Trump’s Muslim ban may have already served its hate-mongering purpose
Cherian George says the defeat in court has not stopped the Islamophobia network behind the plan from gaining the public space it craves to air its fringe views, which may well be its primary aim
US President Donald Trump’s controversial plan to ban refugees and immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries has become a political football match watched with the intensity normally reserved for a Super Bowl showdown. Experts track every legal move and countermove, trying to gauge who will ultimately prevail.
Unlike a normal sport, though, there is more to these court battles than the points that flash on the scoreboard. They are also an opportunity for hate propagandists to air their tropes and talking points before a wide audience. Indeed, if their past campaigns are anything to go by, this may be their primary objective – to exploit the high-profile spaces afforded by democratic processes for propaganda purposes, thus nudging mainstream perspectives towards their own world view. The actual implementation or enforcement of whatever policy they’ve been agitating for may be of secondary importance.
Anti-Muslim ideologues have described themselves as fighting in a “lawfare battlespace”. The explicit goal of their litigation is to change public policy directly. But lawfare also presents an opening “to influence and shape public discourse to ultimately influence and shape public opinion”, says a 2015 publication from the Centre for Security Policy, a major anti-Muslim think tank.
“Litigation creates earned media and thus provides an excellent opportunity to engage the public through this media,” the report says. “Indeed, the drama of a courtroom setting attracts public attention and thereby provides a forum and an audience for expressing the appropriate public policy narrative.”
One ingenious lawfare campaign has involved purchasing advertising space for anti-Islam messages in Metropolitan transit systems. When a metro authority rejects an ad on account of its hateful content, the activists promptly take the authority to court for allegedly violating their free speech rights.
Even if their legal challenge fails, the controversy generates publicity for the cause. News of a defeat can be spun as further evidence of a rigged system. Thus, when the Washington DC metro succeeded in blocking an ad, leading hate propagandist Pamela Geller accused the authority of cowardice and buckling under the Muslim Brotherhood’s pressure: “This is sharia in America.”
Another Islamophobia initiative that has won considerable public airtime in state legislatures is the campaign to stop Islamic law gaining ground in the US. The manufactured paranoia over sharia has moved more than 10 states to enact new statutes or constitutional amendments to insulate themselves from non-American laws (worded broadly since they cannot explicitly discriminate against one religion). Some 20 other states have debated such provisions.
According to the American Bar Association and virtually all independent legal scholars, these states are reacting to a non-existent threat: there has been no push for sharia from the country’s tiny Muslim minority, and even if there were, US laws need no additional protection against subversion by competing traditions.
But then that’s not really the point. The anti-sharia campaign’s utility lies in the opportunity to defame an entire faith in state capitols, through ballot measures put to voters, and the news reports it generates.
Lawfare has also been deployed against small Muslim communities trying to partake of their religious freedom. In 2010, Muslims in Middle Tennessee found their effort to build a mosque obstructed by anti-Muslim activists. In addition to harassment and intimidation, the mosque committee was dragged into a court battle. Among other arguments, their opponents said that Muslims were not entitled to religious liberty – as Islam is not really a religion but a violent political ideology.
Predictably, the argument was thrown out; religious equality won the day. Before long, the Islamic Centre of Murfreesboro was functioning as intended, as a place for prayer, education and community building. But it was not a total defeat for the Islamophobia network: their talking points that belonged in the extreme fringe were dignified by being deliberated in court.
This is the background against which one has to analyse current events. The Islamophobia network’s direct links to the White House are beyond doubt. Foreign policy advisers in the Trump campaign include individuals linked to the aforementioned Centre for Security Policy, which was also the source of fabricated statistics cited by Trump to justify his proposed Muslim entry ban.
This line in Trump’s executive order of January 27 to protect the US from jihadi terrorists carries the Islamophobia industry’s fingerprints: “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.”
Crystallised in this sentence are talking points that anti-Muslim ideologues have cultivated for years, treating Islam as a non-religion that threatens American life and law through a violent ideology of sharia. These are the dregs that the hatemongers hope will remain, polluting public discourse, even if the policy is struck down by the courts – which would of course be milked as further proof that the establishment cannot be trusted.
Certainly, one of the most consequential political struggles of our times is the battle for hearts, minds and lives going on between Muslims who prize peace, freedom and inclusiveness, and those who demand obedience to an intolerant absolutism. This is a legitimate debate to be had within Muslim civilisation.
But the Islamophobia hate merchants want to persuade Americans that it is instead a clash between civilisations. They want Islam talked about exclusively in the context of terrorism.
Trump’s executive order may not survive judicial scrutiny, but it has already helped skew the global conversation in the Islamophobia industry’s preferred direction.
Cherian George is an associate professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offence and its Threat to Democracy. An earlier version of this article was published by Open Democracy