By Aidan Sanchez
The current political climate in the United States in 2018 is volatile. Among the many contentious topics is Islam’s place in modern Western society. Much of the kindling for growing islamophobic sentiments in the West has come from President Donald Trump. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump regularly established that Islam, and by extension Muslims, are public enemy number one. During a campaign rally in December of 2015, Trump infamously called for “’a total and complete shutdown’ of Muslims entering the United States ‘until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.’” In the same speech, Trump conceded that “we have no choice,” and must prevent Muslims from entering the United States. Establishing such a travel ban was, according to supporters, imperative in the interest of preserving national security. In his 1993 article The Clash of Civilizations?, Samuel Huntington predicted that cultural differences between the East and West would be the fundamental source for international conflicts in the post-Cold War Era. Using Huntington’s hypothesis, it is possible to identify the historical framework that has led us to where we are now.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union took the place as the U.S. collective ‘other,’ unifying two distinct conservative political sects: civilizational and ideological, against a common enemy. The civilizational conservatives opposed communism due to ideological reasons. The Soviet Union was an atheist state; its lack of faith ran contrary to Anglo-Saxon Christian traditions. Ideological conservatives stood against communism in the interest of preserving liberty and preventing the global domination of a totalitarian regime. This ‘us versus them’ paradigm is useful in analyzing this time period. Politicians and media outlets alike utilized this worldview to frame international politics because it was easy to identify the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ From this perspective, the United States was the good guy, and the Soviet Union was the godless enemy. In a December 1992 memo to his staff, New York Times foreign editor Bernard Gwertzman wrote, “In the old days, when certain countries were pawns in the Cold War, their political orientation alone was reason enough for covering them.” However, when the threat of nuclear annihilation subsided, the United States emerged as the clear global hegemon.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 left a void which allowed the West to rally against a different outgroup. Ultimately, Islam was identified as the new, dangerous adversary that would be extensively covered by the news media. Even with a vacant spot open for the collective ‘other’ against the West, Islam did not take the place of the Soviet Union without reason. Aggravations between the East and West date back as far as the inception of Islam itself. One constant throughout the history of Islam is its characterization by the West as a religious and political ideology that is inherently incompatible with Western principles. Todd Scribner, citing historian Bernard Lewis, wrote, “[t]he struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.” In the context of medieval Europe, it was advantageous for the Catholic Church to unify Europe by creating a threat to Christianity. Islam was characterized as a monstrous, pagan-like religion. According to the Church, Muslims promoted “unhampered sexual relations,” which directly challenged fundamental Christian doctrine. During the 19th century, Western culture expanded globally. This domination, however, did not extend to the Muslim world. Islam’s resistance to Western ideals cemented its identity as an imminent threat to those ideals. Once a threat is identified, it is easy for institutions of power to exploit fear of this threat to push legislation that appears to quell such concerns.
Author Lütfi Sunar identifies five main sources of contemporary American islamophobia: “the media, political rhetoric, violent extremists, American foreign policy, and islamophobia networks.” According to Sunar, there exists a deep network of misinformation, which continues to promote islamophobia within the United States. A 2011 report by the Center for American Progress found that “seven charitable foundations spent around $42.6 million between 2001 and 2009 to support Islamophobic rhetoric.” Islamophobia Networks, similar to propaganda spread by the medieval Church, frame the conversation in terms of ‘us versus them.’ Sunar also notes that Islamophobic rhetoric is ”echoed by the religious right, conservative media, and politicians trying to orchestrate a negative public opinion against American Muslims.” Author Todd Scribner notes a joint study undertaken by Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute in 2016 that “found that while 79 percent of Republicans, and 83 percent of Trump supporters, believe that the basic value system of Islam is at odds with American values, only 42 percent of Democrats thought the same way.” Sunar references a 2017 Huffington Post analysis in which the author identifies the defining characteristics of contemporary American Islamophobia. One such characteristic is the narrative that the goal of Islam is to destroy the United States from within the country. The concept of ‘the enemy within’ can convince the public to associate Muslim-Americans with Islamic terror. Scribner quotes Donald Trump describing refugees and other migrants from the Middle East as an imminent “Trojan Horse,” which would allow terror into the United States. These tactics ultimately only serve to blur the line between radical Islamic terrorists and Muslims. Islamophobes often attribute jihad to a fundamental law within the Islamic religion. This runs contrary to the fact that many mainstream Muslim groups openly denounce terrorism.
