Less than twenty-four hours after Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, youth-led protests expressing solidarity with minority groups broke out across the United States.
Chants of “no hate, no fear; refugees are welcome here,” and “Muslim lives matter” echoed consistently throughout New York City’s first major march on November 9. The emphasis on publicly rejecting President-elect Donald Trump’s Islamophobic statements was clear.
While these efforts were well-intentioned and important, they focused exclusively on Trump’s inflammatory statements and missed the ideological underpinnings of Islamophobia, which have dominated U.S. domestic and foreign policy since September 11th.
Regarding predominantly countries as economic assets or conflicts needing management, President Barack Obama pushed a foreign policy agenda that, similar to the actions of his predecessor, devalued Muslim lives. This devaluation was further entrenched by federal spying on U.S. citizens, authorized by provisions such as the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act, which has contributed to the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric in the United States. By continuing to institutionalize policies that perpetuated suspicion of Muslims, President Barack Obama helped solidify the discriminatory ideology that allowed Trump to win the election.
NYPD Spying Program
After the September 11 attacks, the NYPD implemented a program that sent plainclothes police officers into Muslim communities to infiltrate mosques, restaurants, and stores. When asked about a 2011 Associated Press article detailing the initiative, dubbed the Demographics Unit, the White House declined to comment on the paradoxes between Obama’s intention of altering American perception of Muslims and the NYPD’s policies. For his part, President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, now the CIA director, responded to the report by offering strong praise for the NYPD’s efforts to protect Americans, even though the Demographics Unit never uncovered any useful evidence or leads.
As president, Obama embraced secret surveillance, expanded watch lists, infringed upon individual liberties, and skirted constitutional rights he had vowed to protect, during his presidential campaign. Even before he took office, Obama voted in favor of the FISA Amendments Act in 2008, which expanded governmental spying capabilities. The NSA used this bill, which authorized intelligence agencies to monitor phone calls between U.S. citizens and individuals presumed to be foreign, as the legislative basis for its unconstitutional spying program. The NSA also applied very loose standards to determine whether an individual was foreign, such as the use of non-English language for communications. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union has recently levied lawsuits against federal government data collection and called federal policies illegal.
Obama’s Troubling Foreign Policy
On top of these domestic programs, Obama’s foreign policy made even greater contributions to the devaluation of Muslim lives.
According to data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an organization that monitors U.S. drone warfare, Obama has used drone strikes more frequently than his predecessor, conducting 373 strikes in Pakistan. Although the precision of drone attacks improved under Obama, with civilian casualties only increasing 54 percent despite a 631 percent rise in strikes, at least 257 — and up to 634 — innocent people died in Pakistan, as a result of these strikes. By contrast, President George W. Bush conducted fifty-one strikes in Pakistan, resulting in at least 410 deaths, 167 of which were civilians
Drone warfare allows the U.S. government to kill presumed terrorists without risking American lives. But the imprecise operational guidelines used in these strikes help to systematically devalue Pakistani, and by extension, Muslim life. According to The Intercept, agencies rely on signals intelligence – which, often proves incorrect — to build profiles of suspected terrorists and carry out attacks. This helps explain why so many innocent civilians are regularly caught in the crosshairs.
Perhaps the most flagrant indicator of American devaluation of Muslim life can be found in the United States’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. The United States has provided billions of dollars in weapons and logistics to Saudi Arabia, which recently used these resources to escalate its war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen have, experts claim, violated international humanitarian law, as reflected in a Saudi airstrike that hit a funeral, killing 140 and injuring 525.
Though the Obama administration criticized the funeral bombing, it is an empty message in the face of continuous Saudi bombing in Yemen. The “lake of blood,” as described by a rescue worker who witnessed the aftermath of the funeral bombing, cannot change a decades-old relationship built on oil sales for arms shipments and the reinforcement of regional order.
By prioritizing relations with a regional ally over ending its support for an illegal war, the United States has, again, denigrated the value of Muslim life and freedom.
Obama’s Empty Words
Obama publicly renounced terms like “Islamic terror,” fearing the demonization of a religion. But his domestic policies have allowed for the profiling and monitoring of innocent civilians, while his international policies have failed to break from the traditional American approach to the Middle East, which has long subordinated civilian lives in the region to preserve U.S. interests.
Figures like Donald Trump who openly provide a platform for prejudice and flagrant discrimination, are, indeed, relatively rare in the United States. But the normalization of Islamophobia has been entrenched in U.S. domestic and foreign policies, which attempt to maintain the status quo at any cost.
Approaching Muslim nations as economic assets or problems to be managed inevitably diminishes the humanity of their citizens. And this caricature in turn enables figures like Trump to rise to power.