Trump’s Manipulation of Muslim Masculinity

The President of the United States recently retweeted anti-Muslim videos showing various instances of violence being committed by “Muslim” men. Soon thereafter the veracity of the videos was questioned, revealing that at least one of the perpetrators was actually not a Muslim.

Truth, however, did not matter to the White House. When questioned about the videos, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.”

Many have rightfully condemned this move by the President, noting its potential to incite violence against Muslims. However, acts of direct violence are only one aspect of the conceivable fallout from this episode. There is an even greater danger posed by the President’s actions, which operates at a pedagogic level.

Trump’s tweets are didactic for the public; they teach viewers/readers about what constitutes a threat to the US, who is patriotic and who is not, who must be respected and who should not. In the case of these videos, he is also instructing the public about Muslim masculinity.

The videos feature presumably Muslim men attacking figures generally assumed to be innocent, defenseless, revered — an adolescent boy, a disabled child, and a statue of Virgin Mary. The men’s actions send chills down one’s spine. Viewers not only experience shock but can see themselves in the victims — it could have been me! Through these shared emotions, the videos create a community out of strangers. Viewers gain certainty about the barbaric nature of Muslim men and the “threat” that they represent.

Such an effect is possible because Trump shrewdly draws on already-circulating certainties about Muslim men as violent, animalistic, and mercurial. Historian Sophia Arjana notes that Muslims have historically been viewed as a source of contamination, unraveling the (white) racial integrity of Christendom. She analyzes medieval and renaissance literature in which the figure of the dark-skinned monster represented anxieties about Jews, Muslims, and Africans all at once. In the post 9/11 context, Muslim men have come to embody a masculinity that is, as Gargi Bhattacharya observes, “at once a dangerous hypermasculinity and a mutilated deviation from proper manhood.”

The videos reiterate that even if Muslim men gain tenuous entry into American or European spaces, their unpredictable and violent nature will eventually erupt through. Viewers feel sorry for the victims not only because they suffered from senseless violence but more so because it could have been avoided…by keeping out Muslim men.

This is not the first time that Trump has deployed these sedimented knowledges about Muslim men. The recent iteration of the Executive Order on “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” invokes the figure of the violent Muslim male by recourse to Muslim women. It commits the Trump administration to publicly make available every 180 days news about the “number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including honor killings, in the United States by foreign nationals.” The trope of “honor killings” functions here to cast Muslim men en masse as a threat to not only the Western social order but also native, Muslim women. Such constructions make it seem as if Muslim men have a unique, perhaps natural, propensity to both engage in and tolerate harm done to female bodies.

Earlier, during his election campaign, Trump activated the trope of the oppressing Muslim man by criticizing Ghazala Khan, the Pakistani American mother of US Army Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in 2004 in Iraq. Ghazala and her husband, Khizr Khan, spoke at the Democratic National Convention, during which she was quiet. Trump remarked, “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” This again alludes to notions about Muslim men’s mistreatment of women. Of course, Ghazala later contested this framing of her husband: “My husband asked me if I wanted to speak, but I told him I could not [due to sadness].”

The question then arises as to why Trump keeps invoking these tired constructions of Muslim masculinity. What political functions do such representations of Muslim masculinity perform for him?

Trump gains at least two significant advantages. First, against this foil of Muslim masculinity, he gets to perform the masculinity of a savior. As one respondent to Trump’s retweeted videos noted, “he wants to defend our country and keep it safe.” While many analysts view Trump’s masculinity as toxic, let’s not forget that he also represents a manhood that is desired and envied by many — white, elite, powerful, wealthy, nationalist. Furthermore, as the representative of the American state, his manhood is also conflated with the virility and power of the state. To enact this manhood then Trump actively subordinates competing masculinities, because it is only by feminizing and demonizing black and brown masculinities that white masculinity can gain and maintain its dominance.

Trump’s public discourse provides ample examples of this effort. From calling Mexicans rapists and “bad hombres” to hurling insults at NFL players, he actively plays the masculinity game. Such practices project failed masculinity onto racialized others, while carefully evading any consequences of one’s own practices of sexual harassment and bullying.

Second, the association of uncontrollable rage and irrationality with Muslim men helps his political project of melding Islam with emotion and lack of reason — the “other” of rational, secular America. As anthropologist Saba Mahmood has argued, the conceptual opposition between religion and secularism is maintained via practices and images that threaten the secular liberal worldview — images of suicide bombers, veiled women, angry mobs, etc. Trump’s retweets fit right into this strategy. These videos help him mark an entire religion and its practitioners as “radical” and “extremist” and hence unwelcome in the West.

It is important for us, therefore, to resist these attempts at creating a masculine pecking order. They are a crucial element of Trump’s cultural strategy to simultaneously instill fear in the public by curating monstrous masculinities and construct his personal image as a savior and a patriot. This does not mean that we should not be critical of Muslim men, or any men or women for that matter, who engage in violence. However, assigning violence as a natural characteristic of a peoples or a religion is a strategy of dehumanization and must be vigorously opposed. Indeed, domination through masculine posturing disenfranchises not only brown and black men but also other white men who do not enjoy the same privileges as their elite white counterparts.