Trump revives racist 'birther' conspiracy theory for Kamala Harris

Birtherism and Islam: Trump revives a racist conspiracy theory to smear Kamala Harris
6 min read
25 Aug, 2020
Comment: Just as they did for Obama, Republicans and right-wing media will level their attacks not against Harris's policy positions, but against who she is, writes Mobashra Tazamal.
Senator Kamala Harris was born in Oakland, California [Getty]
On Wednesday, August 19, 2020, Senator Kamala Harris made history as the first Black woman to accept the nomination for vice president from a major political party. 

As many reflected on the historical significance of Harris's nomination, the Commander-in-Chief wasted no time in employing his racist conspiracy theories, in a sign of what we can expect in the months leading up to November's election. 

A mere two days after Harris was picked by Joe Biden's campaign to serve as his running mate, Donald Trump questioned the California Senator's eligibility to hold the position, evoking the Birtherism conspiracy theory he leveled previously at former president, Barack Obama. In both instances, Trump deployed unsubstantiated claims questioning the citizenship status of Black Americans. 

Trump reinvigorated this racist theory at a recent press conference in reference to an opinion piece published in Newsweek. The article questioned whether Harris meets the requirements, specifically the "natural born citizen" part. Trump pointed to the article written by a law professor (who previously ran for office as a Republican candidate) stating, "they're saying that she doesn't qualify because she wasn't born in this country."

Senator Harris was born in Oakland, California. While these racist arguments cloak themselves in legal jargon, the heart of the matter is that a certain segment of society cannot, and refuses to, accept that Black people and people of color are Americans.

Efforts to tie Harris, a Black woman, to Islam should then be viewed in this context; the goal is to present the Senator as a nefarious, untrustworthy villain

The Birther conspiracy theory, mainstreamed by Donald Trump in 2012, surfaced during the 2008 elections in chain emails questioning the birthplace of then-presidential candidate, Barack Obama. The unsubstantiated and irrational allegations claimed not only that Obama was born in Kenya, but that he was also a secret Muslim, pointing to his Kenyan Muslim father as proof. 

The claims tapped into the racist history of the nation, dating back to the European colonisers who never considered Black people and people of colour as Americans, despite the very clear fact that the free labour of enslaved Africans is what this country is built on.

At the same time, Birthirism also employed Islamophobia by alleging Obama's secret Muslim identity proved he was a threat and could never be loyal to the country. In a post-9/11 environment, tying the first Black American presidential candidate to Islam tapped into the pervasive racism as well as dangerous levels of anti-Muslim hatred that had taken hold in the country.

Birtherism moved from the fringes to the mainstream during the 2012 presidential election, at a time when right-wing media gave considerable airtime to proponents of the theory. But the one who really kicked the movement into overdrive was none other than Donald Trump.

Ahead of those elections, Fox News fully 
embraced the movement, devoting hours of airtime to Trump's racist insinuations and arguments. In March 2011, Trump told Fox News, "He doesn't have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there is something on that birth certificate - maybe religion, maybe it says he's a Muslim; I don't know."

Read more: Trump, racism and America's original sin

He then appeared on Hannity where he and the talk show host went back and forth making outlandish comments from questioning the President's name and academic achievements, to making assertions that Obama's time in Indonesia was proof he was Muslim.

During this election period, Republicans and right-wing media consistently harassed President Obama, demanding that he prove his American nationality by releasing his birth certificate, despite him having already done so in 
2008. By 2011, 51 percent of Republican primary voters believed Obama was born abroad. 

Birtherism is not and has never been about legal documents or arguments; it's a racist and Islamophobic ideology appealing to white nationalist sentiments that have an exclusionary reading of American identity. The movement otherises Black people and people of colour and views Muslims or anything related to Islam as foreign and threatening.

As Adam Serwer 
wrote in The Atlantic, Birtherism is a "way to express allegiance to a particular notion of American identity... to turn back the clock to an era where white political and cultural hegemony was unthreatened by black people, by immigrants, by people of a different faith."

Harris's historic nomination has largely been met with praise and support; a Black woman who is the daughter of a Jamaican man and an Indian woman who both immigrated to the United States, could potentially be the Vice President of the United States.

Birtherism is a racist and Islamophobic ideology appealing to white nationalist sentiments

However, there are voices (often the same ones who targeted Obama) who have already begun their reprehensible anti-Kamala campaign by targeting the Senator's multiple identities.

Trump started by 
referring to Harris as a "madwoman," while a Fox News contributor described her as "abrasive," and Trump's son favourited a tweet that referred to Harris as a "whorendous pick." Right-wingers and Trump supporters will almost certainly employ xenophobia and misogynoir in the forthcoming campaign.

Just like the false claims of Obama being a secret Muslim, there are already obscure accusations attempting to tie the California Senator to Islam. A viral post on Facebook alleges Harris wants to institute Sharia, despite there being no such evidence.

What's important to note here aside from the false allegations, is the repeated efforts by the American media and political establishment to connect politicians to Islam.

Why is this so often employed as a damaging tactic?
because Islam and Muslims are viewed as violent, disloyal, and an enemy within. This view predates the September 11 attacks, but Islamophobia really magnified in the following years.

Kamala Harris's very identity and Americaness will be questioned in a naked display of white nationalism and misogynoir that permeate American society

Academics, politicians, and the media repeatedly made assertions that Islam and all Muslims encouraged and/or were predisposed to terrorism. This argument was used to justify the deadly and ongoing Global "War on Terror" abroad and increased surveillance and criminalisation of Muslim Americans at home.

As a result, the conversation generated by the establishment around Islam and Muslims has been one of constructing the faith and its adherents as an evil foreign threat. Efforts to tie Harris, a Black woman, to Islam should then be viewed in this context; the goal is to present the Senator as a nefarious, untrustworthy villain.

Given the historical precedent, we can expect Republicans and right-wing media to level their attacks not against Harris's policy positions, but against who she is: a Black woman and the daughter of immigrants. Unlike her white, male counterparts, Kamala Harris's very identity and Americaness will be questioned in a naked display of white nationalism and misogynoir that permeate American society. 

Mobashra Tazamal is a researcher on Islamophobia at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Independent, Middle East Eye, and AltMuslimah.

Follow her on Twitter:@mobbiemobes

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.