In the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, statements made by Republican presidential candidates about how to control radical Islam have fueled concerns and raised questions among Muslim Americans and conservative constituents alike about current political rhetoric and its consequences for Muslims both nationwide and at Yale.
Following the deadly March 22 bombings in Belgium that were claimed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, several presidential candidates made statements both expressing solidarity for victims in Brussels and proposing action steps for preventing future attacks, some of which blamed Muslim communities worldwide for inspiring homegrown terrorism. Ted Cruz released a statement saying that he would “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Donald Trump, currently the conservative front-runner, reiterated his earlier statements that “we have no choice” but to impose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. For many Muslim students interviewed, the statements made by Trump and Cruz represent a moment in American political discourse that focuses on fear before reasonable policy and disagreement.
“My reaction to Cruz’s statements about surveillance was ‘Isn’t the police already doing that?’” Didem Kaya ’16, who is Muslim and from Turkey, wrote in an email to the News. “You don’t have to go very far; NYPD was reported on having spied on the Muslims right here on our campus. If the people reading this article right now do not have a problem with that, there is your real problem. Realer than Donald Trump … I do not think he believes all the things he is saying … He is simply bringing back an old American idea, nativism, and putting it back in the market.”
Mujtaba Wani ’17 said that though Cruz and Trump’s statements should be “disqualifying” remarks for a presidential candidate, he was not necessarily surprised by the rhetoric, echoing Kaya’s reference to the New York Police Department’s 2006– 07 monitoring of the Muslim Students’ Association at Yale, as well as similar student groups around the northeast. For Muslim students reacting to candidates’ statements, concern was not necessarily about their proposed policies, but rather over the fact that statements calling for placing restrictions on Muslims have been so popular with voters.
But for Trump and Cruz supporters interviewed, this type of political rhetoric from the candidates is justified given constituents’ real fears in the face of rising terrorism. Supporters of these politicians cited Pew Research Center studies that look at Muslim demographics and attitudes both in the U.S. and abroad. According to a Jan. 6 Pew study, Muslims comprise 10 percent of legal immigrants coming to the U.S., and about 1 percent of the total U.S. population, a number expected to double by 2050. The rise in Muslim immigration from countries with high support of Sharia law — according to a 2013 Pew study — legitimizes concern about Islamic terrorism, Daniel Wasserman ’19, a Cruz supporter, said. Karl Notturno ’17, a Trump supporter, referenced a 2014 Pew poll in which Muslims in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African countries and territories were asked about support of suicide bombings to “defend Islam from its enemies.” The answers “often” or “sometimes” averaged about 25 percent for the 18 countries polled — as low as 3 percent in Pakistan and as high as 62 percent in Gaza — and are a cause for concern, Notturno said. In a 2011 Pew poll conducted in the U.S., 86 percent of Muslim Americans answered “rarely” or “never” to the same question, and 48 percent responded that Islamic leaders are not doing enough to combat extremism.
“You look at the beliefs of Muslims, and many Muslims would like to institute Sharia law,” Wasserman said. “There are many peaceful Muslims. There are many Western Muslims who share our values that are assimilating into American culture. But to be scared of Muslim terrorism, of radical Islamic terrorism — in the words of Sen. Cruz — is reasonable. It is a very reasonable fear to have because it is a legitimate threat. To imply it is a phobia, to imply it is irrational — it’s not irrational to be afraid of Islam when people have these beliefs and people take these actions.”
These fears are shared by many Americans post-9/11, said Omar Zaki ’18, who is Muslim American and identifies as a conservative, adding that the important thing during presidential elections is to consider how candidates and voters choose to act on these fears. Mary Turfah ’16, who is also a Muslim American, and others interviewed agreed that the fear of ISIS and Islamic extremism is justified. However, ISIS’s terrorism, though frightening because of the way fighters practice their Islam, is not the result of an abstract religion, but rather of the individuals’ manipulation of it, making any “lumping together” of the entire religious group — one of 1.6 billion people — “ridiculous,” Turfah said.
Because of Islam’s portrayal in the media, ISIS fighters have become the face of Islam for many Americans who are not exposed to Muslims in any other context, Turfah added. Muslim students interviewed referred to Islam’s “otherizing” effect which separates Muslims from the larger community as a result of Islam’s cultural and religious differences. To many, Islam is an unknown entity, and thus becomes something to be feared, particularly when high-profile political figures play on this “otherness,” Turfah said.
“I think [Trump and Cruz] are smart enough to know that Islam is far more complex than what they are portraying it as, and they are using it to play on … ignorance about Islam among a lot of the electorate, especially among their voters,” said Andrew Walchuk DIV ’17, who organized an anti-Islamophobia campaign at the Yale Law School following the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015. “They are using this lack of exposure to Islam to create this ‘bogeyman’ that people are afraid of and they need to be protected from. They are able to create these essentialized notions of Islam that people just don’t have the daily context to counteract.”
Both Muslims within the Yale community and those supporting Cruz or Trump said that the policies proposed by the candidates are unlikely to be implemented but rather function as rhetorical strategies to garner support in today’s political climate. Furthermore, these issues are not isolated to conservative politics but exist also on the left, Wani said. Kaya added that despite the continuation of the use of weaponized drones in the current presidential administration, supporters of President Barack Obama tend to overlook fatal drone strikes “that kill innocent ‘brown’ people” due to Obama’s support of LGBTQ rights taking primacy in voters’ minds. The same danger, she said, can happen with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, who though championed by white feminists, could continue similar policies.
Moving forward, Muslim students emphasized the role that education and inclusivity will play in shifting the rhetoric away from both Islamophobia and a presidential campaign run more on emotion than rationality. Turfah said that though politicians have always used feelings to attract support, the ratio of rhetoric playing on prolific fear to “actual conversation” is skewed. Another primary issue with the dialogue is that it “draws a line” between Muslims and other Americans, protecting the latter group at the expense of the former, Walchuk said. Zaki added that media rhetoric calling for Muslims to assimilate into Western society is equally damaging. Hints of Muslim suppression on the news raise questions that lead to a higher risk of terrorism, especially for young Muslim Americans who, if exposed to rhetoric that implies America “hates” Muslims, could turn to ISIS instead, Zaki said.
“What is important to realize is at the end of the day, we are all people,” he said. “I won’t stand here and say that some refugees entering America tomorrow don’t have thoughts of ‘I hate America.’ There will be people who don’t like America coming to the United States. At the same time, what actions can we take now to make these people feel more included rather than excluded, because exclusion is what leads to terrorism.”