It’s hard to keep track of all of Donald Trump’s many offenses, but his recent comment to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, is worth bookmarking: “I think,” the billionaire mused, “Islam hates us.” Pushed, Trump admitted he didn't know if this was a current phenomenon, or some deeper enmity embedded in the religion itself. He kind of just left it there to inflame the base.
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There have been many good responses to Trump’s anti-Muslim disparagement, including this latest bit, from arguments that American Muslims are loyal citizens of their country to comparing the Bible and the Qur’an's approach to violence to pointing out the dangerous implications of his statements. But in all of this we miss an obvious question.
One a lot of Muslims around the world find themselves asking. It’s just five words, too. Five deceptively simple words.
Why does America hate Islam?
It's Not Islamophobia When
There are Islamic extremists. They intend to and really do harm innocent people. They’ve attacked the West and obviously the United States too. While September 11th was the worst such attack, it wasn’t the only such attack. While nearly every Muslim religious and institutional authority—with me, too—believes their actions, politics, and theologies are fundamentally incompatible with Islam, the radicals certainly don't.
Al-Qaida looks to Islam to legitimate its brutal responses to political grievances real and perceived, while ISIS does them one worse: The Islamic State claims to believe that Islam doesn’t only justify its violence, but compels it. And it’s not politically incorrect to note this. It’s not Islamophobic to express concern about this. (That'd mean many Muslims, like me, would hate themselves or their faith.) It is what it is.
Some Muslims, and some interpretations of Islam, do hate us. But you can have the truth without having the whole truth.
ISIS isn’t the only interpretation of Islam and not a common one either. Some of ISIS’ worst violence is in fact directed at groups deemed insufficiently or inadequately Muslim. Not only do most Muslims reject them (considering they want to kill us and other people), most Muslims are also not particularly moved by political Islamist ideologies, either. What I mean is from hating us, qua Americans, most Muslims have complicated attitudes to America.
The Great Mosque in Mecca, that gargantuan structure surrounding the Ka’aba, is ringed by Western franchises, including hotels and fast food: On my last pilgrimage, I enjoyed Starbucks, Sbarro’s and Burger King, although, and God is merciful, not at once. I’d venture most Americans would be surprised by the degree to which American products and culture have embedded themselves in Muslim societies. The example above is from Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative Muslim societies in the world. So how do we figure Islam hates America?
Who is Islam, anyway?
And why do so many Americans think Islam is a coherent entity comparable to the United States? It makes zero sense to say, e.g., “I think Islam hates us.” Muslims are not a single ethnic group, not a nation-state, and all of them clearly do not hate all of us. But many of the same online commentators who insist Islamophobia isn’t racism, because Islam isn’t a race, nevertheless tell me to “go back to your country,” which is more often than not identified with Saudi Arabia. Incidentally. The reason we have moved from legitimate concern about Islamic extremism to a general prejudice against anything associated with Islam is that those people carried us there.
Trump validates a dangerous anti-Muslim discourse, but he did not invent it. His views on Islam, as creepy as they are, don’t differ dramatically from the wider Republican base. He just says more bluntly what his less compelling peers are already thinking. For them and for him, Islam is conceived of as a hegemonic, imperialist ideology, all Muslims are actually or potentially terrorists, and there are no historical, cultural or political determinants that might help us to understand Muslims or add nuance or complexity to what we see on television. The result is as sad as it is predictable. Many Americans rate Muslim like proto-human primates. The New York Times judges Islam about as warmly as cancer. In effect, many Americans actually hate Islam. But that’s not the worst of it. We have for some time.
Let Him Who Is Without Sin
When Trump said “I think Islam hates us,” I think he meant Muslims hate us. He confuses the actions of some for many. If you think that’s legitimate, stop, take a breath, and consider that the reverse is true—if not more so. Year after year, Americans vote for politicians who continue policies that inflict great harm on many Muslim societies. To many Muslim observers, then, the line goes in the other direction. Islam doesn’t hate America. America hates Muslims. We hate their freedom, which is why, over and over again, we prefer to install dictators over them and seize democracy from them. Islamic extremists kill in the name of God. We kill in the name of national security.
What did the Iranian people do to deserve the overthrow of their nascent democracy? What crime did Egyptians and Tunisians commit that they deserved the arming and abetting of dictators that ruled over, oppressed and paralyzed their societies? How did Kurds wrong Americans such that we picked the Turkish military time and time again? When Bosnians were being targeted by a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing and sexual violence, what in them deserved to be slapped with an arms embargo, so that neither would we help them, nor permit them to defend themselves?
What fault in the Yemeni people, which explains why we’ve been enabling Saudi Arabia’s war on them?
Even during the Arab Spring, we mostly ignored Tunisia, looked the other way when it came to Bahrain, and offered Egypt no meaningful support. We even ended up backing Sisi after he committed the worst massacre of civilians in modern Egyptian history.
But does that really mean Americans hate Islam?
No. Not only because I am an American, but because I refuse to reduce countries, religions, ethnicities and peoples to binaries. To do that would be dishonest, offensive, and chauvinistic.
It would be Trumpian. He takes a select set of Muslim actors and conflates them not only with all Muslims, but with the religion itself. But I have to present the counterfactual. If only to help people see how language that at first seems empowering, promising, even reassuring, only begins thusly. Fascism starts weakly, hesitantly, probingly, judging the receptivity of wider society to its intentions, picking on the minority no one likes—to see if it is safe to come out of the closet.
And is fascism exclusive to any one place or time?
This is not us versus them. There is no clash of civilizations. The conflict is between people who believe in such reductive binaries, and people who see what the world for what it really is. The former want us to fight. When they say Islam hates us, they wish it to be true, too. The latter want us to thrive. They see what reality is: nuanced, diverse, complex. Human.
For the first time in my lifetime, I cannot say with confidence which of these perspectives, the democratic or the despotic, will take reign over America. That should be a frightening thought for all of us, for the very same reason why the majority of the world's Muslims engage America, even though they aren't American. We are a superpower. What we do matters. Who we hate matters. The question is not if Islam hates us, or even if we hate Islam.
It's why do so many Americans hate what America is meant to be?
Haroon Moghul is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. He is a President of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul