In less than two months, the unthinkable will take place: Donald Trump will be sworn in as the forty-fifth president of the United States. As an American-Muslim, I am a member of a community that was often in the cross-hairs of his vitriolic rhetoric. But I did not take his message too seriously because I was convinced that the American people would never allow someone with his character flaws to become their leader. At the same time, however, I recognized that even in losing, the magnitude of the support he received from the American public signaled the precarious state of Muslims in the United States. It was not supposed to be this way when eight years ago, Barack Hussein Obama was elected president. Obama’s election victory in 2008 was clear and convincing: He won fifty-three percent of the popular vote with a turnout of fifty-eight percent, and the Democrats had strong majorities in both the Senate (58 out of 100) and the House of Representatives (257 of 435).
Somewhat surprisingly to those of us who ardently supported Obama at the time, however, instead of using this crushing victory to pursue transformational policies, Obama sought reconciliation with the Republicans, even after the Republicans repeatedly showed that they had little interest in cooperating with him or with Democrats. Perhaps Obama interpreted his victory not as a mandate for specific Democratic policies, but rather as a mandate for cooperative government. In either case, Obama largely failed. He neither succeeded in pushing through the most progressive versions of the policies that he advocated for, nor did he succeed in restoring civility to Washington.
While reasonable people might disagree with him for his compromises on questions involving universal health care and his approach to the Great Recession—especially given the fact that he had to deal with a thoroughly intransigent Congress—it is much harder to let Obama off the hook for his failure to take a strong stand against Islamophobia. This is especially puzzling insofar as the facts that he bears a Muslim name and was born to a Muslim father were repeatedly used by his Republican enemies to delegitimize him. Yet, to my knowledge, he never once responded to these charges in a fashion that reinforced the equal citizenship of Muslims in the United States. While he ridiculed the claim that he was a Muslim, he did not, unlike Colin Powell, state the constitutionally appropriate answer: that whether or not he was a Muslim was not relevant to whether he could or should become president of the United States, much less did it disqualify him from being president of the United States.
His unwillingness to confront expressly the overt Islamophobia and anti-black racism that were at the basis of the campaign to undermine his legitimacy spilled over into both his substantive and symbolic policies toward US Muslims and the Middle East. Even as Obama tried to tone down the war on terrorism rhetoric he inherited from the Bush administration, the FBI under his administration continued to pursue dubious sting operations against American-Muslim targets, who, in the overwhelming number of cases, would never have been remotely involved in terrorism but for the aggressive tactics of highly-paid FBI informants. While such investigative tactics garnered many headlines for the FBI and the Department of Justice, it did little to protect Americans from actual terrorist threats, such as that of the so-called “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouq Abdulmattalib, in whose case, it should be remembered, the defendant’s own father gave the United States specific warning that his son was at a high-risk of being involved in a terrorist plot. Moreover, the steady stream of such cases, and the mundane ordinariness of the defendants involved, kept the fear level among the ordinary populace high, reinforcing mass-fear of Muslims as all potential terrorists.
Although Obama was a professor of constitutional law, he never seriously advocated for the most constitutionally sound anti-terrorism policy: investigate thoroughly credible threats based on individualized indicia of suspicion, while eschewing the policy of “pre-crime” that has dominated domestic terrorism policy since 9/11 and placed all Muslims under suspicion. The FBI and the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice pursued terrorism investigations and prosecutions that reinforced the most outlandish theories of the Islamophobic right, including even trying to introduce evidence in a criminal trial that the Muslim Brotherhood was engaged in a conspiracy to bring down the United States. The average American could not help being confused when, against this backdrop of general fear, he or she saw other divisions of the Department of Justice, e.g., the Civil Rights Division, working actively to protect the civil rights of American Muslims that were violated by state and local government actors or by other Americans. Is it difficult to understand why, given these contradictory policies, many Americans would believe claims of Michelle Bachmann that Muslim extremists had infiltrated the government?
Obama’s unwillingness to challenge the fundamental premises of his predecessor’s war on terrorism and instead moderate its tone would prove to be nothing short of disastrous on the Israel-Palestine front and the Middle East generally. Israel’s nationalist leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, as if to test the resolve of the new president, launched Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip in December 2008, weeks before Obama was to be inaugurated. Despite the brutality of Israel’s assault—which led a well-regarded United Nations legal team to conclude that Israel committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity—Obama never condemned Israeli actions, instead repeating platitudes about Israel’s right to “self-defense,” as though the relationship between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (most of whom are either refugees or descendants of refugees) is that of “normal” international neighbors. And despite the hopeful tone that Obama took at his Cairo speech in 2009, when push came to shove in the Arab Spring, the Obama administration took no risks in supporting a transition to democracy in the Arab world. They watched passively on the sidelines as a bloody military coup unfolded in Egypt and the Syrian dictator massacred his people with the assistance of Iran, Hizbullah, and Russia, even using poison gas against them, despite statements by Obama that such use would cross a “redline,” with the de facto acquiescence of the Obama administration.
