Why Donald Trump Needs Muslim Women

Why Donald Trump Needs Muslim Women

Liberals and conservatives have used the plight of Muslim women to champion wars—now this idea is being redeployed in a cultural war at home.


On an April morning 10 years ago, I set out to speak at the Indiana General Assembly. I was a graduate student then, green and greedy for any sort of opportunity that would lift me above all of the other sharp and competitive students in the political-science department at Indiana University. The invitation fit that bill grandly, even though I’d been given only some vague guidelines regarding the topic of my speech. I learned soon enough when I was greeted warmly by the very nice state representative who had asked me to come. “Just speak for a few minutes about your work on honor killings,” she whispered with a smile. The venue was not the Assembly itself, but a luncheon for the Women’s Caucus of the Indiana House of Representatives.

I did speak about honor killings that afternoon, after I received a tour of the Statehouse, stood beneath the hushed and high rotunda, and had my picture taken with my host, the two of us standing by the flag behind the podium. I spoke about the work my small organization of expat Pakistani-American women was doing on the issue, of the cruelty of the crime and the helplessness of the victims. It was the first time I had spoken on the issue for a mainly white and exclusively American audience—and a largely conservative one. There was raucous applause when I was done. A resolution officially commending my work on honor killings in South Asia was passed. I received it in the mail and had it framed.

Ten years later, I can barely look at it. A miserable mix of remorse, guilt, and shame follows when I force myself to do so or to recount the moment it commemorates. I realize now that the resolution had very little to do with me. Instead, my presence as a Pakistani woman served to confirm a group of other women—predominantly white women—in their role as saviors of brown women and, by extension, harsh critics of that supposedly woman-hating religion, Islam. These were still the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the former of which had been described by then–first lady Laura Bush as a “fight for the rights and dignity of women.” This argument appealed not just to conservatives but to liberals, some of whom were persuaded that an American war really could liberate these women, who seemed unable to liberate themselves. Few things helped to fuel war and Islamophobia more successfully in those days than the stories of women being killed by the men who’d fathered them or married them or were related to them, and whose murderous acts went unpunished in a society that sanctioned them. I was a representative of those women and that society filled with lesser feminists, brown or black or Muslim, the foil against which American feminists (or, for those who quibble with the label, empowered American women) continued to define themselves. Even just listening to me speak—on a topic selected to fit this role—was an act of benevolence bestowed on a lesser sister, my testimony against the brutality of my own people creating the stark contrast against which their own superiority shone and glistened.

A lot has happened in America in the 10 years since, and very little of it has been good. The brown Muslim woman and her desperate condition has served as an excuse to rain down even more bombs on even more countries than the United States was bombing in 2007. Women like Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton have claimed credit for “liberating” these women, parading a select few of them onstage at galas or conventions featuring agendas defined entirely by white feminists, liberal and conservative. Their role is the same as mine was on that April morning, their proclaimed bravery exactly equal to their willingness to serve as informers against their native lands, to condemn the backwardness of their home countries. As the scholar Mohja Kahf has explained, the roles available to them are victim, escapee, or pawn. Under Trump, the role of Muslim women has evolved yet again, but this time to support a war at home.

The preexisting appetite for native informers has grown gluttonous in the dismal first days of the Trump administration. If the expansionist agenda of the Bush administration and the pragmatic lassitude (at least by comparison) of the Obama administration utilized the brown Muslim woman as a foil to be brought out at choice moments, the Trump administration requires her to define its core agenda. Her oppression shows why good, white, patriotic American woman must be protected from bad, violent Muslim men. Executive Order 13780, issued by Trump during the week of the first International Women’s Day of his presidency, demands that “information regarding the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States by foreign nationals” be collected by federal agencies. Just like the premise that justified intervention in Afghanistan under the guise of saving Afghan women from Afghan men, the order insists that Muslim men must be banned from the homeland to save American women at home. President “Grab Them by the Pussy” Trump was suddenly concerned with domestic violence.

Similarly, a cabal of conservative white women—rage-filled Trumpistas—have forged a sort of right-wing feminism that claims to protect American women by preventing immigration. In order for this Fox News feminism to function, it needs stories of bad Muslim men. Among its leading lights is Pamela Geller, whose personal website the Geller Report issues an almost daily mega-dose of anti-Muslim vitriol, including frequent stories about honor killings and female genital mutilation. “The Phenomenon of Honor Killings Rooted in the Culture of Islam,” screams one post, its contents a mash-up of selective statistics, fake reports, and ludicrous claims. Nationalist media maven Ann Coulter is Geller’s sister in hate, eagerly constructing an image of the empowered but conservative American woman as one archly opposed to the admission of brown men into the polity. In one appearance on Fox News following the signing of Trump’s second travel ban, Coulter declared that immigrants from the Middle East were “terrifying” and “having a very difficult time not to rape women.”

