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.
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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.

It would be comforting to believe this is merely a holdover from 9/11, and anti-Muslim bigotry will fade as we move further from that trauma. But according to the Arab American Institute poll, Republicans are 17 points more likely to dislike Muslims than they were in 2003 (although the numbers were even higher in 2010). Between 2002 and 2013, according to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Republicans who said Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence rose 29 points.

Even as public tolerance for most other forms of bigotry declines, hostility to Muslims has actually grown, despite the winding down of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the rise may be partially due to the end of those wars. After 9/11, George W. Bush told Americans that although we were fighting “bad Muslims” (al-Qaeda) “good Muslims”—who constituted the large majority—would embrace our invasions.

It hasn’t worked out that way. My hunch is that faced with the realization that many Iraqis and Afghans hated America’s occupation of their countries, Democrats have been more likely to blame the U.S. for starting those wars in the first place. According to polls, large majorities of Democrats now see both Iraq and Afghanistan as mistakes. Republicans don’t. For Republicans, I suspect, America’s problems in Iraq and Afghanistan say less about us than about them. They prove that Bush was wrong: Most Muslims really are our enemy. Otherwise, why would they oppose our efforts to make them free?

In 2006, when O’Reilly called for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, he said “the essential problem” is that “there are so many nuts in the country—so many crazies—that we can’t control them.” In other words, America’s problem in Iraq is Iraqis. And virtually the only thing most Americans know about Iraqis, and Afghans, is that they’re Muslim.

Perhaps this explains some of the right-wing venom towards the Bergdahls. Sergeant Bergdahl may have done ill-advised and even reprehensible things. But it appears that he and his father reacted to America’s wartime troubles in Afghanistan not by blaming Afghans but blaming America’s war. That’s exactly what most conservatives—in their zeal to defend America’s righteousness—have refused to do. And in Bill O’Reilly’s eyes, this willingness to side with America’s enemies casts doubt on the Bergdahl’s character. It makes them almost like Muslims themselves.

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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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