Priming the Pump: The Dangerous Political Environment
Dangerous political rhetoric combined with deeply negative views of Islam and Muslims throughout 2016. This brew, mixed with the erroneous placement of collective blame on every individual Muslim for the acts of a noxious few, contributed to a significant and distressing rise in incidents of Islamophobic bias.
CAIR first reported on the emergence of more violent Islamophobic activity in the United States in August 2015. At the time, CAIR noted how anti-Islam acts targeting mosques had shifted from efforts to block expansion or construction, to more direct destruction and vandalism.
The tone public figures adopt can either incite or defuse the social environment. For instance, former President George W. Bush’s speech at a Washington, DC mosque is often cited as playing a key role in defusing anti-Muslim backlash following the 9/11 terror attacks.
A publication produced by a United States Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide Fellow notes that dangerous speech includes, “both speech that qualifies as incitement and speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning its audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group.” The publication’s author adds, “Dangerous speech often dehumanizes the group it targets (e.g. by calling its members rats, dogs or lice), accuses the target group of planning to harm the audience, and presents the target group’s existence as a dire threat to the audience.”
Thus, the central issue is not with speech targeting deviant groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or their ideological affiliates. Rather, it is about language that targets all Muslims, insidiously conditioning the public consciousness to accept that extreme, even extrajudicial, measures against all Muslims are reasonable, justified acts of self-defense.
Toxic Political Rhetoric and the President-Elect of the United States
When Donald Trump became President of the United States on January 20, 2017, he brought an unprecedented record of conditioning audiences to fear Muslims. Trump has stated that he believes “Islam hates us,” and alleges that there is “no real assimilation” by US Muslims, both of which ideas have been thoroughly disproven by independent sources. Trump has also said he would “certainly implement” a database and special identification cards for American Muslims.
After a tragic massacre in Orlando, Trump also falsely alleged that American Muslims do not report “bad” people to law enforcement, saying “They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad. … But you know what? They didn’t turn them in. And you know what? We had death and destruction.” A Muslim had previously reported the Orlando shooter to the FBI.
The director of the FBI, James Comey, countered Trump’s false claim and stated, “[Muslims] do not want people committing violence, either in their community or in the name of their faith, and so some of our most productive relationships are with people who see things and tell us things who happen to be Muslim.” Comey’s words are further reinforced by statements from former FBI Director Mueller, Former Attorney General Holder, and Former National Counterterrorism Center Director Leiter.
Trump’s dangerous proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is another prime example of broad-brush smears. In addition to fitting into President-elect Trump’s pattern of deploying dark stereotypes of Muslims, there are three key points to know about the proposal:
It was not spontaneous. After it was publicized, the Washington Post reported that the campaign was in fact ready to announce the ban by Dec. 2, but, “For symbolic impact, the campaign decided to wait to announce the proposed policy on Dec. 7, National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.” This was not an off-the-cuff moment, but a planned use of Islamophobia and bigotry to advance a political goal.
He cited a debunked poll commissioned by a key Islamophobic group in the press release announcing the policy proposal. The debunked Center for Security Policy poll cited in the Trump announcement used a defective surveying method that is “rejected by the body that sets ethical standards for polling.” The poll itself was conducted by a polling company led by Kellyanne Conway, who later became Trump’s campaign manager. This connection highlights the troubling fact that key components of the U.S. Islamophobia Network have access to the Oval Office.
Religion is a protected characteristic under the US Constitution. Government targeting of individuals based on their choice of faith is prohibited under U.S. law. Similarly, government intrusion into religious affairs, such as the interpretation of Islamic religious principles, is strictly prohibited by the First Amendment. As an attorney for the Bible Colleges Association argued, “I don’t think the state has the competence to decide what is Sharia law.”
Toxic Speech During the Presidential Election Cycle
Other candidates for the U.S. presidency also contributed to an anti-Muslim narrative. In early 2015, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal adopted the discredited claim that Muslims in Europe had established so-called “no-go” zones which people of other faiths and the police were not allowed to enter. Prior to this, Fox News was forced to apologize several times for a similar “no-go” zone claim made by self-proclaimed terrorism “expert” Steven Emerson. In response to Emerson’s claim, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “Frankly I choked on my porridge and thought it must be April’s Fools Day. This guy is clearly a complete idiot.”
In late 2015, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) falsely claimed on Des Moines television station KCCI’s “Close Up” program that the U.S. Constitution does not equally protect the religious liberties of Islam as it does Christianity, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker declared that there are only a “handful of reasonable, moderate followers of Islam.”
On the Mark Levin show in January 2016, Ben Carson repeated the discredited conspiracy theory of “civilizational jihad,” a fantastical plan about a Muslim plot to take over America. In a February interview with Breitbart, Carson said Muslims could embrace American democracy “only if they’re schizophrenic” adding, “I don’t see how they can do it otherwise, because they have two different philosophies boring at you [that contradict each other]. That would be very difficult.” Carson has also said that Islam is not consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and that he would not vote for a Muslim President. Even after it was pointed out that Article VI of the Constitution prohibits such religious tests for public office, Carson refused to alter his stance.
