Islamophobia in the age of Trump

Islamophobia in the age of Trump

“IF YOU cuss,” said the chairman of Newton County’s commissioners at the beginning of a public meeting on August 22nd, “I’m going to ask you to go home.” In the event, many of the contributions were graciously hedged with Southern manners: gratitude to the commissioners for letting residents air their thoughts on the proposed new mosque on the outskirts of Covington, the county seat; frequent appeals to God to guide the community’s decisions; even a few commendations for the bravery of those citizens who spoke up for the constitutional rights of Muslims. And brave they were, because they comprised only a small minority, and, beneath the civility, the views of the majority were often vitriolic. 

So many people wanted to attend the event at the courthouse in Covington, Georgia, that it was divided into two sittings. Hundreds of people queued for admission outside. At issue was the purchase, last year, of 135 acres by a Muslim group from nearby Doraville, on which they intend to build a mosque and other facilities, including a cemetery; news of the acquisition emerged only recently. Opponents of the project made three main arguments.  A few speakers worried about Islam’s treatment of women, and the spill-over effect on local girls. Several voiced pseudo-practical objections, over the mosque’s effect on traffic levels, noise pollution from the call to prayer and the alleged insanitariness of Muslim burial practices. One woman was concerned about the impact on the queues at Walmart. “Where are all these people going to work?” she asked. “They don’t!”, the crowd chorused.  

But, generally after declaring that they were in no way prejudiced, many of the speakers straightforwardly denounced Islam for its supposed violence and extremism. They predicted that Covington—a picturesque town, often used by filmmakers, in a pretty county of around 100,000 people—was set to become a hell of violence and jihad, in which their families would no longer be safe. “They’ll kill Jews, Christians, anyone that don’t believe in Allah,” said one internet-expert.  He suggested that his would-be neighbours rip out errant pages in the Koran to prove their good intentions.  “If you don’t believe like they do,” said another, “you get your head cut off.” Islam, declared a young man, is “a death cult.” “This is not a religion,” a female church minister insisted.

Nobody from the proposed mosque was there to defend it, but one local Muslim was. “I’ve seen more hate tonight,” he lamented, than he had in the eight years he had lived in the neighbourhood. “Get yourself a Muslim friend”, he advised, remaining admirably calm through the torrent of calumnies, interjecting only when a woman railed that Muslims should build their mosques “in their own country”. This was his country, he said. A few others spoke up for the scheme, citing the pledge of allegiance, with its promise of “liberty and justice for all”, which had been dutifully recited at the start of the meeting, or the constitution’s protection of religious liberty. A Catholic recalled having crosses burned on her lawn elsewhere in Georgia in the early 1980s. A courageous 17-year old black woman was booed for mentioning the Ku Klux Klan, and for observing that “black people were [once] treated the same way.” Backing her up, a medical student noted the preponderance of Muslims among local hospital staff: “Are you afraid to let them birth these children you say you want to protect?”

But, overwhelmingly, Newton County’s sentiment was on the other side. It had two discernible political influences.  One was Richard Nixon, whose concept of the “silent majority” was invoked to rapturous applause by the unsilent crowd.  The other was present only spectrally.  “We’ve got some problems with people coming into this country we don’t know much about,” complained one man. A churchman said that “vetting has got to run deeper.” “This is a fight for our nation,” said a woman. “We’re not going to be fighting across oceans, we’re going to be fighting here in our own back yards.” Several people referred to the precedent of Europe, reportedly lost to rampant Islamism. “It’s about the survival of the United States of America,” proclaimed a navy veteran. The Economist did not hear Donald’s Trump name uttered, but it didn’t need to be.

The crowd wanted the commissioners to put a stop to the project, several speakers hinting that if they fail to nix it, they will be ousted. But in fact the basic permission for the mosque has already been granted. The commissioners have now imposed a moratorium on the construction of new places of worship, and progress could be delayed or derailed by withholding technical permits; but those sorts of ruses would likely fall foul of the courts. That has been the fate of other protests against new mosques in Georgia and elsewhere, which have sometimes been overcome after the intervention of the federal Department of Justice.

That might yet happen in Newton County. Still, while the sound and fury weren’t new (even if some of the talking points were), and though they might turn out to be futile, they were a telling indicator of the mood in the county, and possibly beyond. At the end, one of the commissioners offered a paean to America’s traditions of free speech and civic engagement, which he said the evening had epitomised. In a way, it did: there was passion and impressive oratory on both sides, as well as anger and what felt like an ambient quotient of fear in search of an outlet. Yet even as they demonstrated these strengths, the proceedings showed how much pressure such principles are currently under.  

Outside, a counter-protester had arrived too late to get in. Instead he held up a placard with a quote from the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..”). He wanted people to “see how I felt about it, and more importantly, see how Lady Liberty felt about it”. Across the road, in the lovely town square, two young people gamely held aloft a multi-faith flag. Besides them two older, adamant women brandished a Stars-and-Stripes, which to them implied resistance to the newcomers. Beyond them, in the shadow of the Confederate war memorial, a bigger group was playing Pokémon Go.

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