Being Muslim in the Age of Trump

>Flickr/Tom VanNortwick

Being Muslim in the Age of Trump

Donald Trump became the official nominee of the Republican Party by crushing a large field of competitors that included a laundry list of an older generation of Republican Party stalwarts — such as governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich, and Senator Lindsey Graham — and a younger generation of Republican Party leaders, such as senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and Governor Scott Walker.  Conventional wisdom, a view that I shared, was that support for Trump had a hard ceiling; once the Republican field consolidated to two or three candidates, Trump would be defeated.  

This view turned out to be mistaken for several reasons.  First, the rules of the Republican primaries dictated, in most cases, a winner-take-all result. Despite failing to win majorities in many early primaries, Trump successfully built a formidable and insurmountable lead in delegates by the time the field had whittled down to three candidates.  Second, the fact that Trump was competing against such a crowded field created a classic collective action problem: Each of the “conventional” Republican candidates believed that he had an excellent chance of winning the nomination if only the other “conventional” candidates would drop out. So instead of attacking Trump and taking the risk of alienating his core supporters, they focused on attacking one another until it was too late to stop Trump.  Third, Trump, no doubt because of his success as an entertainer, had a better understanding of the role of popular media in creating successful images and of how he could exploit the media to launch a substance-free political career just as he had in reality television.  In so doing, Trump was able to capture the Republican nomination despite being outspent and out-fundraised by opponents.  Fourth, and most important to our concerns, he understood better than any other candidate that the Republican Party, after 9/11, had evolved into a white populist party.  Buffeted by declining economic prosperity, the ongoing burdens of fighting wars overseas, and the rising prosperity of non-white populations, resentment became the most important political value animating the Republican base.  

Stoking white resentment, of course, has roots that extend far beyond 9/11 and goes back to Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy.” Prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the states of the former Confederacy were known as the “solid South,” for their exclusive support of the Democratic Party.  The absence of a viable Republican Party in the South was a legacy of the Civil War and the Republican Party’s support for abolition and the civil rights of newly liberated slaves.  The Democratic Party, by contrast, had been lukewarm in its support of the Civil War, and during Reconstruction, was largely indifferent to the fate of Blacks.  By the turn of the 20th century, de jure segregation had been established throughout the South, and these states had become exclusively the province of the Democratic Party.  Southern Democrats became a critical component of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, and without their support, the New Deal would have died.  The price paid for southern support, however, was heavy: the normalization of segregation and racial hierarchy.  When Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and northern Democrats finally agreed to act, along with Republicans, to dismantle southern apartheid through the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson knew that the Democratic Party was taking a great risk that it would lose support in what had been its strongest region — the South.  

Nixon’s Southern Strategy was a cynical attempt to persuade southern whites to abandon the Democratic Party and become Republicans by exploiting their racial resentment.  Fifty years later, it is obvious the strategy worked, but the law of unintended consequences ensured that it worked against those who thought it would profit them.  Instead of southern whites joining northeastern Republicans as junior partners in a pro-business coalition, southern whites essentially effected a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.  Using the pretext of conservative religious values, newly empowered southern Republicans attempted to impose their particular combination of social conservativism and nativism on the rest of the Republican Party, leading to disastrous results outside the South.  The Republican Party in California — where Governor Pete Wilson led a campaign in support of Proposition 187 that targeted undocumented immigrants — has virtually imploded in the face of the state’s demographic realities.  The Northeast, once the traditional base of the Republican Party, has also become solidly Democratic as a result of the transformation of the Republican Party from a pro-business, pro-civil rights party to one dedicated largely to preserving the particular cultural values of the South.     

>Flickr/Matt Johnson

>Flickr/Matt Johnson

A mantle of authenticity

Trump understood the evolution of the Republican Party into a nativist party better than all his competitors.  It may be the case that the median Republican voter supports small government and lower taxes, and also supports conservative religious and social values. However, above all, Republican voters support what they see as authenticity, and for them, authenticity resides exclusively in white America.  Conservative evangelical Republicans and pro-business Republicans must be in equal degrees of shock that their party could nominate a candidate that is so brazenly heterodox in both his personal morality and his anti-market prescriptions to “Make America Great Again,” but in fact, it should not be surprising at all.  The Republican base does not care deeply either about religious scruples or free-market principles; what it cares about is authenticity, and Trump successfully portrayed himself, at least in comparison with his competitors, as the most “authentic” candidate available.  

