(Photo courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com)

By YOUSEF ALI, Opinions Editor

This election cycle has proven to be anything but uneventful. The Republican Party’s nominee, Donald Trump, has succeeded in exploiting the most visceral fears that many Americans have of Muslims, Latinos and African Americans. In fact, scarcely a week goes by before he utters another statement that reinforces his lack of presidential qualifications.  Suffice it to say, it is hardly any surprise that that the New York Times puts his chances of winning at around 18%. That said, he has been appearing frequently in states that he deems to be competitive. In fact, he appeared at a rally in Novi last week. Despite the rally’s relative proximity to my house, I am pleased to say that I did not attend. That said, there was at least one interesting guest who attended the rally.

During the rally, a bearded man in a white turban was spotted in the VIP section. Considering Trump’s previous statements about Muslims, it came as a surprise to many that a Muslim cleric would be be given such an important honor at his rally. He was soon identified as the Lebanese Sheikh Mohammed al-Hajj Hassan. He is the leader of an obscure political party in Lebanon named the Free Shia Movement which broke of from Hezbollah ten years ago. In commenting on his appearance with Trump, al-Hassan  posted on Facebook  that, “There are people who didn’t sleep last night, specifically the rabbits in Dearborn with all due respect towards the honest and respectable people there, there are people of jealousy, hate, ignorance, sadness, bitterness, and a cocktail of mental illnesses, so I wanted to spread this picture around again, have a good morning”. From his own words, it is clear that al-Hassan does not have the highest opinion of Dearborn and has no issue in causing offence to its people.

Regardless of one’s opinions on Middle Eastern politics, it is safe to say that al-Hassan’s appearance at the Trump rally would be condemned by any self-respecting Muslim. Of course, given that there are millions of Muslims in the United States, it is no surprise that Trump was able to find one who was willing to appear with him. It speaks volumes about his support amongst Muslims that out of the all the possible Muslim leaders in southeast Michigan, he was only able to find someone as obscure as al-Hassan; however, the purpose of his appearance was not for Trump to drum up support amongst Muslims. That is a lost-cause; rather, he simply wanted to appear to the general public to be less Islamophobic than he actually is. To this end, he may have succeeded.

Al-Hassan’s antics may be more successful than expected because of the way the media’s coverage of Islam works. One of the main features of the media’s portrayal of Islam and Muslims is that it gives unrepresented and isolated voices within the Muslims community attention that is disproportionately large. Most of the time this will manifest itself through interviews with extremist figures like Anjum Choudary. who are often allowed on without any challenge from more representative Muslim voices. Naturally, the public who watches such things will assume that because the media introduces such people as Muslim leaders and they are wearing traditional dress that they actually represent Islam as a religion and Muslims as people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such figures have almost no backing from the Muslim community and their views do not deserve to be taken seriously by anyone Muslim or otherwise. As it relates to al-Hassan, people who see him on TV with Donald Trump will think that Muslims do not have any problem with the candidate, despite all the terrible things that he has said about them. This stems from the fact that there is not sufficient attention given to those who actually represent the mainstream Muslim community as opposed to marginal elements. Until this happens, there will be more token Muslims exploited for the furthering of political agendas.

The Trump campaign desires to make their candidate more palatable for the general electorate, as opposed to just the Republican base. In doing so, they are understandably trying to make Donald Trump appear less hateful than he is already perceived to be. The case of Sheikh Muhammad al-Hassan’s appearance at his recent campaign rally is just one example of this. The media has created an environment where the mere presence of someone dressed in traditional Muslim dress is enough to convince most people that Trump has no problem with Muslims. This is because every self-styled cleric who is given media attention is assumed to speak for Islam, even if they do not represent the majority of Muslims. Until this atmosphere changes, we shall see more examples of misrepresentation of Muslims through tokenization.