Since the departure of President George W. Bush, an anti-Islamic tide has risen in the Republican Party. On Dec. 7, this movement reached a crescendo: Donald Trump, the party’s presidential front-runner, proposed a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” For days, the party teetered on a moral edge, as Sen. Marco Rubio blasted President Obama for worrying about anti-Muslim discrimination, and Sen. Ted Cruz portrayed defenders of Muslim Americans as defenders of terrorism.
Tuesday night’s presidential debates signaled that the GOP may be drawing back from the brink. The candidates are acknowledging, and in some cases underscoring, ideological and moral distinctions within Islam.
Republicans aren’t sure how to describe the enemy. On Tuesday, they called it “radical Islam,” “radical Islamists,” “radical jihadists,” “radical Islamist jihadists,” “radical jihadist terrorism,” “radical Islamic terrorists,” and “Islamic radical terrorism.” Former Gov. Mike Huckabee said the president’s job wasn’t “to protect the reputation of Islam.” Former Sen. Rick Santorum said “all jihadists are Muslims” and scoffed that “we have to stop worrying about offending some people.” But many candidates argued that we mustn’t antagonize Muslims, because we need their help to defeat terrorism. Here’s the line of reasoning they followed on Tuesday night.
1. To defeat terrorism, we need Muslim allies. In the undercard debate, Sen. Lindsey Graham declared, “There’s only one way you’re going to win this war: Help people in Islam who reject radical Islam to fight over there and destroy this ideology.” In the main debate, former Gov. Jeb Bush made the same point: “If we want to destroy radical Islamic terrorists, we can’t disassociate ourselves from peace-loving Muslims.” Rubio said ISIS could be defeated only by a ground force of “Sunni Arabs that reject them ideologically and confront them militarily.” Carly Fiorina agreed: “We must have Sunni Arabs involved in this coalition.”
2. Most Muslims are on our side. Gov. John Kasich and former Gov. George Pataki noted that earlier in the day, Saudi Arabia had announced a coalition of 34 “Muslim states” committed to defeating terrorism. Pataki pointed out that Sunni tribes in Iraq were already fighting ISIS. Bush chimed in: “The Kurds are the greatest fighting force and our strongest allies. They’re Muslim.” Graham, citing his travels to Iraq and Afghanistan, reported that “most people in Islam” are “not buying what ISIL’s selling. … Muslims have died by the thousands fighting this hateful ideology.”
3. Sunnis are different from Shiites. Santorum, Rubio, and Gov. Chris Christie denounced Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. But in doing so, they framed the agreement as a threat to Sunni Muslims who fear the empowerment of faith’s rival Shiite branch. Cruz and Kasich used the same distinction to argue against U.S. acceptance of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. They noted that Assad had abused Syrian Sunnis and represented a “Shia crescent” across the region.
4. Stand with the good Muslims. “We have to embrace the Muslims who embrace our freedom,” said Pataki. Ben Carson called for military aid to Kurds, Christians, and “moderate Sunnis” in northeastern Syria. Even Santorum, who portrayed Islam as inherently theocratic, nevertheless suggested that “moderate Muslims” could establish a better Syrian government and that Americans “need to get reformist Muslims to join us.”
5. A ban on Muslim immigrants alienates good Muslims. Graham said Trump’s ban on Muslim visitors would undermine the war against ISIS: “How do you think the king of Jordan must feel to hear that? He is our friend.” Bush agreed: “If we’re going to ban all Muslims, how are we going to get them to be part of a coalition to destroy ISIS? … It will push the Muslim world, the Arab world, away from us.” Cruz conceded that Trump’s idea was too broad. Noting that “there are millions of peaceful Muslims” in countries not controlled by terrorists, Cruz argued for an entry ban “more narrowly focused at the actual threat, which is radical Islamic terrorism.” Cruz concluded: “It’s not a war on a faith. It’s a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us.”
6. Muslim Americans are on our side, too. In the undercard debate, Graham declared: “There are at least 3,500 American Muslims serving in the armed forces. Thank you for your service.” The audience applauded wildly. Graham continued, telling these service members: “You are not the enemy. Your religion is not the enemy.” Then he told a story:
I was at the second presidential election in Afghanistan. The guy guarding me was an American Muslim sergeant in the Army who grew up in Kabul, left … joined the U.S. Army, went back to his high school where [Afghans were] voting. He took me there and cried like a baby. I cried like a baby. He is the solution to this problem, folks. He is not the problem. Leave the faith alone. Go after the radicals that kill us all.
In the main debate, Christie picked up this theme. In New Jersey, he recalled, “We prosecuted two of the biggest terrorism cases in the world and stopped Fort Dix from being attacked by six American radicalized Muslims.” How? “We worked with the Muslim American community to get intelligence,” said Christie.
7. Targeting Muslims is un-American. Some candidates called Muslim-bashing a moral offense, not just a strategic blunder. “If we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, I think that at that point the terrorists will have won,” said Sen. Rand Paul. “In defending America, we cannot lose what America stands for.” Pataki, noting that previous American bigots had targeted Catholics, said Trump was “unfit to be president” because he “demonizes and demeans millions of Americans.” Pataki said it was “un-American” to ban people based on religion, “regardless of whether you’re an American soldier who has fought on our side, or allies we have overseas.”
8. Americans should side with Muslims against Trump. Graham denounced the GOP front-runner: “To all of our Muslim friends throughout the world, like the king of Jordan and the president of Egypt, I am sorry. He does not represent us. If I am president, we will work together.” If Obama had delivered those words, he would have been lambasted as an apologist.
We shouldn’t pretend the GOP is cured of Islamophobia. In polls, most Republicans support Trump’s ideas. On Tuesday, Cruz excused Trump’s no-Muslims proposal as a frustrated response to Obama, who “doesn’t call radical Islamic terrorism by its name.” Santorum said Islam wasn’t protected by the First Amendment, and Huckabee sneered, “If Islam is as wonderful and peaceful as its adherents say, shouldn’t they be begging us to all come in and listen to these peaceful sermons? Shouldn’t they be begging us all to come and listen, and bring the FBI so we’d all want to convert to Islam?”
But let’s be thankful that the anti-Muslim fury didn’t escalate on Tuesday night. It’s possible, in fact, that the fever is breaking. And that’s important, because no wall or immigration ban can protect us from the message of religious warfare that’s sweeping across the globe. We could use a few more cool heads.