The Return of Republican Islamophobia

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GOP 2016 Rubio
Marco Rubio doesn't understand why we don't want to say we're at war with islam. Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP/Corbis

Marco Rubio appeared on This Week yesterday morning, where he took umbrage at Hillary Clinton’s statement that the United States is “at war with jihadists” but not “at war with Islam.” Rubio declared himself baffled by Clinton’s carefully parsed distinctions. “I don't understand it,” said Rubio. “That would be like saying we weren't at war with the Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party, but weren't violent themselves.” If we tease out Rubio’s metaphor, the Muslim faith as a whole is equivalent to Nazism, and violent jihadi terrorists are the equivalent of the Nazi leadership. Rubio has a knack for grasping the midpoint of Republican Party doctrine at any given moment, and his comments reflect the party’s renewed conviction that the war against terrorists must be defined in the broadest possible terms.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, believes in defining the conflict in the most narrow terms. There is a very good reason for this. The United States is not actually at war with Islam. Non-extremist Muslims account for the lion's share of the victims of jihadist terror, and are needed as allies in the conflict. Air strikes and counterterrorism may be important tools against ISIS, but in the long run, we need non-radicals to maintain the loyalties of the majority of the Muslim world. If the Muslim world gravitates toward its most extreme elements, the West will find itself in an unwinnable struggle against an enemy that can generate fighters moving invisibly among 1.6 billion people worldwide. The radicals want to persuade the rest of the Muslims that they represent Islam writ large in a clash against Christians and Jews. The West’s strategy is predicated on breaking down this link, making it as hard as possible for them to claim that the West is at war with Islam as a whole.

And yet, since the Bush administration departed the scene, Republicans have jettisoned Bush’s cautious strategy of distinguishing between Islam and its violent minority. A catalyzing event in the party’s Islamophobic turn was a now mostly forgotten 2010 episode in which conservatives grew hysterical over a plan to build a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan. Mainstream Republicans like Mitt Romney and Rubio denounced the center. (Chris Christie, who spoke forcefully against rising Islamophobia, was already an outlier among his party.)

The attacks in Paris reinvigorated this impulse. Republicans as a whole have seized upon a need to broaden the terms of the conflict as their main point of differentiation with the Democrats. In a new op-ed today, Romney insists, We must begin by identifying the enemy. We will not defeat it if we are afraid to call it by its name.” He cites no historical examples of wars that were lost due to leaders failing to identify their enemy with the correct verbiage — he simply treats the strategic value of offending Muslims as self-evident. On the other end of the party spectrum, Donald Trump [See update at bottom] is issuing inflammatory calls to close down mosques. Figures like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush are calling for the United States to admit only Christian refugees, thereby positioning the United States as indifferent to ISIS’s primary victims.

And Rubio has rushed out a new video in which he vaguely demands a “clash of civilizations.” Rubio plays it a bit coy, repeatedly describing the conflict as “them” and “us,” without specifying who is them and who is us. This is a characteristically Rubio-esque evasion that allows the most rabid Islamophobes to read his position as a call for a Crusades-style war between Christianity and Islam, but without tying Rubio explicitly to such a formulation. (He can always insist that he meant “us” to include non-violent Muslims.) The problem, of course, is that the most inflammatory interpretation of Rubio’s words is available not only to Christian culture warriors but also to Islamic culture warriors. Indeed, the entire Republican Party has transformed itself into a propaganda machine working in effect, if not intent, to reinforce ISIS’s message that the Christian and Muslim worlds are locked in violent, unresolvable conflict.

Update: Reading Trump's remarks more closely, I should clarify that he said he would "strongly consider" it, rather than endorse it. This is marginally less barbaric but still utterly beyond the pale.