According to conventional presidential campaign wisdom, loose talk denigrating a religious tradition practiced by millions of Americans would seriously damage – if not sink – a candidate’s bid for the nomination of either major party.
But in what is already the most unconventional presidential primary contest in modern history, Republican presidential hopefuls Ben Carson and Donald Trump continue to rise in the polls despite statements suggesting that American Muslims are somehow dangerous and un-American.
Not only has anti-Islam rhetoric become politically acceptable in this campaign, it may actually be good politics in the fight for the Republican nomination.
Carson – leading the field in the most recent national poll – made headlines this month when he declared that Muslims should be barred from the presidency unless, as he clarified later, they “reject the tenets of Islam.”
Not to be outdone, Donald Trump, who is close behind Carson in the polls, let it be known during a television interview that he would consider closing some mosques as part of his anti-ISIS effort.
When pressed about a mosque-closing strategy because of something called religious freedom, Trump said: “It depends, if the mosque is, you know, loaded for bear, I don’t know. You’re going to have to certainly look at it.”
Trump and Carson are echoing a false and disturbing message about Islam disseminated over the past decade by a small number of anti-Muslim groups: Islam is America’s enemy – not extremists acting in the name of Islam, but Islam itself.
Much like the nativists of the 19th century who warned that Roman Catholicism is incompatible with American principles, nativists of the 21st century are sounding the alarm about Islam in the United States. “Islam,” argues Ben Carson, “is not consistent with the Constitution.”
Propaganda demonizing an entire faith community has consequences, especially when reinforced by leading candidates for the presidency.
It’s worth recalling that in the heyday of anti-Catholicism in America discredited rumors about the evils of convent life and “papist” plots to take over the country fueled widespread animus towards Catholics. Over a period of several decades, fear and hatred of Catholicism sparked periodic riots resulting in the loss of life and destruction of Catholic churches.
More than one hundred years later, American Muslims are the new Catholics. Mosques are frequently vandalized, Muslims are facing workplace discrimination, and hate groups are organizing anti-Islam campaigns.
Last spring, the anti-Muslim frenzy was on full display outside a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona. Hundreds of anti-Muslim demonstrators attended what they called a “patriotic” protest; most of them carrying guns and wearing profanity-laced T-shirts. Similar anti-Muslim protests were held outside mosques across the country this fall.
Of course, these attacks on Islam are not undertaken in a vacuum. Violent terrorists and extremists calling themselves “Muslims” have done much to fuel the blanket condemnations of Islam by anti-Muslim groups in the United States.
But propaganda only works when people are susceptible to the message. In addition to horrific world events, religious illiteracy, fear of the unknown and changing demographics are powerful drivers of prejudice.
Ben Carson is simply wrong about Islam in America. Millions of American Muslims are simultaneously faithful followers of Islam and patriotic Americans.
And Donald Trump is wrong about the danger of mosques in America. The hundreds of mosques and Islamic centers that dot the American landscape today are not hotbeds of terrorism. On the contrary, they are places where people of faith are actively engaged in serving the community, promoting understanding across faiths, and preventing radicalization among young people.
Here’s the good news: When it comes to building bridges across religious divides, familiarity breeds understanding and respect.
According to various studies, people who actually know a Muslim or take time to visit a mosque are far more likely to have favorable views of Islam.
As reported last spring in The Washington Post, Jason Leger – one of the protesters outside the Phoenix mosque wearing a hate message on his T-shirt – accepted an invitation to join the evening prayer inside the mosque.
“It was something I’ve never seen before,” Leger told the Post. “I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along. They made me feel welcome, you know. I just think everybody’s points are getting misconstrued, saying things out of emotion, saying things they don’t believe.”
Anyone who is serious about being president of “We the People” – including Ben Carson and Donald Trump – should visit a mosque, talk to the Americans worshipping there, and find out the truth about Islam in America.
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center.