Trump comments the nadir of Republican candidates’ Islamophobic rhetoric
Washington // Donald Trump’s call for a ban on all Muslims – including US citizens – from entering the United States is just the latest and most extreme example of increasing Islamophobic rhetoric among Republican presidential candidates as they seek to win over the party’s right-wing base.
The unexpected front-runner in the Republican polls, Mr Trump has reaped immense political capital from stoking the fears of the angry and disaffected Republican grass roots that has so far refused to support establishment candidates.
A White House spokesman said Mr Trump had disqualified himself from becoming president and called on Republicans to reject him immediately.
Mr Trump began his campaign by demonising Mexican immigrants, then African-Americans, and has now turned his sights on Muslims after recent ISIL and growing domestic terrorism fears.
In recent weeks the celebrity billionaire has supported the idea of registering Muslims in a database, closing mosques and torturing terrorism suspects even if they are not guilty. Addressing a cheering crowd of supporters in North Carolina on Monday, Mr Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”.
He also cited a purported opinion poll by an anti-Muslim group, the Centre for Security Policy, that claimed to find more than half of American Muslims wanted the choice to live under Islamic law, and echoed the group’s view that Muslims represent a fifth column seeking to impose Islam. “They want to change your religion,” Mr Trump said as his supporters booed in agreement. “I don’t think so, not going to happen.”
Mr Trump’s call for the illegal ban was condemned by most of the Republican candidates. But those candidates have all reacted to Mr Trump’s popularity by competing with him over who can appear to be toughest on Muslims. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a moderate among the candidates, said last month that only Christian Syrian refugees should be permitted into the US.
The Republicans’ wielding of Islamaphobia as a campaign tool is part of a historical pattern, and reflects a negative shift in US public opinion towards Muslims as once fringe ideas have become acceptable in the mainstream.
Last month, the World Values Survey, a yearly poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that 76 per cent of Republicans believe “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life”. Fifty-six per cent of Americans overall agreed, including 43 per cent of Democrats.
These attitudes did not occur in a vacuum. Anti-Muslim organisations since the 9/11 attacks have raised hundreds of millions of dollars and had an outsized influence on public and political debates around Islam and Muslims, according to research by Christopher Bail, a sociologist at Duke University and author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organisations Became Mainstream.
State-level politicians in the south found Islam to be a useful wedge issue, and 32 states proposed bills to ban the phantom threat of Sharia.
Opposition to the construction of mosques increased by more than 800 per cent, Mr Bail found.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric at a national level has risen sharply in particular during election cycles, even more than after terrorist attacks in the US committed by Muslims.
“Election cycles produced a spike of almost 14 points among Republicans, whereas the Boston bombings didn’t change views at all,” said Dalia Mogahed, the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, at an event last month. “What it means is that a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment is not simply the organic and regrettable result of Muslims doing bad things, it’s actually manufactured for political reasons.”
But ISIL’s strategy of seeking to alienate Muslims living in the West by increasing hatred against them through deft and savage propaganda and terrorist attacks, has combined with the historical trends to produce an unprecedented backlash in the US, activists say.
“The data changes after ISIL becomes a staple of our nightly news,” Ms Mogahed said, adding that “it is feeding us almost pornographic violence almost on a nightly basis – it’s almost doing the propaganda for Islamophobes”.
“Now we have both ISIL and an election year and it’s a very scary time where more than ever we need to step back and have rational conversations injected with facts not fear,” Ms Mogahed said.
American Muslims across the country have reported an increase in assaults, insults, vandalism and threats since the Paris attacks, a trend likely to grow after the shooting rampage by ISIL supporters in California.
“We were increasing our security, updating our system, spending thousands of dollars adding more cameras, motion sensors and so on in the parking lot and in the building itself,” said Zia Sheikh, imam of the Irving Islamic Centre near Dallas, Texas. The centre was the site of armed men protesting against Sharia last month. “The reason for that are these increased hostile sentiments that we are feeling,” Mr Sheikh said.
While Mr Trump’s policy ideas are unlikely to be implemented even if he is elected, in the medium term the popularity of his rhetoric is pulling the range of acceptable political speech sharply rightward.
“That will be the lasting effect,” said Riham Osman, communications coordinator at the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington.