“It’s embarrassing,” says Carol, “Everyone in my hometown seems to think he’s a hero.”
Carol is a doctor from Ohio who as been working in Bangladesh for more years than she cares to admit. She returns back to the US every few years for a few months of rest and her last time home was Spring 2015. The man she’s talking about is Donald Trump.
“You grow up knowing everyone and you think you know them. It’s astonishing then to see how much they’re lapping up all this nonsense he’s saying. I mean – why is anyone listening to him at all?”
Why, indeed, is anyone listening to Donald Trump? It’s a question asked by many a political commentator. Back at the beginning of the American election campaign Daniel W. Drezner, writing in the Washington Post in 2015, asked candidly that if the Republican presidential candidates really were as strong as they’ve been hailed to be then “why is a reality TV clown beating them all?” Social media around the world was abuzz with similar observations – though the language was often rather more choice to say the least. In fact, bar the Republican publicity machine itself, it was quite difficult to find anyone, online at least, singing his praises. Trump (and often his hair) is still seen anywhere between the butt of everyone’s jokes and reviled as the devil incarnate.
So why didn’t he go away? As Drezner put it, somewhat prophetically as it turns out, if the other candidates were so strong then how come a man with “no comparative political advantage except celebrity and a willingness to insult anyone who crosses his path” managed to keep ahead every step of the way? Even right at the end of the election process now, when he has consistently been behind, Trump is still here hanging on.
The general considered wisdom had been that Trump had no chance at a shot at the White House. When he became the outright victor among the Republican nominees, the voices of scorn weakened somewhat but still continued to dismiss him as a real threat to the Democrats. But for many, the eventual outcome in November is irrelevant. Although current media attention has been drawn to his views on sexually abusing women, it shouldn’t be forgotten that much of his campaign has been based on racial prejudice. For many from Asian or Asian-American backgrounds and living in the States the damage is already done – and certainly for Muslims his rhetoric is just the latest (and perhaps most alarming) of what is fast becoming decades of abuse.
For Carol, Trump’s focus on immigrants – and Muslims in particular – is distressing.
“I’ve worked for so long in a Muslim country and I consider many Muslims as my friends,” she says, “so to come back to my home town and find everyone praising a man who sees all Muslims as terrorists really sticks in the craw.”
Thankfully, this is not the case everywhere it seems. Aqsa is a senior editor at a digital conversion company in NYC. She’s concerned about how the campaigns are going but feels the mood is generally one of disgust rather than support.
“Many, if not all, people I know or am close to are appalled by his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance,” she says of Trump. “None of us understand how his campaign, which is built on racism and spreading fear, has gotten him this far.”
Anushay Hossain, a Bangladeshi journalist based in DC, is even more adamant.
“I think the majority of Americans are horrified. This is not what their country stands for. Trump does not represent that majority of Americans – or even Republicans for that matter.”
Aqsa and Anushay have different backgrounds – one from Pakistan heritage and the other from Bangladesh – though both identify with the Asian communities in America.
“My dad is a self-made businessman who emigrated to America from Pakistan in the 1970s. My mom came in the early 1980s after they got married,” Aqsa explains. “ I was born here in America and identify with both American culture and Pakistani culture. American culture because of my education and friends, and Pakistani culture because of my upbringing at home. I consider myself to be Asian American.”
Anushay would class as one of the immigrants Trump would like to keep out.
“I came here as a student, left for Europe to complete my Master’s, then came back to Washington years later only to marry and settle here.”
Does she see herself then still as a ‘visitor’ to the States?
“I very much see myself as a Bangladeshi, always, but after almost two decades in the US, I need to start acknowledging the American part of me, too. I am Bangladeshi-American and Asian-American and Muslim-American. Bring on the labels!”
In many ways this is the conundrum which faces Asian people living in America – the labeling. Most people from Asian backgrounds are brought up in a rich culture which remains important in family life – especially if from so-called ‘South Asia’. Being a Muslim or a Hindu or a Sikh is a major part of life for many in ways not felt quite as strongly by white Westerners. At the same time, growing up in America, the land of opportunity, means buying in to the whole deal and declaring ‘God bless America’ even if you weren’t born here. This is something which may even be unique to the States – a kind of neo-nationalism which is usually positive and welcoming.
