Islamophobia and the American Presidency

The 2008 American presidential election brought into lucid focus longstanding discourses of racial belonging in the United States that have amplified Islamophobia and continue both subtly and explicitly nearly a year into Barack Obama’s presidency. The Islamophobic discourses underlying the 2008 election weren’t novel or newfangled, but they did reinvigorate dormant or tacit narratives of American nationhood as a domain of restricted access. These narratives of nationhood are replete with nostalgia and the implicit belief that a true American is somebody who is white and Christian. Islamophobia has become an acute element of America’s national identity.

The problem of whiteness and Christianity acting as a synecdoche for proper Americanness isn’t new. Numerous scholars have analyzed it–”Valerie Babb, for instance, in Whiteness Visible, and, more recently, Joel Olson in The Abolition of White Democracy. I don’t want to recapitulate those analyses here. I instead want to focus on how this conflation became a central component of an American presidential election and how it continues today. It is important to note that valuations of whiteness have never been marginal to American electoral politics. In fact, white majoritarian fear of various minorities, African Americans particularly, has long been a crucial feature of presidential campaign strategies. Even Bill Clinton, often lauded for his honorary blackness, expertly parlayed the white fear and dislike of blacks into electoral success.

The uses of racialist innuendo in American politics, then, aren’t new, but rarely have they been so explicit in the nation’s recent history. In many ways, the tropes of white belonging and minority foreignness were the central component of the 2008 election, especially when it became clear in the late summer that Obama would win. Of special interest is the role of Islamophobic discourses in the idea of American belonging. Islamophobia was its own rhetorical monster during the election, but it intersected in notable ways with extant ideologies of a foreign encroachment on a pristine pax Americana. It is possible even to say that Islamophobia was performed, for its exhibition in many cases followed ideas scripted onto American racial history. That history has developed in notable ways now that Obama has taken office.

There was a pervasive conflation of disparate vocabularies underlying the election, as is generally the case when racism flares up. Obama is secretly an Arab. He is secretly a Muslim. He is secretly a foreigner. These descriptors were used interchangeably, sometimes as a deliberate strategy and at other times out of old-fashioned ignorance.

Moreover, the accusations Obama faced give us a clear sense of how racist ideas can be articulated in an ever-shifting marketplace of public opinion. In today’s United States, the risk associated with Islamophobia is minimal; in some cases, articulating Islamophobia can actually be helpful. This reality clarifies some of the Muslim-bashing directed against Obama, which I will examine momentarily. At this point, I would suggest that the expression of a particular form of racism in the United States doesn’t necessarily denote a specific or isolated prejudice, but what type of prejudice can acceptably be expressed.

Finally, it is important that we don’t view Obama merely as a victim of these racialist discourses. Although he was often their target, he is also one of their instigators. Obama didn’t actively instigate Islamophobia, but he reinforced it by not condemning it and through his modes of response, something I will discuss momentarily. First, let’s explore the discourses of American racial belonging.

If one looks closely at the evolution of the racist and Islamophobic narratives during the election, it becomes clear that there is a causal relation between Obama’s poll numbers and the intensity of the attacks directed against him. The attacks, then, are rooted in the material considerations of the American electoral structure. This fact highlights some of the inherent problems with the American electoral structure itself. It is a structure arising from a capitalistic economy and so it emphasizes the commerce of electability and the business of governance rather than the sincere representation of citizen-subjects in the body politic. The American democratic structure is only democratic insofar as (most) people have a right to vote for a prepackaged candidate; it is not a democracy in the sense of shared power or genuinely representative politics. These shortcomings of the American system underline the usefulness of the racist and Islamophobic discourses that emerged en masse.

The idea that Obama is an Arab highlights a majoritarian identification with whiteness because its incorrect and contradictory deployment reflects the desire of the imperiled white majority to retain the special status that has attended whiteness since America’s inception. “Arab,” then, doesn’t necessarily describe Arabs. It can describe anybody who exists outside the boundaries of proper American-ness, as the election made clear. Such outsiders include Muslims, Africans, African-Americans, South Asians, and even socialists, who somehow were outfitted with atavistic characteristics as if they constitute a racial group themselves.

Take the infamous John McCain town hall meeting–”another capitalist appropriation of something originally democratic–”in which a supposedly wayward attendee charged Obama with the crime of being Arab. McCain’s troublesome response, that Obama is not an Arab but a good family man, drew lots of attention and some outrage, but most responses missed the point. It is certainly true, as most pointed out, that McCain’s juxtaposition of Arab against the good family man, whatever that is, was a deeply racist formulation, but it seemed that nobody noticed that McCain also called Obama a “citizen,” which presented another notable binary.

The idea that an Arab is dialogically opposed to the normative American, the “citizen,” is actually more prevalent, and more perilous, than the idea that an Arab is incapable of being a good family man. It is in the prejudicial notions of citizenship, defined here as national belonging, that the racialized criteria for American normativity are given their moral and discursive power. In order for the individual to qualify as a citizen, McCain implied, he or she must contravene the physical and cultural qualities of the Arab.