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has toed the same line. Some of her work as a pollster underscores just how these women have enabled a systemized demonization of Muslim and brown others to grab power for themselves. In a radio interview last year, Conway said that her company had conducted a poll showing that 27 percent of Muslims view jihad—defined as either punishing non-believers or undermining non-Muslim states—as part of their faith. The Paris attacks happened not long after, and candidate Trump announced, citing Conway’s poll, that he would impose a blanket ban on all Muslims. It was only later that the poll’s methodological problems were exposed. A little over a year later, Conway was installed at the White House.

The rise of the nationalist white feminist, the Coulters and Conways who now command the attention and affections of the voters wooed by Trump, relies centrally on those brown Muslim women willing to serve as native informers. The made-to-order “Islam reformers,” who gained notoriety in the Bush era by buttressing the US agenda for war with their pleas for intervention, are now retooling themselves to cash in on America’s nationalist moment. Two women most adept at demonizing Muslims on demand recently made an appearance in the US Senate, at a hearing titled “Ideology and Terror: Understanding the Tools, Tactics and Techniques of Violent Extremism.” On June 14, 2017, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former Muslim Islamophobe who once called for Christians to convert Muslims by building “Christian centers” next to every mosque, testified vehemently on the need for an even more aggressive stance against Islam and Muslims. Hirsi Ali, who has stated unequivocally that “we are at war with Islam” and that it must be “defeated,” has been labeled an anti-Muslim extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A New York City resident, she charges $40,000 to $60,000 for a single speech, billing herself as an expert on security and gender and as an “Islam reformist.” Business seems to be booming in the age of Trump.

Hirsi Ali was flanked at the hearing by Asra Nomani, a gleeful Trump champion whose Election Day selfie proclaiming her support went viral. Nomani has long billed herself as a terror expert based on the happenstance that she was in Karachi with Mariane Pearl when the latter’s husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was abducted and killed. (It is notable that Mariane Pearl has criticized the War on Terror and never appears with Nomani.) She is also one of the founders of the so-called Muslim Reform Movement. Revved up to revile, Nomani and Hirsi Ali did what they usually do, making vehement demands for a unified march against the existing, dangerously flawed Islam, a march they said was thwarted by the naïveté of American liberals duped into a masochistic multiculturalism.

However, the pair encountered an unexpected problem at their June 14 Senate hearing. Coming as it did hours after Representative Steve Scalise and several others were shot while practicing for the congressional baseball game, the hearing received neither the media attention nor the general attendance that it would have otherwise. The New York Times came to the rescue: On June 22, the paper published an op-ed in which Hirsi Ali and Nomani took aim at Kamala Harris, the black female senator who had been unduly silenced by other senators at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. In “They Brushed Off Kamala Harris. Then She Brushed Us Off,” the duo alleged that Harris and the other Democratic female senators at the hearing had rendered them “invisible,” just like “the mullahs at the mosque” did, by not asking them a single question. They then expanded this fact into an indictment of all progressives, who in ignoring these two women had failed to “march against honor killings, child marriages, polygamy, sex slavery or female genital mutilation.”

It was a clever trap, and the comments poured in, with the Times going so far as to afford Hirsi Ali and Nomani a follow-up question-and-answer session. The women had won again, capitalizing on an expert baiting of liberals terrified of being seen as lax on honor killings, polygamy, and the like. What it proved was that all of the brands of “empowered” American feminism, liberal or nationalist, circle around the “other” woman and the project of liberating her. For those native informers who can successfully serve this project, as Hirsi Ali and Nomani do, there are great rewards in store, both from the right that adores them and the left that fears them.

The story, however, is not simply a tale of enterprising native informers posing as reformers and cashing in on American feminist confusions and the seductions of a fake solidarity built on saviordom. What led The New York Times (which has otherwise positioned itself as a journalistic vanguard against the Trump administration) to give a platform to women whose views line up with Geller’s and Coulter’s is reflective of a wider liberal-feminist ambivalence about identity politics in general, and of its own proclivities for savior feminism in particular.

It is just this trend that has come into view in the dark morning after of Trump’s victory. Susan Faludi, in a symposium for the journal Democracy, contributed a piece titled “Where Is Feminism Now?” In it, Faludi criticizes “progressive women in the academy” for patting themselves on the back too much for “how ‘intersectional’ we are these days.” A better direction for American feminism, in Faludi’s view, would have been orienting the movement toward the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump. It is these white female voters, the ones ignored by the “feminist blogosphere,” who make up “that vast demographic of women” who must be won over. “Did white working-class women betray feminism,” Faludi asks, or “did feminism betray them?”

Faludi was hardly alone in ringing the death knell for identity politics and turning to redistribution as a panacea for Hillary Clinton’s loss in November. Many others, such as Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, sounded the call for “a post-identity liberalism,” a happy twin to its existing, losing sibling that would redirect everyone toward shared values instead of messy differences.

