Many of Trump's Most Anti-Muslim Measures Are Based on Programs Established by the Obama Administration

News & Politics

During the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Gorbah Hamed asked the candidates how they would help Muslims deal with “the consequences of being labeled…a threat to the country.” Trump decried Islamophobia as a “shame” but quickly moved on to accuse American Muslims of not reporting “radical Islamic terrorism” and President Obama and Hillary Clinton for not using the term. Clinton assured the questioner that Muslims are very much a part of the United States and that she wished for a country “where citizens like you and your family are just as welcome as anyone else.” Nonetheless, she insisted, American Muslims must be “our eyes and ears on our front lines.”

Clinton’s response, despite including platitudes about Muslims being a part of the country, exhibited a tendency among many national security-minded Democrats to ultimately stigmatize Muslims as a suspect community that must be constantly monitored. Where Trump was accusatory, suggesting against all evidence that American Muslims do not report suspicious behavior, Clinton was more polished and appeared warm and friendly, asking the community to become “part of our homeland security.”

Donald Trump’s penchant for Islamophobia has long been obvious, but Hillary Clinton’s comments were no accident either. Throughout her campaign, Clinton spoke of deputizing American Muslims as agents of the state, always on alert for the first signs of their family and friends’ terrorist proclivities. By peddling such narratives of American Muslims as a suspect community, the Clinton campaign was undoubtedly contributing to Islamophobia but it was also following the established practices of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party.

During the past eight years, Democrats have echoed much of the Islamophobia now emanating from an incoming Trump administration through both rhetoric and policies. At times it is brazen, but mostly it is couched in an unmistakably liberal gloss of civility and delivered with a smile. As President-elect Trump appoints Islamophobes to his cabinet and prepares to directly target American Muslims, much of the precedents he will rely on have already been firmly established by the Obama administration and supported by the Democratic Party.

Muslim Registry

Perhaps the most recent example of Democratic support for Islamophobic policies emerged after the horrific shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando. House Democrats staged a sit-in to force a vote on gun control measures which would mandate the use of terrorist watch lists to prevent people from purchasing firearms. There are different estimates for just how many names exist on various terrorist watch lists. There are approximately 81,000 names on the No-Fly List (including a 7-month-old baby), 1.5 million names on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) list, and 800,000 names in the FBI’s database.

The vast majority of these names belong to Muslims who are never informed of their inclusion in these secret lists and find it a nearly impossible feat to have their names removed. Inclusion in the list, however, does not seem to require much of anything. According to a document obtained by The Intercept, these lists require “neither ‘concrete facts’ nor ‘irrefutable evidence’ to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist.” The American Civil Liberties Union has long condemned these lists as “a massive, virtually standardless government watchlisting scheme that ensnares innocent people and encourages racial and religious profiling.” None of this stopped liberal darling Elizabeth Warren from calling everyone on the lists “ISIS.”


Donald Trump’s explicit calls for a registry of Muslims may have been challenged by Democrats, but the lists maintained by the Obama administration have escaped any such scrutiny. American Muslim communities have also been subjected to FBI’s geo-mapping efforts, which included the development of maps “displaying the patterns of life in minority neighborhoods” and indicating “where people live, work, pray, eat and shop.” The Domain Management program was the “foundation for the FBI's counterterrorism dragnet” and allowed agents to “target specific communities to recruit informants.”

In addition to being FBI targets, American Muslims also have to deal with the “deep embedding of federal counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering efforts” in their communities. Trump may have issued blunt calls for law enforcement patrolling of “Muslim neighborhoods” but local law enforcement agencies have already been using more “sophisticated if sometimes intrusive outreach and informant programs.” Community outreach efforts have often turned out to be nothing more than intelligence gathering operations. One program funded by the Department of Justice in 2009, for example, was aimed at promoting St. Paul Police Department’s “involvement with the Somali/Muslim community” in order to “prevent further radicalization of our youth.” Instead, the program was used by the police department to gather intelligence on the local Somali community.

