Donald Trump and Perception of America in the Islamic World

As a Muslim resident of the United States, I have keenly followed the Islamophobic tone and rhetoric of Mr. Trump. I have also noted that Donald_Trump-150x150most of the time the opposition to his claims is posited within the logic of the constitutionality of his proposed actions and policies toward American Muslims.

We also ought to look at Mr. Trump’s views and policy statements from the point of view of their reception in the general Islamic world, and especially the ultimate usage of his statements by the very forces that Mr. Trump hopes to defeat: ISIS and other terroristic groups.

Since this election season began, I receive quite a few queries from Pakistan—my native country—about the possibility of a Trump presidency. For people in Pakistan, a Trump victory would ultimately legitimize the kind of America that the Islamists and their more terroristic contemporaries mobilize to demonize America.

In the published and articulated literature of ISIS, Taliban, and the other Jihadist groups, America is posited as an inherently evil and anti-Islamic place. Within the Islamic interpretations of the sharia that these groups follow, a place cannot be declared darul harb [abode of war] unless it can be logically considered hostile to Muslims and Islam. Thus, the Taliban, the ISIS, and al-Qaida all attempt to prove beyond doubt that America is this hostile place for Muslims and worthy of being declared a war zone. Mr. Trump’s candidacy and his stated policies about Islam in general and the American Muslims in particular, thus, become an important recruitment and propaganda tool for the radical groups all over the Islamic world.

As someone who works on the borders of two cultures, I find myself in an interesting position while in Pakistan: Anytime someone asks me a question about America, its people, and its policies, I try to highlight the complexity of American nation and its diversity. In my public talks, I often counter the generalized negative views about America by pointing out that there are millions of Americans who are kind, accommodating, and generous and that the number of racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic Americans are much smaller than the vast majority. Granted this argument became harder to sustain during the Bush presidency, for my audiences always asked me: if that is the case then why did they re-elect Bush? I had no simple answer to that.

Now, with the rise of Mr. Trump as the nominee of a major political party with millions of followers, my job of translating culture to my home country has become even harder.

On the other hand, it has become easier for the radical groups to convince, recruit, and enroll more young men to their side: they only have to point to some of the things that Mr. Trump has said or proposes to do when he becomes the president.

So why should we worry about what people think of America in the Islamic world? In my humble opinion, the fight for America’s security in the world cannot just be won through military force. America must shift its perception. America must represent its very best, its diversity, its tolerance, its regard of human life as its ultimate values. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump cannot do that. He, in fact, ends up representing the very worst that people can think of America: hubris, belligerence, and ignorance.

So, despite his claims to making America “great again,” Mr. Trump would actually weaken America within (by dividing Americans on racial, religious, ethnic and regional lines) and by destroying the positive image of America and replacing it with the one that the terroristic groups already rely on to recruit.

The way America is perceived in the Islamic world is absolutely crucial to America’s security: No conventional military force can take the US forces in a conventional war. I say this with certainty because of my years of experience as an infantry officer in the Pakistan army. The threat to America is of the unconventional kind: the bombers, the snipers, the lone shooters. While good intelligence and active fighting can reduce the chances of such terroristic acts, erasing the narratives that are used to recruit these men is extremely important. That  is why it is important for the Americans and the American policy makers to represent the kind of America that tolerates differences, that cherishes human life, and that encourages a better world. Thus, a continuous foregrounding of the “goodness” of America and Americans is absolutely necessary to shift the ideological landscape within the Islamic world.


If Mr. trump is elected as the president, then America might become stronger militarily but it would have lost the ideological war and become the very thing that its enemies claim it to be: a xenophobic, hostile, and arrogant super power led by an equally xenophobic, arrogant, and ignorant man.