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05 January 2016

Trump, Whiteness and The Muslim Community

There are many people shocked at the ascendancy of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump to the top of the polls and his fundamental transformation of the political dialogue in this country. Outside of the Mexican-American community and possibly Jeb Bush there’s no one more alarmed by the rise of Trump than the American-Muslim community.

As a central part of his platform Trump has pledged he will both defeat “radical Islamic terrorism” abroad and root out American-Muslim terrorists on the home front. The measures Trump has suggested include closing mosques, monitoring mosques, denying Muslims entry to the country, ordering customs agents to administer a religious test and more. While Trump’s suggestions have shocked media-elites polls show they’re supported by a majority of GOP voters.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino Trump has stepped up his rhetoric and along with that we’ve seen an uptick in hate crimes and violence against Muslims in America.  In general there is an attitude of fear and apprehension in the American-Muslim community and this is particularly true in the middle-class suburban communities (many located in the heart of Trump’s America).

Muslims have expressed shock; but should we? As I’ve already stated a majority of GOP voters support Trump’s proposals. Trump is also not alone in his calls for targeting the Muslim community. In fact if you listen to conservative or Christian talk-radio Trump seems pretty moderate compared to the daily hate talk and incitement heard over the air on a daily basis.

The positions of Trump also aren’t all that different than many in the GOP presidential field.  Nor would they seem in bad taste in the majority of white American settings in America once you leave the isolated liberal enclaves and college campuses. As a testament to the mainstream nature of Trump support last week he was endorsed by the New England Police Union. To borrow from Imam Jamil al-Amin “Trump is as American as cherry pie”.

Polls have shown Trump support is largely coming from blue-collar uneducated whites (my own demographic). And here is where we get to the heart of the issue and I know this is a bitter pill for many American-Muslims to deal with and crushes the dreams of leadership.  No matter how much you compromise the deen, no matter how many interfaiths you host, no matter how progressive you are, no matter how many degrees you have,  no matter how many McMansions you buy, and no matter how many cookie-cutter masjids you open in white suburbia, no matter how fly your American flag hijab is, no matter how smooth your shave is, you’re not white. As sister Namira Islam of MuslimARC recently stated “give up on it, it’s over”.

White America has always needed something to oppose and hate. White America is about a racial-construct and you’re either in it or out. If you’re out of it then you can and will be seen as a threat to white hegemony. If you are an African-American Muslim you know this.  Many of our immigrant Muslims and their children have learned the hard way like the side piece who wakes up and realizes one day she’ll never be wifey. They’re now crying and saying “but I thought you loved me”. The sociologist may see the Arab as white; but Bubba and Buffy certainly don’t.  The well-heeled Desi may see themselves as a cool cousin to whiteness;  but even the non-Muslim Sikh isn’t safe in America today. Bosnians are mostly white enough to go to a Klan rally and fit right in at a gentrified hipster bar; but in my hometown of St. Louis most don’t see the huge Bosnian community as a white community.

Today Muslims are the focus of the hate, rage and increasingly violence of a large swath of white America.  There are those arguing that every immigrant group in America gets their turn to be hated. There is some truth to this narrative if you look at historical discrimination patterns against Roma, Jews, Irish and Italians. Yet the Muslim community is much different.  First, the Muslim community is overwhelmingly a non-white community and even whites in the Muslim community are seen as suspect,  and second Muslims are identified with a global body challenging the supremacy of white western norms and belief systems on the left and right.

There have traditionally been two mindsets for Muslim community building in America. The first says success is defined by entering the mainstream middle-class and all the trappings that entails. This is a vision centered in acceptance by whiteness. The second says Muslim community building is about building strong and sustainable Muslim communities based on Islamic concepts which can critique the American mainstream via Islamic knowledge.  In a post-911 era with the fear of being labeled radicals the first vision has largely won out. However,  the popularity of Trump may signal to many what I see as the futility of this mindset.

As Professor Tim Wise of Vanderbilt stated “whiteness isn’t based on what you are it’s based on what you aren’t”. One of those things you “aren’t” is Muslim.

Glossary: “Deen”-Ar. for religion. “Masjids”-Mosques, Muslim house of worship. “Desi”-Of Indo-Pak-Bengal-Sri Lankan heritage.

Part 1 of an orginal 6 part series on Islamophobia and Muslims in America. By Umar Lee

Umar Lee is an author and freelance writer from St. Louis now based out of Dallas. He may be contacted atUmarlee@gmail.com and found at Twitter @STLAbuBadu