Muslims worry anti-Islam rhetoric will make them targets

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson likened Syrian refugees to “mad dogs.”
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson likened Syrian refugees to “mad dogs.” AP

Muslims and civil rights advocates are growing increasingly alarmed by the tone of the anti-Muslim speech that’s emerged since the Paris massacre, saying it is much sharper and less nuanced than in years past, including the tense aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The days, many say, are gone when public figures went out of their way to draw distinctions between ordinary Muslims and the extremist fringe, something President George W. Bush did regularly. Instead, Republican presidential candidates, governors, municipal officials, local authorities, talk-radio hosts and religious figures increasingly are targeting Islam as a whole – a development that Muslims say leaves them vulnerable to discrimination and retaliatory assaults.

Within hours of the Paris attacks, social media and political speech were full of accusatory references to Muslims, not just radicals, said Jordan Denari, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, a project to raise public awareness about “Islamophobia” – fear of Muslims. She said the line of demarcation between radicals and ordinary Muslims seems to be getting thinner and thinner

“At least in the Republican field, it seems to be nearly gone,” she said, referring to the Republican presidential candidates. “People, when they’re pressed really hard, will say, ‘Of course I’m not talking about ordinary Muslims.’ But they’re not starting with that.”

“We continue to be the scapegoats and the black sheep of America,” said Badi Ali, imam of a mosque in Greensboro, N.C., who’s been investigated several times by U.S. authorities dating to even before the Sept. 11 attacks. “It’s the responsibility of the majority to protect the minority, the Muslims, but they are not. Nowadays, we see all these slogans – Black Lives Matter – and the Hispanic minority making progress with the help of the majority, but Muslims, unfortunately, are still targeted.”

Americans hold complicated, sometimes contradictory views toward Islam and Muslims, depending largely on the current political and security context, according to a Bridge Initiative analysis released Thursday that synthesized two decades of opinion polls on the subject.

ISIS beheadings and other atrocities have pushed radical Islam into the news in a way that almost certainly has fueled anti-Muslim hatred.

Mark Potok, Southern Poverty Law Center

The research revealed that the Iraq War – not 9/11 – most affected Americans’ views of Islam. A plurality of Americans said Islam was “more violent” in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, during high numbers of troop deaths in 2007, and more recently as the national debate turns to the Islamic State, according to the report. Still, most Americans maintain that only a small minority of Muslims supports terrorism.

However, Americans increasingly approve of the “singling out” of Muslims for increased scrutiny. Since 2001, the report says, “one quarter or more of the population has expressed support for specific measures like religious profiling, special IDs, surveillance and internment.”

In the week since the Islamic State attacks in Paris that killed 129 people in Paris, Muslims – or foreigners and religious minorities mistaken for Muslims – have suffered a flurry of apparent revenge attacks in the United States, Canada and Europe. Taken as a whole, a chilling pattern emerges of vandalized mosques, arson attacks, beatings and verbal abuse.

“It’s hard to prove that someone went out and committed a violent act because of something they heard in the news,” Denari said, “but we have to pay attention to that correlation and be more thoughtful about words we choose to use.”

According to the FBI’s latest report on hate crimes, released Monday, the number of cases in 2014 dropped from the previous year except in one category: incidents involving Muslims. The number of anti-Muslim incidents rose from 135 in 2013 to 154 in 2014, according to the FBI’s statistics, which most researchers consider conservative because many incidents go unreported.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private organization that tracks extremist groups, wrote Monday on the group’s “Hatewatch” blog that the trend of anti-Muslim attacks “seems destined to accelerate.”

“The anti-Muslim numbers have been rising slowly but steadily since 2012. In that period, ISIS beheadings and other atrocities have pushed radical Islam into the news in a way that almost certainly has fueled anti-Muslim hatred,” Potok wrote. “Given the Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in early 2015, along with the most recent Islamist slaughter in Paris, anti-Muslim hate crimes seem bound to rise again in 2015.”

Republican presidential candidates are responsible for some of the most incendiary anti-Muslim remarks.

We’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.

Donald Trump

On Thursday, Ben Carson, who is running either first or second in public opinion polls, likened some Syrian refugees to “mad dogs” in his call for more screenings before resettlement in the United States. He made headlines earlier by saying he “absolutely would not agree” with a Muslim becoming president of the United States because his or her “faith might interfere with carrying out the duties of the constitution.”

Donald Trump on Tuesday called for the nationwide monitoring of mosques, adding in an interview with Yahoo News that he wouldn’t rule out warrantless searches as part of increased surveillance of American Muslims. When Yahoo pushed him on whether such tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or issuing ID cards noting their religion, Trump said he wouldn’t rule it out. “We’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago,” he said.

While Jeb Bush has challenged some fellow Republicans’ on their sweeping condemnation of Islam, he’s joined his rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in advocating a Christian-only policy for accepting Syrian refugees.

Democrats, too, appear to be struggling with how to balance condemnation of terrorist attacks with statements recognizing that the vast majority of Muslims don’t adhere to the extremist ideology espoused by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s campaign moved swiftly to distance the candidate from David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Va., who seemed to endorse the U.S. internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II in justifying his support for the rejection of Syrian refugees. Bowers had served on Clinton’s Virginia Leadership Council; the campaign told reporters Thursday that he was no longer on the committee.

“The internment of people of Japanese descent is a dark cloud on our nation’s history and to suggest that it is anything but a horrible moment in our past is outrageous,” Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin said in a statement.

But Muslim groups and hate-speech trackers aren’t letting Democrats off the hook, pointing to the linguistic acrobatics Clinton and rival Bernie Sanders performed at last week’s debate to wriggle out of a question on use of the phrase “radical Islam.”

When pressed, Clinton emphasized that the United States was at war with jihadists, not with all Muslims and said she didn’t “want us to be painting with too broad a brush.” Sanders said he didn’t think the phrase was “particularly helpful,” and the third candidate, Martin O’Malley, said “radical jihadist” was the more accurate term.

Denari, the Georgetown researcher on Islamophobia, said she watched the debate and was relieved to hear the question about the term “radical Islam,” thinking “this is your time to reveal to the American public that it doesn’t mean anything, that the parameters aren’t clearly defined.”

Instead, Denari said, she watched Clinton and Sanders try to avoid the question while only O’Malley emphasized the individual over the group in his preferred terminology.

“I was really disappointed that Sanders and Clinton didn’t take the opportunity,” she said. “They avoided saying it but they also didn’t call it out for what it was.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

Javaria Khan: 202-383-6011, @JavariaKh