The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have spurred a wave of anti-Islam sentiment among politicians and public figures in the United States.
In the wake of the shooting in San Bernardino, California on Wednesday, politicians and public figures at first focused on offering condolences, many while still defending the right to bear arms. Once Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were revealed as the suspected shooters, however, many, like Ted Cruz, were suddenly changing their tunes to push militaristic agendas.
Donald Trump has proposed asking Muslims to wear “badges” and claimed he saw people “cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed. Bill Maher implied that Muslims do not share values with Americans, although there are many Muslim residents of the United States. Ted Cruz has called for a “religious test” for refugees in order to screen out Muslims hoping to flee the Syrian conflict zone. Following the tragedy on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Cruz also cited this as a “time of war” on Twitter, implying that President Obama has been “rationalizing radical Islamic terrorism,” presumably by not taking aggressive action overseas or in the United States.
Perhaps most tellingly, presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich gave a speech last month showing how he would create an agency mandated to spread “Judeo-Christian values,” followed by a piece in TIME reiterating his stance on the need for boots on the ground to combat the terror group ISIS.
Far from spreading any nuanced understanding of the political climate or empathy between communities, these sentiments play into an imperialist framework, one that suggests the only moral way of life is one consistent with a narrow set of beliefs belonging to specific faith groups in the West. For that matter, “Judeo-Christian values” will not stop terror, because promoting them in the way Kasich proposes reiterates the very divisions ISIS is exploiting and makes the assumption that Muslim values are synonymous with terror, which is both Islamophobic and untrue.
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In a poor showing of understanding, this kind of rhetoric actually builds the growing tensions between communities. ISIS has positioned itself as a paradise for marginalized people, luring isolated Muslims and converts; public figures in the West stoking Islamophobia fuels the type of divisive narrative that makes that marginalization more severe. Kasich’s agency is particularly troubling in this context as it promotes continued interference abroad in the name of “freedom,” which Kasich cites as a “Judeo-Christian value,” along with “human rights” and democracy.” Arguably, the last decade of war and invasion was done with the intention of spreading these “values.” Terror groups like ISIS cite these years of Western interference, which have also included droning campaigns, religious persecution, and colonial legacies, as reasons for their attacks.
The speeches and discourse surrounding women and the “Western ethic” have also been extremely troubling. Kasich and others are quick to throw around the need to send messages of “respect for women,” presumably non-Western women. The military action taken on these women’s “behalf” seldom has a well thought-out plan and rarely seems authentic, robbing them of their agency entirely. And it is not as if these women are being offered any shelter in the United States once they have been displaced, either by Western action or terrorist groups. So who is to say initiatives like Kasich’s would do a better job?
And exclusionary, Islamophobic policies on U.S. soil will do nothing to stop terror. As Zack Beauchamp writes at Vox, denying refugees is doing exactly what ISIS wants:
ISIS despises Syrian refugees: It sees them as traitors to the caliphate. By leaving, they turn their back on the caliphate. ISIS depicts its territory as a paradise, and fleeing refugees expose that as a lie. But if refugees do make it out, ISIS wants them to be treated badly — the more the West treats them with suspicion and fear, the more it supports ISIS’s narrative of a West that is hostile to Muslims and bolsters ISIS’s efforts to recruit from migrant communities in Europe.
Furthermore, the values Kasich identifies as “Judeo-Christian” are not inherently linked to religion alone. Kasich stated, “U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting have lost their focus on the case for Western values and ideals and effectively countering our opponents’ propaganda and disinformation. I will consolidate them into a new agency that has a clear mandate to promote the core, Judeo-Christian Western values that we and our friends and allies share—the values of human rights, the values of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association.”
When has Christianity or Judaism ever been the only places for such values to exist—and where in those scriptures are these values particularly promoted? It seems as if Kasich is using these religions to disguise a paternalistic, condescending agenda that overlooks the possibility of morals without Judaism or Christianity, implying that they have to be taught to those who are not Jewish or Christian. This agenda also erases the fact that Islam promotes many of the same values as the Jewish and Christian faith. A number of fundamental Muslim values are anchored in human rights and equity, but all of these have been erased in the waves of Islamophobic rhetoric.
More broadly, the narratives being espoused by Trump, Kasich, Maher, and others overlook the fact that Muslims are being put at risk. Kasich, for example, seems to think that only Christian Syrians are the victims of ISIS. Not only is this inaccurate—more Muslims than Christians have been killed by ISIS—it ignores the fact that ISIS does uphold faith as an exclusionary criterion for its practice. Shia Muslims are a very specific target for ISIS, which has contributed to their genocide.
And as politicians have stoked more fear, an increasing number of stories of hate crimes and dangerous behavior toward visible Muslims have been arising in the U.S. media. Over Thanksgiving weekend, a Muslim taxi driver was shot in Pittsburgh; he told authorities that the passenger who did so faked a missing wallet, entered his home, and emerged with a rifle, shooting the driver. The driver told the Post-Gazette that the passenger spoke throughout the ride of the Prophet Mohammed and ISIS killing people. Meanwhile, a Texas man who had organized an armed protest outside a mosque also published on Facebook the home addresses and names of Muslims and “Muslim sympathizers.”
Still, when asked about those in the United States who don’t necessarily belong to the Jewish or Christian faiths, Kasich was unwavering. He said, “I also think that we have many moderate Muslims who share our views. … There are many of them that stand up and speak out and they should be included in this and they’d be a very effective part of this,” he responded. “So to support the Jewish and Christian tradition also involves the ability to have tolerance.”
As a practicing Muslim and active member of the larger community, this statement makes me uncomfortable. Kasich infers that many people should subscribe to religious traditions to which they don’t belong in the name of “tolerance.” Arguably, this undermines the entire foundation of tolerance, as true tolerance would encompass acceptance of people, regardless of faith.
Countless Islamic groups, scholars, religious leaders, and people, including myself, have denounced ISIS, yet each time an attack occurs, public figures seem willing to conflate terrorists and Muslims as interchangeable subjects. It draws divides of “us” versus “them” more blatantly. It reiterates that our people’s lives are worth less than Western non-Muslims.
It’s 2015. Beyond tolerance, can we move forward with co-existence?