Trump earned the mantle to “authenticity” by giving voice to the deepest fears of the Republican base, namely, terrorism and immigration.  His proposal to exclude Muslims from entering the United States gave voice to long-simmering anti-Muslim sentiments in the electorate that politicians from both political parties have been willing to stoke whenever it was convenient for tactical reasons.  By explicitly proposing to ban Muslims, Trump, in the eyes of his core supporters, went beyond the tactical use of Islamophobia and showed himself willing to take a “principled” stand against the Muslim threat. Likewise, Trump’s determination to “build a wall” signaled to the Republican base that if elected, he would act decisively to protect the U.S. from the “threat” of Mexican immigration.  Ordinary politicians, by contrast, exploited the fear of the Muslim or immigrant threat only to get elected and then turned their attention to other matters.  

The American Muslim vote

The fact that opposition to Muslims has become one of the touchstones of “authenticity” among at least one-third of the American electorate is obviously deeply troubling for American Muslims, but it should not have come as a surprise.  And while there is important evidence that there has been a “backlash” against the Trump-stoked anti-Muslim backlash, American Muslims cannot take comfort in knowing that the Republican Party, as presently constituted, has little hope of winning national elections. With the Democratic Party secure in the knowledge that American Muslims have no option but to vote Democratic, American Muslims have no leverage to make demands on the Democratic Party.  As long as anti-Muslim sentiment is this deep among large segments of the American electorate, American Muslims will only be in a position to demand that their bare rights as citizens be recognized, with no hope that any of their substantive views on important issues of the day will be heard and considered.  The long-term strategic interests of U.S. Muslims, therefore, is directly related to returning to a political reality in which both political parties actively compete for Muslim support.  



Only when there is competition for Muslim support will American Muslims have a voice in formulating substantive policies.  The question we need to consider is what we, as a community, can do to help restore a politically competitive arena with respect to Muslim voters. Many Muslims, especially younger Muslims, were enthusiastic supporters of Bernie Sanders and have expressed such disdain for Hillary Clinton, that they have stated a refusal to vote for her in November.  I believe this would be a mistake, if all American Muslim supporters of Sanders take this position.  There is no doubt that on many issues about which American Muslims care deeply, such as Palestine, Sanders’ position was vastly superior to that of Clinton. Nor is there doubt that Clinton has in fact expressed scandalous and even craven views regarding the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.  Nevertheless, we as a community cannot risk the possibility of a Trump victory in November. Our disgust at Clinton’s stated positions on Palestine, for example, cannot justify aiding and abetting a Trump victory.  Accordingly, the ideal strategy for our community is to work organizationally for a Clinton victory, mobilizing Muslim voters to vote en masse for her in swing states with substantial Muslim populations — such as Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Michigan — while encouraging Muslim voters in states whose outcomes are not in doubt to vote for a third-party candidate of their choice.  Such a strategy would indicate that while we will not act against our community’s interests, we still have the ability to communicate clearly our opposition to various stances a candidate may have taken that are contrary to our preferred views.  

An active role for the greater good

It is a mistake, however, to put too much focus on the presidential election.  We also need to increase our participation in congressional, state and local elections.  After numerous and drawn out disputes in various places over building mosques or the place of Islam in the public school curriculum, it ought to be obvious that state and local governments are often sites of entrenched Islamophobia that can only be confronted through vigorous participation in state and local politics.  This requires strong local organizations and a sustained commitment to politics between the four-year presidential cycles.

American Muslims, however, also need to find a public voice on the issues that concern common citizens.  It is easy to dismiss the nativism of the Republican Party as nothing more than racism. However, even if racism is undoubtedly an element of the rise of nativism, one would be a fool to ignore the economic pressures facing the working class.  It is not unusual in such circumstances for racial majorities to become racist in a desperate attempt to preserve their interests.  As members of a universal community, we are ideally situated to offer policy solutions that avoid xenophobic attacks against foreign competitors (a strategy that unites the populist right and left) and a kind of market fundamentalism that treats market outcomes as having the binding status of divine revelation.  Muslims have a rich tradition from which they can draw to propose reasonable solutions to the various economic crises buffeting the world.  