Harmful to all minority groups, this call to put identity aside (correctly termed “racist” by political scientist Marcus Johnson) inflicts a greater toll on the Muslim woman than on others. Unlike other religious and racial minorities in the United States, American Muslims, including American Muslim women, are inordinately subject to the vagaries of the security state constructed in the post-9/11 era. A recent Pew poll reiterated this, reporting that less than half (44 percent) of American Muslim women think that “Americans are friendly toward Muslims.”

This proposed turning away from recognition and intersectionality comes in the footsteps of other silences. In the past decade and a half, feminists have remained largely silent as an ever-expanding surveillance state has normalized the widespread suspicion of American Muslims and encouraged reporting on their activities as an act of patriotism. Not one feminist, for example, has taken note of the fact that nearly half of the women currently being prosecuted for alleged ISIS-related offenses in the United States are merely the wives, sisters, or household members of the accused men, with little or nothing in terms of actual evidence against them. Nor has there been much liberal-feminist outrage over the fact that hate crimes against Muslim Americans have risen 91 percent since last year, or that a head scarf was listed as a trigger in 15 percent of them. But even before these sins of silence came the sin of collusion, in which feminists, including groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation, allied themselves with military invasions under the pretext of “liberating” Muslim women in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Faludi, notably, opposed the war.) Then as now, they believed that interventionist (rather than intersectional) feminism—bombing and occupying a country—is part of the project to “decrease violence against women and girls in Afghanistan.”

I recall this sorry history only to underscore the particular bind that an identity-blind, war-prone liberal feminism presents when it turns even further away from the politics of recognition and inclusion. In their silent complicity with the expanded reach and marginalizing rhetoric of the terror-
industrial complex, these liberal feminists have displayed a damning ambivalence at best, and indifference at worst, toward those belonging to the most marginalized group in America. Add to this the fact that many still believe in military intervention as a means to deliver liberation, and there is precious little to distinguish the politics of liberal feminists from their counterparts on the right. For both, the Muslim woman remains the synecdoche, a tool of self-definition, a homogenizing figure representing all non-Western women, all “other” women against the white woman.

The confluence of the liberal agenda of saving Muslim women from Muslim men with the conservative agenda of keeping Muslims out altogether so as to protect white women is a growing phenomenon throughout Europe as well as in the United States. It is just this phenomenon that scholar Sara Farris isolates with the term “Femonationalism,” which she uses to describe “the contemporary mobilization of feminist ideas by both nationalist parties and neoliberal governments under the banner of the war against the perceived patriarchy of Islam in particular and of migrants from the Global South in general.” Written in 2012, Farris’s piece considers European politics and points to the congruence between the liberal-feminist deployment of “equality,” in which Islam is judged as deficient, and the radical right’s effort to “protect” white women against the misogyny of Islam.

Farris notes that attitudes toward Islam have caused major rifts among European feminists. Some, like Alice Schwarzer of Germany and Élisabeth Badinter of France, have declared all of Islam to be fundamentally misogynist. Other European feminists, like Christine Delpy, have warned of the racist implications of such characterizations and how they might strengthen xenophobic nationalist parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front. This intrafeminist split mirrors the one in the United States. The Times’s decision to publish the Hirsi Ali and Nomani op-ed taking female Democratic senators and progressives to task for refusing to intervene to protect Muslim women from polygamy and female genital mutilation is an example of America’s own femonationalism.

While the liberal-feminist position may focus on the liberation of foreign women, it is difficult to distinguish in content and consequence from the conservative position that emphasizes a blanket exclusion of the same Muslim and/or immigrant other to protect white women. Conservative women like Geller, Coulter, and Conway seek to use the same substance—the failure of Muslim men to respect gender equality—as the basis for excluding them altogether, citing their alleged propensity for violence and inability to assimilate, and thereby justifying the right wing’s own Islamophobic and anti-immigrant political positions.

The reason I cringe when I look at my framed copy of that Indiana House resolution commending my work on honor killings is that I couldn’t realize then how I’d been used to testify against myself. The figure of the Muslim woman speaking up against the Muslim man, the Muslim faith, Muslim culture, Muslim civilization, is the glue that draws white women, the really empowered, together and gives them something to agree on. While the liberal feminist (or at least a number of them) sees herself as a rescuer of Afghan and Iraqi women, the conservative feminist seeks to protect the homeland from those misogynist others that the neoliberal feminist seeks to eliminate overseas.

Each of these groups aims to protect gender equality, a value they imagine as inherently and essentially belonging to white and Western society, and which they see as now under threat from both Muslims in particular and migrants from the Global South in general. With these parameters for the debate firmly in place, the only Muslim women who may speak are those who affirm Islam’s guilt. Talking about honor killings, then, has very little to do with honor killings and far more to do with justifying neoliberal military interventions and legitimizing conservative xenophobia—all of the meddling and all of the hate purified by the noble ruse of protecting gender equality.

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