the national interest

How Conservatives Explain Away Republican Islamophobia

Donald Trump Holds Town Hall In New Hampshire
Donald Trump will look into your crazed ravings. Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s candidacy exposed a burning, and heretofore mostly concealed, resentment of immigrants among large segments of the Republican base. As the campaign has proceeded, it has exposed a second related resentment, which Republicans have only barely concealed: paranoia and hate against Muslim-Americans. Ben Carson’s assertion yesterday that a Muslim should not be allowed to serve as president — chilling in its mild, almost sleepy frankness — laid bare a majority sentiment among his party’s voters. Right-wing Islamophobia provides a new, mainly untapped source of populist resentment into which Trump, Carson, and several other social conservatives can tap. It is also a source of embarrassment for party elites committed to the delusion that their party is mostly innocent of bigotry.

Unfortunately for them, the bigotry keeps popping out everywhere. Thursday night at a Donald Trump rally, a man in the audience began his question, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims,” and proceeded to assert that President Obama is a Muslim, Muslims have established “training camps,” asked Trump to “get rid of them” — “them” probably referring to the “camps” rather than the Muslims themselves. (Alleged domestic Muslim terrorist-training camps are the subject of widespread conspiracy theorizing on Fox News and other respected Republican news sources.) Trump indulged these lunatic fantasies rather than repudiate them even slightly, promising vaguely, “We’re going to be looking at that, and plenty of other things.” According to National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke, this episode tells us nothing whatsoever about the party whose supporters have made Trump their front-runner for months. “What about the Republican party?” asks Cooke. “Should we presume that Trump and his interlocutor are indicative of the whole? Of course we shouldn’t.”

Cooke argues that this is merely a case of political dirty tricks, not some wider bigotry. “The employment of underhanded tactics is universal in politics,” he says. Why, in 2008, a Hillary Clinton staffer was forced to resign for forwarding an email suggesting that Obama was Muslim. Cooke locates the significance of this episode in the fact that a junior Clinton staffer peddled a conspiracy theory, rather than the fact that Clinton forced this junior staffer to resign. No pervasive bigotry here! Just old-fashioned bipartisan dirty tricks.

Also completely unrelated to any bigotry is the arrest and handcuffing of Ahmed Mohamed, a winsome, nerdy 14-year-old in Irving, Texas, who proudly brought a homemade clock to school only for police and school authorities to insist he was a terrorist. National Review has no less than four articles (here, here, here, and here) dismissing any connection between this episode and so-called bias against Muslims. It is a “phony case of Islamophobia,” writes Kevin Williamson. “If it’s a comment on anything, it’s on the astonishing deficit of common sense at MacArthur High School and among local authorities,” and “Stupidity is equal-opportunity,” insists Ian Tuttle. “[B]lowing up a non-event is a way to stoke the idea that discrimination against Muslims is a pervasive problem in American life,” argues David Harsanyi. “[T]he Left’s false-moralist brigades are using Ahmed as a pivot to portray America as an inherently racist, ignorant nation,” cried Tom Rogan.

The National Review writers who are upset with the people who are upset about Mohamed’s treatment do have a point: Schools do overreact to imaginary security threats all the time. It is impossible to prove that his experience is the direct result of anti-Muslim hysteria. However, it is demonstrably true that conservative politicians in Irving, Texas, have stoked anti-Muslim paranoia. Irving’s mayor promoted a law designed to stop the hyperventilated threat of Sharia law on American soil.

It is also noteworthy that, rather than dismissing the treatment of young Ahmed Mohamed as the same sort of unfairness experienced by white schoolkids, some conservatives are openly defending it. Pamela Geller, writing for Breitbart, argues, “The whole thing has clearly been a setup.Rush Limbaugh rants, “Innocent little 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed has a brilliant science project, a brilliant clock, a new way of doing a clock. (Yeah, one looks just like a bomb in a briefcase.)” The Center for Security Policy, a right-wing think tank that in the last year has partnered with such figures as Ted Cruz, Trump, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, John Bolton, and Rick Santorum, has called Mohamed’s clock “half a bomb.” So, yes, American kids of any religion could be subject to overzealous administrators. But white kids tend not to be smeared as anti-American plotters by thought leaders within one of the two major political parties even after their innocence has been demonstrated.

It is true that many Republicans have opposed the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment that has risen within their party. Some, like Michael Gerson, have denounced this trend forcefully, attempting to revive the admirable, bygone Bush-era doctrine that distinguished between radical Islam and the majority of Muslims. But mostly, social conservatives have treated their Muslim-hating contingent just as they treat their anti-same-sex-marriage brethren: as idealists persecuted for their convictions. Rick Santorum, who is not shy about interjecting his opinion into the controversy of the day, hid behind the First Amendment as a reason to abstain from comment on recent outbursts within his party:

Of course, nobody is challenging the legal right of conservatives to voice bigoted sentiments. The sentiments themselves are the issue. Alas, most of the conservatives not openly committed to anti-Muslim bigotry have experienced its resurgence not for what it is, but as a smear campaign against conservatives themselves.

How Conservatives Explain Away Islamophobia