We are finding ourselves in yet another visceral episode of American-style anti-Muslim rage. If your local science-hacking Muslim teenager isn’t handcuffed for trying to take clocks to their next level, your friendly soapboxing Republican presidential candidate is telling him he can’t be president.
Not surprisingly, there has been a complicated morass of Islamophobia for some time, especially since 9/11. But more recently, GOP hopefuls have been warming up to a comfortable, partywide Muslim-bashing rant to get the base riled up, with ample amounts of “the jihadists are coming” fearmongering in these first months of the campaign season. It all came to a head this past week in an eerie (but expected) alternate replay of John McCain’s admirable hand slap of a froth-at-the-mouth Birther in 2008. This time it’s a supporter of Republican front-runner Donald Trump who swore up and down that President Barack Obama “ … is one.”
“We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims,” said the questioner, with no interruption or pushback from Trump. “When can we get rid of them?”
Then the anti-Muslim rhetoric spiraled out of control as Ben Carson doubled down on Muslims not meeting an imaginary litmus test for the presidency. He attempted a clumsy “What I really meant was … ” walk-back on Fox News’ Hannity this past Monday, asserting that if a Muslim denounced Shariah, or Islamic law, he or she might be acceptable, but Carson is still defending the gist of what he first said.
And, to Carson, why not? His soft-luster debate performance last week just knocked him down to third place in polls (pdf), behind surging Carly Fiorina. Bashing Muslims should do the trick, right? HuffPost-YouGov’s April “Muslim Life in America” poll (pdf) found that 55 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam (even though 87 percent have never stepped inside a mosque), including 76 percent of Republicans. For this primary season, it just works.
“Carson’s beliefs that being Muslim bars Americans from being civically engaged, upholding our nation’s laws or serving in elected positions of leadership comes from a place of bigotry,” Robert McCaw, government-affairs manager at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Root.
But it’s not just bigotry. And it’s not just Republicans, either. It’s comfortable societywide ignorance of that rather vibrant Muslim political community in the United States. While it’s already fact-checked incorrect to claim that a Muslim can’t be president, it’s borderline imbecilic to act as if Muslims have never been a part of American political life. “CAIR itself has built a list of some 500,000 registered American Muslim voters,” McCaw noted. “Generally, Muslim voters in swing states such as Florida, Virginia and Ohio continue to play a critical role in tipping the elections to candidates that the community favors.”
As a result, Carson’s original comments are not only undemocratic and unprincipled but also a slap in the face of the history of Muslims in U.S. political life. This is nothing new: Focused so much on our dominant Judeo-Christian culture, American schools aren’t necessarily jumping up to point out the significance of Muslim history in the United States. There was white anxiety over Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali’s activism in the 1960s, and it hasn’t changed today, with rising nervousness over the approach of the Million Man March 20th anniversary.
Not only is there evidence that Muslims have been in the Americas since before Columbus, as pointed out by Howard University African-studies Chair Sulayman Nyang and others, but rough estimates noted in the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South claim that anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of African slaves forced into Christian conversion were originally Muslim.
Of the 7 million Muslims in the U.S., nearly a quarter are black; blacks make up the highest proportion of native-born Muslims, 40 percent, and an overwhelming majority of the Muslim politicians whom we do know of (since it’s not a requirement for elected officials to state their religion) are African American.
That’s nothing new: Black Muslims have been among the most vocal—if not controversial—and active participants in American political and cultural life for some time now (from enslaved Senegalese scholar Omar Ibn Said to modern-day advocacy in the form of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and athlete-turned-commentator Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). So an accurate reading of history illuminates the levels of idiocy and misinformation surrounding Muslim Americans and the role their religion has played for some time in American politics, as well as the layer of vicious anti-blackness in the debate.
Which means that the bigot-inspired debate (as disturbing as it is) should present a national opportunity to shed needed light on the nation’s Muslims, as opposed to a conversation consumed by ratchet sound bites. Contrary to popular assumptions, Muslim-American elected officials do exist. Two of them are sitting black members of Congress: Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.). Both are multiterm re-elected congressmen from major urban districts sitting on key House committees, such as Financial Services and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Ironically, Carson—the open Muslim that he is—sits on one of the most sensitive national-security committees in Congress.
The presence of Carson and Ellison in Congress might not be proportional to the overall American Muslim community’s share of the national population (which is just over 2 percent), but it speaks to the emerging political influence of Muslims in the U.S. McCaw claims that during the 2014 congressional elections, Muslim voters “turned out at almost twice the average of all American voters in previous midterm elections,” with 20 percent or more of the Muslim electorate supporting Republican gubernatorial candidates like Florida’s now-Gov. Rick Scott.
Perhaps, from a purely strategic standpoint, Muslims in America pose a problem for Republicans, since nearly three-quarters supported Democratic candidates in 2014. Enough Muslim Americans are voting overall (76 percent in the last cycle) that candidates like Carson should practice a bit of political caution before lashing out. It may be one reason presidential hopefuls Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are playing it smart, quickly rebuking Carson before that high Muslim-voter turnout reaches them. But if you were a politician who knew how many major mosques there were in states like Texas and South Carolina, you would, too.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.