Asked about a controversial policy proposal during last night’s debate, Donald Trump had a message for the American people: “The Muslim ban is something that in some form has morphed into extreme vetting from certain areas of the world.”
Trump’s incoherence has a history. Last December, the candidate promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Shortly before that, he proposed the creation of a registry of American Muslims. Since then, Trump’s been all over the place. He’s talked about ideological testing at the borders, a ban on immigration from “any nation that has been compromised by terrorism,” and he’s scaled back his original proposals in ways that seem to actually expand them.
Last night’s performance was fairly typical: he insisted that the ban had “morphed” but seemed unwilling to categorically roll it back or explain his new idea.
No matter how mercurial Trump may be, the basic symbolic thrust here—the nativism and Islamophobia—has remained constant. But all this policy vagueness has its own kind of power. When it comes to Islam and immigration, we still have little idea what Trump would do if he assumed office. Just as importantly, we have little idea who these policies would even target. When Trump and other right-wingers talk about Islam, what do they even mean?
In a New York Times op-ed last December, scholar Hussein Ibish framed the problem that no one else seemed to be addressing:
An overwhelming majority of commentators on all sides, ranging from the most vicious Islamophobes to the most radical Islamists, wrongly assume that we all know, or can easily discover, what Muslims do and think that distinguishes them from other people.
The reality is that the range of peoples and societies that practice some form of Islam is so broad that it includes virtually any aspect of the human experience one can identify.
The Times titled the op-ed “Who is a Muslim?” It remains a good question. There’s no universally accepted definition of the term. As with any collection of almost two billion people, self-identified Muslims disagree on the boundaries of the community. Meanwhile, among some right-wingers today, there’s a disturbing—but robust—debate going on over the nature of Islam: is it a religion? An ideology? A cult? A civilization? A racial or ethnic category?
Last December, Trump was pressed on the details of his immigration plan during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He did little to clarify the issue. After pointing out that religion does not appear on passports (which is true for most, but not all, countries), co-host Willie Geist asked about logistics:
Geist: Donald, a customs agent would then ask the person his or her religion?
Trump: It would be probably—they would say, “Are you Muslim?”
Geist: And if they said “Yes,” they wouldn’t be allowed in the country?
Trump: That’s correct.
So: who’s a Muslim? And who gets to say?
This is not about semantics. By acting as if there’s a commonly agreed-upon definition of Muslim, people across the political spectrum do two very dangerous things. First, they overlook some of the more frightening and incoherent dimensions of Trump’s approach to Islam. And second, they conceal the scope of government action that would be required to put proposals like this into place.
It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s rhetoric as simple racist politicking, and to leave it at that. Taking an idea seriously can act as a kind of implicit endorsement, and thinking it through can be a queasy exercise—doubly so for a writer who isn’t a Muslim.
But even as his immigration policies evolve, Trump’s promise to single out Muslims remains central to his campaign. His proposed Muslim ban has proven more popular in polls than the candidate himself. Islamophobia is trending. In that light, it’s important to examine what Trump means when he talks about Muslims, and about what it would actually take to put a ban in place.
The simplest description of a Muslim is anyone who identifies as Muslim. Or you could describe a Muslim as anyone who subscribes to the teachings of Islam. That leaves quite a lot of gray area, though, and plenty of room for dissent among self-identified Muslims. Is someone who drinks alcohol, but identifies as Muslim, still a Muslim? What about someone in a same-sex relationship? What about a member of the Ahmadiyya movement, which many Muslims consider heretical?
Just imagine trying to get all self-identified Christians in America to come up with a single standard for Christianity. You’d have some conservative evangelicals telling Mormons that they aren’t really part of the club. Many would question the bona fides of prosperity gospel preachers. There would be small Bible churches insisting that everyone else is a heretic. Plus, some people would be confused about themselves—do I really count? Do I want to count?
The difference is that, in the West at least, Muslim communities tend to be subject to external definition in a way that Christian communities are not.
Western governments have been classifying Muslims since at least the colonial period, when British rulers in India set about trying to categorize their subjects. Obviously, the British didn’t invent the concept of Muslimness, but when the state builds a classification system for identity, it prioritizes certain elements of identity. It resists the ambiguity of individual experience. And it shifts the power of categorization to a small group of people.
“When the British came into South Asia, they came in with an understanding that Indians or South Asians are primarily a religious people, meaning they assumed that the first and foremost identity that any Indian would have would be a religious one,” said Peter Gottschalk, a professor of religion at Wesleyan University and the author of Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hindus and Muslims in British India.
Colonial authorities wanted to build religious categories, Gottschalk said, “using the best tools they have. And those, in the minds of 18th and 19th century Brits, are scientific tools.” Around the same time that Carolus Linnaeus was developing a taxonomic system for organisms, authorities were coming up with ways to categorize their subjects based on body and belief.
Social scientific classifications have a tendency to eclipse the way that people define themselves. They also have a tendency—which you can see very clearly with race—of inviting people to confuse the map for the territory, and to take constructed classifications to be Hard Facts of nature or culture, endowed with absolute characteristics.
