Only You Can Prevent Islamophobia

The dangers of letting Donald Trump set the national dialogue.


Last week, 23-year-old Ruhi Rehman of Newcastle, Britain, became a viral video star. In a recent video interview with the Daily Mail, she related the story of being abused on a local commuter train. As the story goes, Rehman and her younger sister had been sitting quietly on the train when, suddenly, they found themselves singled out and threatened by a young man, apparently because he objected to their wearing the hijab. He then demanded that the sisters leave their seats. “This is my country; I’m an Englishman,” he said. “My sister and I replied back, saying, ‘No, we were born here as well. We’re British as well.'” But he continued to berate them.

Suddenly, Rehman’s fellow passengers stepped forward to confront the man. The bully yelled at them: “What, do you want her to bomb this train?” His statements only stiffened the resolve of the passengers, who forced the man to leave the carriage at the next station. His departure prompted a round of applause from all the passengers that made it happen. Rehman recalled the woman next to her bursting into tears and telling the sisters that “no one should go through this.”

For Rehman, the experience came as a shock. Not so much because of the abuse — which, she said, occurs all too frequently — but because of the all-too-rare, unsolicited expression of solidarity. “I’d never expected all those people to help,” she said. “I’ve never felt so proud to be a Geordie,” she told The Independent, using the nickname proudly embraced by residents of Newcastle and its surroundings.

Other passengers recalled the moment when they overcame their fear of tackling a belligerent bigot to reaffirm their bond as a community. When, despite their collective protest, the man refused to stop his abuse, “everyone came together and made it clear we would not stand for this type of behavior,” recalled fellow passenger Katrina Barber. Regardless of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, those passengers who stood for Rehman refused to succumb to fear, hatred, or bigotry.

It’s an inspiring story, but also a challenging one. It forces each of us to ask ourselves: If we had been on that train, would we have found the courage to do the right thing? This is no mere rhetorical challenge. Indeed, for Muslim Americans listening to the evolving public conversation in the United States, fueled increasingly by reporting on the Republican presidential race (with the witting or unwitting complicity of much of the media), it is starting to feel a lot like the first part of Rehman’s train ride.

In late November, the nonpartisan, Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a survey showing that 56 percent of Americans now believe that Islam is at odds with America’s values and way of life. At the same time, however, PRRI has previously noted that seven out of 10 Americans have rarely or ever interacted with a Muslim, suggesting that their perceptions of Islam are driven entirely by media and political conversations about the religion. And that conversation has turned increasingly ugly, as the race for the Republican presidential nomination devolves into a frenzy of xenophobic bullying of vulnerable and underrepresented minorities.

The trend emerged with front-runner Donald Trump’s outrageous smears that cast Mexican immigrants as thieves, rapists, and drug dealers. The Republican Party’s rabid attentions soon shifted, with both Trump and fellow contender Ben Carson striving to outdo each other’s blood libels against American Muslims. On Dec. 7, Trump went so far as to issue a call to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the United States, and he has voiced his support for a federal database to track American Muslims. He and his colleagues have not confined their bullying to those two groups. African-American Black Lives Matter activists, Jewish victims of the Holocaust, providers of health-care services (including abortion) to low-income women, even Americans with disabilities — all have been singled out for derision and abuse in a veritable war on the marginalized, declared by a reckless and cynical cohort of politicians. They’re hardly ignorant of the fact that, by spewing dangerous lies and stoking ignorant fears, they’re fueling the fires of prejudice, hate, and violence. They simply don’t seem to care.

When a couple of Trump supporters in Boston beat up and urinated on a homeless Mexican man, the candidate defended the perpetrators. “They love this country and they want this country to be great again,” he said. “They are passionate.” When his supporters beat a Black Lives Matter activist at a campaign event two weeks ago, he suggested the man “maybe … should have been roughed up.”

Mosques in Texas and elsewhere have become magnets for protests by heavily armed white supremacists and other hate groups, with more such events planned for the coming weeks, all fueled by reckless politicians blaming “radical Islam” for the horrific mass shootings in California. The Council on American-Islamic Relations cataloged an alarming spike in threats and actual attacks on mosques and Muslim communities across the United States in the two weeks following the Paris terrorist rampage — and that was before San Bernardino.

