Posted by Ryan Suto on August 08, 2017 in Blog

The late Jack Shaheen observed in 1984 that U.S. media and culture portray Arabs as only “billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers,” creating flat Arab characters which form the popular tropes that inhabit the mind of millions of Americans and others around the world. Since 9/11, however, many U.S. government officials and politicians have become disinterested in discussing billionaires or belly dancers, leaving only one lens to frame Arab American and American Muslim communities. Despite the broad political trend to frame these communities as only having use as counter-terrorism pawns, the Trump campaign and now the Trump Administration have taken this political trope to new lows.

President Trump’s first budget request does end the problematic and ineffective policy of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), which encourages friends, family, teachers, and others to surveil those who might exhibit stereotyped behaviors which allegedly precede radicalization. However, the broader program was ended only in hopes of changing the focus to “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” specifically. After criticism, the Administration retained the CVE program in name only and instead removed funding for programs which focused on non-Islamic forms of extremism, including neo-Nazi groups, and those which were viewed as not cooperating with police. Faiza Patel, Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, stated that by making such changes, “the Trump administration only reinforced the message that CVE is about Muslims.” 

Further, the President’s lack of response to terror attacks against Muslims, like the recent bombing of a Minnesota mosque, shows that the Administration views Muslims as only perpetrators, never victims. And if an Administration official speaks positively about American Muslims, such as during Christopher Wray’s confirmation hearing, it continues the securitization of the relationship between the government and American Muslim communities. That is, in the Administration’s perception, American Muslims are never lawmakers, doctors, teachers, and artists. Instead, Muslims communities are viewed only through the law enforcement paradigm, framing them as either terrorists, potential terrorists, or allies to expose fellow Muslims as future terrorists.

The dominant terrorism frame of the Trump Administration extends beyond our borders, as well. As analyzed in a previous post, Trump’s speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia focused only on security and terrorism when claiming to address Arabs and Muslims, ignoring conventional U.S. foreign policy rhetoric of promoting freedom, values, or democracy. And while the Administration’s budget request includes no significant aid and diplomacy cuts for Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, the rest of the region sees significant reductions. This year’s annual POMED report notes that 80% of all aid to the Middle East and North Africa is military security assistance under the Fiscal Year 2018 budget. It proposes to cut democracy assistance, humanitarian efforts, and economic aid to both troubled countries like Syria and Yemen and promising countries such as Tunisia. Democracy promotion in the Middle East is no longer the guiding objective of America’s regional policy; it is now merely a shallow and short-term understanding of counterterrorism and stability for the U.S. and U.S. allies. 

Through Trump’s rhetoric, his administration’s requested budget, and his policies like the continuing saga of the Muslim Ban, the President makes clear that he does not see Arabs and Muslims as valued members of society beyond potential tools for counterterrorism. He provides no evidence that he views these communities as sharing a desire for freedom, peace, and democracy. And, as evidenced by the vote of 208 Republican Representatives to investigate and define Islam itself, he is not alone in his prejudices.