Bowe Bergdahl and the Resurgence of Conservative Islamophobia

The debate over the prisoner-swap deal spotlights how anti-Muslim sentiment on the right has actually grown in the last decade.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

I have some sympathy for critics of President Obama’s decision to trade five Guantanamo prisoners for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. At the very least, the White House should have informed Congress beforehand, as required by law. And the administration’s effort to justify that failure by citing a presidential signing statement altering the law’s meaning sounds positively Cheneyesque.

Still, it's disheartening to see that some prominent conservatives are unable to critique the Bergdahl deal without resorting to anti-Muslim bigotry. Bergdahl’s father, an outraged Bill O’Reilly said earlier this week, “looks like a Muslim. He is also somewhat sympathetic to Islam.” Actually, Bob Bergdahl’s untrimmed beard would fit in well in Amish and ultra-Orthodox Jewish circles as well. But it’s revealing that for O’Reilly, sympathy for “Islam,”—not “Taliban-style Islam” or “radical Islam” but merely “Islam”—is a character flaw.

It’s remarkable, when you think about it. In recent decades, the stigma associated with offensive comments about African Americans has clearly grown. Donald Sterling is banned for the NBA for life for racist comments made in a private conversation. When it comes to homophobia, the shift has been even more dramatic. The term “faggot”—which was omnipresent and largely uncontroversial in my youth—is becoming as unacceptable as the term “kike.” (The actor Jonah Hill apologized profusely for using “faggot” earlier this week.) Feminists are enjoying success in their “ban bossy” campaign, an effort that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago.

Attacking someone for “look[ing] like a Muslim,” on the other hand, arouses barely any controversy. Some liberal blogs condemned O’Reilly’s comments, but it’s unlikely that he will apologize and unthinkable that he’ll resign.

In conservative circles today, in fact, high-profile expressions of anti-Muslim bigotry are as routine as anti-black or anti-Jewish slurs were a half-century ago. In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain vowed not to appoint a Muslim to his cabinet. Far from crippling his candidacy, the comment preceded his meteoric (if short-lived) ascent into the lead in national polls. Newt Gingrich traveled the country warning, “I believe Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States.” At its 2012 national convention, the GOP featured a Catholic priest, a rabbi, an evangelical minister, a Sikh, a Greek Orthodox archbishop, and two Mormon leaders but, conspicuously failed to invite an imam.

It’s not just conservative elites. A 2012 poll for the Arab American Institute found that while 29 percent of Democrats hold an “unfavorable” view of Muslims, among Republicans it's 57 percent. In 2013, two researchers at Carnegie Mellon sent out the resumes of a fictitious Christian and Muslim job applicant with the same credentials. In the 10 states where Barack Obama recorded his highest vote percentage, the two applicants received interview requests at the same rate. In the 10 states where Romney did best, by contrast, the Christian applicant was more than eight times more likely to be asked for an interview.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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