How President Trump could accidentally play into the hands of Islamist extremists

5143yxrfvrl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Back in 1990, the historian and commentator Bernard Lewis opined that the Muslim world was gearing up for a clash of civilizations with the west. At that time, the flashpoints of concern were Iran and Lebanon as opposed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya remained a constant thorn in the US’ side throughout this period and into our era with or without Gadaffi at the helm.

With the Iranian revolution still fresh in his mind, Lewis believed Muslims were returning to a binary view of the world divided between the House of Islam and the House of War. A war to be prosecuted against all unbelievers.

This he saw as a one thousand five hundred year clash between Islam and Christianity. Up to the 17th century, Islam had been in the ascendant. After that, it retreated miserably in the face of western expansion. The result of this humiliation was burning hatred that Lewis believed was turning to outright hostility. Hence the rise of what was termed ‘fundamentalism’ in the 90s and early 2000s and is being termed ‘radical Islam’ now.

fullsizerenderBut even Lewis conceded that fundamentalism wasn’t the full picture when it came to Islam. And his rather doom laden analysis ignored the efforts by secular governments in the Middle East to modernise their societies in the 20th century. It also portrayed Muslims as irrational and messianic – prone to red mist moments that sent them over the top. This orientalist view was rightly seen as insulting by a majority of law abiding Muslims.

Worse, the clash of civilizations view mirrors the ideology of extremist Islamists who tell Muslims that the west is engaged in an apocalyptic war against Islam. Daesh, AQ and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood depict western democracies as utterly hostile to Islam. It is impossible, they claim, for Muslims to live under such conditions and they must strive to create a caliphate that will eventually dominate the world.

President Bush, after 9/11, realised that it was important to separate out Islam from Islamism. He said the following:

Some call this evil Islamic radicalism, others militant jihadism. Still others Islamo-fascism. Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.

Obama also realised that it was important not to bolster the jihadi narrative of a war by the west against Islam. Words had to be chosen very carefully. Trump’s circle dislike Obama’s refusal to recognise the influence of Islam. But there is a path that can be trodden between those who want to attack Islam in its entirety and those who refuse to recognise the role of theology. That is to say that yes, indeed, the building blocks of Islamist and jihadi ideology can be found in Islam – it’s just that most Muslims have chosen to build something very different with the building blocks on offer.

By all means recognise the theological influence in Daesh propaganda. Dabiq, the terrorist group’s magazine, is littered with Quranic references. Then ask yourself whether Michael Flynn, the new national security adviser, is going to exercise a positive influence on Muslims round the world when he says something like this:

We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam. But we are not permitted to speak or write those two words, which is potentially fatal to our culture.

This is pure Bernard Lewis and music to the ears of Islamists everywhere. The binary choice is being forced on Muslims by Daesh on one side and the political right on the other. In the middle, the “grey zone of compromise” is being extinguished. That phrase was dreamt up by Daesh and they rejoice when the middle path of reason and hope is squeezed a little narrower.

 

 

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American Muslims are not Islamists – a dangerous assumption

Lt Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s pick to be national security adviser was reported by CNN to have said in August, 2016 that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” – in other words, that every Muslim is a potential Islamist.

islam-will-dominate-the-worldThis conflation of Islam and Islamism is very dangerous. Tell people over and over again that they are terrorists and extremists in the making and you might get what you wish for. In short, Islam is a faith practised by the aforementioned 1.7 billion people. Islamism is a relatively recent revivalist movement, spearheaded in the 20th century by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The ideology of Islamism seeks to detach Muslims from their home countries and nation states arguing that they should, instead, adhere to a globalised identity and strive to create some kind of caliphate. It developed in reaction to the very obvious decline of Muslim majority countries by the 19th century that allowed them to be overwhelmed by European colonial powers. Early Islamists even argued for modernisation and a degree of westernising in order to catch up with Europe.

ottoman_empire_bBut the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war, the last Islamic caliphate, gave rise to a yearning among Islamists for the restoration of some kind of Muslim polity where religion and state would be fused – a caliphate under sharia law. But it needs to be emphasised that this was not a majority position among Muslims. And today, while elements of Islamism might find support among many Muslims, it is way off the mark to label all Muslims as Islamists in the making.

 

 

A Muslim registry – does President-elect Trump really mean it?

Politifact recently did a “deep dive” asking whether Donald Trump really meant it when he called for a registry of Muslims? Did he intend to include all Muslims or just some? Was it supposed to only apply to Syrian refugees? Or was it, as Trump himself explained, a casual slip?

rrrrrr3Their deep dive showed that Trump has truly obfuscated on this question. When pushed on MSNBC, Fox and other media about what he meant with his initial comment about a registry, he diverted to refugees though at the same time not ruling out every Muslim in the US. Politifact concluded that he intended to look at registering refugees first and then maybe expand the scheme.

