The GOP's Islamophobia Problem

Will conservatives confront rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Republican Party?

Brian Frank/Reuters

Did Craig Hicks murder Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha yesterday in Chapel Hill because they were Muslim? We don’t yet know for sure.

But we know this: In America today, the level of public anti-Muslim bigotry is shockingly high. Politicians and pundits, usually on the right, say things about Muslims that they would be immediately fired for saying about Christians or Jews. And they’ll keep doing so until prominent conservatives express the same outrage when Muslims are defamed that they summon when the victims are Christians or Jews. In the 1950s, National Review founder William F. Buckley ran anti-Semites out of the conservative movement. It’s time for his successors to do the same with Islamophobes.

In 2016, for the second straight presidential election, the Republican primary field will include at least one candidate with nakedly anti-Muslim views. I’m not talking about candidates who denounce “radical Islam.” I’m not talking about Newt Gingrich, who in 2011 absurdly claimed that “Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States.” I’m not even talking about Bobby Jindal, who kept repeating the lie that Europe contains “no-go” zones where non-Muslims are not allowed, even after it was repudiated by Fox News.

I’m talking about candidates who don’t cloak their prejudice at all. In 2012, the prime offender was Herman Cain. “I happen to side with the people in Murfreesboro,” Cain said, after the residents of that Tennessee town tried to block the building of a mosque. Cain explained that while banning churches or synagogues constitutes religious discrimination, banning mosques does not. Because “Islam is both a religion and a set of laws, Sharia law,” Cain explained, “that’s not discriminating based upon religion.” When asked whether he would feel “comfortable appointing a Muslim, either in your cabinet or as a federal judge?” Cain replied, “No, I will not,” because “there is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.”

There’s not much subtlety here. Had Cain said communities should be able to ban churches because Christians impose their sexual morality on others, or that he would not appoint a Jew to his cabinet because Jews are loyal to Israel, he’d have been hounded from the race. But because Cain made his comments about Muslims, he felt no real pressure to drop out from his own ideological side. To the contrary, he continued to rise in the polls after he made those comments, only leaving the race in the wake of an unrelated sex scandal.

That was last time. This time, the most naked bigot in the emerging Republican field is Mike Huckabee. Earlier this week, Huckabee said that “Everything he [Obama] does is against what Christians stand for, and he’s against the Jews in Israel. The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community.” There’s no artifice here. Huckabee’s not condemning Obama for being soft on ISIS or even “radical Islam.” He’s condemning Obama for caring about Muslims. If you don’t see the bigotry, try flipping it around. Imagine if Huckabee had said that Obama “is against what Christians stand for, and he’s against the Muslims in the Middle East. The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Jewish community.” Republicans would be, rightly, calling for his head.

There’s a pattern here. In 2011, Huckabee said Christians shouldn’t rent space in their churches to Muslims because “Muslim group[s]” say “that Jesus Christ and all the people that follow him are a bunch of infidels who should be essentially obliterated.” Huckabee wasn’t talking about al-Qaeda. He accused ordinary American Muslims, who might need space to pray, of wanting to see Christians “obliterated.” Then, in 2013, he called Islam “a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet in their so-called holiest days.” Not al-Qaeda or jihadists or terrorists, but Islam itself. According to Huckabee, in other words, Muslims want Christians “obliterated” and Islam promotes murder. He went on to say that “the Muslims will go to the mosque, and they will have their day of prayer, and they come out of there like uncorked animals—throwing rocks and burning cars.”

Uncorked animals. Not very subtle. Yet if there’s a single prominent conservative who has said Huckabee’s anti-Muslim slurs disqualify him as a presidential candidate, I haven’t come across them.

Muslims are not Latinos. They don’t have the numbers to punish Republicans for demonizing them. But that just makes the party’s moral challenge all the more stark. Tolerating Islamophobia is unlikely to hurt the GOP politically. It may even help. But it’s still a disgrace, and whether or not the murders in North Carolina were a hate crime, rhetoric like Huckabee’s and Cain’s will spawn hate crimes sooner or later. Let’s hope decent conservatives begin speaking out before it does.