Shadowboxing: How Trump’s war on Muslims threatens us all

If there’s a particular portion of President Trump’s inaugural speech that has stuck with me, it’s this line in particular:

And unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.

And so back once more to the Bush-era “War on Terror.” Which leaves Trump confronting the very same problem that bedeviled Republicans then:

How exactly does one go about eradicating an idea?

Oh, sure, you can destroy ISIS – which probably won’t be easy, because ten to one Putin already secretly shoring them up somehow as a bright shiny bauble to keep Trump distracted (that’s certainly what I’d be doing in his shoes) – but then what? ISIS is just the latest in a series of like-minded organizations, remember. So perhaps after that, he’ll move onto Al-Qaeda once more, then perhaps the entire Syrian rebellion as a whole, presuming he follows Putin and Assad’s lead in declaring them all terrorists and enemies. But inevitably, some other new group will rise up, and the whole cycle will start all over again, leading to the same old endless game of military whack-a-mole[1].

But – again – then what? Ideas are bulletproof. Violence and collateral damage inevitably motivates more terrorists. So where does it end?

For years, Obama’s strategy emphasized tolerance and freedom of religion. His argument went that it’s those ideals that are America’s greatest strength, and what religious zealots like bin Laden and al-Awlaki really found threatening about us – the idea that it’s possible for people to simply live their lives without fighting over theology or differing points of view. Obama’s hope was that, by stressing that there’s a place for Muslims in a multicultural world, sooner or later the radicals would calm down and just stick to screaming at people in Internet forums, the way most of us do[2]. Even Bush paid homage to this idea, hollow as it tended to ring after the invasion of Iraq, because he knew that his wars could only be won with the support of Muslim individuals and countries.

But Trump and his supporters categorically reject this notion. Notice the word choice of ‘Islamic terrorism,’ which Rudy Giuliani spent years making a big deal over. What’s the point of that, aside from general-level rudeness and being all ‘politically incorrect’? It’s of course to emphasize the innate connection between Islam and terrorism – the idea that violence is intrinsic to Islam, and that peace is thus ultimately impossible. Most Trump supporters online tend to buy in big to the entire so-called ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ usually as a way of emphasizing what they see as Christianity’s innate superiority as a religion. (In them, one can see that strain of Puritan zealotry that’s been a part of America from the very beginning – Christianity’s own jihad memes coming active after years of relative dormancy[3].) They see a modern-day crusade as being both inevitable and advantageous, something that will allow them to finally put the heathens in their place and assure American energy independence via “taking their oil,” as our President so eloquently put it.

So… doesn’t that put them on a (possibly unnecessary, highly destructive) collision course with the more than one billion Muslims living the world today? What do they intend to do about all the people who refuse to follow their way of life?

In my experience, that question usually marks the point where Trump supporters start talking about nuclear weapons. It makes sense from their point of view. Whether they care to admit it or not, genocide is the logical conclusion of their belief set. The only way to truly eradicate an idea, after all, is to kill everyone who has it (or might have it, or might someday come up with it) inside their heads.

Does Trump believe as they do? My guess is that it varies from day to day. As I’ve said before, I don’t see him as someone who’s necessarily opposed to diversity – he’s had no trouble renting properties to Saudi royalty in the past, if memory serves – and he’s certainly no Christian. (Worship of God distracts from worship of himself, I suspect.) But he certainly hasn’t been shy about using Islamophobia to his advantage, and – as we have been seeing in recent days – there’s really no way to predict where and how he’s going to lash out when he’s under stress. Or how far he’s willing to go.

Zealots feed off of one another. I doubt would-be Christian jihadists are aware of how similar they are to their foes[4]. They need Muslims to be the great Satanic horde at their doorstep in order for their worldview to make sense, just as ISIS needs to brag on Twitter about sacking Rome and fighting the Crusaders at Dabiq. As a whole, they tend not to be too cognizant of history, riddled as it is with would-be prophets and soldiers of destiny, left befuddled when reality ultimately failed to follow the script they expected. If there is a God and He does have a plan for us, I tend to doubt it’s anything so easily transparent or predictable to our tiny minds. Maybe all the prophecies will come true someday, but in the present, there’s little sense or reason in killing for them.

But here they go, rushing off to war anyway – while all the rest of us, the ones who believe in a multicultural world, in living and let live and allowing people to be who they are, who honestly believe in the Founding Fathers’ vision – those of us who have seen it work and lived it and know that peace is possible, that peace needs to happen for humanity to move forward – we just get tossed aside into the dust. Left behind to deal with the consequences of their madness, as the world just keeps on stubbornly refusing to end.

Independent counts of Iraqi civilian casualties killed after the invasion put the number at just over one hundred thousand deaths. I see that as blood on my own hands – on the hands of all Americans, really. That’s how collective responsibility works. I might not have voted for Bush… but I didn’t do anything to stop him either.

That’s not a mistake I would like to make twice.


  1. Which, to be fair, we probably would have wound up playing under Hillary, too, albeit perhaps in a much more measured and less visibly brutal way. And probably without all the Big Macho verbs that right wingers thrive on, like “annihilate” and “exterminate.” ↩︎

  2. Which isn’t to say that Obama didn’t keep the pressure up on Al-Qaeda and company through drone strikes and the like, because he’s not an idiot. Republicans love to criticize his actions in Libya, Syria, and during the Arab Spring, but they’ve been surprisingly quiet on what exactly they would’ve done differently – aside, of course, from those who would’ve Killed All The Bad Guys and Taken Their Oil. Needless to say, I find the wisdom of their plans questionable. ↩︎

  3. I expect that this is part of the motive behind the American right’s current love affair with Putin. They see him as a fellow Christian, in origin if not in action; a Great White Hope that knows how to properly slaughter the infidels, as he’s done in Syria and Chechnya. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that Putin might not see the world the way they do. If Putin’s leading a crusade against anything, it’s American influence in one form or another. One wonders if Trump realizes – or cares – that he’s just another pawn in that game. ↩︎

  4. Or perhaps they are, and they fear the bin Ladens of the world precisely because they think alike. To put it another way, maybe Christian and Jewish fundamentalists hostile to Islam believe on some level that if they had been raised Muslim, they would be jihadists. It’s a sort of psychological projection, a way of externalizing their own destructive impulses. Perhaps the minds of Muslim crusaders work the same way, and the entire conflict is just about zealots shadowboxing with each other. Wouldn’t that just figure. ↩︎


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