Presidential candidate Ben Carson said recently that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” and some liberal media outlets have attributed his behavior to him being ‘out of his mind.’ The reality remains that since this Islamophobic statement, Carson has surged ahead of Donald Trump in the polls.
Since 9/11, hatred and intolerance of Islam in the U.S have been a sustained drumbeat in public discourse. Yet, Americans typically place blame for Islamophobia not on the perpetrator of the hate speech or on a widespread national problem with racism, but on the acts of ISIS or other terrorist organizations abroad.
Trump also responded to a question from a supporter about our country’s “Muslim problem” and how we should “get rid of them” by affirming that he would in fact “do something” about this “problem.” This acceptance – even promotion – of Islamophobia by the top polling Republican presidential candidates requires further analysis in light of the country’s current racial climate, particularly when such comments are made by a Black man seeking the oval office.
Why have Muslims become a common enemy – the “other” all Americans can agree to hate? Part of the answer has to do with orientalism.
Orientalism – described by Edward Said as the process of the West defining itself as superior in opposition to the inferior civilizations of the East – is a racist logic that generates a perpetual state of war; it constitutes immigrant groups from the broadly defined ‘East’ (in this case Muslims) as posing a constant threat to our domestic security. This logic serves to justify war as a way to protect the United States from its perpetual enemies – people defined as so fundamentally different from Americans that their mere existence on our soil constitutes a threat.
Ben Carson’s quest for economic and political power as a Black Republican in America is a path fraught with racist landmines. Arguably, one of the strategies available to Carson in supplicating his majority-white party is to make himself appear more electable by assuming a globally anti-Muslim mantle. But why would a Black Presidential candidate employ Orientalism in the rhetoric of his campaign?
(Image source: Abagond)
Andrea Smith, in “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” argues that genocide/colonialism, slavery/capitalism and orientalism/war are three separate and distinct, yet interrelated logics that make up white supremacy. Smith explains that genocide is a logic that upholds colonialism; the narrative and illusion that native peoples have simply disappeared from this land affords rightful claim to all non-indigenous groups. The logic of slavery upholds capitalism – it commodifies people of all races but keeps Black Americans positioned at the bottom, even hundreds of years post-slavery, as a way for other oppressed racial groups to be able to accept their economic and social standing; these other groups can always look to the circumstances of Black people and see that their fate could be worse. And, orientialism, directed at immigrants of color no matter how long they have been in the U.S., is used to justify the constant state of war to protect itself from enemies.
Smith argues that even members of oppressed groups can become complicit in the oppression of other groups by embracing these logics. In many ways, Ben Carson’s complicity in vilifying Muslims functions as strategic use of one of the logics of white supremacy.
As a racial “other” seeking our nation’s highest political office, Ben Carson must prove his commitment to maintaining the status quo through maintaining each of the pillars in order to be considered as a serious and viable candidate. To many white voters, his blackness serves to legitimate racist claims against Muslims as it does with criticisms of his own racial group. Ultimately, Carson’s Orientalist rhetoric makes him an especially seductive candidate for perpetuating white America’s commitment to colorblind ideology. In other words, for a white person looking to publicly prove their racial indifference despite their internal racist attitudes, a Black candidate spewing Islamophobic hatred is an especially enticing option at the polls.
When it comes talking about race, most white people know that the acceptable stance is to be “race neutral” – say the wrong thing, and you might be labeled a “racist” – the scarlet letter of our so-called “post racial” society. Our collective failure is that most people have a limited understanding of what racism actually is, and do not see Carson’s Islamophobia as racism. It seems that Orientalism, and in this case Islamophobia as a specific manifestation of Orientalism, has joined traditional white racism as a publicly acceptable way to manifest bigotry. But displacement in the form of overt Islamophobia does nothing to help heal the very real wounds of our country’s continuing legacy of racialized oppression, as it too is racism. Instead, displacement of racial angst serves to strengthen the very phenomenon it wishes to evade.
We must also consider the implications of the 29% of Americans who, well into Obama’s second term, still maintain that he is a Muslim – even after significant proof has been provided that he is in fact a practicing Christian. While it is taboo in our colorblind society to claim that one has a problem with Obama as President because of the color of his skin, re-configuring him as a Muslim is a convenient way to protest his position in power without seeming “racist.” In this way, it is possible to use the racist logic of Orientalism to avoid being perceived as an overt racist complicit in the hierarchical positioning of whites as superior to every other race. Carson may also be using this rhetoric as a tactic to strategically distance himself from President Obama and appeal to voters who will inevitably find a way to conflate the two Black men, despite their dramatically different political attitudes.
We cannot allow ourselves to tolerate Ben Carson’s or anyone else’s blatant Islamophobia and to attribute its rise to the fear of a very small number of extremists whose crimes do more to pervert Islamic teachings than to follow them. ISIS as well as other terrorist groups who claim to practice radical Islam have been denounced by Muslim leaders around the world, and so we must accept them as what they are – dangerous political organizations. Allowing racism against Black Americans to be displaced as racial and religious intolerance against Muslims will do nothing to address either issue; it will only increase the strength of white supremacy and its dangerous counterpart of colorblind racism – serving to deeply harm all oppressed groups in our society.
~ Cara Cancelmo is student at Skidmore College, in upstate New York, where she studies government and intergroup relations.