Donald Trump has made the use of the term "Radical Islam" a centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda. As he declared in his much-anticipated speech on the subject, "we’re in a war against radical Islam, but President Obama won’t even name the enemy, and unless you name the enemy, you will never ever solve the problem." This kind of rhetoric has become very conventional in Republican circles, so that his remarks at the Mayflower Hotel might seem to put him in the mainstream of center-right politics. This impression is false, however.
The true nature of Trump's foreign policy orientation toward the Muslim world is exemplified by a story that became a staple of his stump speech on the campaign trail beginning in February. He seems to have acquired it from an internet meme that began circling in various forms shortly after 9/11. According to Trump's telling, the event occurred during America's suppression of Muslim uprisings in the Philippines, circa 1913. It concerns the military governor of the district in which Muslim rebels were operating, General Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing:
"They were having terrorism problems, just like we do...And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pig's blood- you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs' blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: 'You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened.' And for 25 years, there wasn't a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn't a problem."
Trump generally ends his retelling of this tale by declaring emphatically, "That's history folks," and by underscoring the need for a new "Black Jack" Pershing. Like Trump's claim that "thousands" of Muslims celebrated in Jersey City on 9/11, this event never happened. Yet his fascination with this story explains much about the tenor of his campaign and his embrace of the shibboleth of "Radical Islam."
On the surface this story is simply about the need to be more ruthless in prosecuting the war against terror. But the embellishment of "pig's blood" speaks to something deeper. The moral of the story is that the same religious superstitions that are motivating Muslims to commit terror can be used to incapacitate them. Devout Muslims believe (so say the propagators of this meme) that exposure to pig's blood will prevent them from being reborn in paradise, so the breach of this taboo works on Muslims like kryptonite on Superman.
Setting aside the fact that Muslims cherish no such belief, and that expecting such a tactic to work even if they did would be ridiculous (if they could be so easily deterred by the exposure of their corpses to unclean substances, why would any ISIS member ever blow him or herself up in a public place?), this story provides us with a window onto the inner logic of Trump's world view. No wonder that he places such stress on the importance of using the category "Radical Islam." Since Islamic belief is so central, both to the motives of terrorists and the tactics by which they might be defeated, it would of course stand to reason that if you do not assent to this label you would "never solve the problem."
In essence, what Trump means by "Radical Islam" is simply "Islam." For him, anyone who takes the teachings of Islam seriously will sympathize with terrorists like ISIS, and anyone who takes them seriously enough (the "radicals") will join ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram in their war on the U.S. To deny this is "political correctness" that is all too characteristic of our "stupid" leaders.
This is why Trump feels so comfortable advocating a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Anyone who professes the Muslim faith is, for him, implicated in anti-American hostility. While they may not have done anything wrong yet, it only awaits the right conditions for them to become "radical."
Trump is far from the only figure to espouse such views. I have devoted several posts to outlining why this perspective is fallacious. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, not only of Islam, but of religion more generally and the way it operates in society and history. Until recently this view has only impacted the policy advice coming from very marginal precincts of the American political system. But now that it has captured the nomination of one of the major political parties for the presidency of the United States, it has become a malignancy threatening the body politic as a whole.
To anyone who would accuse me of hyperbole on this score, I would ask, "What is Trump proposing, other than the ostracism of an entire religious minority here in the U.S.? How can we square this with our most basic values?" I can not help thinking of this problem from the perspective of myself and my family. If Donald Trump were advocating that Jews not be allowed to enter the country, how would I respond? I would feel betrayed by anyone who could find any excuse to vote for him. Our Muslim compatriots are entitled to feel the same way.
Our politics has been marked by too much stridency and smugness in recent years. But that excess does not argue for tolerance or reticence in this instance. It is not "political correctness" to state that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for bigotry and discrimination, it is a bald fact. Unless and until he publicly retracts and repudiates his anti-Muslim views, there is no way to square support for Donald Trump with the basic conscientious imperatives of American citizenship.