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The Last Religion

Original illustrations by Temilola Matanmi ’24, a Film/Animation/Video major at RISD

In December 2015, Donald Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Once president, he would enact this proposal to the best of his ability, banning immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries. Unsurprisingly, the move won acclaim on the far-right fringe of American politics. Islam had long been a bogeyman for many far-right figures, and Trump’s policy appeared both crafted for and suited to their tastes. But seven years later, there has been a dramatic shift in how far-right thought leaders in both the populist sphere and “manosphere”—a mostly-online community that prides itself on its ‘grind’ culture and extreme masculinity—discuss Islam. Though they used to categorically denigrate both Islam and Muslims as inherently inferior, far-right commentators now weaponize the aspects of Islam (or their perception of it) that they deem positive in order to attack the left. 

Christian nationalist Nick Fuentes, a self-described populist and incel known for denying the Holocaust, leading “Stop the Steal” protests in 2020, and managing Kanye West’s 2024 presidential campaign, exemplifies the shift. While remaining steadfast in his opposition to non-white immigration and desire for a “Christian society,” Fuentes has drastically changed his public statements on Islam over time. In 2017, Fuentes angrily argued that “the First Amendment was not written for Muslims… a barbaric ideology that wanted to come over and kill us.” Now, he praises the Taliban as a “conservative, religious force” while claiming that the United States is “godless and liberal.” 

The rhetorical shift among far-right commentators has not translated into a shift in their policy goals: Fuentes and others who now glorify Islam have largely maintained their opposition to immigration from Muslim nations. However, the radical transformation of their discourse is still significant and thus worthy of analysis. I would argue that the main factor propelling this pivot is commentators’ newfound conception of Islam’s aesthetic and ideology. Although their perception is an Islamophobic caricature—inaccurate to the practices and beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims—many latch onto it nevertheless. Specifically, far-right figures now perceive Islam as tied to ultra-conservative gender roles and anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, leading to their identification of it as a “sanctuary from all the degeneracy in the West.” They are able to do so because, as a little-practiced religion in the United States, Islam is generally misunderstood by most Americans. 

Exploiting this lack of knowledge, the far-right frames many American Christians as ‘fake’ and ‘woke’ compared to ‘traditional’ Muslims. Simultaneously, however, these commentators capitalize on the exoticization of Islam in order to maintain their desired ‘edgelord’ status—a defining characteristic of the new right. Everything must be well out of the mainstream, accessible only by taking the ‘red pill’ and descending down the rabbit hole. As Christianity is the mainstream religion in the United States, the far-right cannot achieve their desired contrarian appearance through Christianity, and thus they turn to Islam. 

While this seemingly paradoxical desire to be edgy yet traditional runs across the spectrum of right-wing pundits, particular sects of the far-right, such as the populist sphere, also have their own motivations. The populist ethos is embodied by Fox News host Tucker Carlson who rages against immigration, the Democratic “elites,” and the political establishment. For the majority of Carlson’s career, he has also disparaged Muslims––notably, he once asked, “Why is violent terrorism an inevitability in Europe now? The answer is… demographics change. There are a lot more Muslims living in Europe.” However, in 2021, as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Carlson attempted to sympathize with both Afghan civilians and members of the Taliban: “Gender studies seminars at gunpoint” are “the face of the late American empire… [Afghans] like the patriarchy, some of their women like it too… maybe… we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.” 

Examining Carlson’s discursive shift in conjunction with his strong opposition to Afghan refugees reveals the populist sphere’s new and unique goal: the creation of a multiracial populist right. Carlson’s statements are not for Afghans but for non-white Americans. It is okay to be non-white, so long as you remain ultra-nationalistic, opposed to immigrants, anti-woke, and anti-establishment. And through the vessel of Carlson’s TV sympathy for Afghans’ experiences with alleged ‘woke indoctrination,’ the multiracial populist right grows. 

But why is he trying to build a multiracial coalition in the first place? Because the American populist right’s need for a more diverse base has become increasingly urgent—there are only so many non-Latino white voters to convince, and in the near future, that number is likely to decline further. Thus, Carlson has adopted this goal because there are already multiple races in America, not because he wants more. It is thus no surprise that despite the veneer of diversity, the white supremacist underpinnings of the far-right—exemplified by the confederate flags and Nazi-inspired symbols at the January 6 insurrection—remain. 

Original illustrations by Temilola Matanmi ’24, a Film/Animation/Video major at RISD

In contrast to the populist sphere, the aforementioned manosphere has a history of racial diversity—there even exists a subsection of it dubbed the “Black manosphere.” Although it has a relatively heterogeneous thought landscape of men’s-rights activists, pick-up artists, and others, the manosphere rests on the common foundation of toxic masculinity, a strong opposition to feminism, and grind culture. By far the most notorious figure in the manosphere is former kickboxer Andrew Tate who has recently been arrested in Romania on charges of sex trafficking. Tate exalts excessive wealth and his ability to attract large numbers of women. 

For Tate and many of his manosphere followers, a shallow conception of Islam is merely a means of justifying their equally shallow materialism. Once again, the real teachings of Islam do not matter—only their narrow and false perception of them. When Tate converted to Islam in 2022, his opponents challenged the incongruity of Tate’s and his orbiters’ social conservatism with their sexual lifestyles full of casual relationships. In response, one of Tate’s associates defended himself by claiming Islam allows many wives. In addition to the fact that Islam’s rules regarding polygamy are far stricter than commonly believed, Tate and his followers engage in casual sex without marrying their partners—a practice which is most certainly not endorsed by traditional Islam. But by choosing a religion whose faith is not well-known to those in the West, Tate and his followers are able to maintain their reputation of social conservatism while living outside of the strictures of their adopted religion.

Although populists and those in the manosphere differ in their specific reasons for using Islam as a tool for personal and political gain, both share the overarching belief that Islam is the only conservative religion left—or, as Tate puts it, “the last religion… because no other religion has boundaries which they enforce.” As a result, even Christian nationalists like Fuentes now look to extremist Islamic states as a blueprint to, in their minds, “fix” Christianity by making “something like a Catholic Taliban rule in America.” The far-right’s caricature of Islam is a growing part of its message; it is imperative to keep an eye out for how this false depiction distorts Islamic faith and simultaneously grows the far-right base.