America's Autumn of Islamophobia

After a summer of advocating for religious freedom, U.S. conservatives suddenly shift to voicing troubling views about Muslims.

Chris Keane / Reuters

The United States seems poised to follow up its summer of religious freedom with an autumn of Islamophobia.

Last week, in New Hampshire, Donald Trump was questioned by a man who said President Obama was a foreign Muslim and appeared to call for the removal of all Muslims from America. While the first half of that equation got more attention, it was the second half that was more virulently hateful. Then, on Sunday’s Meet the Press, Trump’s fellow Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was asked about the prospect of a Muslim president and replied, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

Trump and Carson, as leaders in the GOP race, get the most attention, but they are far from alone in making this sort of comment about Muslims. At the same time, a U.S. plan to welcome more Syrian refugees is encountering fierce opposition from politicians like Representative Peter King—who once described himself as an “avowed” supporter of the terrorist Irish Republican Army—on the grounds that some refugees might actually be terrorists.

Meanwhile, the arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed for bringing a homemade clock to school near Dallas elicited a great deal of criticism, including from the president, but it also inspired plenty of boorish comments. Sarah Palin remarked, “That’s a clock, and I’m the Queen of England.” The maverick leftist comedian Bill Maher also expressed skepticism. “People at the school thought it might be a bomb, because it looks exactly like a fucking bomb,” he said. Then he strangely argued—in consecutive sentences—that Mohamed’s arrest was both not ethnic profiling and a perfectly justifiable example of ethnic profiling: “It’s not the color of his skin. For the last 30 years, it’s been the one culture that has been blowing shit up over and over again.”

Maher is an outlier in this group—not because of his unabashed Islamophobia, which he has has expressed repeatedly, but because of his marriage of convenience with a group of mostly Christian conservatives, whom he typically delights in mocking. The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage in June reinvigorated a national debate about the meaning of religious freedom. If gay Americans have the right to get married, are people who disapprove of such relationships obliged to acquiesce?

Initially, this debate focused mostly on private services—cake bakers who didn’t want to work for same-sex weddings, for example. In some cases, these appeals to religious freedom won sympathy even from supporters of gay marriage. Then, in a surprising turn as the summer ended, the debate shifted to the duties of public officials, with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to issue licenses for same-sex weddings, taking the spotlight. Her supporters insisted that even though she is a government official sworn to uphold laws, she deserves accommodation for her sincerely held opposition to same-sex marriage.

While Islamophobia is nothing new in American politics—four years ago, Herman Cain argued that “a majority” of American Muslims were extremists, and said he would not appoint one to his administration—it is ironic to see some of the very same conservatives who argued so forcefully for the freedom of a government official to be able to hold on to her religious views while in office pivot so quickly to making an argument that there ought to be a religious test for serving in the nation’s highest office. Carson, for example, defended Davis. “When she took the job, the Supreme Court hadn’t made this ruling,” he said. “If they had, she might not have taken this job. So I think they have a responsibility to accommodate her.” (His statements on the case were somewhat contradictory.)

Carson’s comments on Muslims are particularly troubling. Voting is a personal act, and citizens have every right to disqualify candidates from receiving their votes for any reason. Worse was his statement that Islam is not consistent with the Constitution. His argument is not just that he, as a Christian, doesn’t want a Muslim president. It is the radical and bigoted idea that Muslims do not or should not belong to the American polity. Nor was this a simple slip of the tongue or absence of mind. A Carson spokesman ratified the comments later Sunday: “He has great respect for the Muslim community, but there is a huge gulf between the faith and practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values.” (Strangely, Carson suggested he might be open to supporting a Muslim member of Congress—though the progressives views of the two serving now might not pass his muster.)

It’s pretty jarring for politicians to make these statements right on the heels of the “religious freedom” debate. One takeaway is that the debate about religious freedom is, for many participants, actually a debate about Christian freedom. A second, however, might be that the debate about Islam is perhaps also less about religion than about wariness of outsiders. One common thread in these comments are the vast over-generalizations about Muslims: They’re likely to be terrorists, Peter King suggests. Racial profiling is reasonable, Maher insists. Their beliefs are, en bloc, inconsistent with America, Carson says. “It wasn’t people from Sweden that blew up the World Trade Center,” Trump smirks, even as he rolls out the tired “some of my best friends” retort.

Viewed from the perspective of the Kim Davis debate, none of this makes a great deal of sense. So think instead of Donald Trump’s rise this summer from punchline to poll-topper, achieved in large part by making inflammatory comments about immigrants from Mexico. Now, it appears, he’s found a new target. If the religious-freedom conversation seems at odds with the early-autumn epidemic of Islamophobia, it also seems like a logical successor to Trump’s xenophobia.