Will Islamophobia Give Republicans Keys to The White House?

09/22/2015 04:52 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2016
Close-up of the back of the White House.
Close-up of the back of the White House.

It's almost impossible to keep up these days with the flurry of anti-Muslim statements spewing forth from the mouths of GOP presidential candidates. Where do we even start?

Perhaps we can start with Scott Walker, who stated that there are only a "handful of reasonable, moderate followers of Islam." Or maybe with Bobby Jindal, who encouraged Muslims to speak out more against terrorism in response to a question at the GOP debate about the arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed in Texas for bringing a clock he made to school. Or with Lindsey Graham, who responded to the same question in the second-tier debate by expressing his concern that radical Islamic terrorists were busy planning another 9/11. The list of GOP candidates vying for Islamophobe-of-the-week (or year) is a long one.

But the nastiest comments by far have come from Donald Trump and Ben Carson, two candidates who appear to be going out of their way to become the nation's bigot-in-chief. Trump failed to correct a supporter in New Hampshire who asked the GOP front-runner how do we get rid of Muslims in the U.S. Trump's response was to say that he'd look into it. He later defended his position by reminding the public that it was not Sweden that attacked us on 9/11 but Muslims. In short, he invoked one of the cornerstones of Islamophobia -- guilt by association -- to tar all Muslim Americans with the terrorist brush.

Carson told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press: "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation." The reason? Islam is incompatible with the Constitution.

Given an opportunity later to apologize, Carson instead dug in and invoked the most famous tactic in the far right Islamophobia handbook: the Sharia threat! Muslims cannot become president because they cannot repudiate Sharia law. He also called Muslim Americans liars, insisting that the Shia doctrine of taqiyya enables Muslims to deceive others, presumably so that they can take over the country to impose Sharia law.

Mind you, it's doubtful Carson knows what Sharia is. Many Americans don't either. That's o.k. All you are supposed to know is that it's a scary word that is meant to keep you trembling in your boots. This is not intended as highbrow intellectual discourse on the intricacies of Islamic law, and it's certainly not intended to address an actual problem in the U.S. Our time would be better spent mediating leprechaun labor disputes or trying to reduce the unicorn population.

Trump and Carson frame their remarks as examples of their willingness to defy political correctness and to stand up for the truth. Of course, if we follow this logic, then we should also praise Stalin, Hitler, Pinochet, and Videla for their courage to stand by their convictions and to eschew political correctness. While we're at it, why don't we praise George Wallace and Bull Connor for their resolve in the face of political correctness to hold fast to their racist principles?

To understand just how far Trump and Carson have veered into the territory of bigotry and racism, imagine if we were to substitute the word "Jew" for "Muslim" in the exchanges noted above. Imagine if Trump's fan said to him: "We have a problem in this country. It's called Jews...When can we get rid of them?" Imagine if Trump responded, "We're going to be looking at that."

Imagine if Carson told Chuck Todd, "I would not advocate that we put a Jew in charge of this nation." Imagine if Carson later argued that Jews are deceitful and will do whatever it takes to impose Jewish law on this nation. Would we still be calling such comments "controversial"? Or would we call them what they really are? Bigoted!

Trump and Carson are not victims of "gotcha" questions. These are not "oops" moments. This is a calculated strategy, and therein lies the larger problem. The truth is this sort of thing works. Trump, Carson, and other GOP candidates have already decided that when the opportunity arises to take a shot at Muslims, pull the trigger! Why? Because a segment of the electorate gets riled up when GOP candidates open fire on Muslim Americans. Trump and Carson know this. So do many other GOP candidates.

Fear is a powerful galvanizing force. And there's good reason to believe that the fear of Muslims can increase one's chances of gaining political power. After all, we've been seeing this in Europe for decades. Far right, nativist parties with a strong record of anti-Muslim policies and propaganda have been making inroads in national parliaments for decades. It now appears that some GOP politicians are going to borrow the Islamophobia playbook from Europe's far right and see if it can get them into the White House.

Islamophobia is a clear GOP strategy this election cycle, but there is nothing inherently Islamophobic about the Republican Party. A majority of Muslims voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential elections. Republican candidates can make different choices and treat Muslims with dignity and respect. They can also tap into the more humane, more compassionate impulses in the party's base to encourage supporters to embrace Muslims as fellow Americans. If they choose not to do this, however, we should not laud them for their courage. We should call them out for their cowardice.