by Emile Nakhleh
Donald J. Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, told CNN recently that “Islam hates us.” Although he maintains that the United States is engaged in a war against radical Islam, he claims, “It’s very hard to separate [presumably radical from mainstream]. Because, you don’t know who’s who.”
Experts, policy and intelligence analysts, and national leaders in the West and in the Muslim world all know “who’s who.” Only Trump doesn’t seem to know. His willful ignorance, anti-Muslim bigotry, and lust for personal aggrandizement have energized multitudes of admirers on the campaign trail. But the Trump phenomenon and his cavalier attitude toward the truth make it dangerous for American democracy and more problematic for U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
In addition to being so uninformed on Islam and Muslims, he has alienated governments in the Muslim world and in the West. Middle Eastern leaders view Trump’s anti-Muslim posture with apprehension and as a scary foreshadowing of American foreign relations under a possible Trump presidency.
Trump, a unique political neophyte who has taken the 2016 presidential campaign by storm, has demonstrated that he is willing to say anything, sell anything, and do anything to win the Republican primaries. To the rest of the world, however, he is no longer a reality TV show entertainer known for his “you’re fired” brand but the leading Republican presidential candidate and a potential president of the most powerful country on earth.
Muslim and non-Muslim leaders, including those in Western Europe, have expressed fear, concern, and bewilderment toward Trump because of his frequent angry, divisive, and incendiary statements. But he is also hypocritical in that while he bashes Islam, he has used wealthy Muslims to help him “build his empire.” According to media reports, Muslim financial support came through rentals in some of his high-end properties in Manhattan and elsewhere, including Qatar Airways, members of the Saudi royal family, and the Gulf sheikhdom of Dubai. Major stores in the Middle East that have sold high-end Trump Home-branded products, however, have recently pulled those products from their shelves.
Trump’s War Against Islam
Radical groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) have used Trump’s frequent anti-Islamic statements and TV interviews as a recruiting tool and justification to attack the West. Trump’s rhetoric furthermore has undercut the Obama’s administration’s efforts to engage Muslim communities worldwide and to cobble together a coalition of mainstream Muslims to fight radicalism and extremism. Trump seems to be moving back from a “war against terrorism” to a “war against Islam.”
Some Middle Eastern Muslim friends have told me that many of their co-religionists do not dwell on the nuances in Trump’s hateful statements against Muslims or spend time analyzing him as an attention-seeking, narcissistic demagogue. Instead, they fear that he will actually become president of the United States. He relies on ignorance and fear-mongering to stoke the flames of Islamophobia in the United States in order to divide the public between “us” and “them” and to propagate hatred of the “other.” The “other” in Trump’s case could be Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, African Americans, or anyone who doesn’t look like him or genuflect before him. American Muslims are genuinely apprehensive that Trump would bully his way to the presidency on their backs.
Trump’s political vulgarity is not unique in the annals of recent history. Others who aspired to lead their countries in the past century used similar racist and divisive rhetoric in mass rallies. Many of those demagogues have left division, disappointment, and failure in their wake. The Italy of Mussolini and Berlusconi and the Germany of Hitler are but a few sobering examples of how toxic and violent Trump’s America could turn out.
Many aspiring leaders in other countries, like Trump, have tapped into public anger and frustration to become national leaders only later to become repressive, corrupt, and illegitimate dictators. Trump, referring to himself, has often defined a good leader as one whose people do what he wants, even if such a command is in violation of the law, such as water-boarding and torture. If this is the case, America under a Trump presidency is heading for dangerous times.
Needed: A Primer on Islam to Educate Trump
After spending many years in the US government analyzing Islamic cultures, societies, and historical narratives, and having visited most of the Islamic world where I interviewed hundreds of Muslims, I would like to bring a few basic facts to Trump’s attention.
First, there is no such a thing as one Muslim world, one Islamic narrative, or one Muslim point of view. Simply put, the Muslims of Indonesia are not the same as the Muslims of Saudi Arabia. Muslims in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Russia, France, Canada, and the United States have different religious and sectarian narratives and varied worldviews. To lump them together, as Trump has done, is uninformed, self-serving, and fear mongering
Second, to say that “Islam hates us” is confusing, ignorant, agenda-driven, and untrue. The Gallup and Pew polls of Muslim countries in the past decade clearly show that Muslims don’t “hate us” as a free country or as a democracy. Their differences with the United States in recent years have been over specific policies, not values of good governance. Trump would do well to take a look at the long lines of visa seekers outside American embassies and consulates in Muslim countries. In my interviews with many Muslims over the years, I discovered they liked American education, technology, science, democracy, the rule of law, and our freedoms of speech, thought, dissent, and assembly. They criticize American policy but admire America and what it stands for.
When I was in the government I established and directed a Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program whose mission was to understand Muslim societies and analyze their respective religious, historical, and cultural narratives. The Gallup, Pew, and other opinion polls, which we used in our analysis and briefings to senior policymakers, indicated that poll respondents by huge majorities supported the key components of good governance for which this country stands.
If Trump truly cares about what Muslims think or feel, he and his advisers should read a couple of scholarly books, including Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America by Steven Kull and Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed.
Third, although a fraction of one percentage point of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have engaged in violent and terrorist activities, the other 99 percent lead normal lives, struggle to educate their children, pay their bills, cover their mortgages, and put food on the table. Many pious Muslims desire to be better human beings and shun politics. Only a minority of Muslims is engaged in political activism as members of Islamic political parties or Islamic NGOs.
The vast majority of Muslims aspire to educate their children in American and other Western colleges and universities. Engaging these millions of mainstream Muslims, as President Obama has done, rather than alienating them, is the best guarantee of American national security and interests across the Muslim world. Doubling down on anti-Muslim bigotry, as Trump has done, is a step backwards that will surely threaten us, not make us safer no matter how high his wall is.
The Way Forward
Most observers, scholars of Islam, and national leaders in the West believe that engaging Muslim communities across the globe, as President Obama stated in his 2009 Cairo speech, is the most effective way to maintain peaceful relations with the Muslim world, which in turn serves American national interests in almost 60 Muslim majority countries. Peaceful engagement in education, health, labor, commerce, law enforcement, technology, science, clean water, and energy research is also a celebration of American values.
Trump, whether as a business mogul or a future president, must also understand that the United States cannot effectively engage Muslims overseas unless the US government engages Muslims at home. The treatment of American Muslims as full-fledged citizens by our government and leaders will have repercussions across the Muslim world.
The federal government should establish partnerships with Muslim communities and solidify the fight against potential foreign and domestic terrorism. American society, as I wrote in another context, “would need to learn more about Islam and Muslims, as a religion and as citizens, and to fight off bigoted attitudes toward American Muslims.”
Unlike some European countries, Muslims in the United States have integrated and are contributing members of society in all walks of life and fields of endeavor. There is no such a thing as a “Muslim problem” in America. Let’s keep it that way.
If presidential candidate Donald J. Trump truly believes that he is a unifier not a divider, he should uphold the basic truth in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal.” This is what makes America great. Divisive rhetoric that separates America into tribes and warring factions undermines the country that he claims to love so much.