“I love being an Asian American,” Aqsa says in describing this mix of cultures. “It’s the best of both worlds. I can relate to my fellow Americans in terms of pop culture and liberal views. However, I am also in touch with a more traditional and modest culture, and that has allowed me to experience more – whether it is knowing three languages other than English, growing up with a whole other cuisine, or having a different sense of style. The best part about this though is the acceptance of being this way in America, where there are so many different cultures. I see more interracial couples than before, and not just in Muslim communities. That’s a pretty wonderful thing, to see people willing to take part in exposure to a new culture.”
Traditionally then the image portrayed has been that anyone can come to the States and, in a sense, become truly American just as Anushay describes. In Britain, this is not so much the case. There, many Asians feel ‘ghettoized’ – they grew up British, enjoy British life, yet they feel completely rejected by the predominantly white population and retreat into their ethnic backgrounds for support. Large communities gather together in Manchester, Birmingham or London, for instance, but still feel isolated and nervous. Is America going the same way.
Not everywhere in America, at least in Anushay’s opinion; it really depends on where you live as to how accepted you feel.
“I live in a very international city like Washington, DC so I think the anti-Muslim rhetoric has had a different impact on my immediate community than say, Muslim-Americans in some small town in Kansas. But his (Trump’s) rhetoric has been terrible to hear and watch regardless of where you are in America.”
Aqsa takes a slightly different view and feels it is more to do with how much notice you attract.
“I feel safe as an Asian American, but I do think things might be different if I stood out more, e.g., wore a hijab or traditional South Asian attire. I can only assume I would then be put under a microscope by those who support Trump and his anti-immigrant/Muslim stance.”
It’s not just with Asians in America though. Internationally, people are alarmed and upset not just with the possibility of Trump sitting in the Oval Office but with what he’s being stirring up along the way.
The Chinese, by all accounts, are actually enjoying the show and thanking their lucky stars for Trump. He’s a goldmine for the state-run media who are reveling in his abusive language and punches pulled in Chicago and using such moments to demonstrate how flawed democracy is proving to be. Russia initially seemed to like him after Trump called Putin a strong leader, but things thawed a little when Trump accused Hillary Clinton of not being strong enough to handle the Russian president. British economists are more than just raising a reserved eyebrow as they consider the very real possibility of a Trump in power and the resulting impact on the European economy. Germany simply didn’t know what to make of it all with some commentators pointing the finger at the US press and effectively saying ‘you made this happen. Just what did you think would happen when you gave him such airspace?’
It is perhaps no surprise, given Trump’s wall-building rhetoric aimed at those to the south of the border, that the strongest condemnation came from Mexico. Enrique Peña Nieto, the current sitting president, compared Trump’s language to that of Hitler and Mussolini and was angry at his comments about Hispanics and the much talked-of ‘Great Wall of Trump’. He’s not the only one making similar comparisons.
Carol, who spoke of her embarrassment, did so in the context of talking to a non-American and being aware that for her the whole world is watching what is happening with this election. Aqsa completely agrees.
“ Frankly, it’s embarrassing. I can only imagine that the rest of the world worries for America’s future. I think the rest of the world is mortified that Trump might be the next person to represent the American people, mainly because a country that is so diverse and modern could possibly be led by a man who is against that very idea of tolerance and equality for all.”
So how did Donald Trump defy the odds and prove to be so effective in the campaign despite consistently being seen as an idiot? Perhaps the best answer is dissatisfaction with the old system which seems to many only to benefit the rich and powerful elite and ignores the ordinary working man and woman. Trump, for all the racism, the increasingly savage tone and confused mutterings, seemed to ask the questions people want to hear. Conservatism was challenged and orthodoxy given a good punch to the gut. Whether the whole nation is asking the same questions however waits to be seen.
Even before Trump and his anti-Muslim stance, things were looking a bit tense for the 3 million or so Muslims living in America. In 2014 Zogby Analytics conducted a survey and found that 42% of Americans believed it was justifiable for law enforcement agencies to use profiling against Muslim and Arab-Americans. The survey also found that an increasing number of Americans felt these same groups would not be able to work in government positions without their religion or ethnicity affecting their judgement. Political parties hold differing views with Democrats giving Arab-Muslim Americans between 30-33% unfavourable rating whereas Republicans gave between 54-63% unfavourable rating. 57% of Republicans think Muslims would be unable to hold a role in government too. Trump, it would appear, is in the right party.
