In the shadows during the Obama administration, Islamophobia has come out into the light under Trump. The silver lining is that it can now be challenged.

On June 26, 2018, the United States Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump’s executive order, widely dubbed as the “Muslim Ban.”  

This decision came 932 days after Trump, then a Republican “longshot” candidate for the presidency, called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” This proposal, dismissed as mere campaign rhetoric by veteran pundits and aberrant bigotry non-emblematic of American society by others, reveals more about the country today than when originally uttered by Trump on December 7, 2015. 

Indeed, the explicit bigotry of one private individual, with the diabolical design of mobilising Islamophobia into a full-fledged campaign strategy, would evolve into the law of the land. 

This evolution, which marks the Muslim Ban’s transition from a deviant political proposal by a wayward candidate into standing immigration policy, unveils the roots and resilience of American Islamophobia.  

Trump did not invent it, but identified its potency as a political tool, unearthed it, then deployed it fully to his advantage. The brazen Islamophobia Trump unleashed on the campaign trail alarmed the liberal and cosmopolitan peripheries of American society, but the nation’s core took to it zealously, registering approval of it in the ballot box by the droves.   

The Islamophobia that Trump wielded on the campaign trail galvanised voters that tied their failures and fears to a looming Islamic threat, delivering him the presidency, and subsequently opening the door to the possibility of the Supreme Court upholding the ban. 

In addition to revealing why the underbelly of American Islamophobia could be lifted to the core so rapidly, this evolution of Trump’s Islamophobia also illustrates the distinct yet linked dimensions of Islamophobia – an animus that cannot, and should not, be reduced to merely “fear and hatred of Muslims.”  

The brash anti-Muslim ideas that Trump disseminated as a presidential candidate were, at that juncture, the views of one private individual, not yet fully sponsored by the state by way of presidential executive order or Supreme Court ruling. 

In my book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, I outline the parts and processes that form the makeup of this rising form of bigotry. I define Islamophobia as the presumption that Islam is inherently violent, alien and unassimilable, a presumption driven by the belief that expressions of Muslim identity correlate with a propensity for terrorism.

Beyond this foundational definition, Islamophobia is comprised of three dimensions: private, structural and dialectical Islamophobia.

The first dimension, private Islamophobia, is “the fear, suspicion, and violent targeting of Muslims by private actors.” Most notably hatemongers that vandalise mosques, bigots that target and attack visible Muslims, and murderers, like Craig Hicks, who killed three Muslim American students.

Islamophobia is also structural, as exemplified by the enforcement of the Muslim Ban by way of presidential executive order.  

“Structural Islamophobia, the second dimension, is the fear and suspicion of Muslims on the part government institutions [such as the Supreme Court] and actors. This fear and suspicion are manifested and enforced through the enactment and advancement of laws, policy, and programming built upon the presumption that Muslim identity is associated with a national security threat.” That association forms the very foundation of the Muslim Ban, which casts every Muslim immigrant from the five restricted Muslim-majority nations as presumptive terrorists.

Finally, and most importantly, Islamophobia is also a dialectic tying state policy with (private) societal actors. “Dialectical Islamophobia is the process by which structural Islamophobia shapes, reshapes, and endorses views or attitudes about Islam and Muslim subjects inside and outside of America’s borders.”

This process is vividly and violently manifested by the hate incidents and crimes emboldened by Trump’s presidential rhetoric and policies, and in the imminent future, encouraged by the recent Supreme Court ruling.  

Put simply, state-sponsored Islamophobia authorises and incites it on the ground, pushing private citizens to partake in the national project of punishing and persecuting Muslims – or individuals they (mistakenly) profile as Muslims.

While Islamophobia was alive and well during the Obama era, Trump has lifted the curtain of political correctness that kept it hidden and difficult to detect.  

No more grand Cairo speeches inspiring optimism, or visits to American mosques decorated by the rhetoric of celebrating Islam in America, but inspired by monitoring it in the very spaces where it is observed. 

It was difficult to identify American Islamophobia during the eights years of Obama largely because he was brilliant at keeping it concealed. None of this is true under Trump, who has made the distinct parts of American Islamophobia crystal clear with his rhetoric and easily detectable through his policy.   

Trump’s transparency makes it easier to understand how each of the three dimensions of Islamophobia unfold in real time in America, and also, how deeply interconnected they are. 

Understanding it is an essential first step.  Followed by the more daunting burden of mounting a challenge against it, especially as the might of the state summons the groundswell of hate eying Muslims steadily rising from every corner of American society.

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