President-elect Donald Trump and his recent Cabinet picks all have something important in common: a shared hatred of Islam. Incoming CIA director Mike Pompeo believes Muslims don’t condemn terrorism (they do). Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s pick for attorney general, has time and time again defended the plan to ban Muslim immigration. Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, has called Islam a “political ideology that hides itself behind what they call a religion.”
Many, perhaps most, Americans see such rhetoric as antithetical to the United States’ promise. Policies such as segregation and the internment of Japanese Americans are looked back on in shame. But for us Muslims, persecution for even the most basic expressions of our faith have been commonplace in the modern period since the First World War.
Today it appears little has changed. In what must be described as nothing less than sexual assault, French police earlier this year forcibly declotheda Muslim woman in enforcement of the “Burkini ban.” Trump is expected to push for a national “Muslim registry” (and the legal path to do so seems clear). To make matters worse, his victory has whipped the alt-right in Europe and America into a rabid frenzy. More anti-migrant candidates may be riding the wave into office soon.
When a Muslim engages in a “political” action on the basis of their faith, it is termed “Islamism.” (I distinguish Islamism from violent extremism.) It gets a special label because, in the modern West, politics is assumed to be a secular space by default.
One analyst has gone so far as to analogize Islamism to Communism, with Muslims akin to the working class. Communists, then, like Islamists, only comprise a small amount of the overall whole, but still present an ideological threat that must be countered. It is said that most Muslims reject Islamism, while peacefully, privately and — most importantly — apolitically practicing their faith. Not all Muslims are Islamists, but every Islamist is a Muslim.
Yet, whenever a Muslim dares express political opinions, they run the risk of being cast as a diabolical Islamist-in-waiting. The end result is that Muslim political agency is constantly denied. Huma Abedin is supposedlya Muslim Brotherhood plant. Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and London mayor Sadiq Khan have had their motives questioned regularly simply because they dare to be openly Muslim.
And let’s not even get started on President Obama, who didn’t even need to be a Muslim to be, well, a Muslim.
For decades, governments around the world — from France to Turkey to China — have forced Muslims into a never-ending game of religious Twister, contorting their faith in every which way, promising them that if they change just this one thing they’ll be left alone and “accepted.” The list of barked commands grows ever longer:
• Don’t wear face veils!
• Or burkinis!
• Or hijab in public schools!
• Or long skirts!
• Or oriental hats!
• Don’t fast!
• Eat pork or starve!
• Ban halal meat!
• Dance in public!
• Ban the call to prayer!
• Ban minarets!
• Let us forcibly shave your beard!
• Don’t speak Arabic on airplanes!
• Shake hands with the opposite gender!
• Don’t pray in public!
• Pass a religious test disavowing Shariah!
• Ban the distribution of the Koran!
The message is clear: The only good kind of Muslim is docile and acquiescent, whose faith has become neutered of any real conviction.
Salman Sayyid, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, has noted that modern political discourse conceives Muslims as “permanently transgressive subjects, whose religious essence is constantly being undermined by the temptations of the political,” a group whose very presence is “a scandal.” It seems hard to argue otherwise. By continuously shifting the dividing line between what’s “political” and what’s “religious,” Muslims are never left sufficiently depoliticized. Because many Americans treat Islamism as a repulsive “dirty word,” bigots have realized that successfully tar-and-feathering a Muslim with the label is to effectively torpedo their entire career.
Why is there such a visceral reaction to Islamism, to the idea of Muslims organizing legally and peacefully on the basis of their religious conviction, or even their shared Muslimness? In short, why can’t Muslims be political?
The paranoia of Muslims having opinions inspired by religion has been the norm for quite some time, long before the rise of either Trump or the Islamic State. The fear has been there for as long as anyone can remember and has been legitimated by those on both sides of the aisle. (The one time a Muslim was given a largely positive role in this past campaign season, was focused on Khizr Khan, who, not incidentally, did so only after reassuring the United States of Muslims’ undying fidelity to the military).
One can almost forgive authoritarian governments abroad for acting so callously, as they make little pretense to political freedoms. Yet, in the West, which holds up freedom of expression as a fundamental right, such a hostile reaction toward Muslims acting politically on the basis of their faith — even if in a spirit of dissent — is an abject shame.
Let’s take a quick trip back to 1958, when Tunisia’s secular strongman, the French-educated Habib Bourguiba, embarked upon a program of forced secularization. His reforms terminated religious endowments, banned the headscarf (he called it an “odious rag”), closed madrassas and Koran schools, nationalized religious education and prohibited all activities within mosques other than the daily ritual prayers.
That same year, Bourguiba famously drank a glass of orange juice during daytime hours on national television. His actions would have been completely banal — if it wasn’t Ramadan. Seeing fasting as a drain on national productivity, he tried to ban the practice. In Bourguiba’s warped mind, he was a noble shepherd, ushering his people into the green pastures of the modern world, where Islam had no serious place. Thankfully, the fasting ban quickly foundered, and in hindsight, it’s easy for us to see the blatantly draconian nature of such a policy.
Like in Bourguiba’s Tunisia, policy and rhetoric that shames or outlaws the mixing of Islam and the political inevitably culminates in Islam — and, by extension, its adherents — being seen as a “malignant cancer,” as Flynn has described it.
People have before them a choice: Either recognize and fight back against a toxic culture, or stay silent and give it a level of tacit endorsement. Until then, it should not be surprising to see a large percentage of the population cheer on the excising of a tumor.
Rashid Dar, a research assistant at a think tank in Washington. His research focuses on Islamic intellectual thought and Muslim communities. He tweets at @rashiddar.