Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbottabad.”
Despite America's long history of religious tolerance, two of leading GOP candidates stigmatize Muslims
Bergen: Candidates are appealing to a minority who believe in conspiracy theories
Two of the leading Republican candidates for the party’s nomination to be president seem unaware that the republic they seek to lead is, at its very core, a nation founded on the principle of religious tolerance.
On Sunday, Dr. Ben Carson said on “Meet the Press” that he would not support a Muslim as U.S. president, saying, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” He also opined that Islam is not compatible with the Constitution.
This would have come as a surprise to Thomas Jefferson.
There have been Muslims in the United States since the Colonial era, and their right to practice their faith has been enshrined since 1786, with the passage of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. Jefferson, the law’s principal author, wrote that it was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan (Muslim), the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
This act became the basis for the First Amendment protections of freedom of religion.
Carson’s comments came after Donald Trump did not push back when a questioner at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last week called Muslims in the United States a “problem.”
Not a surprise
The fact that two of the leading Republican candidates are comfortable with such views should not be surprising.
In a 2012 poll by the Arab American Institute, about 60% of Republicans had negative views of Muslim Americans. (Indeed, Muslim Americans polled less favorably than Americans of every other faith, among respondents of all political persuasions.)
These negative views about Muslims have been fueled by a virulent minority on the right that has been pushing the claim for the past several years that President Obama is seeking to populate his administration with members of the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a secret plan to bring Sharia law to the United States.
Former Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney published a pamphlet titled “The Muslim Brotherhood in the Obama Administration”; former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy offered “How Obama Embraces Islam’s Sharia Agenda”; the author Robert Spencer wrote the book “Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs” and journalist Paul Sperry added “Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives have Penetrated Washington.”
These views are ironic given that, as commander in chief, Obama presided over or launched more military operations in Muslim countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – than any president who had preceded him.
The most conservative estimate of drone strike fatalities under Obama comes to more than 3,000, and includes much of the leadership of al Qaeda. This is not the record of a president with any secret proclivities for Sharia law.
The ‘Islamization’ myth
Pamela Geller is the most visible of the activists claiming that the United States is threatened by creeping “Islamization.”
She began an organization called “Stop the Islamization of America” and wrote a book with the same name. Geller organized the protests against the establishment of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” in Manhattan in 2011. (The planned building was in fact two blocks from the World Trade Center site and wasn’t a mosque but an Islamic community center.)
The protests turned Geller into a national figure with the imprimatur of a “60 Minutes” profile. Two years later she was denied entry to the UK after British authorities classified her books and speeches as criminal “incitements to racial hatred.”
To claim that nationwide Sharia law is imminent is to ignore simple facts. Muslims make up around 2% of the population. There isn’t a jurisdiction in the U.S. where Sharia is the law, nor is any community demanding its imposition, including areas with substantial Muslim populations, such as Dearborn, Michigan.
Short of a mass conversion of hundreds of millions of American citizens to Islam, the chances of One Nation Under Sharia seem slight.
The arguments of the radical right Muslim-bashers, however, have seeped into mainstream political life. The former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, asserted in July 2010, “Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom and the United States as we know it.”
Also in 2010, former CIA Director James Woolsey was one of the authors of a report by the Center for Security Policy that made similar claims.
By 2014, 32 state legislatures had introduced bills to forbid judges from considering foreign laws, including Sharia, in their decisions, USA Today reported. In seven states, they passed. In other words, seven states have passed laws to defend against a threat that doesn’t exist and won’t happen!
America’s far right tradition
This fits well in the long tradition of what Richard Hofstadter had termed in 1964 “the paranoid style in American politics,” his analysis in Harper’s Magazine of the vocal conspiracy theorist element of the American far right.
More than half a century later, Hofstadter’s observations about how the paranoid right interpreted the world still rang true: “The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. …The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms. He traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to the conspiracy. Time is forever running out.”
The Muslim-bashers of today have updated the paranoid right for the post-9/11 era. Instead of a communist plot to take over America, the 1950s conspiracy du jour, the threat is now Muslims. (Earlier waves of paranoia were directed at Catholics and Freemasons; such fears have been an integral part of American history since the inception of the republic.)
That Carson and Trump are willing to either trumpet anti-Muslim views or to entertain them without contradiction is, in part, the result of the campaign led by a small subset of right-wingers to paint American Muslims as some kind of fifth column. Instead of “reds under the bed” what we supposedly need to fear today is “greens under the bed.”
It’s nonsense, of course, and if the Republican party wants to catch up with – forget the 21st century, at least catch up to the 20th century, it should abjure the views that American Muslims are a “problem” and their religion is not compatible with the Constitution.
Indeed, to his great credit, six days after 9/11 President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington and said, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
Amen to that.
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