For all of his anti-establishment rhetoric, President Trump’s stance toward immigrants and Muslims is more of the same. Orientalism and Manifest Destiny have long animated American foreign policy and domestic treatment of its racial and religious minorities.
Trump’s executive orders on Friday, effectively barring immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, harks back to an era when holy wars were the currency for mass mobilization by the ruler.
In the eleventh century, for example, Pope Urban II called on his people to defend the Byzantine Empire from encroaching Muslim armies. What became known as the First Crusade in European history books solidified the image of Muslims as fanatical followers of a false religion and a threat to Christendom. Medieval romances and legends of battles between Christian and Muslim warriors nurtured the perception of a dangerous and violent Islam.
Over time, the stereotype of the Muslim savage animated the West’s domination, restructuring, and deculturalization of the Middle East.
Orientalism and Manifest Destiny have long animated American foreign policy and domestic treatment of its racial and religious minorities.
So-called Middle East experts produced knowledge that situated the West as eternally superior to the East; and imagined the East as anti-democratic and uncivilized. Islam was portrayed as backward and violent; thereby making Muslims savages who should be either converted or conquered. But its impact stretched beyond Europe’s borders.
British colonists brought with them Orientalism, which coupled with the ideology of Manifest Destiny, was used to justify the conversion or termination of Native Americans, enslavement of Africans, and exploitation of the Chinese. As nonwhite and non-Christian, these groups were deemed biologically inferior. As such, it was the white man’s burden to teach, civilize, and save them from their savage nature.
Over time, the various offshoots of Orientalism animated our immigration policies in general and treatment of Muslims in particular. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was grounded in the Orientalist construction of the Buddhist Asian as heathen. The Immigration Act of 1924 imposed a quota system with the intent to reduce immigration from non-European countries. With the number of immigrants from a country limited to two percent of people from that country in the U.S. in 1890 (thirty years before passage of the law), the percentage of immigrants from Western and Northern Europe soared. This explicit race-based immigration system purposely aimed to keep America predominantly white and Christian.
With passage of the Nationality Act of 1965, America effectively opened immigration from Asia, which included persons from Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Like the White Nativism that gripped America in the early 1900s after millions of Southern and Eastern Europeans (deemed inferior whites) immigrated to the United States, the increase in non-European immigration triggered a new wave of xenophobia. And just as the Chinese and Japanese had experienced in decades prior, post-1965 immigrants were collectively blamed for international crisis between their country of origin and the United States.
The oil crisis with Saudi Arabia in the 1970s triggered a wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination. The Iranian revolution triggered a wave of anti-Iranian discrimination by both the state and the public. The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis perpetuated tropes of the Palestinian terrorist in the American media. And most recently, the rise of transnational terrorist groups such Al Qaeda and ISIS have led to the collective punishment of Muslims in America through mass surveillance, selective anti-terrorism enforcement, and private acts of discrimination.
Harking back to the Crusades and European Orientalism, American policy makers now invoke terms like “radical Islamic terrorism” to reify the centuries-long trope of the Muslim savage and barbarian whose very existence threatens the Christian West. That only a handful of Muslims in America, out of 6 million, have committed acts of terror is irrelevant because Orientalism is an ideology rooted in white supremacy and a clash of civilizations.
So when Trump signed his executive order allowing only Christian refugees and barring “radical Islamic terrorists” from America, he was no different than other U.S. presidents before him. His War on Terror is merely the latest version of Christian holy wars that use fear to manipulate the public into cowering to their ruler’s mandates.
In that regard, Trump’s neo-Orientalism is the establishment.
Sahar F. Aziz is a professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law and formerly served as a Senior Policy Advisor at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She is the author of "Policing Terrorists in the Community."