Religious Studies in the Time of Trumpism


When I heard Donald Trump’s speech on Monday I realized that Trump’s rhetoric presents the scholar of religion with a crossroads. Scholars of religion have to make a decision about how to engage Trumpism.

For example, take a look at three passages of Trump’s speech dealing with Muslims. First he talked about the dangers he perceived in Muslim immigration:

This could be a better, bigger, more horrible version than the legendary Trojan Horse ever was. Altogether, under the Clinton plan, you’d be admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East with no system to vet them, or to prevent the radicalization of the children and their children. Not only their children, by the way, they’re trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is and we don’t know what’s happening.

A few minutes later he turned to Muslim communities now living in the U.S.:

But the Muslims have to work with us. They have to work with us. They know what’s going on. They know that he was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what? They didn’t turn them in. And you know what? We had death, and destruction.

A minute later he went on:

We need to know what the killer discussed with his relatives, parents, friends and associates. We need to know if he was affiliated with any radical mosques or radical activists and what, if any, is their immigration status. We have to know, and we have to know fast. We need to know if he traveled anywhere and who he traveled with. We need to know, and we need to make sure, every single last person involved in this plan, including anyone who knew something but didn’t tell us, is brought to justice, so when people know what’s going on and they don’t tell us, and we have an attack, and people die, these people have to have consequences. Big consequences.

These characterizations of Muslims present the scholar of religion two options for how to respond. One would be to point out that the examples Trump outlines are not representative of “true Islam.” Such a response would draw on a long history of liberal humanism in the study of religion and essentialist understandings of what religion and various “religious traditions” or “world religions” are. “The vast majority of Muslims,” this response would say, “have nothing to do with ISIS and actually oppose their brand of Islam.” Such a response reminds one of George W. Bush’s famous “Islam is peace” speech after 9/11. Indeed, Trump goes out of his way to dismiss such a response in his speech:

I don’t know if you know this, but just a few weeks before San Bernardino, the slaughter, that’s all it was was a slaughter, Hillary Clinton explained her refusal to say the words “radical Islam.” Here is what she said, exact quote, “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” That is Hillary Clinton.

To follow this path of response, the scholar of religion stands as an expert on what religion or a certain religion, in this case Islam, really is. It’s an attractive response for a couple of reasons. First, it privileges the specialist knowledge the scholar has worked so long to attain. We know something! Second, it allows us to use that knowledge in a way that makes makes one feel quite good about oneself. We know stuff and we can use that stuff to help! The scholar of religion can use that amazingly satisfying phrase “well, actually…” “Well actually, you’re quite wrong about most Muslims. Let me tell you the truth…” The problem with this approach is that in telling everyone what Islam really is the scholar of religion has now jumped down into the fight over the true nature of Islam in a way that makes their knowledge claims just one more assertion among many in the contested field of social actors. The scholar of religion has become just another actor locked in the social battle for the real meaning of Islam–a social conflict that has been ongoing in different places and times since the very emergence of something called Islam amongst a community of people. Thus, the difference between the scholar of religion and Trump is one of knowledge not position.

But our position as scholars of religion–outside the argument, as analysts of the argument–is much more valuable than our specialized knowledge.

There is another option, however, that allows the scholar of religion to maintain this position and deploy her specialized knowledge. Rather than engaging in the argument over true Islam, the scholar of religion can pay attention to how identity, categorization, and power function in the discourse over Islam. Following this path, the scholar chooses to pay attention to how Trump sets up a dichotomy between “Muslims” and “us.” “They”–the Muslims–have to help “us” catch the bad Muslim-them. They are coming here. The scholar of religion would pay particular attention to the ways that religious identity–in this case Muslim identity–functions in Trump’s rhetoric to attempt to unite non-Muslim Americans over and against the so-called “radical” Muslim other. The scholar of religion would pay particular attention to the ways the category refugee and Muslim slip and slide into one another. Rather than trying to step in and provide the “more accurate” representation of Islam, the scholar of religion would step back and outline the rules of the game by which all representations of Islam are being deployed–by Trump, by his opponents, by self-identified Muslims. By not jumping into the fight as yet another voice offering the real Islam, the scholar of religion is able to survey the entire discursive field and provide insights into how the conflict is being fought out. The scholar’s position outside the din of conflicting claims about real Islam allows her to critique the din itself. The scholar’s specialized knowledge is not the things she knows about Islam but her ability to analyze group and individual identity formation, social conflict, and representation.

Some might argue that this second path shirks our political responsibility as scholars. They might say that we have a responsibility to make sure that people talk about religion accurately and that we must use our position as scholars to offer accurate representations of Islam. We bring people religious literacy. But I think that’s a short-sighted view of our political responsibility as scholars of religion. Our unique position as scholars of religion allows us a view of the discursive field swirling around religion–or Islam in this example–in a way that can be even more politically powerful. Politics is the process through which groups assert claims and identities. Politics is how the “us” and “them” is constructed. So, if we take the second path, if we turn our attention to identity, group formation, social conflict, and representation, we can make even more politically potent critiques.

Instead of arguing against the accuracy of Trump’s representation of Islam, the scholar of religion could point out the ways his speech separated people called Muslims from the rest of America. Likewise, the scholar of religion could highlight the ways his rhetoric about people called refugees uses images of contagion and purity to construct the impression of a dangerous and impure Other. The scholar of religion could then argue that the way Trump’s rhetoric connected immigration, “radical Islam,” and the Orlando shooting presented a message to his white nativist and nationalist supporters that their rejection of immigrants actually made them the protectors of LGBT people and bathed their anti-immigrant nationalism in a sense moral uprightness.

So, if a scholar of religion thinks that this sort of rhetoric is a threat to American politics bigger than mere partisan divides, then the best response might not be liberal humanist advocacy for the truth, but critical analysis of the discursive field within which such rhetoric operates.

In short, make religious studies critique again.

2 thoughts on “Religious Studies in the Time of Trumpism

  1. Thanks for this essay. I must admit that I have tended to take the approach of trying to counter religious literacy, not so much by an essentialist definition of religion, but rather than calling attention to the ways in which the broader stream of Muslim thought has defined itself, this as a counter to the tendency toward sacred-text based and Protestant “sola scriptura” approaches to interpreting Islam (“the Qur’an says X as I read it so Muslims must believe X as I understand it”). But you have given me an alternative to consider, one that may be far more helpful and provide for greater impact. My research in social psychology, social and cognitive neuroscience, and mediation approaches, might also lend themselves to this in concert with the alternative you suggest. Thanks for the essay.

  2. Great post, absolutely right. It is foolish for religious scholars to define what other peoples religions are to them. Trump’s error is assuming that Muslims aren’t us.

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