Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Muslims still face challenges in the United States

Muslim Americans have a lot to work with when declaring their stake in America, as other communities have done before them, writes HA Hellyer
Ahmed Mohamed was arrested after a homemade clock he brought to his Texas school was mistaken for a bomb. LM Otero / AP Photo
Ahmed Mohamed was arrested after a homemade clock he brought to his Texas school was mistaken for a bomb. LM Otero / AP Photo

Ben Carson, one of the Republican contenders for next year’s United States presidential election, declared this week: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

Mr Carson’s statement is prejudiced, certainly, but it is helpful that he made it. For years, anti-Muslim sentiment in the US has been on the rise, and it has far too often been denied. The question is what to do about it.

Mr Carson’s statement is not in keeping with the majority of Americans. In a Gallup poll, 60 per cent of Americans declared they would be prepared to vote for a Muslim as president – the number rose to 73 per cent if the voter was a member of the Democratic Party. While those numbers are encouraging, it is also worrying when the flip side is considered. Forty per cent of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a Muslim – more than half of Republicans said the same.

The trend of anti-Muslim sentiment is concerning, and it is not limited to Mr Carson’s declaration, which is all the more peculiar considering the explicit ban on any “religious test” in Article 6 of the American Constitution. Recently, at a rally for another Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, an audience members said: “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims.” The man went on to warn about Muslim-American “training camps” and insisted that the current US president, Barack Obama, is Muslim. Mr Trump’s response was: “We're going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”

In a more personalised example of anti-Muslim sentiment, a young American student of Sudanese background at a school in Texas was detained by police and placed in handcuffs. Ahmed Mohammed had devised a clock and brought it to school to show his peers and teacher. His teacher congratulated him on the work, advised him to pack it away and that ought to have been the end of that story. Instead, it ended with the 14-year-old being detained by the police and put in handcuffs. 

But that was not quite the end of the story. Nor was Mr Trump’s lacklustre response to the questioner at his rally. In response to Ahmed’s ordeal, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, spoke up in his defence and invited him to his headquarters; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ahmad’s dream school, asked him to tour its campus; and Mr Obama praised Ahmed’ s initiative and invited him to the White House. 

When it came to Mr Trump, public figures, including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, spoke out against his failure to face down the bigotry of the questioner at the rally. If it is appalling that anti­-Muslim sentiment is so widespread in the US, it is encouraging that opposition to it is more widespread. 

That, however, ought not to be taken for granted. Societies operate as much on social capital as they do on law. While the law may formally oppose bigotry, that’s not to say that bigotry won’t have effects on society through other means.

Mr Carson’s comments were not illegal; he did not break any law in expressing his point of view. However, the use of his political platform in this fashion adds to the broader pressure that Muslim-American communities feel in the US. That pressure defines the environment in which the arrest of Ahmed Mohammed took place – and where many other instances of bigotry have affected the lives of Muslim Americans. That includes, for example, the case of Robert Doggart, who was recently arrested for planning a violent attack against Muslim-Americans in New York.

There will be those who will attempt to claim that individuals like Mr Carson or Mr Trump are fringe figures, and thus concerns around Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment are misplaced. It would be irresponsible to minimise such concerns in that fashion. These two figures are potential presidential candidates for one of the two major political parties – and rather than standing up for the rights of all Americans, they are tacking to the most base instincts of the right-wing. That normalises bigotry in public discourse – and that has potentially disastrous consequences.

There is, nevertheless, a positive experience to be gleaned from this. People from across the spectrum have correctly pilloried such anti-Muslim sentiment and a great deal of that is probably due to the social capital that Muslim Americans have built up in the US over many years.

The amount of effort expended by the American Muslim community in contributing to society at large can always be increased, as with all communities. But most Americans view the Muslims among them as a part of the US – and that has come through clearly in the past few weeks.

There is much to be done, but Muslim Americans have a lot to work with when declaring their stake in America, as other communities have done before them. Challenges aside, that’s something that they can be grateful for.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow in international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer