“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is about. Islam is peace.”
President George W. Bush, Sept. 17, 2001
With recovery personnel still digging through the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center and the horrifying shock of the 9/ 11 attacks still reverberating, George W. Bush took a moment to remind Americans of the enemy: not Muslims, but homicidal fanatics claiming to act in the name of Islam.
Bush knew there was no incompatibility between Republican ideals and the faith practiced by upward of 2 million Americans. In 2000, according to a poll conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Bush got 72 percent of the Muslim vote.
How things have changed. This year, the two candidates leading in polls of GOP voters are Donald Trump and Ben Carson, both of whom seem intent on making sure no Muslim would ever consider voting Republican.
Last week, Trump called for “surveillance of certain mosques” and later seemed to indicate he favored a federal database to monitor Muslims. As for Syrian refugees he has said, “If I win, they’re going back.” But he outdid himself in recalling the reaction in New Jersey, after the 9/ 11 attacks, when “thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.”
There was no evidence to support that claim, and the police commissioner of Paterson, N.J., which has almost 30,000 Muslims, rebutted Trump: “That is patently false. That never happened.”
This was a perfect opportunity for Trump’s rivals to reject fear-mongering. But Carson, who had said he couldn’t accept a Muslim as president, insisted that he, too, had seen the footage Trump mentioned. Nor was Chris Christie, who happens to be governor of New Jersey, willing to challenge Trump. “I think if it had happened, I would remember it,” he said limply, “but, you know, there could be things I forget, too.”
Trump and Carson are not alone in their pandering. Christie said he wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees even if they are “orphans under 5.” Ted Cruz favors admitting only Syrian refugees who are Christians, and Jeb Bush sounded sympathetic to the idea.
Fortunately, some of those in the race have taken a more sober view. John Kasich firmly dismissed registering Muslims or refusing non-Christian refugees. Rand Paul said he opposed a registry and any special surveillance of mosques. Marco Rubio noted that most mosques “have nothing to do with radical Islam.”
The Paris attacks and the alarming rise of ISIL have sparked understandable fear among Americans.
It doesn’t help that some Democrats affect glib disdain for the legitimate alarm. Martin O’Malley raised the prospect of “fascism” taking over. President Obama engaged in partisan taunting. “Now they’re worried about 3-year-old orphans,” he sniped. “That doesn’t sound very tough to me.”
Democrats, starting with the president, need to address the widespread anxiety. But, even worse, some Republican candidates are irresponsibly exploiting it. Crises such as these are the moments when real leadership has a chance to emerge. So far, there’s been too little of it.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE