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Islamophobia: An Attack on American Democracy

In the wake of President Trump's executive order banning the entry of Muslims from seven different Muslim majority countries, the country has witnessed some of its largest protests in recent history. There have been incredible displays of support for individuals and families affected by this hastily implemented policy. The scenes of demonstrations at the nation's major airports have gone viral, and have unsettled the idea that the new administration will enforce its diktat unopposed.

Here in Hampton Roads, there was a spectacular display of public opposition to this ban on Jan. 30th. People have gone so far as to compare the rumblings of these demonstrations to the 1960s, to the rhythm and intensity of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements in their nascent phases.

Despite the fact that President Trump's rhetoric throughout his campaign clearly parroted the bigotry contained in a gesture such as this ban, many wanted to believe that it was just hyperbolic sloganeering to score cheap political points through the time-tested, insidious tactic of fear-mongering. Sadly, they seem to have gotten it wrong.

In light of this executive order and the general thrust of the new administration, the country must now openly acknowledge, just like it was forced to on the question of anti-black racism in the 1960s, that there is indeed such a phenomenon called Islamophobia. Folks may differ on the precise history of Islamophobia — which, broadly defined, is the fear and hatred of Islam, Muslims, or anyone looking like Muslims — but one thing has been crystal clear: it is increasingly being used to whip up a mass hysteria to serve particular political agendas, often very violent ones. Waging wars that directly or indirectly result in the loss of hundreds of thousands lives, millions displaced, as well as inducing collective public indifference to brutal autocracies and occupations that we support that rule over those lives out there, requires a dehumanization of that brown 'other.' That dehumanization is Islamophobia, and those ‘others’ are the inhabitants of Muslim-majority countries, often not even Muslim per se. Their lives just do not matter, and in standard racism 101-fashion, the nefarious actions of a few individuals are supposed to denote the pathology of the larger culture and religion. And of course, social, political, and historical conditions and contexts of foreign occupations, wars, and violent and repressive dictatorships dare not enter into any assessment of why some parts of the Muslim-majority world are in a mess, and why reactionary ideologies and political behavior have emerged.

Nevertheless, the biggest mistake for Americans at this moment would be to see Islamophobia as merely a weapon used to target Muslims. What contemporary Islamophobia is really about is the weakening and hollowing out of American democracy. The institutionalization of ever-increasing forms of authoritarian control in our country that has always considered itself, and has been considered by others, as ensuring the highest standards of freedom and dignity to its inhabitants – relies on Islamophobia to accomplish this betrayal of the historically emancipatory American project.

The Muslim ban, and that is what is and will continue to be, is, paradoxically, not really an attack on Muslims. It is only the latest and most pernicious hemorrhaging of American constitutionalism, rule of law, and democratic norms, and is part of a much more ambitiously authoritarian objective. The Trump Administration, and especially the zealots within it, is hurriedly deploying these provocative executive orders and full-scale assaults on bodies such as the EPA to produce chaos, and to defang any modicum of governmental hindrance to its plans. Destabilizing America, rather than making it "great again," seems to be the preferred method of choice for pushing through the Trump agenda.

Muslim bans and Islamophobia are not an assault on Islam, but on democracy. President Trump’s project is to undermine any aspect of American political, social, and cultural life that gives democracy its teeth. Democracy is about valuing diversity and pluralism. The Trump agenda cannot stand that. The outpouring of protest against the inevitable Trump attempt at bludgeoning the liberties, dignity, and lives of people in America and abroad has been rejuvenating in these dark times. It is, frankly, the only hope we have, not just as Muslims, minorities, immigrants, or Democrats, but simply as human beings committed to peace, justice, and the survival of our planet and the human species.

Junaid S. Ahmad has a J.D. from the College of William and Mary, and is the Director for the Center for Global Dialogue and Professor of Law and Politics in Lahore, Pakistan. He is Secretary-General of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

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