RD contributor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Vermont and a scholar of colonial South Asia, told RD that British authorities quickly began to impute certain violent characteristics to Muslims, regardless of an individual Muslim’s ideological commitments.
“It becomes—and I’m going to use a racialized metaphor on purpose—that one-drop rule,” she said. “I find really similar—and frankly eerie—resemblances in the rhetoric in that period and some of the speeches that we’ve seen being made in the first quarter of the 21st century, where we don’t know how to define [Islam], but we know it’s not good, and we know it’s intrinsic.”
Minds and bodies
There are three major proselytizing traditions in the world—Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam—and the churn of trade, conquest, and conversion has handed each an extraordinarily diverse pool of followers. That diversity is reflected by Muslim communities in the United States, where there are substantial Arab-American, South Asian-American, African-American, and Latino Muslim populations.
Still, the subtext of a lot of political rhetoric about Islam is that there’s some characteristic Muslimness that inheres in the body, regardless of heritage.
“The whole question is, who exactly are Muslims?” asks Zareena Grewal, a professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale and the author of Islam Is a Foreign Country. “Is Islam a race? Is it a religion? Is Islam a place? If Muslims convert to another religion, are they still Muslim?”
Grewal pointed out that, in Europe, Muslim refugees who convert to Christianity are often still subject to discriminatory policies. “That tells us something about how Muslimness is constructed—not really as a religion…but as a kind of religious or ethnic category that you carry on regardless of your theological commitments.”
What’s being constructed here, in other words, is a kind of racial definition—a social category that’s thought to be essential, heritable, and inextricable.
None of this is new, exactly. Between 1790 and 1952, because U.S. law barred naturalized citizenship to anyone who wasn’t white, courts often had to decide the race of citizenship seekers. In making that judgment for immigrants from the Middle East, Islam often came into play.
“Religion has always served as a proxy for racial identity,” said Khaled Beydoun, a law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy who studies constructions of Arab and Muslim identity. “Individuals who were Muslim, up until 1944—a specific case—were rigidly deemed to be non-white and thus couldn’t become citizens.” But for Arab immigrants, Christianity was “a gateway toward whiteness and citizenship.”
Drawing on the work of the 18th century German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who defined Syrian Christians as white and Muslims as non-white, federal judges took religious identification as a key determinant of someone’s race. They analyzed whether Arab Christians applying for citizenship were fully Christian, or whether that Christianity was counterfeit, or tainted by some kind of Muslim heritage.
This may sound strange to modern Western readers, in part because we live in a place and time of enormous personal choice, where religious affiliation feels like one flexible part of a curated identity, rather than a fixed inheritance.
For a quick reality check: by today’s standards, Blumenbach was no great scientist. In his scholarship, major sources of evidence included the Book of Genesis and the aesthetics of human skulls. Also, setting Blumenbach aside, it’s pretty much impossible to find a coherent definition of Muslim that’s rooted in a quasi-biological category like race. The sheer diversity of Muslims worldwide just doesn’t support that kind of biological definition. Conflating “Arab” with “Muslim” makes no sense, because the majority of self-identified Muslims are not Arabs, and many Arabs are not Muslims.
But, incoherent or not, there’s clearly a racial dynamic at play in American political conversation about Islam today. Why else would brown-skinned Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians sometimes be subjected to ostensibly anti-Muslim violence? The racial language isn’t confined to those who support an immigration ban. As one indignant Republican voter recently told the Guardian, “You can’t just ban a certain race from coming into the country.”
Progressive responses to Islamophobia don’t always account for this racialization. When Trump proposes a ban on Muslims, progressives (understandably) respond that this seems like a violation of the First Amendment, at least in spirit. You can’t discriminate on the basis of religion or personal expression! But that constitutional argument ignores the degree to which Trump frames Islam as a kind of racial category—something that’s actually separate from personal expression altogether.
“Equal protection categories in constitutional law are inadequate to describe the racial nature of the ‘Muslim terrorist,'” writes Western State University law professor Neil Gotanda in a 2011 paper. “Racialized Islam in the form of the Muslim terrorist is not susceptible to the traditional analyses of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses.”
When I called up Gotanda, he emphasized that it was often tempting for Americans to frame race and racialization in familiar black/white terms.
There are subtle distinctions to be made here, though. The construction of blackness by white American society has historically been dehumanizing, and it historically has insisted that black Americans have a lesser form of American citizenship, or no citizenship at all. But it doesn’t necessarily construct black Americans as foreign to the United States. By contrast, the construction of Asian-American oppression in the U.S. classes people as foreigners, even when they were born on American soil. The classic example is the 20th century internment of Japanese-Americans.
Gotanda argues that contemporary definitions of Islam have formed, at least in part, through that template. Islam—as a religious category—has been interpreted as a racial category, and linked to foreignness. You can see this process at work among the birthers, who harnessed racial categories, fear of Islam, and fear of foreignness into a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. It’s easy to forget now, among everything else that’s happened, but Trump’s political moment began in 2011 when he became a figurehead for the birther movement.
