[This piece was originally published on April 25, 2015. The candidates statements are updated frequently, and the introduction was updated in January 2016.]
Anti-Muslim rhetoric in American presidential campaigns is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, it’s only been a wedge issue in the four contests since 9/11, a period in which Muslims have increasingly been viewed through a lens of national security. As candidates vie for the White House, they invariably make the case that they’re tough when it comes to foreign policy, and resolute when it comes to protecting national security. Today, that inevitably involves talking about Islam.
Of course, it’s not just talking about Islam that’s the problem, but rather the degree to which that talk can veer off in the direction of prejudice and fear-mongering. We’ve seen it happen before.
In the lead-up to the 2012 race, Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich played to conspiracy theories about the influence of Islamic Sharia law. When asked if he would be comfortable appointing a Muslim either in a cabinet position or as a federal judge, Herman Cain said no. “There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government,” he continued.
The 2016 presidential election campaign has already deliver heaping doses of anti-Muslim rhetoric. GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson have received considerable attention for some of their statements about Muslims. In December 2015, Trump proposed that the United States temporarily “ban” all Muslims from the country, and in the fall of 2015, Ben Carson expressed his view that a Muslim shouldn’t be president. But other GOP candidates’ prejudicial statements have received less attention.
All three Democratic candidates — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Governor Martin O’Malley, and Senator Bernie Sanders have called out candidates like Trump for their statements about Muslims and used the term “Islamophobia” to describe the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and acts.
Below, we’ve compiled some of the problematic statements made by declared presidential contenders, and will document and analyze others as they occur. We look for statements that exhibit generalization (make a simplified statement about “Muslims” or “Islam” based on the actions of a select few); misattribution (suggest that an action carried out by a Muslim is necessarily linked to his or her faith); or reductionism (representing Muslims’ diversity to one single issue, i.e., jihad, Sharia, etc.). We also look for instances where candidates have appeared in public with controversial anti-Muslim figures, or where they fearmonger about issues related to Islam.
We have also highlighted below when candidates have explicitly spoken out against Islamophobia during the election season.
The absence of a declared candidate below suggests that we have not found statements or associations that exhibit or fuel Islamophobia, or that highlights or challenge Islamophobia.
See the candidates:
Trump Calls For Ban on Muslim Immigration In a campaign press release in early December 2015, Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” His proposal, which he reiterated in a press conference, was widely criticized by politicians on both the right and left. His plan for a Muslim ban is one of the clearest examples of Islamophobic rhetoric thus far in the election season, given that it is premised on a sweeping generalization of Muslims that pins the actions of a fraction of the population on members of the faith everywhere around the world. Trump doubled down on his proposed ban in his first television campaign ad in January 2016.
Trump Refuses to Challenge Anti-Muslim Supporter At a September campaign rally in New Hampshire, a supporter of Donald Trump told the candidate during a question and answer session that “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our president is one. You know he’s not even an American. We have training camps growing when [sic] they want to kill us. My question: When can we get rid of them?”
Rather than responding to the false suggestion that Obama is a Muslim, or as Colin Powell did in 2008, adding that “Muslim” is not a slur, and following the Islamic faith is not a bad thing, he instead replied that “We are going to be looking at a lot of different things.”
In May of 2015, Trump attended the Iowa National Security Action Summit where an attendee asked him what he believed was “the most prominent lie that the American public is being propagandized in regards to national security.” Trump’s response, seen in the clip below, included a mention of immigration. He said: “Muslims can come in but other people can’t; Christians can’t come into this country but Muslims can. Something has got to be coming down from the top,” Trump said. “Muslims can come in but Christians can’t, and the Muslims aren’t in danger but the Christians are.” The suggestion played into innuendos that Obama is in cahoots with Muslim groups, and gives them preferential treatment. It also plays into demographic fear mongering, by suggesting that Muslims are immigrating to the United States in large numbers, and that Muslim immigration is a bad thing to begin with.
