Over the last 15 years, Republican politicians have struggled to manage public hostility toward Muslims. After 9/11, President George W. Bush said the United States was not at war with Islam, and Republicans followed his lead. Once Bush left office, an angry conservative elite, led by Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Rudy Giuliani, campaigned against the idea of allowing a mosque near Ground Zero. Now, after last week’s attack on Paris, Republicans are converging around a form of prejudice that’s easier to exploit and defend: Muslim refugees, unlike Christians, should be presumed guilty.
Old-style Islamophobia hasn’t died out. It bursts from the mouths of some conservative voters and has gone uncorrected by this year’s Republican presidential candidates. Two candidates, Ben Carson and Sen. Rick Santorum, have declared that no devout Muslim should be elected president. On Monday, Donald Trump’s spokeswoman tweeted, “Islam preys on the weak and uses political correctness as cover.”
Initially, many of the candidates described the enemy as “radical Islamic terrorism.” But since the Paris attacks, they’ve shed the qualifiers. Jeb Bush now calls it simply “Islamic terrorism,” and he chides President Obama for refusing to use that term. Carly Fiorina has adopted the same shorthand. Mike Huckabee has dumped the terrorism part altogether. The president’s job, says Huckabee, is “protecting Americans, not the image of Islam.”
Sen. Marco Rubio draws an analogy to Nazism. A few days ago, on ABC’s This Week, he was shown a clip of Hillary Clinton saying, “I don't think we we’re at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists.” George Stephanopoulos pointed out to Rubio that Clinton had avoided the words “radical Islam.” Rubio ridiculed her aversion: “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.” In Rubio’s analysis, violence is no longer a crucial distinction. Instead, Islamic radicalism is a single entity akin to the German Nazi Party.
Sen. Ted Cruz takes the next step. On Tuesday, he was asked whether his argument against Muslim refugees from Syria—that some of them might be dangerous—could have been used to block his own father’s emigration to the United States from Cuba. Cruz replied: “If my father were part of a theocratic and political movement like radical Islamism that promotes murdering anyone who doesn’t share your extreme faith or forcibly converting them, then it would make perfect sense.” But Cruz doesn’t just advocate the exclusion of radical Islamists. He advocates the exclusion of all Syrian Muslims. Some might be killers, therefore all must be excluded.
As governors and presidential candidates compete to appease public anxiety, distinctions among Muslims—who’s violent, who’s radical, who’s theocratic, who’s affiliated with terrorists or terrorist sympathizers—are tossed aside. On Tuesday, in an interview on MSNBC, Huckabee said “It’s not about Muslims”—and then explained why, in effect, it is. “If Methodists were strapping bombs to their children’s chests and blowing them up so to kill a bunch of civilians, I’d be saying we need to be real careful about letting Methodists in, too,” he argued. “I don’t know of any other group of people uniquely that are targeting innocent civilians and committing these acts of mayhem.”
Some Republican candidates are willing to distinguish among the refugees. But the distinction they draw isn’t among Muslims; it’s between Muslims and Christians. “There aren’t any Christian terrorists in the Middle East,” says Jeb Bush. Cruz says almost the same thing: “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” On this basis, and because Christians are often a persecuted minority, Bush says the United States should focus on helping Christian refugees. Cruz says we should bar the entry of “Syrian Muslim refugees” but should accept Christians. Rather than welcome Muslims, Cruz says we should put them where they belong: “majority Muslim countries.”
Beyond that, the candidates aren’t interested in distinctions. If you’re Muslim, there’s no point in investigating any further. Are you Sunni or Shiite? Are you radical or moderate? Are you affiliated with a militant organization? Have you committed a crime? It’s no use asking these questions, because, as Rubio explains, “There’s no way to background-check someone that’s coming from Syria.” We won’t even draw obvious distinctions, such as age or sex. On Monday, Gov. Chris Christie refused to accept orphaned Syrian toddlers. The only question we’re willing to entertain, in the absence of reliable records, is whether, as Bush asserts, “you can prove you’re a Christian.”
Tuesday night, in an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump said he’d been “told by very, very good sources” that among Syrians, “if you’re a Christian, you can’t get into the United States,” but it’s easy “if you’re a Muslim.” Hannity showed viewers a series of statistics that, as he described it, revealed “the numbers of the people we are taking in from Muslim countries.” Hannity asked Trump: “Is there a clash of cultures, if you grow up in a country under Sharia law? … How should we factor that in when we’re taking in people from these countries? How do you ascertain whether they buy into the culture they came from or want to assimilate here?”
Among refugees, having a clean record isn’t enough. If you grew up in a Muslim country, you’ve been brainwashed. “I don’t know that they even want to assimilate,” Trump told Hannity.
That’s the new conservative standard: guilty until proven Christian.
Arab, Muslim, terrorist—we don’t have the luxury of sorting these people out. Just bar them all: the Syrians, the Muslims, the people from Muslim countries. Better yet, deport them. “If I win, they’re going out,” Trump concluded. “We can’t take a chance.”