A real fear of radical Islamic terrorism began to emerge in the early 1990s as terrorist attacks started receiving heavy media coverage. While attacks like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing were extensively covered, Islamic terrorism did not fully take the spotlight until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Author Philip Seib recounts sensationalist newspaper headlines following the 9/11 attacks including: “This Is a Religious War”; “Yes, This Is About Islam”; “Muslim Rage”; “The Deep Intellectual Roots of Islamic Terror”; “Kipling Knew What the US May Now Learn”; “Jihad 101”; “The Revolt of Islam”; and so on. Unlike the Soviet Union, terrorist networks like al Qaeda are not state actors. Terrorist networks cannot be easily identified on a map. Without a single threat to identify, terrorist networks create “disorientation among policymakers and news executives alike,” which is reflected in public discourse. Since al Qaeda is not contained within or sponsored by a single state actor, policymakers declared a ‘war on terror.’ This vague description allows for the social construction of a ‘terrorist’ to be whatever the public fears. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration first believed Iran to have orchestrated the attacks. However, 15 of the 19 hijackers during 9/11 were later identified to have come from Saudi Arabia, having only passed through Iran to reach the United States. While terrorists usually claim allegiance to specific terrorist networks, the general public is not always aware of the nuances of terrorism. The contemporary social construction of a ‘terrorist’ usually manifests as ‘Muslim,’ ‘Middle Eastern,’ or simply individuals that ‘look’ Middle Eastern. The complications of terrorist attacks can create an atmosphere in which public opinion can effectively be exploited by policymakers and media networks.
In the interest of national security, President George W. Bush issued sweeping changes in the wake of 9/11 through the use of executive powers. He created an “immigration enforcement bureaucracy,” establishing departments like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of Homeland Security, as well as Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The civilizational and ideological conservatives of the Cold War era reconsolidated themselves behind President Bush in support of the ‘war on terror.’ Sunar explains that bipartisan support for the ‘war on terror,’ notably support among Republican politicians, had the effect of “influenc[ing] their voters to a significant extent.” The September 11th terrorist attacks unfortunately succeeded ‒ insofar as they sowed fear into the public landscape, as well as galvanized existing hostilities between the East and the West.
Rather than reevaluating the policies implemented under President Bush, the Obama administration continued the immigration enforcement bureaucracy. According to author Jennifer Chacón, “by every measure, immigration enforcement reached its historic peak in the Obama years.” Rather than see immigration reform under Obama, Chacón notes that early on in Obama’s presidency, “it sometimes seemed that immigration enforcement proceeded on autopilot.” Chacón ascribed this decision by the Obama administration to an ‘investment’ undertaken by the President. The Obama administration believed it had to prove to both policymakers and the general public that the current national security system would continue to be effectively enforced, until the President had the ability to introduce substantial immigration reform. Chacón argues that this calculation backfired and only strengthened the policies introduced by the Bush administration: “By doubling down on the popular but factually bankrupt narrative that immigration enforcement was an integral part of an effective public safety agenda, the Administration legitimated a wrongheaded national approach to immigration as a crime and security problem to be solved rather than as a largely positive phenomenon in need of a more effective governing legal framework.” President Obama found it increasingly difficult to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation due to Democrats losing a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. Many Republican lawmakers blocked such legislation from even reaching a vote. These policymakers based their opposition in the interest of preserving national security. Scribner identifies extreme ideological polarization as a fundamental obstacle for Congress when it comes to remedying fundamental problems with the immigration system. By refusing to even discuss immigration reform, policymakers have allowed the false narrative that the Obama administration was weakening on national security, while the President only built upon the foundation laid by his predecessor. In a time of heightened security, Republican lawmakers used islamophobia to justify an increasingly violent ‘war on terror.’