Obama’s policies toward the Middle East and the Arab world can be summed up as little more than hand-wringing out of frustration that all the parties in the Middle East were too attached to narratives of victimization to pursue their common good, and so the only rational course for the United States is to abandon the region to its own demons, while minimizing US losses. The peoples of the region did not deserve active support from the United States in transitioning from generations of post-colonial strife toward a more hopeful future grounded in democracy, equality, and the norms of international law. Obama’s policies toward the Middle East seemed to be predicated on the assumption that the peoples of the region are condemned to a sectarian reality—pitting Sunni against Shi’i, Arab against Persian, Jew versus Arab, Christian against Muslim, Kurds against all—and that until they fight their equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War, there is nothing for the United States to do. If that was the policy motivating United States foreign policy toward the Middle East, is it any surprise that vast numbers of Americans find it shocking that the United States would then accept refugees from such a benighted region?
Obama’s inability or unwillingness to pursue transformational policies with the Muslim world and his wavering between support of the status quo and timid half-steps toward achieving a new, more hopeful equilibrium, was also reflected in the campaign of Hillary Clinton. American Muslims voted in overwhelming numbers for Clinton, and Clinton, in a manner unprecedented in a United States campaign, attempted to incorporate Muslims positively into her campaign. She featured the parents of a Muslim soldier who died in the Iraq war, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who delivered one of the most powerful speeches at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Nevertheless, Clinton did not move beyond the security paradigm in talking about US Muslims: Her criticism of Trump’s anti-Muslim statements emphasized the negative security consequences of his rhetoric rather than giving pride of place to its fundamental inconsistency with American ideals of equality of the person and freedom of religion. This is not to say that Clinton never made such references, but rather the emphasis of her response to Trump was always framed from the perspective of the usefulness of having “good Muslims” for the national security of the United States, arguing that Trump’s rhetoric, along with the rhetoric of the right, undermined national security by making it less likely that “good Muslims” would cooperate with the United States. [Read more about the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” myth in “The refugee crisis and religion” here.]
If it was not already clear, the results of the 2016 presidential election have revealed a deep crisis in United States democracy, beginning with the inability to agree on common facts that could form a basis for shared decision-making. There is no arena of public policy in which radical subjectivism prevails over sober analysis more than in US policy toward the Middle East, Islam, and Muslims. Fantasies about Islam, the Middle East, and the Arab world were long allowed to drive and justify policymaking in the international arena based on the mistaken notion that whatever the costs of those policies, they would be borne largely, if not exclusively, by the peoples of the region, and they didn’t really matter anyway. Who cares, after all, if Palestinians are made refugees, so long as the Jewish state is miraculously reborn?
The current catastrophes of the Middle East, however, for which the United States and the West cannot absolve themselves, have gone far beyond the borders of that now not-so-distant-region. The Syrian refugee crisis that resulted from the United States’ inaction in Syria may very well result in the disintegration of the European Union. It also played a precipitating role in the successful Brexit campaign. Both of these developments, however, pale next to the election of Trump to the presidency of the United States, a personality who poses grave threats to the liberal order at home and abroad. And the reality is that his election would have been impossible but for the cascading crises in the Middle East. These crises reinforced irrational Islamophobia domestically, and are now reinforcing the irrational international policies of Trumpism, developments which will not only hurt the peoples of the Middle East, but which also have the potential to bring down the post-World War II liberal international order in its entirety.
The unwillingness of Democrats to stand firmly against Islamophobia, however, has proven to be much more than a cowardly tactical policy. By effectively giving political irrationality a free pass, the Democratic Party allowed that irrationality to achieve a critical mass under the banner of the war against terrorism/Islam in which facts, proportionality, and objective analysis are rendered meaningless. Now, political irrationality has metastasized, extending beyond its domain in Islamophobia, to virtually every political discussion in the United States, and as a result, threatens to destroy every traditional liberal value in the domestic and international orders as identity politics replaces liberal politics. In this respect, the legacy of Obama may very well prove that sometimes, half-measures turn out to be worse than no measures at all.