Connecting President-elect Donald Trump’s calls to either ban all Muslims from entering the United States, subject them to an ideological litmus test prior to entering, or have them register their whereabouts once in the country is one simple truth: the desire to see all Muslims as conspiratorial.
It is an idea that remains at the centre of political discourse defining Muslims in the US and Mr Trump’s policy prescriptions represent its clearest articulation.
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The conspiratorial Muslim means that all Muslims have the propensity to undermine and threaten. While only some Muslims may be deemed as immediate threats, all Muslims are latent threats. Residing within each is some potential to commit conspiracy. Each and every Muslim is a “Manchurian Candidate“. Their embedded religion has the potential to trigger a subversive act at any time.
This desire to define Muslims globally as conspiratorial has its roots in the policies of various colonial powers in the 19th century. These attitudes, too, were the by-product of perceived security threats and fear.
A history of suspicion
When Anglo-Indian civilian William W Hunter (1840-1900) wrote in 1871 his famous work The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen?, British concern over a chronic Muslim conspiracy in India was at an all time high. Writing in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion, bouts of “jihad” on the Northwest Frontier, and the “Wahhabi Trials” of the 1860s, Hunter’s work encapsulated fears and discussions of potential Muslim conspiracy meant to undermine British political and security interests in its colonial treasure.
Hunter concluded that while many Indian Muslims were peaceable, others were “fanatical disciples” of Wahhabism and would seek “to spread the Truth … at whatever expense of the blood of the Infidel, and at whatever sacrifice of their own lives”. The threat, according to Hunter, was not Muslims in India, but the prospect of a foreign-born Wahhabism infiltrating India, affecting Muslims’ religious proclivities there and swaying their political allegiances against the British Crown.
Further east, the multi-lingual scholar and Dutch civil servant Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936) would reach a similar conclusion, cautioning that Javanese Muslims’ ties to strands of Islam percolating in Arabia could threaten colonial rule in the East Indies. Most Muslims in the Dutch colony were peaceable, but those travelling to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage and connecting with their countrymen who took up residence in Arabia would especially warrant oversight.
The ideas of Hunter and Hurgronje helped contribute to growing imperial concern over Muslim behaviours worldwide. The global Muslim community’s engagement with the dual entrepots of Mecca and Istanbul – one a site of religious attraction and inspiration, the other, of political power – became a cause for alarm and scrutiny.
The annual pilgrimage was viewed as a centripetal exchange of potentially subversive ideas that could populate the colonial periphery; increased contact with the Ottoman Sultan and his court in Istanbul abetted fears of a spreading pan-Islamic threat.
Multiple imperial powers were now on the lookout for a global Muslim actor susceptible or beholden to religious proclivities that could threaten their interests and security. The conspiratorial Muslim was born.
The return of the ‘conspiratorial Muslim’
As the “war on terror” drags on and the West increasingly sees its own countries attacked, the resultant violence has necessitated a rekindling of the idea of the conspiratorial Muslim. Simply defining Muslims with the stereotypes of the Orient or dividing them into categories of “good” and “bad”, which dominated much of 20th-century Western attitudes towards Muslims, will no longer suffice.
First articulated by imperial powers believing a foreign “Muslim” threat could undermine homeland security in their colonies, the idea of the conspiratorial Muslim has come to the fore once again. The perceived threat of Muslim infringement on the Western way of life, as seen in reactions to attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernadino and Orlando, has driven this labelling and implicated all Muslims, at home and abroad, as potentially conspiratorial. No matter that the attacks were carried out by a deranged few.
The belief that Muslims are more populous in Western societies than they actually are and the fear over ISIL “weaponising” refugees to attack European Union countries all contribute to a rising climate of fear that Muslims maintain the potential to undermine societal norms and values and threaten stability in Western societies.
What underpins this conspiratorial thinking about Muslims, but is rarely admitted, is the belief that they don’t belong in the US or the West, but are rather culturally and racially displaced from some “other” natural and intended habitat. They belong and believe elsewhere.
Therefore, there must be some other religious or civilisational axis summoning their allegiance. With an allegiance supposedly lying elsewhere, they are thus exposed to the charge of conspiracy, with their expanding populous and weaponised bodies.
There are differences between the construction of the conspiratorial Muslim as originally conceived by the likes of Hunter and Hurgronje and its re-emergence today. While the idea once simply applied to those Muslims swayed by the foreign strand of “Wahhabi Islam” or the entreaties of foreign places, like Mecca and Istanbul, today’s conspiratorial Muslim knows no such geographic or theological restrictions. The foreignness residing at the heart of potential conspiracy is Islam and thus pertains to all Muslims, not just a select few.
It may very well become commonplace in the coming months and years to lay all the blame at Mr Trump’s doorstep for his role in bringing the “conspiratorial Muslim” to life. But Mr Trump is only the clearest, most outspoken, and candid voice giving it expression.
The idea of the “conspiratorial Muslim” itself long preceded him. It is the outcome of a staggering array of policies and cultural practices, kept alive by a general complex of power, surveillance, entrapment, and Islamophobic think-tanks that have perpetuated, peddled, and promoted its narration.
There is a system in place premised upon the idea that Muslims are conspiratorial. While a great many Muslims may not feel the full force of its power, they all remain in its sights. Hunter and Hurgronje’s caveat that many Muslims are peaceable is now little consolation. We now live in an age where all Muslims are deemed conspiratorial.
Kevin Schwartz is a research fellow at the Library of Congress. He was previously a visiting professor at the United States Naval Academy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.