Islamophobia Stirred by Presidential Candidates Like Trump is Nothing New

“We’ve seen this kind of Muslim fearmongering in an attempt to attract voters before.”

Muslim faithfuls take part in a special morning prayer to start their Eid al-Fitr celebrations on a field at the Prospect Park in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note: We published this opinion piece in response to comments made by Donald Trump, but the heart of the argument is worth considering as we watch the events unfolding in Paris, France, and the potential for Muslims to be the focus of speculation and more.

It’s that time again. The Republican race for a presidential nominee has, once more, taken a decidedly anti-Muslim turn.

At a campaign rally in New Hampshire, a man told frontrunner Donald Trump that “we have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims,” and asked “when can we get rid of them?” Trump’s answer was hardly consoling to the millions of Muslims who live in this country. “We’re looking into that and a lot of other things,” Trump said.

Next came Ben Carson’s appearance on Meet the Press, where the candidate stated that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Carson seemed ignorant of Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution which plainly states “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” But rather than paying a political price for his narrow-minded views, Carson has been rewarded with a record-breaking spike in his fundraising campaign.

In fact, today’s anti-Muslim climate has even prompted an opinion survey group, Public Policy Polling, to ask Iowa’s Republican voters if Islam should be legal in the United States. The question is troubling enough, but the answer was terrifying, with only 49 percent saying yes, and a combined 51 percent saying no or that they don’t know.

What does this question even mean? If you’re caught possessing a Qur’an and a prayer mat, will you be thrown in jail and charged with the crime of being Muslim? What ever happened to religious liberty, a bedrock value in this country?

We’ve seen this kind of anti-Muslim fearmongering in an attempt to attract voters before.

In the run up to the previous Republican race for a nominee, Herman Cain stated he wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to his cabinet and would require loyalty oaths from Muslims before they could serve in his administration. Newt Gingrich threatened that the United States would soon become “dominated by radical Islamists,” and Rick Santorum endorsed profiling Muslims due to their faith.

This was gutter politics in 2012, and it is gutter politics today.

The candidates are both drawing on and feeding into a popular fear that Muslim-Americans are not citizens entitled to the same rights as everyone else, but are dangerous outsiders ready to usurp the Constitution while the rest of us are sleeping. Ben Carson is only the latest candidate to push the ludicrous claim that Muslims want to install Sharia law in this country. The notion is as fantastical as it is impossible. Muslims harbor no such desire, and the Constitution is and will remain the law the land.

There was a time not too long ago when Catholic-Americans were similarly vilified and their loyalty to this country likewise questioned.

When New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, who was Catholic, ran for president in 1928, he faced much opposition due to his faith. Alabama Senator Thomas Heflin railed against Smith, saying he represented the “crowning effort of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to gain control of the United States.” By 1960, we had elected a Catholic for president, and currently Congress is almost one-third Catholic without the country bending inexorably toward Rome. A paranoid observer, might say the pope’s address to Congress last week was a “crowning effort” of sorts.

Like the anti-Catholic movements of the past, the Islamophobia of our present is based on the politics of exploiting people’s fears. When our politicians spread false fears about Muslims, it damages all of us and takes our attention away from the legitimate issues confronting us as a nation. Fear and hatred of Muslims is something that Muslim-Americans confront every day. The last thing we need is for our politicians to be opportunistically fanning these noxious flames.

Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor of English at Brooklyn College (CUNY), is the author of How Does It Feel To Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin), which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Nonfiction. His latest book, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror (NYU Press), has just been released.