Muslims are a familiar bogeyman in Donald Trump’s Twitter universe. Recently they were once again the subject of his Islamophobic tweet to 43.6 million followers.
On November 29, included in the usual early morning barrage of the president’s tweets was a retweet of three incendiary videos purporting to depict violent acts committed by Muslims. Their descriptions read: “VIDEO: Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!” and “VIDEO: Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!” and “VIDEO: Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!”
The authenticity and inflammatory content of the videos seemed of little consequence to Trump. According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, the president was merely trying to “elevate the conversation to talk about a real issue and a real threat, and that’s extreme violence and extreme terrorism…to protect Americans.” She added, “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.”
Of equal insignificance to the White House was that the source of these videos was Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of a tiny, Fascist political organization known as Britain First. Last year, Fransen was fined two thousand pounds and convicted of religiously aggravated harassment after she followed a veiled Muslim woman and her four children down the street and shouted at them about the unchecked sexual desires of Muslim men. And since last year’s murder of Labour member parliament Jo Cox by a right-wing terrorist named Thomas Mair, there has been public support to designate Britain First a terrorist organization.
Despite likely not knowing who Fransen was, Trump scoured the underbelly of Twitter, found her content and amplified her bile by retweeting it to his legions of acolytes. In the process, as he deftly and regularly has done since the onset of his campaign for the presidency, Trump mainstreamed anti-Muslim sentiments and emboldened Islamophobes directly from his chair in the Oval Office.
The deluge of condemnations that followed, including those of British Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump ally Nigel Farage, seemed to matter little. Quite simply, the Trump administration found the concerns regarding the tweet misguided and oblivious to the threat that had to be addressed and talked about.
The “real threat” illustrated in these videos, per Sanders, had demonstrated “the need for national security and military spending.” Irrespective of the tweet’s veracity, this was the overarching concern that had prompted the president’s social media activity.
But these videos are not about terrorism against the United States or national security. Nor could the actions shown have been thwarted with an increased military budget. The content is far more dangerous and inciting.
By watching Muslims desecrating religious statues and committing wanton violence against the innocent and vulnerable, whether truthful or not, one is encouraged to conclude that adherents of Islam are depraved, savage beings devoid of basic humanity. These images reduce them to barbarians who are inimical to Western norms, values and mores. With their collective humanity effectively eradicated, Muslims become undeserving of sympathy and objects only to be feared.
During a presidential campaign that included many notable moments when Islamophobia was fomented on social media and in rallies and media appearances, Donald Trump told CNN, “I think Islam hates us.” He “strongly considered” closing mosques, and though later debunked, peddled the lie that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on September 11 “as the buildings came down.” This is how talk of Muslim bans, internment camps, registries and heightened surveillance became palatable.
The rhetoric and aspersions have persisted despite a flagging ISIS and a greater risk to American lives from homegrown right-wing extremists. ISIS has lost ninety percent of its territory, has hemorrhaged sixty thousand fighters and has a diminishing social media presence. Since Donald Trump entered office, white American men have killed more Americans than Muslim terrorists or foreigners.
Even if 9/11 deaths are included, the average likelihood that an American will die from a terrorist attack in which an immigrant participated is one in 3.6 million. The odds of an American dying after being hit by a railway vehicle or having his or her own clothes igniting or melting are higher.
As Peter Beinart wrote recently in The Atlantic, “Trump’s tweets show that, increasingly, America’s purveyors of anti-Muslim bigotry no longer need terrorism as a rationalization. Islamophobia is finding new justifications, which don’t rely on ISIS or Al Qaeda detonating bombs in London or Chicago. And in that way, it’s embedding itself more deeply in America’s political terrain.”
The trouble with this cannot be understated. Islamophobia undergirded by the right’s fascination with terrorism contributed to a historic number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2016. But as Trump’s tweet evidenced, there are many ways other than the specter of terrorism to demonize Muslims and reduce them to a vile monolith.
In the wake of President Trump’s recent Twitter activity, Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center said, “This isn’t a joke. When you depict Muslims in this way it can lead to hate violence.” This is all to be expected now. For in Donald Trump’s eyes, Muslims might reside in America, but they will never truly be American.
Jalal Baig is a physician and writer. He is currently a hematology/oncology fellow at University of Illinois Hospital-Chicago. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Guardian, Slate, Salon, Public Radio International and elsewhere. Twitter: @jalalbaig