How Donald Trump's Islamophobia Made the US Safer for Muslims | Opinion

Today is the International Day to Combat Islamophobia, adopted by the UN General Assembly a year ago, and it's a good time to reflect on the state of Islamophobia in American society. In fact, it represents a stunning paradox: Islamophobia has recently declined quite sharply as a central feature of U.S. political discourse, and the person most responsible for this decline is, ironically, none other than the single most anti-Muslim U.S. president in memory: Donald Trump.

To understand this bizarre outcome, it's useful to look at the road here over the past two decades. Obviously, the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington at the beginning of this century were a notable trigger for a substantial rise in American Islamophobia. In the direct aftermath of the attacks, hate crimes against Arab Americans and American Muslims (and anyone who looked like they could be Arab or Muslim) sky-rocketed across the country.

But in a stage in American culture where racism was frowned upon in our official discourse, this bigotry couldn't survive unless it could masquerade as something other than blind hatred. So, this hatred took on a thin veneer of an intellectual argument: Arabs and Muslims aren't to be hated because of who they are, but because their religious beliefs are allegedly nefarious.

This malicious lie turned into a full-blown industry, where anti-Muslim bigotry became a lucrative profession, catapulting many of its advocates to prominence and seeping its way into American policymaking, including in federal law enforcement.

On the political front, despite George W. Bush's best efforts to combat Islamophobia with his words, his actions sent the country down a different path. His invasion of a random Arab and Muslim nation that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 as part of his so-called "War on Terror," coupled with his administration's crackdown on the civil liberties of Arab Americans and American Muslims, all but guaranteed a rise in Islamophobia.

Then came Barack Obama, who wanted to restore trust between America and the Muslim world and who kicked off his presidency with an iconic speech in Cairo to that end. Yet his name and skin-tone made him a ripe target for a GOP that grew comfortable with bigotry for political gain.

love trumps hate
People attend a rally and candlelight vigil in Los Angeles, California, January 26, 2017, to protest against Islamophobia and US President Donald Trump's executive orders to curtail immigration and to build a wall between the US and Mexico. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

The 2016 election at the end of the Obama presidency marked the zenith of Islamophobia in U.S. political discourse. The GOP's embrace of Islamophobia sent its candidates competing over who could sound more anti-Muslim. Presidential candidate Ben Carson said he would "absolutely not agree" with having an American Muslim ever lead the nation, claiming that Islam is incompatible with the Constitution. (In another Islamophobia irony, it's Carson's religious test for public office that's actually incompatible with the U.S. Constitution.)

But Donald Trump outdid Carson, declaring that "Islam hates us," and promising a total ban on Muslims entering the United States.

It's nearly impossible to imagine a presidential candidate engaging in this level of explicit bigotry against any other group and winning the presidency, but the GOP embraced it, making the unthinkable a reality.

Yet therein lies the irony: Trump's presidency oversaw a decline of Islamophobia—not because his words and actions aimed to sideline this politico-cultural tumor, but in spite of his best efforts to promote it. Trump really tried to make good on his anti-Muslim agenda, with an effective "Muslim ban" put in place by his administration that had ugly consequences for countless American Muslims and their families. Trump even invited Brigitte Gabriel to the White House—a professional anti-Muslim bigot who said that American Muslims shouldn't be allowed to hold public office because they would never be loyal to their country.

So why did Islamophobia decline? Thanks to Trump being such an unmitigated disaster on every other issue, Islamophobia simply got swallowed up in the shuffle.

A man with a severely oversized ego and an insatiable appetite for lying found himself creating one controversy after another. Trump was the perfect character to galvanize the entire progressive wing of the country, creating alliances between civil liberties advocates and various targeted and marginalized groups, along with an increasingly assertive American Muslim community that was determined to stand up for its rights and fight back against its vilification.

Trump's presidency also inadvertently centered Russia in U.S. political discourse as the primary external adversary, and his attempt at stealing the presidency through fraud in the subsequent 2020 election brought right-wing insurrectionists into view as the primary domestic adversary of average Americans who are worried about the future of their country, displacing the hyper-focus on the "Muslim terrorist" as the primary target of Americans' fears—across the political spectrum.

Despite the decline in Islamophobia in our political discourse, we're in no place to celebrate. Globally, Islamophobia remains a very serious problem. From growing anti-Muslim attitudes in Europe and China's war on its Uyghur Muslim population (which the U.S. deemed a "genocide"), to rampant anti-Muslim violence in India and Burma's genocide against Rohingya Muslims, anti-Muslim bigotry and violence remain a real threat.

Even in the U.S., an anti-Muslim cast of characters has stuck around with just slightly declined prominence. It's not difficult to imagine circumstances that could, or the emergence of a popular demagogue who would, reactivate mainstream Islamophobia and recenter it in our political discourse.

We must remain vigilant against this ugly form of bigotry.

Omar Baddar is a political analyst and the former director of the Arab American Institute.

The views in this article are the writer's own.