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Trump Administration Largely Treats Islam As ‘Political Ideology,’ Which Carries Profound Implications

President Donald Trump’s administration treats Islam as more of a political ideology than a religion.

Chief strategist Steve Bannon believes the United States is in the “beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.”

“Islam is a political ideology. It is a political ideology,” former Trump national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn once declared. “It definitely hides behind this notion of it being a religion. And I have a very, very tough time because I don’t see a lot of people screaming Jesus Christ with hatchets or machetes or rifles, shooting up clubs or literally axing families on a train.” He also said it is like “cancer” that has “metastasized.”

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway; CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a Christian zealot; and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a friend of leading anti-Muslim racist David Horowitz, see Islam as a religion driven by political ideologues.

When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked on February 21 about “anti-Muslim sentiment” in the United States, he said, “If you come here or want to express views that seek to do our country or our people harm, [Trump] is going to fight it aggressively, whether it is domestic acts that are going on here, or attempts through people abroad to come into this country.”

Such views suggest the presidential administration sees the U.S. as a country at war with an ideology, not a legitimate religion. They subscribe to the idea popularized by Samuel Huntington that this is a “clash of civilizations.” The way the administration confronts this “threat” will have significant consequences for the constitutional rights of millions of Americans.

“If you say that this is not a religion, what that means for people who are in America is you basically cannot invoke religious rights under the Constitution,” Jamil Dakwar, the director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, declared. “Because if they are not a religion, if this is just a political ideology or some sort of political movement, well, yes, you may have some constitutional rights, but you may not have the standing to invoke or claim that you have constitutional rights as a religious minority.”

The first and second Red Scares of the 1920s and 1950s were both pivotal moments in the U.S., especially for those who identified as or were considered to be leftists.

Fear of communist infiltration turned into full-blown hysteria leading up to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The result of HUAC was devastating for countless individuals, most notably Paul Robeson, a black civil rights activist and entertainer, who was forced to appear before the Tenney Committee to testify on allegations that he was a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Robeson later had his passport revoked by the State Department after refusing to recant statements he made in favor of the Soviet Union.

CPUSA was not the only organization monitored by the Attorney General in 1947. The “Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations” at one point included nearly 90 organizations, as well as schools characterized as ‘“subversive” gangs and communist fronts that posed a direct threat to the United States.

Decades later, the government, along with anti-Muslim organizations and pseudo-experts, often treat Islam similarly. They see followers as especially susceptible to “radicalization,” even though evidence is lacking. Outside groups and right-wing media target Muslim student associations and Islamic advocacy groups. Muslim or Arab scholars, who express anti-imperialist sentiments in order to challenge U.S. foreign policy, have their loyalty to America openly called into question.

The Global War On Terrorism fueled the exponential rise of this activity, but the Muslim ban signed by President Trump demonstrated to the most toxic purveyors of Islamophobia that their ideas could become policy under his administration. It represented a grand opportunity to struggle in the mainstream for a kind of legitimacy within the establishment that these extreme forces have not fully achieved.

Cracking Down On “Islamist Ideology”

In 2016, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for resurrecting HUAC and having it focus on “radical Islam.” Trump called for Homeland Security to spend less time focusing on violent non-Muslim extremists and instead prioritize Islamic extremism. This means that the U.S. would be moving much needed attention—and funds—away from surveilling groups and individuals that have been a part of bombing plots, shootings, and other violent events.

Republican congressman Peter King inaugurated hearings in 2011 on behalf of the Homeland Security Committee, which, according to King, were convened to highlight the threat that Muslim-American radicalization poses to the United States.

The committee compiled a report in which the extreme views of Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, were used to validate interests in cracking down on “Islamist ideology.”

“If the root cause of Muslim radicalization is Islamism (political Islam), what good is any effort at counterterrorism that decouples any suggestion of theology no matter how separatist from terror?” Jasser asked when testifying to the committee. “How can law enforcement effectively do counter terrorism in our country without recognition that political Islam and its narrative is the core ideology when, at its extreme, drives the general mindset of the violent extremists carrying out the attacks?”

He pleaded with representatives to address the “supremacism of political Islam,” and added, “We have been so fixated on preventing the next attack that we have neglected to develop the tools necessary to defeat the ideology that drives the attack.”

Like an anti-communist with ties to communist organizations, Jasser holds himself out as a moderate with a Muslim background, which supposedly makes him a truth-teller on the “threat.” But as the Center For American Progress’ report “Fear Inc.” detailed [PDF], Jasser has no “policy or academic expertise” and often “dangerously and incorrectly labels mainstream Muslim American organizations as subversive, disloyal proponents of a radical Islam takeover.” He believes their “patriotism involves taking the American flag and adding a little crescent—and of course, turning America into an Islamic state.”

Other personalities like Center for National Security director Frank Gaffney serve as “misinformation experts” and use platforms like Breitbart News to spread lies and myths. Gaffney considered President Barack Obama to be a “secret Muslim.”