In a 2010 interview with late-night talkshow host David Letterman, Trump discussed the Park51 Islamic Community Center in Manhattan. During the exchange, Trump remarked that the proposed building was “not appropriate” and “insensitive,” playing into to the logical fallacy of generalization (9/11 hijackers are bad, so other Muslims must be) and assigning collective blame. More concerning, though, was when Letterman asked Trump: “Does this, in fact, suggest that we are officially at war with Muslims?” Trump replied: “Well somebody knocked down the World Trade Center.” When Letterman pushed him on that remark, he walked it back, acknowledging that the United States is at war with the people who knocked down the towers. Responding to Letterman’s insistence that the Quran doesn’t compel Muslims towards “in your face” acts, Trump said: “Well, somebody knocked down the World Trade Center … Somebody’s blowing us up. Somebody’s blowing up buildings, and somebody’s doing lots of bad stuff.” Here’s the video of that exchange:
During the lead up to the 2012 presidential election, Donald Trump sat down with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly asked Trump if there was a “Muslim problem” in the world. Trump’s response: “Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t notice Swedish people knocking down the World Trade Center.” As in the previous example, Trump engages in generalization, taking the actions of a select few (the 9/11 hijackers) and suggesting that those actions constitute a “Muslim” problem overall. Here’s the clip:
Trump supported the Congressional hearings held by Rep. Peter King, that investigated “radicalization” in American Muslim communities. He told Fox News in 2011: “Frankly there are problems in the world. The problems seem to be centered around this one group. As long as the hearings are fair, I think Pete’s a very fair guy. As long as the hearings are fair, I think it’s fine.” Here, Trump generalizes by taking extreme examples and applying them to the overall group — American Muslims — who he suggests should be investigated. He also reduces “radicalization” to the Muslim community only.
Trump Would Close Some US Mosques to Fight ISIS In an interview in October of 2015, Fox Business host Stuart Varney asked Donald Trump about his ideas, if elected president, for combating ISIS. Varney referenced the UK, which has revoked passports of suspected extremists, and closed some mosques in which they operated. He asked if Trump would follow that lead. Trump replied, “I would do that. Absolutely. I think it’s great. I know they have lots of proposals over there. If you go out, you go fight for ISIS, you can’t come back. Why can’t you do it? You can do it here.”
Varney pressed him on the issue of closing mosques, asking if he could do such a thing as president, given laws regarding religious freedom. Trump said, “Well, I don’t know. I haven’t heard about the closing of a mosque. It depends on if the mosque is, you know, loaded for bear, I don’t know. You’re going to have to certainly look at it.”
After the Paris attacks, he also left open this option in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, saying: “There’s absolutely no choice.”
Trump Praises Discriminatory NYPD Muslim Spying Program On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on November 16, GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said this when asked what he would do domestically to prevent an attack by ISIS:
“You’re going to have to watch and study the mosques. Because a lot of talk is going on at the mosques, and from what I’ve heard in the old days, meaning a while ago, we had great surveillance going on in and around mosques in New York City…I’m not sure it’s a fact but I heard that under the old regime we had tremendous surveillance going on in and around the mosques of New York city.”
The spying program Trump praised did indeed exist. A secret program by the NYPD, the “Muslim Mapping” program “dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped, the department said.” It was uncovered by investigative reporters with the Associated Press in 2011 and later shut down. This “tremendous” 10-year program resulted in no leads or terrorism cases.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Trump also referred to Syrian refugees as a Trojan horse for ISIS fighters and said that he wouldn’t rule out shutting down mosques.
Trump Won’t Disavow a Registry to Track Muslims When asked by a reporter on November 19 about implementing a Muslim database to combat terrorism, Trump said, “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases,” and emphasized the need for building a wall. When the reporter followed up, he didn’t back away from the idea and said, “I would certainly implement that, absolutely.”
After a media firestorm erupted around his comments, he attempted to walk his statement back on Twitter, saying a reporter suggested the policy. But when asked what distinguishes a Muslim database from the system implemented by Nazis to register Jews, he responded, “You tell me.”
Trump: Obama “Feels Comfortable” in Mosque Following President Obama’s February 2016 visit to an American mosque, Donald Trump was asked to share his thoughts about it. Playing to the “birther” narratives that he deployed in 2011, he said that Obama probably visited the Baltimore mosque because “he feels comfortable” there. The implication on Trump’s part was that Obama is or may be a Muslim, and that such a thing is bad.
Trump: Islam Hates Us In early March, Donald Trump spoke with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and said: “I think Islam hates us.” Making little distinction between Muslim extremists and their religion, he added that “it’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.” As we pointed out here, there are a number of problems with that statement, not the least of which its its reification of Islam and the idea that “us” doesn’t include Muslims, too.
Trump: 27% of Muslims are Very Militant In mid-March, Trump joined Fox News host Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” and, doubling down on his statement that “Islam hates us,” he suggested that there is a “tremendous” amount of hatred on the part of Muslims for the United States. Citing a Pew Research poll, Trump said that 27 percent of Muslims around the world are “very militant.” Robert Farley at FactCheck.org responded to Trump’s comments, noting that they were not grounded in truth and misrepresented what Pew data did discover about Muslims’ views.
In a Democratic Town Hall Debate in January 2016, Erum Tariq-Munir, an American Muslim woman, asked Secretary Clinton about the growing climate of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States and how, as president, she would ensure that all people, regardless of their religious affiliation, are protected by the Constitution. Clinton said, in part: “American Muslims deserve better. And now their children and they are the target of Islamophobia and threats.”
In November of 2014, Governor Perry was the keynote speaker at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s Restoration Weekend in Palm Beach, Florida. Horowitz, who funds the anti-Muslim blogger Robert Spencer, is an important node of the Islamophobia network, outlined by the Center for American Progress, and has a long history of directing inflammatory statements at Muslim groups, on occasion, going so far a to call the religion of Islam a “sick death cult.”
In March of 2015, Jeb Bush named Jordan Sekulow, a leading evangelical attorney and the Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) as a senior advisor. In 2011, Sekulow’s organization published a pamphlet titled “Shari’a Law: Radical Islam’s Threat to the U.S. Constitution,” which claimed that “devout Muslims cannot truthfully swear the oath to become citizens of the United States.” In 2012, Sekulow passionately defended the proposed ban on Sharia law in Oklahoma in an essay titled “In Defense of Oklahoma’s Sharia Ban.”
Two years earlier, in 2010, Sekulow’s group filed a lawsuit to prevent the construction of the Park 51 Islamic Community Center, and spoke at a rally opposed to it that was organized by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer’s group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (the group behind the Muhammad cartoon contests). Here is a video of that:
In early June, Cruz named Kevin Kookogey as his state chairman for Tennessee. In 2012, Kookogey oversaw the adoption of a resolution that condemned Tennessee Governor Bill Haslem for appointing a Muslim attorney to the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development. The resolution read, in part: “Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has elevated and/or afforded preferential political status to Sharia adherents in Tennessee, thereby aiding and abetting the advancement of an ideology and doctrine which is wholly incompatible with the Constitution of the United States and the Tennessee Constitution.”
In 2011, Haslem, in his role as chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party, hosted a luncheon for the Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders.
In late March 2015, Cruz appeared at the New England Freedom Conference with anti-Muslim hate group leader, Robert Spencer, a blogger whose work was cited approvingly by the Norway terrorist Anders Breivik. Spencer’s organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), is the group behind controversial and provocative anti-Islam metro and bus ads. AFDI, whose activities we examine here, was also the group behind the raucous “Ground Zero Mosque” rallies in 2010, and more recently, hosted the Draw a Muhammad Cartoon contest (which awards the artist of the winning caricature $10,000). AFDI’s lawyer, David Yerushalmi, is the architect of much of the country’s anti-Sharia legislation.
At the event, Cruz discussed the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, implying that average Muslims would approve of the cartoonists’ murders. He said that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney did not try to “blow up the Book of Mormon stage” if he was offended by the musical parody of his Mormon religion. Cruz’ comparison was a dishonest one; it suggested that all Muslims would respond to insults to their religion in the manner of the Charlie Hebdo killers.
Cruz made this remark at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January 2015. Its underlying insinuation is that Islam is inherently violent and naturally inspires its followers to commit violent acts. According to Cruz’s logic, angry Muslims do violent things of catastrophic proportions, but “ticked-off Presbyterians” don’t. This statement embodies the common trope of the “violent Muslim.”
At a July 2012 event in Willis, Texas, Cruz was asked whether he viewed “Sharia Law” as a problem in the United States. It’s an “enormous” problem, he said.
Numerous studies have debunked that claim. In a 2011 report by the Center for American Progress, Wajahat Ali and Matt Duss wrote:
“The extreme Christian right in America has been trying for decades to inscribe its view of America as a “Christian nation” into our laws. They have repeatedly failed in a country in which more than three-quarters of people identify as Christians. It’s extremely unlikely that an extreme faction of American Muslims, a faith community that constitutes approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population, would have more success.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said plainly in a detailed report:
“There is no evidence that Islamic law is encroaching on our courts. On the contrary, the court cases cited by anti-Muslim groups as purportedly illustrative of this problem actually show the opposite: Courts treat lawsuits that are brought by Muslims or that address the Islamic faith in the same way that they deal with similar claims brought by people of other faiths or that involve no religion at all.”
As Anti-Muslim Attacks Spike, Cruz Dismisses the Problem In December 2015, Ted Cruz spoke at the Heritage Foundation, criticizing Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s recent remarks about the need to crack down on anti-Muslim discrimination. Despite the fact that anti-Muslim attacks jumped in November and December 2015, Cruz dismissed Lynch’s assessment and implied that acknowledging the reality of Islamophobia is dangerous.
Cruz Appoints Frank Gaffney As Campaign Advisor Among Ted Cruz’s national campaign advisors is Frank Gaffney of the Washington, DC think tank, the Center for Security Policy. The Bridge Initiative has drawn attention to the anti-Muslim and conspiratorial nature of Gaffney’s claims, including the suggestion that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim; that the United States is being overtaken by Sharia, or Islamic law; and that the Muslim Brotherhood is actively plotting from inside the United States to wage “civilizational jihad.”
Cruz Calls for Patrols in Muslim Neighborhoods in US Following the attacks in Brussels, Belgium on March 22, 2016, Cruz suggested that the US “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” His statement was problematic for a number of reasons. First, it generalizes “Muslims” as the primary focus when it comes to terrorism or acts of violence in the United States, presuming their guilt by the simple virtue of their religious beliefs. Additionally, it supposes that there are “Muslim neighborhoods” exist across the country — an idea that conjures up a conspiracy theory that floated around earlier this year about “no go zones” in the U.K.
After the July 2015 shooting in Chattanooga, TN, in which a Muslim gunman, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, killed four Marines, Paul told Breitbart news: “I’m very concerned about immigration to this country from countries that have hotbeds of jihadism and hotbeds of this Islamism. I think there does need to be heightened scrutiny. Nobody has a right to come to America, so this isn’t something that we can say ‘oh, their rights are being violated.’ It’s a privilege to come to America and we need to thoroughly screen those who are coming.”
In an interview with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart in May of 2015, Paul discussed religious liberty and the 2010 example of the Park 51 Islamic Community Center in Manhattan. “When they told me that they were going to build a mosque at [the site of the] 9/11 [attacks], I was horrified and thought that was a terrible thing. But I’m not for a law to prevent that. If you want to march down the street and you’re a part of the KKK, I’m horrified by that and object to it, but the first amendment is about the right to be despicable,” he said. Stewart pushed back, criticizing the comparison of a religious group building a community center with the KKK. The tacit message from Paul was that because the 9/11 perpetrators were Muslims, Islam was somehow culpable, and other Muslims, by simple virtue of their adherence to Islam, were connected to the tragedy.
In the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in France in January 2015, Paul said that “Maybe every Muslim immigrant that wishes to come to France shouldn’t have an open door.” It wasn’t just France, though. Paul added that his idea to limit Muslim immigration should extend to “many of these other [European] countries that had old colonies in predominantly Muslim areas.” Ironically, the two Charlie Hebdo were not immigrants to France — they were born in Paris to parents who immigrated from Algeria. Still, Paul’s suggestion exhibited guilt by association, linking the actions of two gunmen to any and every Muslim around the world that seeks to move to Europe who, he suggests, should be viewed with increased scrutiny simply because they are of the same religious affiliation as the attackers.
At the Value Voters Summit in Washington, D.C. in October of 2013, Paul said that Christians all around the world, “from Boston to Zanzibar,” are under attack by as many “as many as tens of millions of” Muslims who lash out at them so frequently it’s “almost as if we lived in the Middle Ages.” Paul did not cite any statistic to back up the large number. At The Daily Beast, comedian Dean Obeidallah writes:
“Of course, there was no mention by Paul of the Muslims in Pakistan who recently gathered by the hundreds, locking arms and encircling a church to protect Christians from radicals. Nor did Paul mention that these so-called Muslim terrorists overwhelmingly slaughter more Muslims than people of other faiths. Indeed, Muslims have been the victims of ‘between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.’”
Paul’s political action committee, RandPAC, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, attacking three Senators for voting in favor of foreign aid to Muslim-majority countries.
Back in September of 2013, Lindsey Graham told Fox News that the oft-recited Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar” (which means “God is greater”) is a “war chant.” It appears to be the case here, (and this year when he said that the word “the” in Arabic is “bad news.”) that Graham is ignorant about the actual meaning of these words. But this remark contributes to a climate of sustained negative imagery of Islam, where militants who recite the phrase are considered the norm, not the tens of millions of other Muslims around the world who say it as an exhortation of praise.