Unsurprisingly, statistics show that there are always sharp spikes in the reported violence against Muslims after terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists. This has been especially true since the 9/11 2001 attacks. In 2011, despite Muslims making up less than 1% of the American population, 21% of all complaints of religiously prejudiced violence were from Muslims. For many Muslim leaders, Islamophobia in the US is a hard fact of life. There are innumerable reports of how many Muslims who were born and raised in America now feel like they are strangers in their own neighbourhoods. As with most Muslims living in the West, American Muslims can usually talk of times they have been told to ‘go home’ or accused of being terrorists. Some have had rocks thrown at them and a fair number have found themselves at the end of an FBI inquiry. In such an environment, caution, suspicion and paranoia are bound to breed. In 2010 a poll found that around 40% of Americans believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions and a common complaint among many is that the Muslim community doesn’t speak up enough to condemn terrorism.
Two extreme reactions to this have evolved over time. Some Muslims are ‘dumbing down’ their faith. Outward signs of Islamic belief such as wearing hijabs are being removed and even names changed (Mohammed becomes ‘Mo’ and so on). There is a silent but growing wave of atheist tendency among those who see themselves as ‘culturally Muslim’ but are appalled by what they see being done in the name of religion and are increasingly disillusioned. Others however are instead retreating further into their faith, and stand defiantly against opposition. Where this is positive and assertive all is good. Sometimes, however, the result is ‘de-Americanisation’ according to Saher Selod, a sociologist in Massachusetts who has researched the subject extensively. This is only a short step away from complete disenfranchisement and radicalisation.
There is a long history behind the distrust both white Americans and Muslim Americans have for one another. For a start, the connection Muslims feel for all the ‘ummah’ – the worldwide Islamic community – means that religious identity is at least as important as nationality. So what America does in the Middle East is felt most sharply even for those who have never set foot in an Arabic country. The plight of Palestinians in the face of Israel’s overwhelming bombardment and huge losses of life is something which angers the Muslim community worldwide. That America has always shown great support of Israel then is certain antagonistic.
Similarly, since 9/11 the so-called ‘war on terror’ is merely a synonym for ‘war on Islam’ as far as some Muslims (and non-Muslims to a lesser extent) are concerned, though the truth is somewhat more complicated than that perhaps. There are definite examples of the US working with Muslim groups – for instance the American-led intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo which led to the end of whole-scale massacre of Muslims in the 1990s – but other moments in history are more torturous to untangle.
There is no doubt that US support of the Mujahideen did help bring about the end of Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. But in-fighting between the rival factions, united against a common enemy but now remembering their differences in the quest for power, led to the Taliban taking control and a new oppressive regime beginning in the country. But many now interpret the rise of the Taliban as being entirely orchestrated by the US and funded with their blessing. There’s little doubt the US involvement was with the aim of pushing back the Soviets – at the time of the Cold War seen as essential in the battle for democracy – but somehow the story seems to be evolving to see Muslims as the true enemy and the rise of the Taliban a pawn to give America the excuse to invade in later years. Some Muslim conspiracy groups go as far as to say the US government faked 9/11 entirely. It may seem far-fetched to suggest such a thing but after the attacks in Brussels earlier this year some of the first tweets and messages spread around Facebook were disbelief that ‘yet again the terrorists conveniently left their bomb-proof passports at the scene of the crimes to help the authorities identify them.’ Paranoia then continues unabated on both sides.
For a while it did seem as though the Obama administration was making a difference in Asian Muslims relations. Cautious support of the Arab Spring revolutions were generally well-received as was Hillary Clinton’s pledge to work with Al-Nahda in Tunisia. The sense of desire for real dialogue was a refreshing shift from the Bush administration and opinion polls in 2011 indicated more Muslims were thinking of the US favourably than in previous years and believed the US played a constructive part in the Arab Spring. It is easy to see then why so many are nervous about the thought of Donald Trump bringing about a return to ‘the bad old days’.
Given the current political aversion to perceived ‘foreigners’ then, why do Asian Muslims and other minority groups continue to stay? After all, no one is keeping anyone in the country who doesn’t want to be here. Aside from the obvious fact that for many America is their home and always has been, it appears that US Muslims are doing well in closely tracking the rest of the US population. Muslim income is pretty close and often more affluent with only 2% in the lowest income bracket (compare to those in Britain which make up around 20% of the lowest incomes). Asian Americans generally have the highest educational attainment rates of any racial group with nearly 50% holding at least one bachelor’s degree. There are benefits to living in the country it seems, despite it all.
