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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

The White House iftar with no Muslim Americans perfectly encapsulated Trump's attitude to Islam

The US president has instead cast himself as the champion of white Christian Americans, writes Hussein Ibish

US President Donald Trump at the White House iftar. / Jim Watson / AFP
US President Donald Trump at the White House iftar. / Jim Watson / AFP

This month’s White House iftar perfectly encapsulated Donald Trump's relationship with Islam and Muslims.

Hosting an annual Ramadan dinner at the White House was started by then first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 and repeated every year until 2017. Then Mr Trump abandoned the budding tradition. That didn't surprise anyone, given his full-throated hostility towards Islam and Muslims during the presidential campaign.

This year he revived the practice but with an extremely telling twist. There were many diplomats from Muslim majority countries at his first iftar since taking office but no identifiable Muslim Americans, apparently not even his few but extant Muslim supporters.

This illustrates Mr Trump's attitude towards Muslims perfectly. He doesn't really care about religion. He has developed extremely friendly relations with many Muslim majority countries and doesn't have any problem with Muslims "over there".

His problem is with Muslims "over here". Hence the travel ban; hence the absence of even his own Muslim supporters at the White House iftar; hence all his reckless rhetoric painting Muslim communities in the West as terrorist threats and promoting fear and hatred of Muslims in the United States. And hence the vitriolic Islamophobes populating his administration.

Mr Trump improbably ascended to the presidency, not based on a rational programme but on raw, visceral emotions. His appeal to his core supporters was never primarily about economic grievances, as many mistakenly think, or party affiliation, policies or any of the normal campaign issues of typical American politicians.

Instead, Mr Trump shrewdly and deliberately cast himself as the ethnic and religious champion of a powerful constituency that nonetheless feels profoundly threatened and embattled: white Christian Americans.

The cultural, demographic and religious transformation of US society in recent decades is striking. Many white Christian Americans feel they are literally losing control of a country that by rights "belongs" to them.

Beginning with the announcement of his candidacy in June 2015, Mr Trump’s pitch to the voters was mainly based on conspiracy theories, paranoia and xenophobia explicitly designed to appeal to the ethnic and religious fear and hatred of others by white, particularly Christian, Americans.

In that first campaign speech, he described Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and Muslims as "terrorists", inaugurating his campaign against his two favourite targets, and inveighed against the rest of the world, particularly China, as swindling and mocking the United States.

It's very cynical. While Mr Trump has a history of making racially charged comments, his posture as the champion of the white Christian American is primarily calculated and opportunistic.

Hence Muslims "over here" are a threat and a problem and not to be invited to the White House while Muslims "over there" are potentially important friends and allies to be strategically embraced.

This dynamic also explains how the Republican Party has degenerated into little more than a personality cult, as Tennessee senator Bob Corker admitted this week, with support for Mr Trump being the only real litmus test. It’s why his supporters and party will follow him in virtually any twist and backflip imaginable on substantive issues.

Last week he effectively recognised North Korea as an equal nuclear power, heaping limitless praise on leader Kim Jong-un. Had any Democrat behaved like that, Republicans would be thundering "treason" and demanding impeachment. They often did so for infinitely less. Now there’s Republican unease but zero criticism.

White Christian fundamentalists generally love him, despite his embodiment of so many personal traits they supposedly despise. None of that’s a problem because he’s venerated as their tribal leader.

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Mr Trump evidently greatly admires Mr Kim and others who utilise personality cults on a larger scale than he does, such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte.

Conversely, he distrusts democratic leaders such as Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, as he made abundantly clear at the recent G7 meeting.

Mr Trump's horrifying anti-immigrant policies, now including callously separating children from parents accused of misdemeanours like unlawful border crossings, or even because of lawful asylum requests, are the essence of his appeal.

Gratuitous cruelty to non-white Americans and would-be citizens, including children, isn't an anomaly. It's a feature, a selling point and wildly popular with his angry, ethnically fearful supporters.

Mr Trump's personal history leaves no doubt that he’s profoundly bigoted against black people. And the overtly racist and xenophobic nature of his political appeal means he’s not likely to stop being hostile and cruel to Mesoamericans, Muslims and many other non-whites in the United States, particularly immigrants.

Yet that's no reason why Muslim majority countries shouldn’t work closely with the Trump administration. Domestic politics aren’t key to foreign policy, especially for smaller states, which must be based on a clear-eyed reading of national interests. If Mr Trump's policies align with those of Muslim countries, co-operation to secure those goals makes perfect sense.

But it shouldn't surprise anyone that there were diplomats but no Muslim Americans at the White House iftar. It’s a precise reflection of Mr Trump’s approach to Islam and Muslims.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington