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Muslim Americans: Current political climate worse than after 9/11

anti-Muslim sentiment in U.S.A. CTN _00012326
anti-Muslim sentiment in U.S.A. CTN _00012326

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Story highlights

  • Many Muslims and Arab-Americans are worried about the tenor of comments made by presidential candidates after the Paris attacks
  • Some presidential candidates, however, are trying to turn down the heat

(CNN)It was never this bad, not even after 9/11.

That's what many Muslims and Arab-Americans are saying about the tenor of comments made by presidential candidates on down to local officials about how to treat members of their community in the wake of ISIS' rampage in Paris last Friday.
    Over the past week, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump said he would consider compelling Muslims to register in "databases" and that some mosques might be shut; fellow Republican candidate Ben Carson compared some Syrian refugees to "rabid dogs," and Democrat David Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, evoked the internment of Japanese in WWII to explain his anti-refugee policy.
    "We are operating in an atmosphere of hysteria and fear," said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American Islamic Relations. "I have never seen it like this, not even after 9/11."
    Muslim and civil rights activists attribute the charged environment not only to the horrific attacks in France and 14 grinding years of the war on terror at home and abroad. They also blame it on the fact that the latest attacks come during a political campaign that dovetails with years of strife and inflammatory rhetoric on the immigration issue.
    Today, with no one to unite the Republican Party and put a lid on its more outspoken elements, the loudest, and in some cases ugliest, voices are at times prevailing.
    "The sense we get now is that it's not only worse for Arabs and Muslims," said Abed Ayoub, national policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "The sense we get now is that it's worse for all immigrant and brown communities as a whole."
    Ayoub said the current climate stands in stark contrast to the broad political reaction that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks, in which terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. At that time, Republican President George W. Bush endeavored to tamp down anti-Muslim sentiment.
    Six days after the Twin Towers fell, Bush spoke at the Islamic Center, a famous mosque and Islamic cultural hub in Washington, in defense of American Muslims and Islam.
    "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," he said. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war."
    "If George W. Bush was running today and saying the things he said about Muslims, he would be an outcast in the Republican Party," Ayoub said with a half chuckle. "To his credit, he struck the right tone when speaking about this issue."
    His brother, Jeb, however, is running in this cycle and has spoken against some of Trump's rhetoric.
    But it's not enough to quiet some civil rights advocates' concerns.
    "The anti-Muslim situation right now is so much hotter, in fact, than it was after 9/11 that it's a little bit astounding," said Heidie Beidrich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which studies and reports on extremist groups.
    "We've never seen so many politicians making such outrageous Islamophobic comments both as concerns refugees who are coming here as well as just Muslims in general," Beidrich said. "Some of the things, for example, that Donald Trump is talking about, (like) registering Muslim Americans, are just shocking and ignorant and certainly not what the United States is about."
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    Hooper cited Trump and Carson as the candidates who set the tone and "started the bandwagon." Trump launched his campaign with a speech that at one point described Mexicans criminals and "rapists" and quickly shot to the top of the polls, with competitors looking to emulate his success.
    But Hooper also faults Democrats, like the 47 who voted in favor of a GOP bill in the House Thursday that would effectively halt refugee arrivals from Syria and other Islamic nations.
    House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the measure as "urgent" given that "our national security is at stake," telling reporters that "law enforcement top officials came to Congress and testified that there are gaps in this refugee program."
    California Rep. Mike Honda, for his part, lambasted fellow Democrat Bowers, the Roanoke mayor, for his comments on internment.
    In a statement explaining why would not help resettle refugees, Bowers cited President Franklin Roosevelt, whom he said, "felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor."
    The internment camps also housed American citizens, and Honda was one of them. His family was moved from his home on the California coast to Colorado, where they remained until 1945.
    In discussing that experience with CNN, Honda said it is important to consider the context of that moment -- and see the parallels with the current debate. The internment, he suggested, was simply the next logical step after "20 years of Yellow Journalism" and "newspapers that called (the Japanese) the 'yellow peril.'"
    "But in the meantime," he recalled, "Japanese-American youth were growing up like Americans, with the idea they had protection of the Constitution, they have all the rights and privileges. Then when Pearl Harbor happened, everything went to hell in a hand basket."
    A scathing congressional report written four decades after the war called the camps, which incarcerated more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent, a product of "racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership." President Ronald Reagan formally apologized and signed a law that paid out $20,000 to each of the living survivors.
    Bowers has refused calls for his resignation but on Friday offered a "genuine and heartfelt apology" for "this incident."
    Honda believes the ongoing presidential campaign is acting as an accelerant on a fire that has been growing throughout this political season.
    "We have politicians talking about internment camps, but when we talk about comprehensive immigration reform, we have people running for office based on the fact they want to put illegal or undocumented folks into camps," he said.
    Some presidential candidates, however, are trying to turn down the heat.
    Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton quickly cast aside Bowers, who had been a member of her campaign's state leadership council.
    Jeb Bush, the younger brother of President George W. Bush, also spoke out against Trump's recently professed openness to identifying and tracking American Muslims during an interview on Friday morning.
    The terrorist threat, he told CNBC, does not "mean we should be disrespectful of Muslims in our country or anything like that," Bush said. "In fact, I find it abhorrent that Donald Trump is suggesting we register people."
    The comments came after Bush earlier in the week said Syrian Christians and orphans should get priority in attaining refugee status.
    "There are no Christian terrorists in the Middle East. they're persecuted," he said. Asked by ABC News how he could tell the difference between a Christian and a Muslim, Bush said, "I mean you can prove you're a Christian."
    Texas Sen. Ted Cruz went a step further, proposing that non-Christians from the region be denied refugee status entirely.
    But on Friday he made a rare break with Trump on the billionaire's call to register Muslims, telling reporters, "I'm a big fan of Donald Trump's, but I'm not a fan of government registries of American citizens."
    Beyond how Muslims in America feel in the current environment, Hooper warned that the harsh rhetoric also harms the broader society.
    He argued that it plays into the hands of the ISIS-connected terrorists who claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.
    "They say 'we want to polarize the West and force Muslims in the West to choose between leaving their faith and (joining) us,'" he said. "We (Muslims) feel like we're out there on our own and we're not getting any help."