It’s only a matter of time, sadly, before some new slaughter of innocents gives murderous meaning to the Islamophobic discourse now deemed appropriate in the public square. It is time for the U.S. media to ask itself some tough questions about the potential consequences of its failure to adequately challenge the bigotry of politicians.

Such bigotry has now gone mainstream. In just the past several months, a man at a Trump rally in New Hampshire asked him about “get[ting] rid” of Muslims. Trump’s reply: It’s an idea he’d look into. Carson, meanwhile, has likened Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. The ostensibly moderate Jeb Bush argued that the United States should admit only Syrian refugees who could prove their Christianity. And Sen. Marco Rubio has advocated closing Muslim cafes and mosques.

These statements cross the bright red line of incitement and hate speech. Yet the media tolerates them as somehow legitimate — or even treats them as policy templates — because the people offering them happen to be running for president. That’s a dangerous moral failure.

When NBC blithely ignores the bile that Trump rains on minorities by inviting him to host Saturday Night Live, the network gives his brand of xenophobia a free pass and mocks those who warn of the dangers that his incitement poses to millions of Americans — as if they somehow lack a sense of humor.

By treating Trump as simply another political candidate with policies that deserve a fair hearing, the media gives a dangerous racist a platform to spread a toxic hatred that dehumanizes and disenfranchises millions of ordinary Americans. He may not wear the pointed hood or give the raised-palmed salute, but he represents the same vile impulses — so much so that even a fellow Republican running for the nomination, John Kasich, compared Trump to Adolf Hitler and warned that the failure to stand up to him could result in similar tragic consequences for many.

Sure, media organizations claim to fact-check Trump’s claims. But even if CNN subjects to rigid scrutiny the logistical challenges of his promise to build a wall to keep out Mexican migrants, they are still allowing him to set the agenda of the national conversation. And turning his race-baiting into mainstream political opinion is likely doing damage that will last long after the 2016 presidential race.

For years to come, Americans will pay for the disastrous failure of the U.S. media to sharply challenge the efforts of the political class to bully the country into invading Iraq — a war waged under false pretenses that gave us the Islamic State and ravaged the Middle East, radicalizing an entire generation in the process. But even when the disaster of Iraq became apparent to American journalists, important sections of the media held back from covering the harsh realities on the ground, because doing so was deemed to be a partisan choice in favor of the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry.

That’s an example of when a commitment to fair and balanced political reporting can easily result in preventing the media from calling out great dangers to the American social fabric. The sustained bigotry of some candidates in the current election cycle threatens to do the same.

When MSNBC invites Trump on to Morning Joe to discuss whether Islam is an inherently violent religion, it legitimizes scaremongering ignorance. Not only is it utterly preposterous to cast Trump as some kind of expert on Islam simply by virtue of his running for president, but it is deeply offensive to hundreds of millions of Muslims everywhere to suggest that it’s OK to debate whether their faith is some form of violent pathology.

It’s as if the U.S. media is willing to seriously entertain the Newcastle thug’s suggestion that, because the Rehman sisters wore the hijab, they must have been planning to bomb the train. Indeed, CNN anchors pressed ordinary French Muslims to take responsibility for the Paris attacks. To put American Muslims under a cloud of suspicion and hostility over the actions of a handful of despicable extremists is morally offensive and politically insidious.

The persistence of some liberals claiming that American Muslims must “earn” constitutional rights that are otherwise inalienable to other Americans is bluntly bigoted. Lumping all Muslims into one monolithic Islamic State-linked basket is the greatest victory for radicals. If you’re an American Muslim Ruhi Rehman, NBC is forcing you to sit through a torrent of abuse by an ignorant bully, while CNN sits off to one side demanding a serious conversation about whether the bully actually has a point.

The inspiring part of Ruhi Rehman’s story was the reaction of her fellow passengers, who risked an unpleasant confrontation to stand up and defend a fellow British citizen being targeted for her faith. As those ordinary Geordies on Rehman’s train proved, it took the courage of ordinary people standing up for decency, equality, and liberty to prevent a minority of fascist bullies from defining the norms of our communities and societies.

The message to the U.S. media couldn’t be clearer.

Rula Jebreal is a journalist and foreign-policy analyst.

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