The Trump White House, we have learned, is deeply infested with Islamophobia. But just how bad is it?
Well, on Wednesday, we got a new glimpse into this question — when one of President Trump’s top advisers refused to say whether the president believes Islam is a religion.
Whatever Trump actually does believe, this episode is a reminder that he is surrounded by people who traffic in some of Islamophobia’s most virulent forms — and it suggests that there will be an ongoing clash inside this White House between that camp and others who are urging a more moderate, sensible posture.
The quote in question comes from Sebastian Gorka, the deputy assistant to the president, in an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Asked by anchor Steve Inskeep whether Trump views Islam as a religion, Gorka berated Inskeep for even asking the question. “This is not a theological seminary. This is the White House. And we’re not going to get into theological debates,” Gorka said.
Gorka then seemed to dismiss the notion that Trump does think Islam is a religion. “We’re talking about national security and the totalitarian ideologies that drive the groups that threaten America,” he said.
Gorka belongs to a school of Islamophobes who have long cast Islam as totalitarian — as a political ideology, rather than a religion. The basic idea is that an insidious Muslim fifth column aims to subvert American democracy. Or, as Jerry Boykin, now executive vice president of the religious right advocacy group Family Research Council, said in 2010, Islam “is not just a religion” but “a totalitarian way of life.” Muslims, said Boykin, “are under an obligation to destroy our Constitution and replace it with sharia law.”
This view is shared at the highest levels of the White House.
To be sure, it is being challenged by forces inside the administration. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security adviser, has advocated internally for an end to the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Yet the Islamophobic camp is already demonstrating it has more influence over Trump than McMaster. As Gorka proudly pointed out to Inskeep, the president used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in Tuesday night’s speech. What’s more, top Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon is also in this camp. As Bannon told me last July, before he became the Trump campaign’s chief executive, Islam is “a political ideology” and sharia law is “like Nazism, fascism, and communism.”
Bannon, of course, was previously the head of Breitbart, which has long promoted this claim. Just Tuesday, Breitbart published a glowing piece about Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, who has called for banning the Koran, which he calls a “fascist book,” noting that he, too, believes Islam to be a totalitarian ideology, not a religion. Characterizing Wilders’s view, the Breitbart piece argued that “although Islam has many of the trappings of religion, it shares more in common with totalitarian ideologies such as communism and fascism and should be treated as such.”
The former head of Breitbart is now arguably the most influential adviser to the president.
All of this could have lasting ramifications. We have already seen documented spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes. As the Southern Poverty Law Center noted last month: “Anti-Muslim hate has been expanding rapidly for more than two years now.” And the SPLC suggested that the atmosphere of fear and violence is cause for deepening worry, citing “the unrelenting propaganda of a growing circle of well-paid ideologues,” as well as “the incendiary rhetoric” coming directly from the president himself.
In this atmosphere, Gorka’s refusal to say whether Trump sees Islam as a religion is alarming. It suggests that, despite efforts by McMaster to moderate the administration’s tone, it’s more likely that things are going to get a lot worse.