Saad Omar Khan
The imagery in Donald Trump’s latest campaign commercial speaks for itself: a horde of people at an airport passport control line dissolving into a picture of armed terrorists in balaclavas, overlaid with the words “Temporary Ban on Muslims Entering U.S.” in bold, block letters. The imagery and tone of this commercial is hardly subtle: out of the throngs of people entering our borders, danger lurks amongst them, unmasked but far from unthreatening. Trump’s proposal to shut down all Muslim entry to the United States, extreme as it is, is just one of many hostile comments made by Republican candidates against Muslims in the run up to the 2016 presidential election. While routinely condemned by their opponents, this rhetoric has a strategic logic underneath its inflammatory surface.
Muslim-Americans are currently a negligible demographic in the Republican Party’s support base. This has not always been the case. Prior to 9/11, Republicans actively courted the Muslim vote as a “natural GOP constituency,” appealing to common values between Islam and Republican ideology, such as social conservatism and a strong emphasis on family values. The post-9/11 period moved Muslim-Americans away from the policies of the Bush administration, with studies indicating a shifting perception amongst Muslims that the administration’s war on terrorism had become a war against Islam. Where at the beginning of the Bush era prominent Republicans could claim (perhaps too boldly) that “George W. Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote,” the government’s foreign policy approach and questionable attitudes towards civil liberties pushed the Muslim vote leftwards during the 2004 and 2008 election campaigns. Muslim antipathy for the Republican Party has remained consistent. In 2011, surveys indicated support for Republicans amongst Muslims in America at only 11 per cent. Conversely, one report suggests Muslim support for Obama during the 2012 election reaching as high as 85 per cent.
Simply put, the Republican Party can afford to alienate Muslim-Americans in the 2016 election, as Muslims themselves have been alienated from the party for years. From an electoral perspective, the disadvantages of Islamophobia are minimal while the rewards are great. Fewer examples illustrate this phenomenon more than Ben Carson’s rise in popularity amongst Republican supporters after public comments made in September 2015 in which Carson openly stated he would not support a Muslim as President of the United States. While Carson’s comments were widely condemned outside of the party, praise for Carson’s position amongst supporters was evident by the spike in financial contributions given to his campaign immediately after his statement. Given that only 45 per cent of Republican voters (versus 73 per cent of Democrat supporters) are willing to vote for a Muslim president, and with research indicating Republicans view Muslims (along with atheists) unfavourably over all other religious groups, Carson’s statements certainly fell in line with a majority opinion within his party’s support base.
Other Republican candidates for the presidency have shared Trump and Carson’s Islamophobic positions, albeit with their own individual style. After the November 2015 Paris attacks, Senator Ted Cruz lambasted Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton for suggesting the United States should bring “tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees,” a humane gesture he saw as “nothing short of lunacy.” Governor Bobby Jindal, a former presidential hopeful, has warned Americans of the dangers of a Muslim “invasion.” Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has made numerous statements associating Islam with violence with little qualification, describing Muslims leaving Friday prayer as “uncorked animals” bent on destruction and criticizing churches for allowing Muslims to use their facilities, associating those Muslims with groups that see “Jesus Christ and all the people that follow him [as] a bunch of infidels who should be essentially obliterated”.
What is remarkable about the new tone in Republican politics is the degree to which association with Islam and Muslims—and not specifically jihadist violence or religious extremism—have been considered a liability and a label used to smear political opponents. Islam is presented primarily as an ideology and not a religion. Fear of Islamic law being imposed on Americans or of President Obama being a “secret Muslim” and therefore acting against American interests plays into a conservative narrative that the War on Terror is “largely [a] domestic problem” that can be fought by Americans “without having to invade any other [country].”
Positioning Islam as a menace to America has given the Republican Party a new tool in the “culture wars” that many of its supporters have wanted to fight. Republican leaders have long cast themselves as supporters of the religious right while also portraying Democrats as dismissive of Christians and traditional religious values. Ted Cruz, for example, has accused the Obama administration of marginalizing Christian refugees escaping persecution by the Islamic State (IS). Even as IS also persecutes non-Christians (such as Yazidis and Shia Muslims) on religious grounds, Cruz’s position paints Obama’s refugee policy as favouring Muslims over Christians, and thus supports the narrative that Democrats have essentially abandoned American values to foreign cultural elements. Given that many self-identified evangelical Christians—a demographic vital for Republican electoral success—disagree with the notion that Christianity and Islam share similar values, Cruz’s tactics are as politically pragmatic as they are crudely incendiary.
This is not a trend unique to the United States. Commentators have argued that Stephen Harper’s anti-niqab campaign and promotion of a “tip line” for citizens to report the presence of “barbaric cultural practices” during the 2015 election was a veiled way of pandering to anti-Muslim sentiment in Canada, even if the strategy ultimately hindered Harper’s re-election campaign. France’s anti-immigrant National Front party gained considerable support during regional elections in December 2015 only weeks after November’s terrorist attacks in Paris; the National Front took the lead in six of France’s thirteen regions. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gained considerable domestic support for his anti-refugee stance, stating that Hungarians have “a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.”
Regardless of the political strategy involved, and putting aside whether politicians genuinely believe in their rhetoric, it is not too hyperbolic a statement to say that this xenophobic trend is a sign that politics in the West have devolved in recent years. Racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in immigration policies—generally acceptable in the United States, Canada, and other immigrant-receiving Western democracies for decades—changed in the latter half of the twentieth century as human rights and anti-racist values seeped into the political discourse. For politicians to openly revive out-dated political values is troubling. One should be even more troubled, however, by the gains with which politicians have garnered when using the language of exclusion as part of their respective platforms. Liberal voices criticizing this trend must also realize that fear and mistrust of a monolithic Muslim “other” in an age of seemingly ceaseless religiously-inspired violence strikes a chord with many citizens in many nations. While Islamophobic rhetoric may not necessarily grant political support by itself, it is an unfortunate and disturbing strategy politicians are using without nuance and reservation and with little harm to their popularity.
Saad Omar Khan is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. Saad has worked in the non-profit, financial, and academic sectors. His policy interests include international relations, human rights, immigration, and cultural policy.