I converted to Islam in the 1990s. At the time, the decision was a radical transformation. It brought my life into a relationship with a moral ideal embodied by the Prophet Muhammad that placed productive demands on my daily life. Becoming Muslim didn’t require submission to a law of violence or death. Nowhere was I taught to stone the adulterer or kill the infidel. Instead, the Islam I learned encouraged me to be patient, respectable, and kind. It also told me that the injustices of the world were to be challenged by truth and protest. Islam, for me, was thus a religion that integrated self-improvement and social progress. The two went hand-in-hand. In that sense, Islam is much like other religions. To practice Islam is to commit to an ethical endeavor to make oneself and one’s world, however modestly, a better place.
If I am to believe some of the Trump administration’s top officials, however, this is all a lie. Worse, I’ve been duped. Because in their view, my religion – Islam – is not a religion of ethics or goodness. On the contrary, Islam is not a religion at all. It is, rather, an ideology whose function is nothing more than world domination. And I, a Muslim, am a suspicious character in America because I, a Muslim, carry within me a program with only one outcome: the end of the United States as we know it. Sounds extreme. I know. It is extreme. But if you listen to some of the folks that to populate the Trump administration, it’s hard to deny.
If I am to believe some of the Trump administration’s top officials, however, this is all a lie. Worse, I’ve been duped. Because in their view, my religion – Islam – is not a religion of ethics or goodness. On the contrary, Islam is not a religion at all.
Take the once very well-respected Michael Flynn, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant and former National Security Advisor who claimed that “Islamism” was a cancer within 1.7 billion Muslims and that “Islam is not a real religion, but a political ideology masked behind a religion.” Or consider the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who said that “people who deeply believe that Islam is the way” are a “threat to America.” After the Boston Marathon bombings, he also falsely claimed that Islamic advocacy organizations were silent in the face of extremism and that their silence casted “doubt on the commitment to peace among adherents of the Muslim faith.” Trump’s current National Security Advisor, John Bolton, is not much different. In addition to fraternizing with some of the chief American Islamophobes, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, Bolton has supported one of the most notorious anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, Frank Gaffney, who, among other things, argues that Shariah law is a totalitarian ideology and that American Muslims who follow it should be stripped of their citizenship.
These are just some of the anti-Muslim racists who have served or continue to serve in the United States government. Whether they publicly declare that my religion, Islam, is a totalitarian ideology, or they embrace others who do, all of them give official life to the political discrimination of Muslims in the U.S. In some ways, this is worse than the social discrimination of Muslims found on bigoted radio like The Rush Limbaugh Show because it extends beyond the context of media and social life. It is, rather, a form of discrimination that finds expression in policies like the Muslim ban, which openly treats Muslims with suspicion because, as Flynn put it, we might be infected with the cancer of Islamism. And it is a form of discrimination that gains legitimacy from the position of those who support it. Both Bolton and Pompeo make right-wing racism seem like centrist beliefs because their position in the government is hardly one of an extremist. To say that the U.S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State see Islam as an ideology makes the claim worth entertaining precisely because it comes from the highest seats of power. Politicians are not normally seen as extremists. They are “our” officials appointed by our “elected” government, not radicals.
Politicians are not normally seen as extremists. They are “our” officials appointed by our “elected” government, not radicals.
Living under the Trump presidency, I worry about Flynn and Pompeo’s ideas. 49 Muslims were killed in New Zealand by a white nationalist who live streamed his murder on Facebook. While President Trump condemned the killing and right-wing media will surely try to exceptionalize the bloodshed, I know this act is inseparable from a growing ecology of fear among mostly white heterosexual men and women who have long despised the Muslim presence in the so-called West. I also know that, while not all anti-Muslim racists are willing to murder Muslims, they sustain an environment in which those who do gain inspiration. And I know that while I’m not a robot programmed to dominate America with Shariah law, my identity as a Muslim and the identity I have passed on to my children will be visible within a field of perception where Islam is permanently suspect. Although we may not be able to fully abolish the racism that drives anti-Muslim policies and violence, we can reduce its reach. And the clearest starting point is the expulsion of officials who give its wings the wind it needs. Bolton, Pompeo, and even Trump must be democratically defeated, and we need to elect officials willing to give Islam and Muslims what every other religion deserves: the dignity of a way of life that is irreducible to any single form and infinitely capable of bringing new light into a dark world.
Michael Vicente Pérez is an assistant professor at the University of Memphis.