Of comparable peril was the majority response to the notorious exchange. Most folks rushed to condemn the woman for intolerantly proclaiming that Obama is an Arab, or they complained that the Republicans were creating an atmosphere of that sort of intolerance. These are all worthy laments, but they omit any acknowledgement of the most conspicuous victims of the exchange: Arabs and Muslims. By constantly defending Obama against the false charges of his shady Arab and Muslim origin, his open-minded defenders ensured that the categories of Arab and Muslim remain consigned to inflexible foreignness.

Obama’s campaign handlers and Obama himself share guilt in this problem. They were presented with countless opportunities to note that being Arab or Muslim is not an inherently negative attribute, but instead they indignantly proclaimed that Obama is emphatically not of such mysterious background. While Obama did point out a few times that being Arab or Muslim isn’t a bad thing, he reserved such comments until after the election was completed. The discourse was largely unchallenged during the election. This inaction can be taken as a strategy: by disavowing Obama’s connection to Arab and Muslim alterity, his campaign, like McCain’s, sought to benefit from the discourses of American racial belonging that pervaded election conversation.

In fact, it was quite important that Obama was able to benefit from a phenomenon that would seem to have harmed his campaign. If one looks at the anxieties generated by his sinister origin, it becomes clear that Islamophobia acted as the acceptable cover for the more un-PC phenomenon of anti-black racism. This isn’t to say that the Islamophobia and xenophobia directed against Obama were insincere. They were very real, and it is very important that we confront them. From an intellectual standpoint, however, the dialectic between the more deeply-inscribed issue of anti-black racism and the more newfangled Islamophobia presents us with numerous socio-cultural developments of interest.

When faced with the accusations that Obama is an Arab or Muslim, his advisors denied those accusations and then appropriated them tacitly into their own candidate’s public identity. Obama’s vehement denial that he is Arab or Muslim didn’t merely represent an unwillingness to take up for an embattled minority community; it actually further ostracized that minority community by enabling Obama to position his blackness as adequately normative vis-à-vis the immutable foreignness of Arabs and Islam. This strategy hasn’t worked completely, however. Suspicions of Obama’s foreignness, both figurative and physical, remain a crucial part of American political discourse. If we go back to McCain’s assertion that Obama is a citizen, as opposed to an “Arab,” we can see that the invention of the normative citizen in the present United States underlies the frequent demands that Obama produce his birth certificate.

The concept of citizenship in the United States is invested with racialized valuations, as is, in some cases, its legal practices. This problem is one that spans the American political spectrum from liberal to conservative, for the main target of these tendentious notions of national belonging, Obama, also contributed tangibly to the problem. If Obama was best challenged through explicit and implicit charges that he is either a foreign interloper or inadequately American, then Obama’s best defense was to point to even more foreign objects in order to presuppose his own belonging. In this way, the liberal discourses of tolerance reified the racist discourses of American racial belonging.

Post-election phenomena are equally instructive. Immediately after Obama’s victory was confirmed the grandiose fantasies of a post-racial United States emerged. The mythologized versions of Islam reinforced during the 2008 election became subsumed to the new ideology of an unprecedented colorblindness. Many discerning commentators and scholars have deconstructed the mythology of a post-racial America, so I will not concentrate on its general problems here. Instead, I would like to comment on the relationship of this mythology with the preponderance of Islamophobia unleashed during the election.

The idea of post-racialism in the United States is exclusive of Arabs and Islam. Obama can thus benefit from the idea as well as from the modes of racism directed at Arabs and Muslims. The normative national identity Obama’s camp attempted so vigorously to enter into relies on a collective retreat from the dark and unmodern spaces inhabited by Muslims regardless of their actual geographical location. The Arab and Muslim, then, cannot achieve American normativity, for American normativity is immediately negated by the presence of the Arab and Muslim.

To be sure, there are complexities and variations in the post-election conceptions of American national identity, but on the whole it remains a racialized phenomenon, one in which the splendors of modernity derive meaning from a distinctly white and Christian taproot. Even the new multicultural modern in the United States is inclusive of people of color only when they too accept the limitations of American normativity, which can accommodate diversity but cannot accommodate racial provocation. The Arab and Muslim are innately provocative.

The questions about Obama’s real religion and his secret place of birth continue steadily. There is even a group, informally known as “the birthers,” that devotes its time to proving that Obama isn’t a true American. Even though most of those who impugn Obama’s nebulous origin appear to be extreme or ultraconservative, it is important to remember that on this particular issue they are more vocal than they are extreme. That is to say, they articulate in a crude way a sentiment that is widespread in the United States, one that attaches a proper American identity to racialized values and phenotypes.

Most liberals despise the birthers, but they don’t really do much to get at the structures of the problem the birthers so exuberantly represent. In fact, most liberal commentators are eminently complicit in the problem, because in their zeal to prove that Obama is just as American as the next guy they ensure that the next guy remains a metaphorical certainty, a synecdoche of a receding white majority desperate to retain ownership of the America they worked so hard to invent.

External Links:

McCain Town Hall Meeting:
Obama as secret Muslim:
Clintonian race baiting:
The idea of a post-racial America:
Obama and the birthers:
On Obama not saying being Muslim is not a smear: