I’m careful not to overuse the word “phobia.” In the current culture wars, we too readily “phobiaize” the views of our political opponents. But what the Republican party displayed in Cleveland was textbook phobia: an irrational fear disproportionate to the threat.
As a Christian who served in the Bush and Obama administrations, I watched in dismay.
Numerous convention speakers last week, from a former mayor to a former underwear model, stoked the crowd with excessive fears of “radical Islam” and “Islamic terrorists,” while ignoring many more pressing threats to Americans’ safety.
Commenting on the convention, comedian Trevor Noah quipped that the event’s theme should have been “Make America Fear Again.” If the goal of terrorism is to stoke fear and fuel animosity, then Trump’s party is extending the impact of ISIS.
A willingness to use the phrase “radical Islam” has become a badge of honor and a test of orthodoxy among many Republicans. In his convention remarks, Rep. Michael McCaul said, “Let’s cut through the suffocating political correctness and call the threat what it really is — the enemy is radical Islam.” McCaul also dismissed welcoming Syrian refugees — those fleeing the enemy — as a “dangerous liberal agenda.”
To their credit, some speakers, including Rudy Giuliani, did try to distinguish between terrorists and ordinary non-violent Muslims. But the very term “radical Islam” impugns the faith of all 1.6 billion Muslims and it grants religious legitimacy to those who do use Islam to justify terrorism.
How would Christians feel if Muslims insisted on calling Ku Klux Klan members “radical Christians?”
Emile Nakhleh, a senior Islam expert at the CIA during the Bush administration, recently praised President Obama for avoiding using “radical Islam.” Nakhleh said, “To Muslims, or for anyone familiar with the many strands of Islam, the phrase connotes a direct link between the mainstream of the Muslim faith and the violent acts of a few.”
That connotation is obvious to anyone watching the Trump campaign. As Nakhleh observed, “Trump appears to be recklessly pandering to the uninformed part of the American electorate that does believe in such a connection between the mainstream and the fringe.”
In his convention speech, vice presidential nominee Mike Pence promised, “Donald Trump will confront radical Islamic terrorism at its source and destroy the enemies of our freedom.”
But that begs the question, what’s the “source” of this terrorism that Trump plans to confront? For many Republicans, the answer seems not to be a complex web of socio-economic and geo-political grievances, but simply Islam itself.
That was certainly the message from far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, one of Europe’s most notorious Islamophobes. Speaking at a side event connected to the convention last week, Wilders traced a direct line from Muslim immigration to terrorism.
“Islam is the problem,” he said, according to Salon. Wilders decried how Europe is “collapsing” and turning into “Eurabia” thanks to its growing Muslim population. “I don’t want more Muslims in the Netherlands and I am proud to say that.” He implored Americans not to “allow Islam to be planted in your soil.”
It’s telling that Wilders came to Cleveland to show his support for Trump, as the invited guest of Tennessee state senator Bill Ketron. When asked about Wilders, Ketron said “The only reason he is controversial is that he speaks his mind … and I agree with his philosophy.” That philosophy has rightly been described as xenophobic and neo-fascist, and it deserves no airtime in American politics.
Sadly, inside the convention center, when a Pakistani-American leader took the stage to offer a Muslim prayer (a very non-sectarian but highly partisan prayer asking God to provide a president who will “make America great again”), one delegate on the convention floor repeatedly yelled “No Islam!”
Convention speaker and former soap opera actor Antonio Sabato Jr. told ABC News that he was “absolutely” sure Obama is a Muslim. All evidence to the contrary, Sabato claimed “We had a Muslim president for seven and half years.”
It was not long ago that George W. Bush won the Muslim vote in 2000. Throughout his presidency Bush went out of his way to express respect for Islam and to tamp down the swell of anti-Muslim sentiment after the September 11 attacks.
But the election of Barack Hussein Obama — a black man with an Arabic name and a natural rapport with Muslims — unleashed that swell of Islamophobia on the right. Even though Obama has used many of the same lines as Bush — for instance, “We are not at war with Islam” and “Islam is a religion of peace” — too many Republicans have ignored the calls for respect.
Enter Trump, stage (far) right. From registering American Muslims to banning foreign Muslims, rejecting refugees, reviving waterboarding, and implying Obama is an ISIS sympathizer, Trump’s campaign been littered with anti-Muslim pronouncements and policy proposals. And the crowds at his rallies have cheered each new inane, hateful idea. Trump has turned prejudice into an applause line.
The Republican party, in its treatment of Muslims, has lost its mind: An overwhelming amount of research shows that Muslim faith typically has very little to do with the underlying motivations for terrorism. The 2016 Republican platform champions national security, but alienating and antagonizing devout Muslims — those best situated to discredit extremist narratives — runs directly counter to America’s security interests.
And in its treatment of Muslims, the GOP has lost its soul: The Islamophobia at the Cleveland convention was a betrayal of the “Judeo-Christian heritage” touted in the GOP Platform. At the heart of Judaism and Christianity — and Islam — is the command to love God and love neighbor. For Christians, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan makes it abundantly clear that our neighbors include those who are ethnically and religiously different.
In contemporary America, Muslims are the new Samaritans.
One need only look to the Bible — which Trump claims as his favorite book — to know how our forefathers would tell us to treat the Samaritans among us. And it wasn’t what we saw in Cleveland.
Judd Birdsall is the managing director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies at Clare College, Cambridge. A former U.S. diplomat, Birdsall served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. He is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs.