I remember being resolutely certain that the only way to respond to candidate Trump was to boycott him. Until an elder of a different political affiliation pointed out that, for a brown, bearded Muslim of Pakistani ancestry, this could be a remarkably stupid political strategy. Muslims, lacking any meaningful relationship to the president or his inner circle, would be up the proverbial shit creek, sans paddle.
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But as it turns out, a group of senior Muslim leaders had precisely the kind of conversation I thought theoretical.
Buzzfeed reports that “a handful of Muslim activists and businessmen” pursued a (secret) meeting with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and confidant. Whether this had any utility is up to you. Just weeks later, Trump moved on implementing his Muslim ban, sowing chaos across American airports.
If the meeting had any effect, it’s hard to see; Trump has relaxed restrictions on where we bomb, and stocked his administration with white supremacists, Islamophobes, anti-Semites and racists. Still, that alone doesn’t mean talking to Trump is a fool’s errand. After all, despite the robust popular pushback to many of his policies, he’s still the president.
And we’re still Muslims. What good does it do us to be entirely out in the cold?
Many American Muslims ask, reasonably enough: Should we make overtures to the Trump administration? Not that different from the question many Americans, Democrats, yes, but independents too, are thinking the same. Do we work with his administration, or move to block him at every turn? The question has a different valence for people of the Islamic persuasion, or descended from Islamic civilization.
I don’t think American Muslims should refuse to engage the Trump administration outright, but I also think that engagement should be pursued on a case-by-case basis, with extra caution and extreme circumspection.
For three really good reasons.
First, who would we talk to exactly? As someone who has a background in national security, who cares about the integrity and security of his country, I’m genuinely concerned as to who is in charge of our country right now. Trump has left many key posts unfilled, and stocked others with persons whose qualifications are incredibly hard to ascertain. Have you seen "The Sound of Music?" You could be an ambassador! Want to destroy the Department of Energy? You could run it! The meeting with Jared Kushner seems to have had no discernible effect on Trump’s policies. Even if it did, the resulting outcome — Muslim Ban 1.0 and 2.0 — is hardly encouraging.
There doesn’t seem to be much communication or coordination between various parts of his government either, which raises a simple question: Even if America’s Muslim communities, mosques, schools, cultural centers and other institutions wanted to talk to the Trump administration, it’s a bit hard to know who to talk to--and who would actually have his ear. Ivanka Trump? Steve Bannon? We'd need an American Kremlinology. And even if we did, what's to say Trump would even listen to his advisors. He’s told us, time and again, that the person he consults most often is himself. Or whatever he finds on the internet.
Second, Trump’s base is about all he has left (sic) right now, and they kind of hate Muslims. Or at least voted, without much of a guilty conscience, for us to be booted off the island. When the rest of the country is turning on him, it’s hard to see why he’d turn to American Muslims. Not least because, independent of the consideration we ought to deserve as human beings, we’re not so electorally important.
Third, Mitt Romney.
Remember him? Fabulously rich white guy, Christian businessman, governor, candidate for president, pretty much as establishment as you can get, and Trump humiliated him. Hillary Clinton’s another member of the financial and political one percent, as Washington as Washington can be, and he suggested throwing her in jail. He accused the sitting American president of not being American. That’s how he treats people in power.
Imagine how he’d treat a widely despised, mostly misunderstood minority. He'd probably use the Muslims who do try to engage with him as window dressing, trotting us out, when convenient, to prove that he's not actually Islamophobic--say hello to my Muslim friends!--and then tossing these useful idiots into the dustbin of history the moment their usefulness expired. For a community lacking sorely in political leverage, we bring almost nothing to the table. Here or abroad.
Many Muslim-majority countries merely shrugged at the Muslim ban, and seem to show neither the interest in nor ability to stick up for their co-religionists when they’re being attacked--on the basis of their religion. Many of us are refugees, with no countries to go back to; all of us are--regardless of how we got here or when we got here--American, and we are American precisely because this country is our present and our future. And that’s to where we should turn.
It’s a sad fact that we have to demand our rights. But it’s still a fact. Twinned to an alternate fact. We could actually bring a lot to the table. Friends, specifically. Or at least allies. Of which we have plenty.
As a colleague of mine, Murtaza Hussain, once put it to me: There are three groups of Americans, electorally speaking. The smallest groupvoted for Trump. The next group voted for Clinton. And by far the largest didn’t vote at all. Instead of wasting our time talking to Trump, we should be aiming to peel voters off of his coalition--the moment seems ripe--while also appealing to the disaffected, whose numbers grow daily.
Trump’s incompetence is alarming sensible Americans, and alienating hitherto diehard supporters. We must expend every ounce of our energy making it clear to them that this story does not have to have a happy ending. In The World of Yesterday, his memoir of the collapse of liberal Europe and the rise of fascism, Stefan Zweig warned of “a small group,” which “intimidates a numerically superior but humane and passive majority” through violence, fear and terror. That is how good societies give way to bad societies.The question isn’t what we should say to Trump that might change his mind.
It’s how we reach those who did vote for him, or didn’t vote at all. In a democracy, they matter.
Even more than the president himself.
Haroon Moghul is a senior fellow and director of development at Washington's Center for Global Policy. He is the president of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul