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Are politics of fear driving anti-Muslim sentiment?

December 8, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
The threat of attacks at home can drive divisive and dangerous rhetoric. How do we keep our fear in check? Gwen Ifill explores that question with Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic, Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Khaled Beydoun of the Barry University School of Law.

GWEN IFILL: In the wake of last week’s San Bernardino shootings and the harsh politicized debate that has followed, we, like many news organizations, have been debating how to cover the story of terrorism at home, backlash against Muslims, and how we as a nation cope with fear and loathing.

Without ignoring the history of such divisive rhetoric, or the danger it can present, we also recognize there is real fear and worry. But where is the line?

We search for that answer with three people who follow these issues.

Dalia Mogahed is the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. She’s the co-author of the book “Who Speaks For Islam?” Ron Brownstein writes for “The Atlantic” and “National Journal,” specializing in the demographics of the nation’s politics. And Khaled Beydoun is an associate professor of law at Barry University in Orlando. He studies the history and intersection of race, religion and national security.

Thank you all for joining us.

Ron Brownstein, overall, what is animating this discussion we are seeing kind of consume us right now?

RON BROWNSTEIN, National Journal: Yes. I think you’re seeing three distinct currents converge to produce this really explosive debate we’re having.

We’re already having a really volatile debate on American identity even before Paris. And I think there were two things that were contributing to that, first, economic strain. We’re 15 years now where the median income is lower than it was in 2000, a period of stagnation that is almost unprecedented in American history.

Second, we are living through the most — while that is happening, we are living through the most profound demographic change through the turn of the 20th century. We see these milestones falling one after the other. A majority of our public school students are now non-white. A majority of our 0-5 population is now non-white.

White Christians for the first time ever are less than half of the total American population. So you could see, even in the early stages of the presidential campaigns, all of these issues coming together to kind of raise a series of concerns about how — whether — whether Americans and particularly blue-collar whites, older whites, non-urban whites, the most religiously conservative whites, were comfortable with the changes going on in the country.

But when you add to that the threat of terror that was first in Paris and then here in American soil in San Bernardino, it just adds just an enormously volatile additional element. And I think that’s what’s produced this combustible mix that we’re now living with.

GWEN IFILL: Dalia Mogahed, what is legitimate in this fear that we’re talking about, this combustible potion that Ron Brownstein just outlined, and what is not?

DALIA MOGAHED, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding: Well, I think that all Americans are concerned for their safety, I mean, from everything from mass shootings to terrorism.

We are all very concerned about violence. That is legitimate. And I think we need to talk about the best ways to keep ourselves safe. What is not legitimate and what is in fact actually very dangerous is to broaden that fear to an entire community, to make Muslims as a community, as a group collectively guilty for the crimes of specific individuals.

The reason that’s dangerous, not only unproductive, is because that’s exactly what ISIS wants us to do. This is playing into their narrative. They want a war between Muslims and everyone else. They are — that feeds their narrative and feeds their ability to recruit.

GWEN IFILL: Khaled Beydoun, we have lived through this demonization of the Chinese. We have lived through the demonization of the Japanese in this country. What — we have been here before.

KHALED BEYDOUN, Barry University: Yes, the culture of, you know, scapegoating an entire group is nothing new in the United States, obviously with the interment of Japanese-Americans circa World War II.

The idea of that stereotyped guilt, the idea that an individual’s race or phenotype is signal or symbolic of some kind of national security threat was well embedded in the American narrative, also with the Chinese Exclusion Acts.

There’s also three precedents, if you will, where the idea of banning Muslims signifies that Trump’s rhetoric or message is nothing novel. First, you had a Naturalization Act from 1790 to 1952 which made the naturalization, the citizenship of Muslim immigrants illegal because Islam was viewed as being irreconcilable with whiteness, which was a prerequisite for citizenship.

Second, you had National Origins Act of 1924, which was on the books until 1965, which had very strict quotas against the entry of individuals from Asian countries that were Muslim majority. And, third, you had the decimation of the indigenous Muslim population, enslaved Africans, who actually comprised 1.2 million people in the Antebellum South.

So the idea of banning Muslims is nothing novel, in addition to the precedent of other groups being demonized as well.

GWEN IFILL: Ron Brownstein, in political terms, there — every poll I look at shows there’s a reason for there to be this kind of a demonization, as it were, which is that the parties see things differently, or their supporters…

RON BROWNSTEIN: Enormously differently, really on — across the board on these issues.

And are immigrants, broadly speaking, more a burden or a benefit to American society? Most Americans still say benefit. A clear majority of Republicans, particularly those without college degrees, will say burden.

Is Islam incompatible with American values? That is something where there is actually a majority of Americans in some polls, you know, but much stronger in the Republican Party, will say yes. Clearly, across the board, I think, if you look at the two parties now, I think this is possibly the central divide between them.

I have described the Democrats as a coalition of transformation. They rely on the groups, millennials, minorities, socially liberal, upscale whites, who tend to be comfortable with the cultural and demographic change we’re living through.

The Republicans I have described as a coalition of restoration. They are relying on preponderant majorities among the groups who consistently in polling show the most unease about the broader changes in American society, all of which, as I said, have now been turbo-charged by being connected to this very legitimate issue of safety and terrorism, has really kind of, I think, intensified those concerns and may — and largely explains Donald Trump’s improvement in the polls in the last several weeks.

GWEN IFILL: Does that explain it to you, Dalia Mogahed, which is that when you look at these numbers, when you look at this disconnect among Democrats, Republicans, whatever, that this was bound to happen?

DALIA MOGAHED: Well, I think it’s interesting to look historically on where these numbers have been.

And when you look at American sentiment about Islam and Muslims, what you find is that anti-Muslim sentiment spikes, not actually after terrorist attacks, which is what I expected to see, but during election cycles and in the run-up to the Iraq War.

So, anti-Muslim sentiment is a political tool that is used primarily by the Republican Party to drum up votes. And I think that that’s detrimental to our democracy, not only dangerous for Muslims.

GWEN IFILL: You’re saying that this sentiment doesn’t exist at all absent an election?

DALIA MOGAHED: It of course exists, but I’m looking at when it spikes.

So, when you look at anti-Muslim sentiment, it actually didn’t increase after 9/11. If you look before and after 9/11, there was virtually no change, in fact, a slight improvement. When you look before and after the Boston bombing, again, no change.

But you have a 15-point spike among Republicans during election cycles. That signals to me that what is driving anti-Muslim sentiment, at least increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, is a political campaign, is a manufactured effort to create fear and turn fear into votes.

The problem, though, is that we all lose when this happens. First of all, in all cases, it didn’t work. That — that strategy simply didn’t work. The most Islamophobic Republican candidates in both primaries didn’t win those primaries.

But even though they didn’t win, so they lost in that case, we all lost because anti-Muslim sentiment and fear hurts our freedom. It makes us less critical. It makes us less holding our — it makes us less likely to hold our government accountable. It makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity and prejudice.

And this is corrosive to our democracy.

GWEN IFILL: Khaled Beydoun, what is the — is there a differentiation between hate speech and fear speech in this kind of context?

KHALED BEYDOUN: Well, I think they emanate from one another.

And I think that we tend to spend a lot of time focusing on Islamophobia, not the root causes of Islamophobia, which is ignorance and misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims. If we can erode those two things, then Islamophobia is not going to spike up during times of crisis.

There is pervasive ignorance of the actual contours of Muslim identity on both sides of party lines. It’s — Islam, for one, is always framed as an immigrant faith, a foreign faith, yet the biggest plurality of Muslims in this country are black at one-third.

So, if we really want to get at the heart of undermining and curbing Islamophobia, the real strategy is to kind of retrench this ignorance, retrench these misrepresentations of Islam and Muslims, which feeds hate speech, which feeds the chilling and the undermining of civil liberties of Muslims of all races and of all of classes and of all of walks.

GWEN IFILL: Lacking the political clout that other groups have, Ron, what is the realism — reality in the ability for that to happen?

Well, look, yes, as I said, I think we were having a difficult enough time dealing with the changing face of America when we were just thinking about kind of the cultural implications, the demographic implications, and the economic competition.

I mean, there are real issues about the economic strain of many of the voters who are most uneasy about this. You add to that the terrorist and the safety issue and the whole thing just becomes vastly more combustible.

And I think what the president said the other night — he had a twofold message. He said, on the one hand, we have to combat this kind of broad-brush painting of any group, but he also said that there was a responsibility in the Muslim-American community to be vigilant and dedicated and forceful in kind of rooting out the kind of behavior that we saw lead — the kind of attitudes that we saw lead to the attack in San Bernardino.

And that, I think, it’s important — I think it is important for everybody to recognize how volatile the situation is, because it was so difficult even before this. After this, I think this is all just that much more explosive.

GWEN IFILL: And, interestingly enough, a lot of Republicans actually agreed with the president, though they wouldn’t put it that way, about this vigilance issue.

Ron Brownstein of “National Journal” and “Atlantic,” Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and Khaled Beydoun of Barry University, thank you all very much.