NPR has reported that a registry wouldn’t be unprecedented. In fact, after 9/11 the Bush administration created a registry vetting people from terror-prone countries. This was called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). Twenty five countries, mainly majority Muslim, were covered by the registry. All those coming in to the US on a short-term visa were to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted.

83,000 people were impacted with about 13,000 removed for various violations. In terms of catching people of interest as potential terrorists, the number was a somewhat more paltry eleven. At a cost of $10m a year, the decision was eventually made that a more forensic targeting approach would be better than blanket surveillance of everybody from a particular country.

kriskobachIt looks like then, as Vox reported recently, that Trump will be reviving NSEERS. Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach was involved with NSEERS and has indicated that this is the program that will be brought back as opposed to a new full-blown Muslim database. However, it remains to be seen if this will be good enough for his boss.

 

Why the President should not ban Muslims from the United States

Whatever motivated Donald Trump as a candidate for the presidency to suggest a ban on Muslims entering the United States, he should consider some very salient reasons for dropping the idea. For a start, it makes little economic sense.

If pulling President Trump’s heart strings won’t work, then the business case might convince the POTUS. In 2011, the purchasing power of American Muslims was estimated to be between $107bn and $124bn. This spending goes across a whole range of sectors:

  • img_3750Housing – $33bn
  • Motor vehicle and services – $16bn
  • Insurance and pensions – $11bn
  • Healthcare – $6.5bn
  • Entertainment – $5bn

The Muslim population is younger than the US average with education and income levels at a par if not slightly above the average household. This presents a huge potential market for corporate America. The obvious areas include halal food products and Islamic finance though companies have plenty of other opportunities if they think creatively and start talking to American Muslims more creatively.

As a market, Muslims are set to grow in population and spending. By 2030, their numbers will have doubled to over 6m regardless of any bans on entry and their share of US GDP will also have doubled to around 1.7%. All those young Muslims are already coming to form a spending phenomenon known as Generation M.  They are hard working, ambitious and will give their political support to those who help them move upwards. Politicians who support Muslim aspiration can expect to be rewarded with votes.

Muslim Americans are also expanding into the political sphere. This may dismay nativists and the alt-right but the truth is that these representatives, far from seeking a sharia governed caliphate, just want the same improved community services as non-Muslims.

While President Trump celebrated victory in New York in November, 2016, a Somali-American woman Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American legislator in US history. Hillary Clinton may have failed to smash her glass ceiling that night but Ilhan Omar broke several.

She began life amidst the horror of civil war in Somalia followed by a Kenyan refugee camp but is now a hijabi wearing member of the Minnesota House. If ever there was a genuine log cabin story in American politics, then Ilhan Omar’s biography fits the bill. As one newspaper put it:

Omar’s story is just the latest in a long line of oppressed people coming to the United States, grabbing hold of the country’s democratic levers and demanding equality and opportunity — mirroring the journey of Irish, Jewish and other immigrant groups.

569858440_1280x720In Dearborn, WWE Smackdown champion Terrance “Rhyno” Guido Gerin was defeated at the polls by Abdullah Hammoud for Michigan’s 15th House District seat. The wrestler thought he’d take the Republicans to victory but Hammoud, a 26 year old healthcare advisor, beat him soundly. No amount of wrestling themed campaign ads from his opponent stopped the more convincing Hammoud.

Hammoud’s programme included more support for small business including start-up loans as well as greater incentives to keep jobs in Michigan. Like an increasing number of Muslim Americans, Hammoud is well educated with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbour. He is the political and educational expression of Generation M.

With American-Muslims advancing politically and economically, the new Republican administration has to decide whether it stands for aspiration and advancement or if it prefers xenophobia and fear.

Can the Republicans resolve their Muslim problem?

Saba Ahmed is one of a bold band of American Muslims trying to convince Republicans that Islam is not their enemy. She came to national attention after wearing a Stars and Stripes hijab on Fox News.

Her attachment to the Republican Party should not come as a complete surprise given that up to 2000, an estimated 70% of Muslim Americans voted Republican. That all changed after 9/11 and the ratcheting up of the war on terror. Saba herself ran as a Democrat in 2011 before coming to the conclusion that she was in the wrong party.

Islamic values are very much traditional family values: pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-traditional family values, pro-business, pro-trade.

She subsequently set up the Republican Muslim Coalition “to bring the voice of conservative Muslims to American politics”.  Her view of the Trump victory is resoundingly positive but she worries that fellow Muslim Americans will shun the new President.

As a Muslim of Pakistani heritage, she believes Pakistani-Americans have been way under-represented in Washington DC but that Trump, with values that are not so dissimilar to those of Muslim Americans, could be an open door. The evidence for that is a bit thin as Trump begins his presidency after a campaign that was long on anti-Muslim rhetoric. Clearly the hope is that his harsh words were electioneering rhetoric and the reality will be entirely different.