This essay has concentrated on Asian Muslims more than other Asian groups because ultimately more Muslims are coming into the States than any other. 60% of US Muslims are immigrants (not all from Asia of course, many are from Africa). Although exact population figures are hard to ascertain (somewhere between two and seven million with the figure usually guesstimated at around three million) the predictions are that immigration and higher birth rates in Asian communities will see the population double by 2030. Cultural clashes haven’t just been limited to the Muslim Asian community though – nor have they simply arisen since Trump came on the scene.
Back in 2010 complaints among other Asian communities – Chinese in particular – were also making headlines. A wave of assaults on the weak and vulnerable led to a rally in San Francisco to tell the authorities that the Chinese felt under threat and enough was enough. Interestingly, this wasn’t from white Americans but from black. In many ways, black people have won so many victories against racism since the Sixties that Asians have started to become the ‘new black’ and been targeted by the same kind of abuse.
Before this, and after 9/11 of course, Asians were often attacked in retaliation for the attacks on the World Trade Center. Ironically, the Sikh community were regular targets because the turbans worn by men made them an obvious target to those not aware of the differences between the two faiths. On September 15, 2001 a Sikh-American was murdered by Frank Roque who explained he wanted to ‘kill a Muslim’ because of the terrorist attacks. The result is every assault on a Sikh can be perceived as an insult to both Sikhs and Muslims, and does nothing to foster harmony between communities.
According to psychology theorists, people have a tendency to form groups according to social identity which will then often turn those who are ‘other’ into scapegoats for their own frustrations or failings. Prejudice against Asians can perhaps be seen in this light considering that assaults on Asians were taking place in America long before 9/11. Back in 1995 the New York Times was reporting on the rise in attacks on Asian-Americans. The difference is the shift from Asian-Pacific Americans to South Asian ones. The Al Qaeda attacks brought Muslims specifically to the fore and made them better targets for blaming than Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans. The biggest sin of Asian-Pacific communities, it seems, was merely to be successful. Muslims were guilty of a lot worse according to those who looked for someone to hate. Moreover, at a time when the Cold War had ended and Russia was no longer the ‘great bear’ the Western world nervously danced around, the worldwide Muslim ‘ummah’ with very different ways of living made a perfect new enemy to inspire nationalistic paranoia.
There is little doubt then that relationships between Asian Americans, and specifically Asian Muslim Americans, and the rest of the American population are strained – even allowing for the positive experiences felt by Aqsa and Anushay which clearly are there. Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric has stirred up a great deal of anger from both sides but also, clearly, a great deal of sympathy and support too from some areas at least.
Whatever happens with Trump come November, he’s torn through a fabric in East-West relations which covered more than just the States. There is no doubt now that a sizeable number of people agree with him; that some people don’t welcome immigrants to the USA any longer; that too many are scared of Muslims and suspicious of them. If it was open to interpretation or understandable outrage – over some terrorist attack inappropriately expressed perhaps in the past – now things are more certain and prejudice is out in the open. It takes just one man to get up and shout loudly “I don’t like ’em” to have others join him and say “me too”. The divide has spread to Europe too with the immigrant/Muslim problem (the two terms, despite being distinct and separate being somewhat blurred in the minds of the general public very often) reaching something of a zenith in the Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe. The logic that most of these people are running away from ISIS and therefore are unlikely to be sympathetic to extremist Islamic thinking escapes many including the politicians. Britain has all but closed its doors to a handful of refugees which it has grudgingly agreed to under great duress and the insistence of Angela Merkel. Even with that caveat, recent talk has been of the ridiculous idea of scanning the teeth of children to make sure they really are children. It’s a kind of political paranoia that you would more expect in a novel by Huxley or Orwell.
While it is still true to say that internationally most people are watching with Trump’s progress with equal amounts of concern and dismay, there are still others who are almost excitedly jumping for joy at the prospect of working with President Trump in the future. While it may seem certain that this isn’t going to happen, he has consistently defied all odds and predictions. Clinton’s popularity is mixed to say the least and it would potentially take just one large scandal for the gap between the two to close. At the time of writing, the FBI are re-investigating the emails case and with only days to go before voting this – or even something completely unrelated yet to be revealed – could bring about an epic photo-finish or catastrophic fall for Clinton at the last fence.
For those of us who are neither Muslim nor immigrants, all this makes for ‘interesting times’ as the Chinese proverb goes – usually suggesting bad times ahead. For those who are under the firing line-of-sight of Trump’s ire however, it’s considerably more worrying than that.