Anti-Muslim demagoguery on the campaign trail

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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On Sunday Sept. 20, Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson was asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd whether he thought Islam is consistent with the Constitution and whether he would support a Muslim president. Carson responded, “No I don’t. I do not. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

Carson’s response was frankly surprising. Until that point, while his views have been staunchly conservative, Carson had developed a reputation as the most levelheaded and mature of the Republican presidential candidates, unwilling to engage in the name-calling and mudslinging that has characterized the Republican nomination race. Unfortunately it seems that political expediency has trumped (no pun intended) integrity in the Carson campaign.

In fact, Carson doubled down on his remarks on Monday, Sept. 21, telling The Hill in an interview that any future president should be “sworn in on a stack of Bibles, not a Quran.” Apparently, Carson had forgotten that Article VI of the United States Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

To their credit, some Republican leaders spoke out publicly against Carson’s statements. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that Carson should apologize to American Muslims and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas reminded Carson that “the Constitution specifies there shall be no religious test for public office.”

On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders was “disappointed” in Carson’s statement. Sanders also brought up President John F. Kennedy and a period in U.S. history when Americans didn’t think Catholics were fit for the nation’s highest office.

“For a long, long time in the history of America, there were people saying, ‘Oh, we don’t want a Catholic to be president of the United States,’ ” Sanders said. “Then John F. Kennedy became president in 1960. And then people said, ‘Oh, we don’t want a black guy, an African-American, to be president of the United States.’ Then finally Barack Obama became president of the United States.”

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the country’s first Muslim member of Congress, issued a statement condemning Carson and Donald Trump. “For Ben Carson, Donald Trump, or any other Republican politician to suggest that someone of any faith is unfit for office is out of touch with who we are as a people,” he wrote. “It’s unimaginable that the leading GOP presidential candidates are resorting to fear mongering to benefit their campaigns, and every American should be disturbed that these national figures are engaging in and tolerating blatant acts of religious bigotry.”

Carson’s remarks came on the heels of another Trump outrage. Appearing at a town hall meeting in Rochester, N.H., Sept. 17, Trump failed to object when an audience member offered this: "We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. You know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American."

Characteristically, Trump’s answer was a combination of befuddlement and expediency. "We’ll be looking at a lot of different things," and no doubt will come up with a plan that he will describe as "terrific," he replied.

Three days later Trump attempted to couch his previous statement. Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” Trump said that some of his best friends are Muslims but that the World Trade Center attacks were “not done by Swedes” and that there is a problem with radical Muslims.

Trump conveniently forgot to mention (or maybe didn’t even know) that, of course, the mass shootings in Oslo were done by a Norwegian, and the attacks in Oklahoma City and Charleston were done by white supremacists.

Carson and Trump are unfortunately not isolated cases of bigotry disguised as patriotism. For years, they and those who agree with them have been actively encouraged in those beliefs by a multitude of prominent conservatives, both elected officials and the media figures who tell their followers what to believe every day.

In just one of countless examples, on Aug. 14, 2014, Andrea Tantaros of FOX News said this regarding Muslims: “If you study the history of Islam. Our ship captains were getting murdered. The French had to tip us off. I mean these were the days of Thomas Jefferson. They've been doing the same thing. This isn't a surprise. You can't solve it with a dialogue. You can't solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It’s the only thing these people understand. And all we've heard from this president is a case to heap praise on this religion, as if to appease them.”

What would the reaction be if a news commentator said that the only thing Jews or gays understand is a bullet to the head? Wouldn’t that commentator immediately be fired, as a firestorm of protest erupted on social media?

For years, when asked whether Obama is a Christian, even the most prominent Republican politicians, such as Mitch McConnellJohn Boehner and Scott Walker, would offer a less than convincing response, rather than saying, “Of course he is.”

The message was clear: Obama claims he is Christian but who really knows? No other politician would ever have their religious faith questioned this way. Imagine the outrage if a politician said, “Chuck Schumer says he’s Jewish, so I’ll take him at his word,” or “Jeb Bush says he’s Catholic, so I’ll take him at his word.”

As it always does, the fecklessness of leaders and the demagoguery of certain media outlets inevitably filter down to the general public. Polls consistently find that approximately half of Republicans think that Obama is a Muslim, and around the same number believe he wasn’t born in the United States.

It’s no surprise that these feelings are particularly strong among Trump supporters, given the fact that Trump has led the ‘Birther’ movement that questions Obama’s religion and birthplace. In a recent PPP poll, 54 percent of Republicans overall and 66 percent of Trump supporters said Obama is a Muslim, and only 29 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Trump supporters said Obama was born in the U.S.

For all their differences, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, like Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush before them, understood that no racial or ethnic group should ever become an object of national demonization. For all the civil-liberties abuses over which George W. Bush presided after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many targeting Muslims and Muslim Americans, he conducted himself admirably in the many public statements in which he made it clear that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are peaceful, patriotic people who ought never to be harassed or harmed.

Carson is a Christian — a fact he shares in common with all our greatest domestic terrorists. From slaveholding to ethnic cleansing, Christianity has repeatedly been employed to sanctify our most shameful acts in the United States. One can also counter that Christianity has also been employed to inspire our most honorable acts. But this is a level of nuance that Carson and other Islam-bashers do not grant to Islam. To them, Islam is terror and nothing else.

Christians and Muslims, while fully conscious of their own pedigree, need not completely renounce their faith nor repudiate their Scripture when extremist, violent and radical elements rise among them throughout history. Just as with Christians and all other major faiths, the overwhelming percentage of the 5 million to 7 million Muslims in the U.S. live here legally and are prosperous, peaceful and well-educated.

The danger of bigotry against Muslims provides a vivid illustration of both the unruly beast that the Republican Party has created and the difficulty it will have winning over minority voters in the coming election. That applies to minority groups of every kind, whether Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans or Native Americans.

Instead of trying to widen its potential voter base, the Republican Party has turned inward, appealing to its base of white males, conservative voters, voters who don’t live in urban areas: all demographic groups that are shrinking. Simply put, it has chosen not to make the generational change into the 21st century as a party, placing its bets solely on the wrong side of the demographic divide.

America has evolved and changed positively: We have an African-American president, legalized gay marriage and the real possibility of a female president in 2016. Yet some Republican candidates have chosen the political expediency of a few extra percentage points in the polls over principle and integrity. The irony is that while these candidates may appeal to the Republican base, it disqualifies them as viable national candidates as well as discredits the more reasonable Republican candidates by association.

In previous eras where it wasn’t politically incorrect to cast doubt and speak ill of Irish-Americans, Jews, Catholics or African-Americans, at least it was understandable that this was a young country that was going through some historical growing pains.

There is no excuse today.

[Jesuit Drew Christiansen is distinguished professor of ethics and global human development at Georgetown University. Ra’fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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