The surveillance of American Muslim communities by local law enforcement agencies has been directly funded by the Obama administration. Hence, it is no surprise that the administration’s promise of a review of the “religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance of Muslims” by the NYPD’s Demographics Unit has remained unfulfilled. Undeterred by any federal oversight, the NYPD has seen little reason to alter its policies. A recent report by the NYPD Inspector General noted that the Department’s Intelligence Bureau “consistently broke court-imposed rules governing investigations involving political activity.” Over 95% of these investigations targeted Muslims.

Informants and Entrapment

Under the Obama administration, the FBI has also stepped up its use of undercover informants to investigate Americans suspected of supporting terrorist groups. According to a New York Times estimate, informants are now used in “two of every three prosecutions involving people suspected of supporting the Islamic State, a sharp rise in the span of just two years.” In many cases, however, informants are not passive observers who are merely monitoring and recording the suspects but actively “encouraging and assisting people to participate in plots that are largely scripted by the FBI itself.” A disturbing number of suspects arrested by the FBI through the use of informants also turn out to be dealing with emotional and psychological issues, a fact many suspect is deliberately exploited by the Bureau.

Mahin Khan, for example, was first referred to the FBI when he was 15 years old after he sent a threatening e-mail to a teacher. He spent 45 days at an inpatient psychiatric facility under FBI supervision and agents regularly visited him until the day of his arrest a few weeks after he turned 18. A former tutor told the local media that Khan had “the mentality of a 6-year-old” and was “unable to learn anything.” His family maintained that Khan had autism, and a developmental evaluation carried out by psychologists the year before his arrest found that he required “considerable support from parents to complete day-to-day skills.” His parents did not trust him with a cell phone, yet he was nonetheless provided with one by the FBI so he could communicate with a government informant. A judge would later sentence Khan to eight years in prison.

The informants themselves are often vulnerable individuals who are coerced into going undercover by the FBI. The Bureau has frequently delayed the citizenship process for Muslim immigrants, tying up their green card applications for years, and then offered to expedite the process in return for reporting on their community members. In Tanvir vs. Holder, a federal lawsuit by the CLEAR project of CUNY School of Law and the Center for Constitutional Right in 2013, four Muslim plaintiffs charged that the FBI put (or kept) their names on the No-Fly List to coerce them into “spying on their religious communities.”

Immigration and Vetting

Much has been said about Trump’s plan for “extreme vetting” of Muslims entering the United States and the potential revival of the Bush-era National Security Entry-Exit Registration System program (NSEERS) program. Less known is the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program that has been in place throughout the Obama administration. CARRP delays and denies immigration benefits and citizenship to Muslims and those from Muslim-majority countries based on vague and baseless “national security indicators.”

In the best case scenario, writes Charles Swift, director of Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, “an applicant can expect to be interrogated by FBI agents on matters entirely unrelated to the application under examination, including their political and religious beliefs, the mosques they attend, beliefs of other persons in the community, etc.” One person caught in this program is a prominent religious leader who has been in the country for 20 years. According to Diala Shamas, an attorney with the CLEAR Project, the individual is eligible to become a resident but has been waiting for 12 years for his petition to be processed. The ACLU report that exposed the program was appropriately titled Muslims Need Not Apply.

The immigration and legal status of Muslims has also been challenged in other ways. FBI and other federal agencies have a history of abusing such proceedings to recruit informants. Many U.S. citizens of Yemeni origin have been subjected to coercive interrogation by State Department officials in Yemen, after which their passports are taken from them. Shamas writes that this program “amounts to proxy-denaturalization” as it allows the Obama administration to “strip a subset of citizens—all Muslim—of all the benefits of citizenship without having to go through appropriate procedures.”

A Bipartisan Project

Trump’s preferences for Muslims have been obvious for a long time, even if the particularities of his policies remain unclear. No doubt Democrats will continue to denounce much of the Islamophobia from his administration but they will do so by obfuscating their own roles in perpetuating anti-Muslim bigotry and policies for the past eight years. President-elect Trump will inherit a set of policies that scapegoat and stigmatize Muslims, deprive them of their constitutional rights and civil liberties, subject them to surveillance, and throw them in prisons. President Obama’s two terms offer overwhelming evidence that Islamophobia is a thoroughly bipartisan project. Any resistance to it must treat it as such.

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