Officers ‘just following orders’, confused children, fearful parents: with Trump’s vile ban, Islamophobia has finally burst its banks. How many times in history has evil been explained as ‘just following orders’.
The thought was almost too evil, too grotesque, to countenance. The hours after the ban felt like living through a chapter of history that we’d left behind. Events unfolded the likes of which we had only ever seen in documentaries, in fragments of newsreels from the archives. Travellers in tears, stern officers “just following orders”, refugees on the cusp of safe harbour wild with despair at the uncertain fate to which they must return, confused children huddled behind their parents as they plead with authorities, their faces speaking of fear, confusion and the sense that something is about to change for ever.
Suddenly, all certainties look shaky. Residencies, passports, green cards, jobs, mortgages, friends, marriages – all the things you thought fortified you against the mobilisation of state machinery – dissolve. You are only a Muslim. And what does that mean? It is a tag that defies definition, becoming more elusive the more you try to pin it down. I was reminded of a scene from a dramatisation of Roots author Alex Haley’s life, when he, dressed proudly in his US Coast Guard uniform and sporting his medals, confidently asks for a hotel room for the night for him and his wife. When he is refused one for being black, he returns to his car enraged – not at those who denied him but at himself for thinking he was exempt. “All they saw was a monkey.”
This did not start with Trump, it’s something that is only reaching its climax. For years, as people warned against the mainstreaming of Islamophobia, they were met with equivocation. “Islam is not a race”, “we are criticising Islam, not Muslims”, “we condemn all religion, not just Islam”. Mosques were attacked, women were spat on and had their hijabs snatched from their heads. Western media, led by the British tabloid press, established an industry of hysteria against Muslims with fake news. The niqab and its banning commanded hours of debate in European parliaments.
All the while Muslims repeatedly hit the panic button and were told that they needed to stop overreacting and being so precious. Rightwingers exploited Islamophobia to channel anti-immigration hatred, and liberalism took refuge in intellectual handwringing and posturing over prophet cartoons and freedom of speech and women’s rights, unable to ally itself with what it perceived to be a backward Muslim tradition, and failing to understand that the danger to everything the west stands for is not from Islamic extremism but from the response to it.
Trump has his Muslims. Hitler had his Jews. What magnificient progress for the United States. Who’s next? Mormons? Amish? You?