradition popularized by Samuel Huntington, who borrowed the term “clash of civilizations” from the historian Bernard Lewis. Both Huntington and Lewis were sophisticated conservatives whose arguments, though fatalistic and deeply flawed, are worth reading. Steve Bannon and his supporters, on the other hand, have weaponized the clash of civilizations thesis, having come to the conclusion that for demographic, cultural, and religious reasons, a war between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslims is inevitable. “We are at the beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” Bannon told a Catholic conference at the Vatican a few years ago. “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism, and this war is I think metastasizing far quicker than governments.” This cancer, say the white nationalists, is infecting even so-called moderate Muslims; indeed, these alt-righters—the president’s core base of support—believe that the binary of “moderate Muslim” versus “terrorist” is really a distinction without a difference.

A prudent policymaker would at least attempt to distinguish militants from the peaceful members of a faith. But the idea that every Muslim is in fact a sleeper waiting to pillage and pollute the Christian West gets a sympathetic hearing in the highest office in the land. The narrative that Trump and the white nationalists believe is the mirror version of the narrative that Islamic fundamentalists and extremists believe. If “Rome” means something to ISIS cadres who await a final battle with the infidels, then “Vienna” is equally significant for the white nationalists, who cite the victory of Christendom over the Ottoman Empire 400 years ago as the prelude to the coming clash. That the president is beholden to a movement that believes in a millenarian and generational war against Islam, a religion of a billion people, should make every American shudder.

Over the course of the year, I have attempted to look dispassionately at the unfolding of these events, but I cannot completely extricate my own skin and background from this debate, nor should anyone else who is a minority. We do not have the privilege of dealing in abstractions when discussing policies that impact us physically. We must be tough and philosophical about life, and not deny the evidence before our eyes. This is doubtless true for everyone, but for minorities it is a matter of self-preservation. The president may not have succeeded in banning all Muslims. He may not have the registries up and running. But he has already done more to harm the American idea than any recent president. And what is most worrying is not even Trump’s dehumanization of others—it’s that people who have allowed this to happen or looked the other way have themselves become only more inhuman.

If the conflict with Islam is Trump’s long war, then this year was the first phase of that war. The Overton Window has shifted, and radical and even fascistic ideas have crept into the mainstream of American and Western discourse. It is a fool’s errand to predict what will happen in the future, but it is a near certainty that the events that await us will seem unthinkable in foresight, and inevitable in hindsight.