Although his unbridled extremism has thus far kept Gaffney from appointment to a top position in the White House, his theories about political Islam have influenced the Trump administration, including the idea that anyone who is Muslim should be viewed with suspicion. Plus, Breitbart News, a site populated with anti-Muslim clickbait headlines, is a favorite news source for the Trump administration.

“Until The War With Islam Is Over”

Deepa Kumar, in her book, “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,” documented “New McCarthyites,” like Jasser and Gaffney, who “project the image of a vicious and menacing ‘Muslim enemy.’” These “New McCarthyites” also include Christian right evangelicals like Franklin Graham, who delivered the benediction at Trump’s inauguration.

Graham believes Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion.” He is a staunch advocate for banning Muslims from the United States.

“For some time I have been saying that Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over,” Graham wrote.
Such individuals see the United States in a kind of holy war against Islam. They use the language of religious crusaders just as Trump did in his inaugural address when he mentioned the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism” and proclaimed, “We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.”

Of course, there is no recognition of how the U.S. government has fomented the very brand of Islamic fundamentalism, which Trump officials view as a deep-seated threat. For example, as Kumar summarized, the U.S. backed Afghan mujahedeen forces against the Soviet Union. Osama bin Laden globalized jihad, taking the fight to Bosnia, Kashmir, and other regions of the world. He was once a CIA asset in Afghanistan.

President Ronald Reagan’s administration funneled arms to Iran. The government supported Islamist groups in Central Asian republics. It believed this was key to weakening the country’s chief adversary in the Cold War.

Invoking Human Rights To Target Muslims

The Trump administration invokes the hatred of Islamic fundamentalists against LGBT people in the first version of his travel ban against Muslims. Journalist Aviva Stahl highlighted how it called for security agents to screen migrants for “bigotry and negative attitudes to homosexuality.” Incensed LGBT groups, like advocacy group Lambda Legal, responded.

“LGBT people refuse to be pawns in Mr Trump’s dangerous and inhumane game,” Lambda Legal CEO Rachel Tiven told Stahl. “We utterly reject his discrimination against Muslims in the guise of concern trolling for LGBT rights.”

As noted in Ellen Schrecker’s book, “Many Are The Crimes: McCarthyism In America,” invoking a lack of commitment to human rights to justify oppressive tactics was employed against communism.

The U.S. government cited the Soviet Union’s record of denying civil liberties to suspected communists to justify denying communists rights in the United States. “Such a formulation had serious consequences, for it enabled many otherwise tolerant men and women to justify political repression,” according to Schrecker. And, “Ironically, the advocates of this position were often liberals who claimed that they were protecting the Bill of Rights by denying its extension to those who would rescind it in the conceivable event that they should come to power.”

Now, because there are Islamic fundamentalists in groups like the Islamic State, the Trump administration presumes most Muslims are likely opposed to LGBT rights. Never mind the fact that Trump may have a tenuous commitment to LGBT rights. His administration intends to justify interrogating Muslims about their political opinions on LGBT people as a means to ferret out other ideological views.

Part of the demonization of communists in the mid-1900s involved casting them as “fanatics” so it was clear they were not like ordinary people. That made the “communist threat” similar to a disease or a plague. Officials frequently made apocalyptic-sounding claims about what would happen if the threat was not confronted aggressively.

Proponents of the most virulent policies treat Muslims similarly. Consider the concerted efforts in the past ten to fifteen years to “ban Sharia law.”

Bills were introduced in legislatures, which passed, that aim to “prevent” Muslims from “taking over America,” and implementing their laws. Yet, this should not be an issue because Congress is clearly prohibited from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Members of the anti-Sharia movement are likely well aware of the restrictions in place to prohibit Muslims from “taking over,” but their strategy is focused less on preventing this fantasy from occurring and more on building their organizations by mobilizing fearful communities against Muslims. They need people to join their ranks and donations from politicians and conservative think tanks.

Just as there was a kind of “Red Baiters, Inc,” as Schrecker refers to them, there is a fear industry that pays lucrative dividends. A report from the Bridge Initiative, Georgetown University’s anti-Islamophobia project, showed leading figureheads of the anti-Muslim parade like Pamela Geller and Walid Shoebat were “paid hefty salaries” to spread fear of Muslim infiltration, exaggerate Muslim-American radicalization, and use rhetoric which incites countless people into acting, sometimes violently, against Muslims and their houses of worship.

The threat these fundamentalist right wing groups pose is serious and deadly. Since the Oklahoma City Bombing, at least 32 attacks were perpetrated by white non-Muslim extremists, all of which have resulted in casualties. Yet, despite this reality, the public’s perception is always manipulated in such a way that these acts are underreported or dismissed as insignificant.

While the U.S. government operates a program aimed at “countering violent extremism,” it only pays a sliver of attention to white supremacist and white nationalist groups that may engage in violence. There are signs the Trump plans to rename the program, “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” and only focus on Islamic communities. That would likely accelerate crackdowns on Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants.

Kevin Gosztola and Roqayah Chamseddine

Kevin Gosztola and Roqayah Chamseddine