THE BLOG
11/17/2015 05:40 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2016

What's Wrong With Rubio Comparing Muslims to Members of the Nazi Party

In 2008, when I was seventeen, I opened my inbox to find a chain email message forwarded by a close family friend. Circulated around my Catholic parish community before arriving to me, the message compared the world's 1.5 billion Muslims to the "silent" Germans of the 1940s, both of whom, the email claimed, were responsible for the actions of Muslim terrorists and Nazis, respectively.

Fast forward several years later, to the 2016 presidential campaign, and we find that the same narrative about Muslims' complicity in terrorism is being peddled by candidates who could be our country's next president. During an appearance on ABC's "This Week" on November 15, Senator Marco Rubio was asked to respond to Hillary Clinton's refusal to use the phrase, "radical Islam." Here's what he said:

That would be like saying we weren't at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren't violent themselves.

This comparison of Nazi-era Germans and the majority of Muslims is one of the most persistent narratives I've encountered in the years since 9/11. I've heard it echoed countless times in the honest question, "Why don't Muslims speak out?" posed by family friends, and in the disingenuous commentary by Fox News hosts whenever a Muslim is the perpetrator of violence.

By claiming Muslims are like Nazis, both Rubio and the 2007 chain message assert a dangerous, but latent, assumption: that ordinary Muslims and groups like ISIS have the same worldview, want the same things, share something fundamental and are part of the same "party" simply because of their shared religion.

The injustice of a comparison like this comes into clear relief when we apply it to other religious groups. Do we assume Christians are part of the same camp as violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Irish Resistance Army or the anti-Balaka militias in the Central African Republic, simply because they claim the moniker of "Christian?" Similarly, do we blame all Jews for attacks carried out by settlers in the West Bank? The answer is obvious: Of course not. Do we expect them to speak out against these acts, to prove they are un-Christian or un-Jewish? Never.

Tying Muslims to ISIS also assumes that Islam, at its core, must be about violence and oppression. With no other religion do we assume that its most violent or intolerant practitioners are its most authentic representatives. Perhaps that's because we encounter Christians and Jews in our daily lives. We know countless individuals whose religions motivate them to do good, or whose religious affiliation doesn't have a large impact on the way they act at all. But a majority of Americans still don't have a personal relationship with even one Muslim, and are thus left only with the images of violent Muslims they see in the news cycle. The argument about the inherent violence of Islam reveals a lack of connection with the way ordinary Muslims view their tradition -- as a source of goodness, a fount of wisdom from which they draw motivation to serve others and work for justice and peace.

Finally, this narrative's emphasis on the complicity of a "silent majority," betrays the fact that all over the world Muslims have been emphatically denouncing groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, even when they shouldn't have to. From an online letter authored by over 100 prominent Muslim scholars to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, to the statements made by Muslim civic organizations and mosques worldwide, to the Facebook posts shared by ordinary students and parents, Muslims are "tripping over themselves" (as Jonathan Brown put it recently at the Parliament of World Religions) to distance themselves from violent entities with which they share virtually nothing but the identifier "Muslim."

Rubio's statement, just like the email I received nearly 10 years ago, shows the need for two major developments in the West. The first is broad media coverage of Muslims' condemnations of these atrocities. The Bridge Initiative, a project I work with at Georgetown University to educate the public about Islamophobia, hopes to aid in the increased exposure of these denunciations. Our forthcoming interactive resource will house the largest known list of Muslims' condemnations of ISIS. Though Muslims should not have to speak out, the persistence of this faulty narrative requires that it be addressed. Second, personal relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims must be fostered more intentionally. These everyday interactions demonstrate -- much more effectively than condemnations -- that Muslims and groups like ISIS can never be conflated.

Instead of implying connections between Muslims and ISIS in the wake of the attacks in Paris, we should focus on what is held in common by the Christian American, the non-believing European, the Muslim refugee from Syria, and most people on the planet: a desire for security and personal freedoms, meaningful work and ample family time, and a society in which justice and peace coexist.