(CNN) President Donald Trump’s speech Sunday will likely be met with skepticism and frustration in the Muslim world, according to experts in the Middle East who said his sudden shift in tone on Islam was unconvincing.
A new book argues that conversations about Muslims in America and Europe are about more than rights and freedoms.
Controversies over Islam take somewhat different shapes in Europe and the United States. While France attempts to ban burkinis, or full-body bathing suits worn by some Muslim women, U.S. state legislatures attempt to ban the use of sharia law in American courts.
And yet, argues Nadia Marzouki in her new book, Islam: An American Religion, anti-Islam arguments in the West have become “surprisingly standardized.” It’s “no longer possible to discuss Islam’s place in Western societies without systematically invoking a series of normative oppositions: good/bad, moderate/radical, faith/law, West/Muslim, modernity/tradition, and so on,” she writes. “For a majority of Americans and Europeans, Islam remains an opaque object that one is unable to think of in any way other than as a problem, threat, or retrograde legal code.”
It’s not enough to understand this simply as Islamophobia, argues Marzouki, who is a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. She believes Islam has become a cipher in Western societies for the tough questions of secular, liberal democracies: how much to champion liberty over equality, for example, and whether legal rights should entitle Muslims to fully express their faith in public. As much as Europe and the U.S. have different histories and legal traditions, she claims, anti-Muslim groups in both places share their discomfort with these challenges.
Is President Trump trying to make enemies of the entire Muslim world? That could well happen if he follows up his primitive ban on refugees and visa holders from seven Muslim nations with an order designating the Muslim Brotherhood — perhaps the most influential Islamist group in the Middle East — as a terrorist organization.
Such an order, now under consideration, would be seen by many Muslims as another attempt to vilify adherents of Islam. It appears to be part of a mission by the president and his closest advisers to heighten fears by promoting a dangerously exaggerated vision of an America under siege by what they call radical Islam.
The struggle against extremism is complex, and solutions must be tailored both to the facts and to an understanding of the likely consequences. Since 1997, the secretary of state has had the power to designate groups as foreign terrorist organizations, thus subjecting them, as well as people and businesses who deal with them, to sanctions, like freezing their assets. President Barack Obama resisted adding the Brotherhood to that list.
There are good reasons that the Brotherhood, with millions of members, doesn’t merit the terrorist designation. Rather than a single organization, it is a collection of groups and movements that can vary widely from country to country. While the Brotherhood calls for a society governed by Islamic law, it renounced violence decades ago, has supported elections and has become a political and social organization. Its branches often have tenuous connections to the original movement founded in Egypt in 1928.
Under State Department guidelines, the “terrorist” designation is intended to punish groups that carry out terrorist attacks. There’s no question that some such groups have grown out of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Hamas, the adversary of Israel, which the United States named a terrorist organization in 1997. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has worked to crush the Brotherhood in his country since he overthrew his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader, in 2013. But there is no evidence that senior Brotherhood leaders ordered any violence or carried out any of the recent major terrorist attacks in Egypt, according to the analysts Michele Dunne and Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
WASHINGTON — It was at a campaign rally in August that President Trump most fully unveiled the dark vision of an America under siege by “radical Islam” that is now radically reshaping the policies of the United States.
On a stage lined with American flags in Youngstown, Ohio, Mr. Trump, who months before had called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration, argued that the United States faced a threat on par with the greatest evils of the 20th century. The Islamic State was brutalizing the Middle East, and Muslim immigrants in the West were killing innocents at nightclubs, offices and churches, he said. Extreme measures were needed.
“The hateful ideology of radical Islam,” he told supporters, must not be “allowed to reside or spread within our own communities.”
Mr. Trump was echoing a strain of anti-Islamic theorizing familiar to anyone who has been immersed in security and counterterrorism debates over the last 20 years. He has embraced a deeply suspicious view of Islam that several of his aides have promoted, notably retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, now his national security adviser, and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s top strategist.