The Islamic tradition embraces both the principle of free trade and the duty to redistribute the profits realized from market exchange.  It is indisputable that free trade, on a net basis, increases the wealth available to humanity, and it is impossible to imagine how lesser developed countries could improve the living standards of their people if they are not free to export to the wealthier consumers of the developed world.  At the same time, however, we also know that the gains in wealth realized from these market transactions are not distributed fairly and that not everyone benefits from free trade. In the developed world, workers will be relatively disadvantaged as they are forced to compete with a globalized labor supply, and local producers in the developing world are disadvantaged as they now must compete with producers from the developed world.  Preservation of the benefits of free trade requires careful, but limited, government intervention in market operations to compensate the losers from expanding globalization.  

Muslims should take a leading role in advocating policies that encourage states in the developed world to provide secure safety nets for workers harmed by globalization and increase opportunities for lifelong learning to ensure that the workforce is sufficiently flexible and adaptable to the inevitable changes that will result from globalization and increasing automation.   In the developing world, Muslims should advocate for policies that encourage deployment of resources into faster-growing export sectors, the adoption of policies that encourage savings and investment, and assist local entrepreneurs in adjusting to the realities of global competition.

Muslims should be advocating various redistributive policies, both on domestic and international scales.  In the United States, for example, Muslims should be strong advocates of expanding the earned income tax credit, subsidized child care, increased access to education at earlier ages, expanding systems of affordable public transportation and more affordable health care.  All things being equal, preference should always be given to the more vulnerable; and for that reason, while the spiraling costs of higher education are a serious problem, priority should be given to programs that have a broader social impact, if there is a conflict between the two.  Accordingly, improving access to quality pre-K and primary education may have a greater beneficial impact on the lives of the relatively disadvantaged than reduced university tuition.  In any case, increased transfers to the poor and the lower-middle classes in the form of better access to public goods have a good chance of alleviating much of the resentment that drives Islamophobia, and therefore provides an independent reason to support redistributive fiscal policies.  

A model for redistribution

The principles underlying the Islamic institution of zakat (alms tax) provide a good rule of thumb for thinking about how big such transfers should be. Islam requires Muslims to pay 2.5% of their savings as zakat for the benefit of the poor.  The amount of excess reserves in the U.S. banking system as of June 2016 approached $2.3 trillion.  Excess reserves represent money beyond that which the law requires banks to maintain to meet reasonably foreseeable withdrawals from depositors.  In short, it represents the amount of uninvested savings, or in more moralistic language, money that is being “hoarded.”  Applying the rate of zakat to these excess reserves yields $57.5 billion, a modest sum given the wealth of the U.S., but which, if directed to the most vulnerable, such as children, could make an enormous difference in the quality of their lives.  Globally, there are almost $10 trillion of government bonds with negative yields. The fact that the holders of these bonds are willing to pay governments for the privilege of holding their money means that they can identify no opportunities for the profitable investment of their savings.  Accordingly, there should be no objection to redistributing a portion of these funds to the more vulnerable.  Again, applying the rate of zakat to these bonds would raise $250 billion for redistribution.  This “tax” on excess global savings could be used to finance investment in the developing world, something that not only benefits the developing world, but is also in the long-term interest of the developed world. Any reduction in the income gap between the developed and developing worlds would support wages in the developed world, first, by reducing the wage gap between them, and second, by allowing more consumers to purchase goods and services from the developed world, thereby strengthening their economies as well.  

The Islamic tradition provides Muslims with many tools to provide solutions to the world’s problems of inequitable growth without denying the possibility of development and increased affluence to all.  It is crucial that Muslims play an active role in promoting mutually beneficial policies that transcend the zero-sum logic that animates nativist political movements such as that of Trump.  Reducing inequality while increasing well-being will also have important secondary consequences of reducing the social conflict that underlies much of the Islamophobia in the developed world and the social conflict destroying the Muslim world.   

Combating structural racism

Many American Muslim activists are also deeply engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement.  Muslims, too, have important contributions to make in this arena, not just by expressing solidarity with Black activists against police brutality, but also by encouraging concrete policy proposals to reduce the number of victims of excessive force.  Here, as in much of the U.S. in the post-Civil Rights Movement era, much of the racism that endures is not the explicit de jure racism that characterized most of U.S. history, but rather is structural insofar as what appear to be race-neutral systems of governance result in disproportionate harms to racialized minorities, particularly, Blacks.  Because the roots of police violence against minorities are structural, structural solutions are required.  It is not simply a failure of will in the sense that the problem could be solved simply by replacing racist police officers with non-racist police officers and replacing racist prosecutors and judges with non-racist ones.  Rather, tackling the problem of the excessive use of force by the police requires resolving, simultaneously, the problem of the widespread distribution of firearms in the U.S., the excessive powers of the police to stop and question people without a judicial warrant — powers that fall disproportionately on the poor (a disproportionate percentage of whom are racialized minorities generally, and Blacks in particular) — and the excessive deference the law gives to police when they use lethal force. These problems must be resolved simultaneously if we are to expect a reasonable solution to police violence that does not result in either stigmatizing minority citizens or the police.