Decades of sensationalist media coverage and political influence have culminated to create the political environment which gave rise to President Donald J. Trump. Ancient animosities between Islam and the West were reawakened by decades of wars in the Middle East embedding a fear of terrorism, and by extension Muslims ‒ into the American public. Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump referenced Islam encroaching on American values. Both Scribner and Sunar acknowledge that President Trump utilized Islamophobia as a leading campaign strategy. Scribner narrows this broad strategy into three talking points used by the Trump campaign: “Muslims pose a national security threat, the cultural insecurities that have emerged among many white Christian Republicans in particular, and economic stagnation.” The joint study by Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute found that among white evangelicals, 59 percent believe the United States is no longer a ‘Christian’ nation, compared to 48 percent in 2012. Similarly, the study found that 68 percent of Republicans believe that things have changed for the worse in the United States since the 1950s. Donald Trump has continued to address these insecurities, promising to ‘make America great again’ by closing off U.S. borders to immigrants. He was, in effect, the first presidential candidate to successfully weaponize existing Islamophobia, as evidenced in the 2016 election campaign. In short, he utilized recent influxes of immigrants to the United States to exploit the perceptions held by both white Evangelicals and conservatives as disruptive to their long standing cultural principles.
Within a week of being in office, President Trump enacted an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” As a campaign promise, Donald Trump boasted to his supporters that he would ban Muslims from entering the country. To President Trump and his supporters, a ban is necessary to prevent the Trojan Horse scenario from coming to fruition. Trump vehemently argued that without the travel restrictions, terrorists could come pouring into the United States. The travel ban itself was unfortunately only a tool to further incite islamophobia within the country. The countries originally listed on the ban included Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. Daniel Milton explains the rationale behind the ban: “underlying instability and presence of terrorist groups in these countries,” in part justifies it. The ban perplexingly omits countries like Saudi Arabia, whose nationals were directly involved in the 9/11 hijackings. One of the greatest concerns addressed in the ban is the presence of foreign fighters in Syria, who may be susceptible to indoctrination from terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. After becoming indoctrinated, these foreign fighters may return to their home countries, or travel to other countries to commit acts of terror. Utilizing data pulled from the Islamic State’s own foreign fighter entry forms, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point conducted an analysis of foreign fighters operating in Syria. The analysis did not account for local fighters from Iraq and Syria themselves. The five remaining countries on the ban contributed only 4% to the total number of foreign fighters in Syria. For comparison, Saudi Arabia accounted for 20% of total foreign fighters, followed closely by Tunisia at 16%. Using data available from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), Milton analyzed the number of terrorist attacks that occurred within the countries listed on the travel ban from 2014 through 2015. Iraq accounted for 21% of global terrorist attacks. These data indicate that Iraq has the potential to be a legitimate source of terrorism. However, Iraq is the outlier of this dataset. Of the countries on the travel ban, the second highest number of internal terrorist attacks occurred within Syria, accounting for 3% of global terrorist attacks. While the number of attacks in Syria are not insignificant, countries omitted from the ban contributed much higher numbers of terrorist attacks. The two most significant of these were Afghanistan and Pakistan, accounting for 12% and 11% of total terrorist attacks, respectively. This data by no means should be the sole basis for national security decisions; however, it does highlight flaws within the logic behind the travel ban. If the purpose is to prevent as many terrorists from entering the United States as possible, the ban should not have omitted countries like Saudi Arabia, which provide some of the highest numbers of foreign fighters to Syria.
Donald Trump’s presidency is by no means incidental. The unique history of the United States set the framework for policymakers to exploit public fear to advance their own agenda. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union was the source of this fear. The Soviets were constructed as an ‘other’ because Soviet culture was easily distinguished from American culture. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state operating under an economic system antithetical to that of the United States. Policymakers and media outlets alike could easily identify the ‘good guys,’ and the ‘bad guys.’ When the Soviet Union collapsed, perhaps it was inevitable that another adversary would challenge Western hegemony. As predicted by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations?, cultural divides have pitted the West against the East. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, the ‘East’ does not refer to any single state actor. Islam as a collective ‘other’ does not work because there is no collective ‘other.’ There is no significant union between terrorist organizations, as evidenced by the ‘war on terror.’ The only thread that links the various terrorist organizations is their Islamic religion. This, unfortunately, is the thread that some media outlets and policymakers have used to unify the public to create an enemy to replace the Cold War rival of the Soviet Union. Some politicians have continued to tug on this thread, pulling Americans in an islamophobic direction. President Trump has taken ‘us versus them’ to the point where the United States risks isolating itself to keep ‘them’ out. Policies like President Trump’s travel ban should face extreme scrutiny by the general public. Although Samuel Huntington predicted the conflict along cultural fault lines, even he could not have predicted the catalyst that is President Donald Trump.
Aidan Sanchez is a junior Political Science major at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. The original version of this essay was written for his class, The Politics of U.S. Immigration, in Fall 2017.