In March, following a terror attack in Brussels, Belgium, Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign issued a statement calling for the United States to “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, Cruz invoked the discredited claim that Muslims in Europe have set up so-called no-go zones. Titled, “Ted Cruz Replies to Bill Bratton on NYPD’s Demographics Unit and the Fight Against Jihadist Terrorism,” the op-ed was written in part to defend Cruz’s unconstitutional call for law-enforcement to patrol so-called “Muslim neighborhoods.”
Dangerous Speech from Elected Officials
Although presidential candidates may be the most publicly visible politicians, they were unfortunately not alone in engaging in the dehumanization of Muslims. The list below represents a brief sampling of Islamophobic rhetoric collected by CAIR and other institutions in 2016:
Alabama State Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) falsely claimed that Muslims “wait for every opportunity to convert Americans to Islam or kill the infidels — that is what their holy book the Koran instructs them to do.”
In a legislative hearing in Hawaii, Thomas Friel, chief of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, implied that the agency’s law enforcement officers needed semi-automatic weapons “because people working as fishermen, specifically workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, may be Muslim.”
State Rep. Ken Weyler (R-Rockingham) argued that giving public assistance to Muslims amounts to treason in his testimony to a state House committee hearing on a bill he co-sponsored. In testimony supporting his bill, Weyler said, “Giving public benefits to any person or family that practices Islam is aiding and abetting the enemy.”
Tennessee State Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mount Juliet) handed out DVDs of a paranoid, anti-Muslim film called “America’s Mosques Exposed! Video Evidence They Are War Factories” to her colleagues in the General Assembly.
Fredy Burgos, a member of Virginia’s Republican State Central Committee, posted a series of anti-Muslim tweets, in which he said that Islam is a “death cult organized by Satan.”
Viewed in the context of the Holocaust Museum’s observations on dangerous speech, this trend and method of targeting all Muslims is chilling.
Negative Public Perception of Islam and Muslims
In its 2015 review of two decades of polling American’s views of Islam and Muslims, the Georgetown Bridge Initiative reported that “In the decade after 9/11, Americans’ self-reported knowledge of Islam increased, but in 2010, a majority still felt uninformed about the religion. After 9/11 Americans had favorable views of Islam, but by the middle of the Iraq War their views had flipped, with more expressing negative views than positive ones.
American opinion in 2016 gives credence to the impression that Americans may be receptive to viewing un-Constitutional measures against Muslims as reasonable and justified.
In August, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that “seven out of ten Texas Republicans” strongly favor Muslims being subjected to “more scrutiny than people in other religious groups.”
An April Rasmussen Reports survey found that “67% of Likely Republican Voters” supported Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from “entering the United States until the federal government improves its ability to screen out potential terrorists from coming here.”
According to Morning Consult, in March, 84 percent of U.S. voters supported “a temporary ban on Muslims traveling to the United States,” and 49 percent supported “additional law enforcement patrols of Muslim neighborhoods.”
In July, Reuters found that “78 percent of Trump supporters and 36 percent of Clinton supporters” believe that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage acts of terrorism.
A survey of teachers conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that “two-thirds” of teachers reported that “students—mainly immigrants, children of immigrants and Muslims—have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election” and also “more than half have seen an increase in uncivil political discourse.”
All of the above examples serve to shape an argument that dangerous political rhetoric, negative views of Islam and Muslims, and the pattern of holding all Muslims individually responsibility for the acts of a noxious few contributed to a rise in incidents of Islamophobic bias in 2016.
Opposing the Trend
Although this report is focused on issues which cause concern on the civil liberties front in the United States, several jurisdictions deserve credit for countering the Islamophobia trend:
In January, Albany County, N.Y., passed a resolution resolving that the community would “stand firmly with our Muslim neighbors against Islamophobia in all its manifestations.”
In July, the city council of Peoria, Ill. resolved “that fear will not divide us; that we recognize that the threats posed by Islamophobia to our American values of religious freedom and cultural diversity are threats against our very way of life in both the City of Peoria and the United States.”
Also in July, commissioners of Lake Worth City, Fla. passed a resolution supporting the local Muslim community.
Calling Islamophobia the latest “hazing” technique across the United States, the City of Fresno, Calif. passed a resolution in August applauding “the efforts of local Muslim organizations helping educate our community to alleviate bullying and ignorance.”
In September, the board of supervisors of Sonoma County, Calif. passed a resolution declared and resolved that the region will be “Islamophobia-free.”
Building strong communities which will actively oppose biased speech and policy is crucial. State, local, and other jurisdictions should pass resolutions similar to the ones cited in the “Opposing the Trend” section above.
Media and non-governmental organizations should call attention to and push back against efforts to Otherize minorities.
Historically, some governments have used mass arrests and the surveillance of law-abiding people to assert autocratic control over their nations. Speech vilifying minorities often accompanies and is used to justify such efforts. Americans should be wary of any overbroad expansion of government power.