After the June mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub, familiar arguments about gun control and terrorism reemerged in news cycles and political debates. Upon learning that the shooter was Muslim and had stated his support for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Republican leaders framed the shooting as another failure by President Obama to maintain U.S. national security against Islamic terrorism. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump reiterated versions of his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, although he and his surrogates have been inconsistent in describing the policy’s specifics, and at times have attempted to back away from it altogether. Instead of stoking anti-Muslim sentiments, U.S. leaders should acknowledge that terrorism is not just incompatible with Western values, but with Muslim values as well, and that Muslims, who comprise approximately 23% of the world’s population, are important members of the global, Western, and American societies.
Despite the legitimate concerns raised by both Democrats and Republications about gun control and national security, the discourse that has emerged since Orlando is indicative of more than just another argument in the partisan gun control debate; it signals a new culture war. Michael Lind argues in Politico Magazine that, “the decades-long ‘culture war’ between religious conservatives and secular liberals is largely over” and that “social issues spurred a partisan realignment by changing who considered themselves Democrats and Republicans.” Now, he posits, the parties are divided by their worldviews: populist nationalists and multicultural globalists. Lind characterizes nationalists as people who emphasize the divide between American citizens and “everyone else” above all. He is careful not to conflate this “populist” nationalism with racist “white” nationalism or nativism, but notes that nationalism on the right is currently “tainted by strains of white racial and religious nationalism and nativism,” for which Donald Trump is the central figure and his wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is the symbol. In contrast, Lind defines globalists as people who value “subnational (race, gender, orientation) and supranational (citizenship of the world)” identities above all else and view American policies through these lenses. Today, attitudes toward minority groups, specifically Muslims, resulting from fears of terrorism and violent extremism form the major battleground in this chasm between these worldviews. Their application in the discourse surrounding gun violence exemplifies the divide.
Discussions about gun violence consistently focus on either mental health issues or gun control policies – and, when the shooter is Muslim, on terrorism. However, according to a study on homegrown extremism by the New America Foundation’s International Security Program, there have been almost twice as many non-jihadist attacks than jihadist attacks, many of which were shootings, in the United States since September 11, 2001. The study defines jihadist actions as those taken on behalf of or motivated by al-Qaeda and its affiliates and non-jihadist actions as those motivated by extreme right-wing, left-wing, and other beliefs. While it is true that the San Bernardino and Orlando shooters, as well as the Boston Marathon bombers, all appeared to have unofficial loyalties to radical Islamist movements, it is unacceptable for anyone – especially politicians and presidential candidates – to propagate the idea that all of Islam is incompatible with Western values by associating terrorism with all Muslims.
Trump has seized on anti-Muslim rhetoric to bolster his presidential campaign and normalize a variety of anti-minority attitudes. The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University reported an increase in Islamophobic language and actions during the 2016 presidential campaign season, including a possible correlation between Trump’s entrance into the race and anti-Muslim activity. And Trump’s xenophobic fear-mongering doesn’t end with Muslims. He has also made derogatory comments about other minority groups, such as Hispanics, whom he “other-izes” by referring to them as separate from the collective American (in Trump’s eyes, white, male, and Christian) “we.” Many Republicans have denounced his comments, which, all other politics aside, should be deal breakers for a presidential candidate, yet the party still coalesces around him. There are few clearer signs of a problematic cultural divide than this, and we see it appearing in other places too. The anti-refugee sentiments in Europe amid a worsening crisis in the Middle East, the near-success in Austria of a far-right presidential candidate campaigning largely on an anti-refugee platform, and the British vote to leave the European Union, which was motivated in part by immigration concerns, are just a few examples of how broader Western antipathy toward Muslims is impacting policy.
Just as fascism overtook Europe on the back of a culture war waged primarily against Jews in the mid-20th century, the United States also has a history of allowing fear of people who are “different” to dominate public discourse; think back to McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, or 19th century prejudice against Irish, Italian, German, and Chinese immigrants. This is not to say that McCarthyism, the Know Nothing Movement, or today’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is equivalent to Nazism, but any path that pins a society’s problems on its minority groups is extremely troubling. There is no question that our leaders should take the threats posed by both gun violence and terrorism seriously, but it is equally unquestionable that we should reject any presidential candidate whose solution to those challenges and others is predicated on stigmatizing an entire group of people based on the actions of a few. Instead, it would do us good to reflect on the burgeoning racism and intolerance throughout American society and commit to truly “make America great again” by making honest efforts to fight those poisons.
Tania F. Cohen is employed by the American Society of International Law and is a Campaigns Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Her interests include domestic civic engagement, refugee and migration policy, and the influence of history on contemporary policy development and foreign relations. Any views expressed are those of the author and not those of the American Society of International Law.
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