18 Apr, 2019
When Donald Trump on Friday tweeted out-of-context clips from a speech by Ilhan Omar intercut with images of 9/11, it was part of a dangerous pattern of demonisation epitomised by his 2016 pronouncement, "Islam hates us."
It takes just a few minutes on the right social media string to recognise that such inflammatory comments are raw meat for a sizeable and dangerous ethnocentric online community who consider Muslims sub-human.
We've spent the past several months reviewing more than 120,000 Twitter posts and Facebook comments involving Muslim candidates for the 2018 midterm elections.
All the showers in the world won't make us feel clean again.
In our foray into the Facebook comments and Twitter posts tagging Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib - the two Muslim women elected to Congress - and other Muslim candidates for office last autumn, we found a cabal of Islamophobes for whom Muslims were, quite literally, demons.
As one troll claimed: "Allah is Baal the moon God. A very evil, demonic creature who infests the world with his presence through Islam. One billion people are enslaved by this bloodletting creature of doom."
Needless to say, this description cannot be found in any reputable religious studies textbook, but Allah and his band of demons is a meme frequently encountered in Islamophobic posts.
The dehumanisation of Muslims online is ubiquitous. Often, individual Muslims are not "she" or "he," but rather "it," as in this tweet tagging Ilhan Omar: "This is what's running for the House in MN."
|It is important to understand that we are not talking about an obscure sub-Reddit inhabited by a secretive few|
"Piece of garbage," "piece of sh*t" or "POS" were some of the more polite references to the Muslim candidates we tracked.
It is important to understand that we are not talking about an obscure sub-Reddit inhabited by a secretive few. Of 90,000 tweets we reviewed that mentioned Ilhan Omar, more than 45 percent contained overtly Islamophobic language and 70 percent of tweets were from accounts that had posted such Islamophobic comments.
The late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said once wrote that by framing Islam as a monolithic entity - as Donald Trump has repeatedly done - individual human beings are erased. To people who buy into that framing, Islam becomes "a one-sided activity that obscures what we do, and highlights instead what Muslims and Arabs by their very flawed nature are," according to Said.
Read more: Palestinian, Muslim, woman - American. Inside Rashida Tlaib's historic run for Congress
That fear of the "other" lies at the heart of the online Islamophobic community. There is much talk of "invaders" in the "manifesto" written by the man accused of slaughtering 50 Muslims in New Zealand and livestreaming it on Facebook. It is language commonly seen in online discussions of Muslims in the US.
"it's the filthy EVIL Jews bringing the filthy EVIL Muslims into the country!!" another accused mass murderer, on trial for the Pittsburgh synagogue murders, tweeted days before that massacre.
And then there is the Trojan Horse: "We have no idea who's being sent here," Donald Trump told ABC's George Stephanopoulos in 2015, arguing for a refugee database. "It could be the great Trojan horse of all time." The idea has become a dominant theme for Islamophobes online.
Variations on the line, "The Trojan horse has made it into our government… No more United States" appeared in thousands of tweets after the November election.
According to this conspiratorial mindset, the greater the apparent credentials, the more likelihood the Muslim is involved in an elaborate ruse. "You're another suspect candidate who is pretending to be a Republican so that you can further subvert the American political system," said a tweet directed at Omar Qudrat, a conservative Republican former US military prosecutor in Afghanistan who ran for Congress in California.
It came from an account, later suspended, registered to Gays for Trump founder, Peter Boykin.
The trolls are fed by an echo-chamber of dozens of Islamophobic blogs, "news" sites and agents provocateurs, stoking fear and fuelling hate. An anonymous and unsubstantiated claim that Ilhan Omar married her brother in an immigration scam has been retweeted thousands of times.
|Of 90,000 tweets we reviewed that mentioned Ilhan Omar, more than 45 percent contained overtly Islamophobic language|
In the tyranny of the internet crowd, these virtual extremists egg each other on.
"Muslim bitch in Arizona needs taken [sic] out," a woman posted on the Facebook page of Deedra Abboud, a white Muslim convert who wears a hijab and sought the Democratic nomination for Senate in Arizona. The threat appeared above an ad for a public event the then-candidate was attending.
"We own guns, so get the fuck out. You have been told," warned one troll.
"Time for target practice," said another.
"Bag that head," added a third.
Words matter. So do images. Yet in the political arena, such online Islamophobic rhetoric is more often ignored, cheered on, or greeted with tepid denunciations and both-siderism than it is condemned. "Memes have done more for the ethnonationalist movement than any manifesto," the man charged with the New Zealand massacre wrote before he turned rhetoric into reality.
Now, Donald Trump's 9/11 tweet about Ilhan Omar has become the latest meme. To what end?
Lawrence Pintak is a professor at Washington State University. His newest book, America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs, and the Road to Donald Trump, will be published in May by Bloomsbury. Follow him on Twitter: @Lpintak
Brian J. Bowe is an associate professor at Western Washington University and a current Fulbright scholar at the University of Jordan. Follow him on Twitter: @brianjbowe
Jonathan Albright is the Director of Forensics at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @d1gi