In this sense, Gotanda said, “I think Obama is the first Asian-American president, in the way that Bill Clinton was the first black president. Obama’s personal history, the way he’s been treated, and the whole birther movement….only makes sense if you see it as sort of racialized in the Asian-American foreignness kind of way.”
Gotanda, though, does see something new in Trump’s proposal. “What’s new is this kind of religious based—nominally religious based—exclusion.” The effect, though, is apparent: “Now, the way [Trump]’s using it is clearly based on body. He wants to keep out brown bodies, and it elides into terrorists.”
Let’s talk about Nuremberg
Even when there is some kind of biological basis for defining a religious group, discrimination has a tendency to amp up the biological component, and to downplay the rest.
Consider Jewishness, a religio-ethnic identity that falls somewhere on the middle of the hypothetical scale between 100% inheritance and 100% choice. Like a racial identity, Jewishness is inherited, and, arguably, it cannot be abandoned, even if you eat lots of ham and start attending church (note: like everything else involving Jewish identity, that point is contested, but I won’t go into the details here).
But: it’s also possible to convert into Judaism, unlike racial categories, which by design tend to resist conversion. Just ask Rachel Dolezal, or recall the experiences of black Americans who tried to pass as white in a one-drop-rule society.
You can imagine Judaism suspended between two poles: between those identities that, like race, have an obligatory and heritable dimension, and those that, like Christianity or Islam, are generally understood, at least in our modern Western identity matrix, as matters of belief and conscience.
What’s interesting is that anti-Semites consistently push Judaism toward the racial end of the pole. There’s a history of anti-Semites denying that Judaism is a religion (instead, it’s an ideology, or a legal code, or an international cabal), and emphasizing definitions of Judaism rooted in physical heritage.
This nudge toward biology makes sense. For one thing, it’s easier to judge somebody’s identity based on ancestry than on beliefs and cultural traditions. The latter is pretty nebulous. The former is quantifiable.
Also, bigots haven’t historically cared much about the personal feelings and cultural traditions of the people they aim to denigrate.
The most famous example here is the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazi code that defined who was or was not a Jew. The Nuremberg Laws didn’t account for Jewish ways of thinking about heritage and tribal membership. Having three or four Jewish grandparents was enough for the state to define you as a Jew, even if other Jews didn’t consider you Jewish, and even if you didn’t consider yourself Jewish. The key fact, ultimately, was one of blood.
January 20th, 2017
As a reminder, the United States government already uses a racially-tinged method for singling out Muslims in security-sensitive places, such as airports. Officially, it’s called random screening. Accurately, it’s called profiling. It has persisted under the Obama administration, and it’s hard to imagine Hillary Clinton scaling it back. In this light, Trump’s suggestions aren’t quite so novel. (“I actually don’t find the anti-Muslim fervor shocking,” Grewal told RD).
But when Trump talks about an immigration ban or brings up a Muslim registry, he expands and formalizes that process. And, if elected, he would run into a disturbingly familiar set of problems: what does it entail for the state to take the messiness of human religious identity and turn it into a hard policy?
Recently, some critics have highlighted the practical difficulties of the ban. “A religious ban would be virtually impossible to implement and would cripple the current immigration system, according to more than 20 security and immigration officials,” reported NBC News over the summer. In an August speech, Clinton asked “How would [the ban] actually work?” and sketched out a scenario that echoed the court hearings of the Naturalization Law era: “What if someone says, ‘I’m a Christian,’ but the agent doesn’t believe him? Do they have to prove it? How would they do that?”
So what would Trump do? Recently, Trump’s campaign seems to have moved toward what may be the most feasible route: to define Islam as a kind of toxic ideology—the next communism, essentially. “We know nothing about their values and we know nothing about their love for our country,” Trump said during the second presidential debate, describing Syrian refugees.
This talk about ideology and values would make it possible to deny that a Trump administration’s policies toward Muslims counted as religious or racial discrimination. But it’s open-ended enough to allow discrimination based on religious grounds (because ideology can easily be a proxy for faith) and racial grounds (ditto).
From there, it’s not hard to imagine a kind of religious McCarthyism, in which any kind of association—through religious practice, a country of origin, an ethnicity, a last name—could potentially become grounds for suspicion and exclusion. To some extent, this already happens. The question is how far it would go.
The real genius of Trump’s Islam rhetoric, perhaps, comes from its very vagueness. If you’re not on board with the bigotry, Trump’s proposals sound suspiciously like violations of religious freedom. Meanwhile, to those with xenophobic tendencies, the term is a catch-all category for otherness and danger, and it could apply to almost anyone on earth.
By acting as if there’s a single, commonly understood definition of Muslim at play here, Trump’s critics unwittingly enable this double talk. The truth is, vagueness can be its own kind of threat. The government should never be in the business of sweeping up people based on their religious identity in any case, but it becomes even more problematic when we have little sense of how wide the net could be.
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Also on The Cubit: Reading Sam Harris in the age of Trump
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