The Republican Party has taken another step in its ongoing campaign against American Muslims.
Five years ago, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and other GOP luminaries led a movement to block construction of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Earlier this year, Republican leaders accused President Obama of apologizing for the Crusades. More recently, some of the party’s presidential candidates have declared that Muslim refugees—many of whom are victims of religious persecution by Islamic extremists—should be categorically barred from the United States.
Initially, to avoid the appearance of bigotry, the 2016 candidates drew distinctions. Donald Trump said there were good Muslims in addition to “the bad ones.” Sen. Marco Rubio said the problem was “radical” Islam, not Islam per se. Sen. Ted Cruz said the enemy was “radical Islamic terrorism.”
These distinctions are now collapsing as the party slides toward bigotry against Muslims writ large. In the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, public anxiety is running high, and polls of Republican primary voters show a strong appetite for anti-Muslim policies. So the leading Republican candidates are now attacking President Obama not just for weakness against Islamic terrorism, but for opposing anti-Muslim prejudice.
On Sunday night, Obama spoke to the country about the San Bernardino attack. He called it an “act of terrorism” motivated by “a perverted interpretation of Islam”:
[A]n extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al-Qaida promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.
But Obama distinguished this extremism from Islam as a whole. He cautioned:
We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world, including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology. … Just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans, of every faith, to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently.
Obama could not have been clearer in his distinction between radicalism, which must be rooted out, and peaceful Muslims, who should be treated fairly. Yet the Republican candidates have denounced his defense of Muslims. In a Fox News interview immediately after the speech, Rubio erupted: “The cynicism! The cynicism tonight, to spend a significant amount of time talking about discrimination against Muslims. Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?”
The next day, Trump demanded a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Rubio then went on right-wing radio to escalate his own attack. He rejected Trump’s idea, arguing that the better approach was to halt immigration from “that part of the world.” Rubio lambasted Obama for “accusing Republicans of being xenophobes because we want to put reasonable restrictions on the refugee program.” As for Obama’s Sunday message—which Rubio contemptuously paraphrased as “Cut out the widespread discrimination of Muslims”—the senator fumed, “There is no evidence of in this country that there’s widespread and systemic discrimination. And all of this just leaves people scratching their heads, saying this is a president that either refuses to deal with the issue in front of him or is just overwhelmed by it.”
That was Tuesday. On Thursday, Cruz turned up the heat. In a speech at the Heritage Foundation, he equated Obama’s defense of Islam with a defense of terrorism:
He spent a significant portion of his Sunday address as an apologist for radical Islamic terrorism. And his attorney general, Loretta Lynch, told a gathering the day after the San Bernardino attack that her department would move to prosecute anyone whose “anti-Muslim rhetoric” “edged towards violence.” The day after a terror attack, 14 innocent lives snuffed away, we want a president and an attorney general who is standing up to defend this nation, not an attorney general who decrees herself the speech police for any who dare speak out against this threat.
To appreciate the magnitude of Cruz’s slander, you have to read what Lynch actually said. On Dec. 3, when the motive in San Bernardino was still unclear, Lynch made a previously scheduled appearance before a Muslim American audience. Throughout her remarks, she distinguished speech from violence. “This is a country that is based on free speech. But when it edges towards violence, when we see the potential for someone lifting that mantle of anti-Muslim rhetoric … we will take action,” she said. Lynch explained that in nonprosecutable situations, the Justice Department’s civil rights division simply provided counseling. “But where we do see anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions turn into violence, we do take action. … We have charged 225 defendants with hate crimes offenses over the last six years, most of those in the last three years.”
If you look at FBI data, you’ll see what Lynch is talking about. Since 9/11, the annual rate of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States has been five times higher than it was before. Muslims are the only target group that experienced an increase in hate crimes in the latest annual report. The most recent tally was 154 incidents: far fewer than the number of hate crimes against Jews, but more than 70 percent higher than the number of hate crimes against Christians. Rubio often laments the plight of American Christians who feel stigmatized for their beliefs. Yet he rejects such concern for Muslims, who are far more targeted.
Cruz takes the opposite view. For him, the rate of federal prosecutions of alleged offenses against Muslims suggests that hate-crime investigators have run amok. In his speech, he scoffed:
Attorney General Lynch said that’s what she was most afraid of: that we might exercise our First Amendment rights and speak out against this threat. How about having an attorney general who is focused on keeping our children safe, rather than muzzling the free-speech rights of Americans? And in fact we’re already seeing the consequences of fear stifling speech. The neighbors of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik reportedly found their behavior odd, but until now they didn’t say anything to law enforcement, because they were scared they would be accused of racial profiling. … Loretta Lynch’s ban on what she calls anti-Muslim rhetoric is already producing its chilling effect.
This might be the first time that remarks by an attorney general on Dec. 3 have produced a chilling effect that led to terrorism on Dec. 2. But Cruz doesn’t let chronology get in the way of a good story. (He has also claimed that Obama should have anticipated the San Bernardino attack based on a Facebook post that appeared after the attack was underway.) What’s less funny is Cruz’s allegation that a government official who pledges to intervene when “anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions turn into violence” is “muzzling” Americans.
Lynch, like Obama, has been clear in her distinctions. In a press conference on Dec. 4, she and FBI Director James Comey emphasized that anyone with information about potential terrorism should contact law enforcement. Comey spent one-third of the press conference hammering this message. Cruz ignores the press conference, and he misrepresents what Lynch said the day before, because he isn’t interested in distinguishing speech from action, any more than he’s interested in distinguishing Islam from terrorism. Cruz’s goal, over time, is to erase these distinctions, so that Muslim-bashing can be defended as a matter of freedom and national security.
On the same day Cruz spoke at Heritage, the Senate Judiciary Committee considered a nonbinding amendment to an unrelated nuclear terrorism bill to declare that the government “must not bar individuals from entering into the United States based on their religion.” Cruz voted against the amendment. With the polls against them, Muslims are an easy target. And if the GOP wins the White House, anyone who tries to defend them will have to answer to the president of the United States.