THE BLOG

Politics and Prejudice: Countering Islamophobia in the 2016 Presidential Race

06/05/2015 05:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

If the last two elections are any indication, candidates in the 2016 presidential race may be tempted to engage in Muslim-bashing - playing off national security anxieties and fostering racial and religious animus - to win the vote. But anti-Muslim bigotry comes at a high cost to American Muslims, to America's international stature, and increasingly, to the political careers of those who fuel it.

It was not long ago that American Muslim children watched leaders "accuse" President Obama of being a Muslim, as if there is something inherently wrong with the world's second largest religion or its 1.5 billion adherents.

Since then, a number of U.S. elected officials continue to contribute to the prevailing climate of intolerance and discrimination confronting American Muslims.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, a South Carolina lawmaker took up an anti-Islam bill in his local legislature, part of a larger trend across our nation. In April, an Idaho GOP newsletter included an article, "Islam in Idaho." It warned that Muslims are "infiltrating" the state and depicted the group as "ready to rise up and kill" non-Muslims. Just one month earlier, a local lawmaker in Maine posted a Facebook comment implying that President Obama's relatives, some of whom happen to be Muslim, are ISIS members and supporters.

Tragically, in the post 9/11 era, Islamophobia has become a defining feature of American politics.

Still, those entering the 2016 race would do well to reflect upon the demise of bigoted colleagues who engaged in such irresponsible political gamesmanship. Increasingly, Americans are rejecting such antics.

Consider, for instance, Congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL). Several years ago, in August 2012, the Tea Party favorite delivered the following remarks at a town hall meeting:

"One thing I'm sure of is that there are people in this
country - there is a radical strain of Islam in this
country -- it's not just over there -- trying to kill
Americans every week. It is a real threat, and it is a
threat that is much more at home now than it was
after 9/11...It's here. It's in Elk Grove. It's in
Addison. It's in Elgin. It's here..."

Walsh's fear-mongering tactics came at great cost to his district. Mere days later, violence erupted . First, someone fired shots at a Morton Grove mosque while approximately 500 people were inside. Then, an acid bomb was thrown into an occupied Muslim private school. Next, a Muslim cemetery was vandalized with racial epithets and insults against the Prophet Muhammad. Local American Muslims demanded an apology to no avail.

Ultimately, Walsh lost his seat but not without some valuable lessons learned for those treading similar waters.

First, draw a distinction between legally permissible speech and rhetoric which is socially responsible.

While I reject bigotry, I value freedom of speech. Indeed, only through the doctrine of counter speech - responding to "bad speech" with "good speech" - will we create taboos around Islamophobic discourse similar to those that exist for other minority groups.

Significantly, voters countered Walsh's "bad speech" on Election Day.

Second, vitriolic political rhetoric has adverse consequences, including measurable harmful outcomes for law-abiding American Muslims in the world's leading democracy.

More than a decade after 9/11, American Muslims continue to suffer employment discrimination, bias-based bullying and hate crimes.

According to 2013 research from Carnegie Mellon, for instance, those who are conspicuously Muslim on Facebook and LinkedIn are less likely to receive an interview than Christian counterparts with identical credentials. Similarly, University of Hawaii researchers found that that observing hijab compromises one's employment prospects.

Muslim youth suffer from bias-based bullying in schools. A 2013 CAIR study found that one half of California Muslim students have been bullied, while Rider University research concludes that students with a strong Muslim identity are more likely to have been lied about and threatened by peers.

American Muslims are also victimized by hate crimes, from physical assaults to mosque arsons. Interestingly, the FBI has attributed such violence to "Islam-bashing" and "anti-Muslim propagandizing."

The third and final lesson is straightforward: Walsh lost.

The economy is the most significant election issue today. Supporting anti-Islam legislation isn't going to help create jobs or encourage consumer spending. Stoking fears about minority groups isn't going to help Americans pay their bills. And, neither is bashing Islam or its adherents.

This election season perhaps we should all reflect upon the political tragedy known as former Rep. Joe Walsh.

Engy Abdelkader is a legal fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.