“Are they going to kill us?” asked Ibrahim Noureldin’s son, a 7-year-old student at Selden’s Landing Elementary School in Leesburg, Virginia. He was watching GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson on “Meet the Press.” Sitting by his father, the boy heard Carson say, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” Born in the United States, the boy could not understand why a man on television would say that.
Of course, Carson is not the only Republican candidate capitalizing on popularity born of Islamophobia. Before him was Donald Trump, who was confronted with a follower at a town hall meeting in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Sept. 17 who said, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. You know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.” Trump, otherwise so bursting with bluster, did not bother to chastise the man, saying instead, “We’re going to be looking at that.”
The measure of who can malign Muslims the most appears to have become a presidential qualification among Republican contenders. A CNN/ORC poll conducted Sept. 17 through 19 shows that after the GOP candidates’ debate that week, Trump lost 8 percentage points from his August lead and Carson fell from 19 percent to 14 percent. Their Islamophobic comments and omissions have once again catapulted them into the media limelight they crave. Smug at the success of their strategy, their staffers are hogging the airwaves, reiterating the rightness of maligning Muslims, once again holding American Muslims responsible for 9/11 and for any and every crime any Muslim anywhere may have committed. There are data to support this strategy. In the crucial primary state of Iowa, only 49 percent of Republicans think that Islam should even be legal in the United States, and 77 percent agree with Trump’s assertion that President Barack Obama is waging a war on Christianity, according to Public Policy Polling.
Sadly, the premise that being Muslim is a valid basis for questioning a candidate’s qualification for office is not new, even among Democrats. In 2008 in the heady days of Obama’s first presidential campaign, I signed up to canvass for him. A campaign organizer gave a pep talk to all the volunteers and went over the talking points the campaign was using. Then, just when everyone was about to get going, she added something that was not in the script printout we were all given. “Remember to emphasize the fact that Barack Obama is not a Muslim,” she said. As a Muslim, this exhortation stung, and — stunned — I canvassed still and listened to my partner following instructions and saying, “Vote for Obama” and “Obama is not Muslim.”
Like many other American Muslims, I hoped that after Obama was elected, things would change. An African-American president with a diverse lineage would, we imagined, lead the United States to a less prejudiced future. In the run-up to the 2016 primary season, I have been proved wrong. The media coverage after Carson’s and Trump’s statements reveals why. Just as in the early days of Obama’s 2008 campaign, when he was first being accused of being a Muslim, media outlets remain focused on expiating him of being Muslim rather than taking on the core issue of whether being Muslim is bad.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most ideologically distant from the Carson and Trump camps, has also disappointed on Islamophobia. Asked about Trump’s statement, she dished out this specimen of empty vehemence: “He knew or he should have known that what that man was asking was not only way out of bounds, it was untrue.” she said. “He should have, from the beginning, repudiated that kind of rhetoric, that level of hatefulness.” What hatefulness, which bounds and what exactly was untrue she cleverly leaves up to the listener to figure out. Most American listeners, as used to Islamophobia as they are to smartphones, will miss the denunciation, if one is present at all. Clever as always, she sounds strong while ensuring that the Islamophobes in her own ranks feel no discomfort, no call to excise prejudice from their Democratic hearts. Not a single presidential contender, Clinton included, is ready to say what millions of American Muslims are eager to hear — that Muslims are not a problem and that being called a Muslim is not a slur.
On the Monday after Carson made his statement regarding Muslims and the presidency, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, held a press conference. Nihad Awad, its executive director, emphasized the words of Article VI of the Constitution, which says clearly that “no religious test” is required to contest public office in America. He asked Carson to apologize to American Muslims or withdraw his candidacy, in light of his overt opposition to the Constitution.
Neither, of course, is likely to happen; Carson’s campaign, so neglected in past weeks, is enjoying the glow of media attention, and Trump staffers are eager to remain under the cloud of controversy that has fueled his rise. However, the CAIR press conference and its overt demand for an apology indicate a more aggressive tone by Muslim American rights organizations than before. In the paranoid post-9/11 era, American Muslim groups have been fast and eager with denunciations, issuing them on the tracks of any and every act of terrorism or crime committed by any Muslim anywhere. However, instead of absolving American Muslims as a group from responsibility for these acts, they have instead achieved the opposite. Since 9/11, the percentage of Americans who have a favorable view of Muslims has fallen from 47 percent to 27 percent. An April poll conducted by the Huffington Post found that 55 percent of Americans surveyed said they have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of Muslims.
While American Muslims have been apologizing for crimes to which they have no connection, an Islamophobic Republican Party has made hating them a cornerstone of its definition of patriotism, an accompaniment to its broader nativism. Candidates may get called out for not defending the president, but castigating American Muslims is entirely acceptable. To end the cycle, Muslim groups such as CAIR should no longer issue denunciations of grotesque acts of terrorism and focus instead on calling out the bigotry of American politicians.
Ibrahim Noureldin’s son later told his father that he did not want to be president at all. On the Monday after Carson’s statement, he refused to go to school. Noureldin found it hard to convince him otherwise. It was only one week after Texas high schooler Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for taking a clock to school; it is difficult to blame the boy for his reticence. Ahmed after all, is still being called a terrorist by some Republicans. With those aspiring to the highest political office in the United States being so brazenly bigoted, American Muslim children may be right in being fearful, in knowing that the American commitment to equality and fairness applies to everyone except them.