The issue of Islam in the United States at present has three aspects. First, the unprecedented hostile positions of US presidential candidates towards Islam as a religion, including racist rhetoric demanding restrictions on Muslim Americans. Second, the real or imagined or manufactured reasons that fuel growing Islamophobia. Third, the constitutional framework regarding Islam in the US.
Although Muslims are more blended into the fabric of American society compared to any other Western country, as seen by their above average education, and vocational and financial status, the election season in the US has impacted them negatively. It coincides with prominent activity by the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group, large numbers of Syrian refugees flocking to other countries around the world, and attacks in the heart of Europe.
Some Republican candidates are manipulating fear of terrorism to discriminate against Muslims. Fierce competition over the Republican presidential candidacy has produced positions that are at times openly hostile, which is a clear breach of the US Constitution.
First, there was Ben Carson who averages 20 per cent of vote in opinion polls, who caused controversy by his comments that he rejects the idea of a Muslim becoming president of the United States, because such a president could implement Islamic Sharia law, which contradicts the US Constitution. Carson then compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs.
Donald Trump, who ranks higher in polls with an average of 30 per cent of Republican votes, said he would seriously consider closing down several mosques and put others under surveillance. Trump also promised to issue ID cards, especially for Muslims, and perhaps create a database to record and surveil all Muslims living in the US.
Amid this controversy, a third candidate, Ted Cruz, demanded that only Christian Syrian refugees should be allowed into the US, but not Muslim ones.
This hostile Republican tone did not come out of nowhere. There is a negative stereotype of Islam and Muslims in general, prompted by the abnormal and terrorist actions of Muslim extremists in the 9/11 attacks and the consequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and all the tragedies, scandals and crimes that tainted US-Muslim relations since.
A recent poll by Pew of 1,504 Americans showed that 63 per cent believe there is discrimination against Muslims in one way or another, while only 19 per cent believe there is no discrimination. The study also showed that 46 per cent of Americans believe Islam encourages violence, while 42 per cent did not believe there is a link between Islam and violence.
Since 9/11, the experience of American Muslims has been both positive and negative. On the positive side, Muslims developed tools to deal with the challenges of racial discrimination and began to believe in the need to be more involved in political, legal and human rights activism. Although American Muslims are not active on the national political level, there are exceptions in the House of Representative which now includes two Muslim members — Keith Ellison (Democrat from Minnesota) and Andre Carson (Democrat from Indiana). On the negative side, there have been more cases of racial discrimination against Muslims and Arabs, whether in the workplace, education or public places.
Despite the sensitive nature of the issue of Islam in US politics, no one knows exactly how many Americans are Muslims because official census data does not gather information on faith since it is a primary human right and freedom of belief that the state cannot interfere in. Some independent polls estimate the number of American Muslims at seven million, worshipping in 2,500 mosques across the 50 states. There are around two million American Muslim voters, who have a strong presence in swing states in the coming presidential elections including Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. This means Muslim American votes can have a strong impact if they are taken advantage of.
For example, Muslims are five per cent of voters in Ohio and more in Michigan. Although the number of American Muslim votes seems few they are very effective and could change the course of the presidential race. In 2000, George Bush won the vote of American Muslims against Al Gore by 7.5 percentage points, and in the end Bush won the election by only 537 votes in Florida.
Although American society is the most religious in the West, the secular nature of the constitutional state is a matter of agreement politically, socially and judicially. The US Constitution begins with “We, the People” and the document does not contain any mention of God or Christianity (the latter the religion of 92 per cent of Americans).
Religion is mentioned in the US Constitution to confirm that citizens cannot be discriminated against based on their beliefs. Article 6 of the US Constitution forbids a religious test as a requirement for holding a governmental position, and the First Amendment prohibits Congress from issuing laws based on religion.
During the last White House Ramadan Iftar, the US president said: “As Americans, we insist that no one should be targeted because of how they worship. We stand united against these hateful acts. These are the freedoms, ideals and values we uphold.” He continued that there is no place for false division between ethnicities and faiths, and Americans are all equal in rights and dignity, which is what makes the US strong.
Despite Obama’s words, current Republican rhetoric is a great opportunity for terrorists, supported by the fear and discrimination some Muslims in America are subjected to at times. Will Republicans prevail for extremists and terrorists? Or will they uphold the honourable values and principles of the US Constitution?
The writer is a researcher on Egyptian politics.