This worldview borrows from the “clash of civilizations” thesis of the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, and combines straightforward warnings about extremist violence with broad-brush critiques of Islam. It sometimes conflates terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State with largely nonviolent groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots and, at times, with the 1.7 billion Muslims around the world. In its more extreme forms, this view promotes conspiracies about government infiltration and the danger that Shariah, the legal code of Islam, may take over in the United States.
President Trump is expected to announce a ban on Muslim immigrants into the United States. However, polls conducted in the last year show that, despite his electoral success, Trump’s views on Islam and Muslims do not have wide support among the American public.
Americans’ opposition to accepting refugees from Middle East conflicts have been highly exaggerated. As I noted last June, “even in the middle of a U.S. presidential campaign that has been breathtaking in its exaggerations and racism, with devastating terrorism providing fuel, 59 percent of Americans say they are ready to accept Middle East conflict refugees” assuming they are screened for security. As usual, Americans were deeply divided along partisan lines on this issue.
Four polls during the election year revealed extraordinary, progressive and unexpected shifts that cannot be explained by events during that year. Attitudes toward “Muslim people” became progressively more favorable from 53 percent in November 2015 to 70 percent in October 2016.
There has been much misinformation about Islam. Reports in Western media tend to perpetuate stereotypes that Islam is a violent religion and Muslim women are oppressed.
Popular films like American Sniper reduce places like Iraq to dusty war zones, devoid of any culture or history. Fears and anxiety manifest themselves in Islamophobic actions such as burning mosques or even attacking people physically.
At the heart of such fear is ignorance. A December 2015 poll found that a majority of Americans (52 percent) do not understand Islam. In this same poll, 36 percent also said that they wanted to know more about the religion. Interestingly, those under 30 years were 46 percent more likely to have a favorable view of Islam.
The problem, however, is that the teaching of Islam has been limited to its religious practice. Its impact on the arts and culture, particularly in the United States, is seldom discussed.
What teaching of Islam misses
In high school history books, there is little mention of the intertwined histories of Europe, Asia, and Africa in the middle ages and the Renaissance. There is even less mention of the flowering of art, literature, and architecture during this time.
Last week, a coalition of mostly far-right Christian organisations hosted a conference in Washington that claimed to be defending persecuted minorities in the Middle East. Given the very real threat facing vulnerable ancient religious communities at the hands of barbarous groups such as ISIL, one might be inclined to commend the organisers. However, an examination of the groups involved and the list of invited speakers shows that the conference’s purposes appear to be dangerously provocative.
Among the featured speakers are a handful of notorious Islamophobes and a strange collection of individuals who claim to have been “radical Muslims” of one stripe or another, all of whom say they have now converted to Christianity and have come forward to tell their conversion stories.
One of the listed headliners was Frank Gaffney who heads an organisation that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identifies as an “anti-Muslim hate group”. Mr Gaffney is one of the main propagators of the notion that president Barack Obama “may be a Muslim” and that a Hillary Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, is a secret operative of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another speaker representing an SPLC-listed hate group is retired general William Boykin, a Bush-era Pentagon official who gained notoriety when it was revealed that he had repeatedly compared the Iraq war to the Crusades, boasting that the US/Christian side was bound to win because “our God is bigger than theirs”. Gen Boykin has also said that “Islam is evil” and should not be protected by the First Amendment.
Among the others scheduled to address the event were a number of evangelical preachers, Donald Trump supporters, and Christian missionaries devoted to converting Muslims.
The organisers invited some converts to share their stories. One of them, Tass Saada, claims to have been a PLO sniper until he saw the light and converted to Christianity. He founded the Hope for Ishmael group to encourage other Muslims to convert. Another speaker, Daniel Shayesteh, is an Iranian American who claims to have been an Islamic extremist at the age of 9. He became a Christian and founded the group Exodus from Darkness.
It was especially troubling that a number of conservative Republican Members of Congress and State Department officials were scheduled.