Following the Million MAGA March, complete with violence incited by Proud Boys, it makes a certain kind of sense that many people are looking to contextualize the current wave of white supremacy in the U.S. in order not only to understand it, but also to put an end to it. After all, in the weeks surrounding Joe Biden's win over President Donald Trump, there have been countless acts of domestic terrorism, from Trumpers storming the home of former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to others attacking Biden supporters, unprovoked.
But there's a right way and a wrong way to contextualize this violence, and one notable failed attempt to rationalize the far-right can be seen in the rise of hashtags like #VanillaISIS and #YallQaeda. Beyond making light of a very real threat in our country, these hashtags are also deeply racist thanks to their use of Muslim terrorist groups as a means to denounce the MAGA movement.
While it's true that MAGA and its associations with the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, and other local terrorist initiatives are indicative of the danger of extremist sects in our society, invoking Muslim terrorists — specifically — is wholly unnecessary and not even useful. First, it doesn't help to either create awareness or stop violence, and rather just utilizes the same racist and classist tropes — like lumping in all “rednecks” in with white supremacists (re: "Y'all Qaeda") — that far right-wing groups do themselves. And second, it fails to take into account the fact that white supremacist terrorists are inherently dangerous enough not to need any further context.
In the years since 9/11, white supremacists have been responsible for three times as many attacks in the United States as compared to Islamist extremists, and yet yet it’s not disgruntled white men who are likely to be profiled as a threat in the U.S. A better point of reference than ISIS would be the KKK — in fact, people like Trump have direct family connections to the Klan, and have even been endorsed by David Duke.
These hashtags appear to have begun around 2016 when the Bundys and Oregon extremists hosted armed standoffs with the government. Even then, while many stopped using the hashtags because it felt "unfair" to compare violent terrorist organizations with one another, that wasn't a real reason to stop. Now, we are faced with the same moral dilemma. Sure, it's easy to laugh at a hashtag that pokes fun at cultural tropes, but the implications of this are much deeper — and not laughing at them doesn't mean you suddenly have to sympathize with the violence that far-right groups have incited.
When we rely on the easy trope, we are actually inciting a devastating level of harm and stigmatization of Muslim-Americans and Muslims worldwide, putting them at risk of violence. The proof of that is in the research, which has shown that people who are exposed to images and news of Muslim terrorism exhibit anti-Muslim prejudice. Not only that, but reducing that reality to a seemingly funny hashtag minimizes the threat that angry armed white men pose. “White people have been fanatical, violent, and murderous for a lot longer than ISIS,” tweeted Shabana Mir, author of the book Muslim American Women on Campus. “I get that it's playful. But don't you see how it erases all of the horrors of White settler colonial violence, slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing violence today?”
There are better ways to talk about the violence of the MAGA crowd, and people can do that by looking at the long, long history of white violence and the ways in which whiteness has used violence to conquer and oppress for hundreds of years. Or they can look to the history of the U.S. itself which, as Mir pointed out, is full of violent, racist white people. And then maybe we can just leave ISIS out of this altogether.