Owning the image of Islam

There is, unfortunately, very little we can do to address Islamophobia directly.  As long as the United States and Europe continue to fight wars against Muslim populations, and as long as the Arab world is trapped in what appears to be a never-ending cycle of secular-religious and Sunni-Shi’a conflict, violence connected with Islam will remain in the headlines.  In such circumstances, it will be inevitable that some number of Muslims in Western societies, including in the U.S. and Canada, will engage in violence.  Indeed, there is a growing risk that individuals motivated by extremist anti-Islam rhetoric might attack a mosque or another religious structure in the mistaken belief that it is a mosque, as occurred in the August 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  That does not mean, however, that Muslims should passively resign themselves to the inevitability of violence.  Rather, we should take steps to make it clear that such violence takes place despite us, not because of us.  

To make this clear, we should adopt various best practices that mosques in the U.S. should be encouraged to adopt.  First, all mosques should be encouraged to make video recordings of their Friday sermons and to post those sermons on their website.  Such a practice would have many salutary consequences, not the least of which is to improve the quality of Friday sermons.  Such a practice serves not only the defensive goal of warding off charges that mosques promote hate, but it also serves the positive Islamic goal of teaching others about Islam.  Muslims must understand that in the age of the internet, most people will learn about Islam through the internet, and if Muslims do not take ownership of the content about Islam on the internet, Islamophobes will, as they already have done.  

Second, we must take ownership of what is being taught in mosques. This is not to say that mosques are teaching hate as such, but we must recognize that Islamic education in the U.S. and Canada is ad hoc and haphazard, with its quality depending largely on the efforts of numerous well-meaning, but usually untrained, volunteers.  Our community has reached a critical mass that requires the professionalization of religious education to ensure that the content provided is more or less uniform and of high quality.  To this end, mosques and national organizations should cooperate to develop uniform Sunday school curriculums, and training programs for teachers.  Not only would such development improve the quality of religious education, it would also serve the important purpose of providing a ready answer to those who claim that mosques are teaching hate: We can just hand over to them the curricula used in Sunday schools.  As long as we lack formal curricula, however, we remain vulnerable to accusations regarding the content of Islamic religious education.  

Third, we must make substantial investments in the human capital of our religious organizations, beginning with our imams.  We cannot expect them to be preachers, provide pastoral care, counsel troubled families, be experts in Islamic law and exemplary participants in inter-faith dialogue when they are paid, on average, $30,000 per year.  By contrast, Jewish rabbis, on average, earn $140,000 along with a tax-free housing allowance. While Christian pastors, on average, earn only about $40,000, that is largely a reflection of the large number of small protestant congregations found in the U.S.  If the size of the congregation is 2,000 or more, the average salary is a much more robust $147,000.  Of course, when Muslim communities increase the salaries of their imams, they will be entitled to demand more from them, such as formal training in religious sciences, mastery of the English language, training as a chaplain, etc.  As Muslim communities expand in size, the scale and nature of the problems they will face will concomitantly expand and change, making it no longer feasible to run the community on a voluntary or quasi-voluntary basis.  We must invest the resources necessary to enable the professionalization of the services our community needs.  When we do so, not only will we strengthen our communities internally, thereby reducing the risk of alienation and subsequent “radicalization” that can become violent, it will also place us in a stronger position if and when acts of violence take place.  

Even if Trump loses the national election, as I fully expect, this will still be the Age of Trump.  I have offered brief thoughts on how American Muslims should respond to the Age of Trump, both in terms of their public politics and internally.  These are of course only a few items, albeit ones that I believe are crucial to navigating successfully our future in this turbulent age.  At a minimum, I hope we begin to think more strategically about the challenges facing our community rather than adopting a permanent emergency mode, constantly reacting to each successive crisis.   


This article appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

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