 

Why US presidents should visit mosques more often

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It is extraordinary that it took until February, 2016 for President Obama to make his first official visit to an American mosque – right at the end of his second term in office. Islamist propaganda has always cast the War on Terror as a war by the West against the whole of Islam on a global scale. Arguably, by not visiting a mosque during most of his term, the President had unwittingly bolstered that narrative. After all, why not visit a mosque?

In the United States as of 2014, according to Pew, there were 2.75m Muslims. By 2050, they will surpass those who identify themselves as Jewish. They are mostly anti-extremist, even believing that their faith leaders have not done enough to speak out on this issue – again, according to Pew. On the other hand, there is a widespread view that post-9/11 anti-terror legislation has impacted disproportionately on Muslims.

Obama finally decided to cross the threshold of a mosque in response to comments made by Donald Trump while running as the Republican presidential candidate. He told the congregation:

If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.

Muslims themselves have moved decisively towards a reconciled identity in the US adopting increasingly liberal attitudes on homosexuality and abortion. Politically, they trend towards the Democrats and in spite of high rates of business formation and suburban lifestyles nevertheless believe in bigger not small government.

But in spite of these encouraging signs of assimilation, Republicans are noticeably cool about their Muslim fellow citizens and even Democrats are not reportedly warm. Democrat attitudes to Muslims could best be described as neutral compared to outright suspicion among Republicans.

It is wrong and dangerous to conflate American Muslims with Islamist extremists. Successive surveys have revealed a community that is happy to adhere to American values and salute the flag. Yet Obama left it very late in his presidency to reach out to Muslims. Even George Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington after 9/11 to boldly state that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam”.

If we want to drive Muslims into the hands of Islamists, there are two proven ways to achieve this:

  1. Put the whole of Islam and Islamist extremism in the same bucket and depict both as some kind of civilizational threat
  2. Encourage a sense of victimhood among Muslims slowly convincing them that it is impossible to live as a Muslim in the United States (and only caliphate governed by sharia law will offer real protection)

The antidote to the above is to make a clear distinction between the majority of law abiding, patriotic Muslims as opposed to Islamist extremists – and deal with them very differently. Avoidance of victimhood narratives is also critical, instead disseminating stories of success and aspiration.

It would also help if presidents of the United States set foot more often in Muslim community venues to evidence that they are as much a part of the fabric of the US as Catholics, evangelicals and Jews.

Can African American and Arab heritage Muslims ever form a united ummah?

A fascinating issue at the centre of American Islam is whether Muslims of African American heritage can ever meaningfully unite with Muslims from an Arab/Middle Eastern background. Looking through several academic papers and articles, here are some of the key challenges:

  • African American Muslims have traditionally been more interested in the concept of asabiya or nation building whereas Arab Muslims see themselves as part of a global ummah or community of the faithful. Can both parties move beyond this to create an American Muslim ummah?
  • African American Muslims have a far longer history in north America going back to the slave trade of the 16th century when Muslim slaves were brought over from West Africa
  • Looking at a city like Detroit with a large Muslim population, it was African American Muslims who first got political and organised in 1930 by forming the Nation of Islam. From the outset, this group emphasised the special position of black people in the eyes of Allah. Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad went as far as to claim he was a new messenger with a message specifically for African Americans – a notion that would be anathema to most Muslims
  • In the post-war period, most Arab Muslims viewed the Nation of Islam as an African American identity issue and nothing to do with mainstream Islam. However, the Nation of Islam moved away from its racial definition of Islam in recent decades and quietly dropped Elijah Muhammad’s claim to prophethood
  • Continuing to look at Detroit, the picture on the Arab Muslim side is interesting because of the strong presence of Shia Islam. This means that not only is there a division between Arab heritage and African American Muslims in the city but also a fracture between Shia and Sunni Arab Muslims. However, research seems to indicate that Shia and Sunni in Detroit want to work closer together
  • In Detroit, Arab Muslims have tended to migrate to the suburbs alongside white Americans while African American Muslims carried on living in crumbling inner-city areas. Arab Muslims have also, until recently, been classified as ‘white’
  • It has been argued that race has often trumped faith with ‘white’ Muslims discriminating against African American Muslims. Some claim that Anglo converts are received with more enthusiasm by Arab Muslims than those from African American backgrounds
  • Some commentators have been accused of regarding immigrant Arabs as the first legitimate Muslims in the United States, de-legitimising the African American experience. It’s insinuated that African American Islam is not genuine while Arab Islam is the real thing
  • Immigrant Muslims tend to enjoy a significant wealth gap with African American Muslims – earning ten times more according to one survey. It also irks African American Muslims to find newer Arab arrivals regarding themselves as the de facto leaders of the ummah in the United States. One reason is the command of Arabic, the language of the Prophet, and their roots in the Middle East
  • African American Muslims do not tend to segregate women to anywhere near the same extent as Arab Muslims. In fact, women have often played leading roles in African American Islam

This is a subject to which this blog will return to frequently.