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Bill Clinton’s Loyalty Test for Muslim Americans
It’s time for the Democrats to rise above the GOP’s divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here’s hoping Hillary won’t repeat her husband’s shameful words.
After a week of watching the Republican National Convention, with all the fear-mongering and demonizing of minorities that came with it, Muslim Americans like myself were waiting anxiously for a change of pace in Philadelphia this week. And it came on Monday night with inspirational speeches by first lady Michelle Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the latter introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison — a Muslim American. On Wednesday night, it continued, with an uplifting message from President Barack Obama, who highlighted the great values this country stands for and spoke out against the calls for hate and bigotry heard in Cleveland last week.
But sandwiched in between, former President Bill Clinton’s speech — with its focus on humanizing Hillary Clinton — included a message that took us back to what we have been hearing on the Republican campaign trail. The first-gentleman hopeful said, “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together.”
Muslim Americans from Virginia to California collectively cringed and groaned. The Average Joe may not see much wrong in Bill Clinton’s call to Muslims; they may even think that Muslims should be grateful to be mentioned in a prime-time speech. But when I turned to social media to gauge the immediate reactions of my community, the tone was not grateful. One friend responded: “I am a Muslim, and I hate terror. Can I stay now?” Public conversations on Facebook included: “No one told Bill Clinton that American Muslim citizens’ right to be in America is not predicated upon a national security framework,” and, “Since when did Muslim-Americans being forced to leave America become an option the Democratic Party was considering?”
Muslim Americans heard Bill Clinton announce a loyalty test for those who want to remain in the land of the free. We heard him say we are only allowed to stay if we somehow prove that we love America and proclaim that we hate terrorism, as if that is not the natural state of who we are. We heard him separate the Muslim community from him and other Americans (the “us”), as if we are a foreign entity that should be welcomed on certain conditions. And we heard him tell us to “stay here,” as if we had any intention of leaving or anywhere else to go.
What we did not hear was an acknowledgement of the Islamophobia our community is facing day in and day out — a sentiment that has increased dramatically since the start of the presidential campaign, resulting in violent and deadly attacks against innocent Muslim Americans. We did not hear an acknowledgement that we are part and parcel of the fabric of this country, that we contribute to it, and that we have helped protect it. We did not hear that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party will protect our rights and stand up against the intolerance and fear that the Republican Party is trying to make mainstream.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric that has taken center stage since the start of the presidential campaign, led by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and others, is becoming more pervasive every day. The language candidates have used and continue to use today to promote the Republican agenda is seeping into the mindset of many Americans. The demonization of Muslims, and subsequently Muslim Americans, is becoming all too common, but it should have no place at the Democratic National Convention, and Hillary Clinton should make every effort to avoid the unfair mention of our community as a strictly national security issue.
Obama moved away from that typical reference Wednesday night when he highlighted the values his grandparents held high and those that attract millions of people to this country. He said: “They believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke, a baseball cap or a hijab.” And he went further, using a word — “homegrown” — that too often precedes “terrorists” (a frequent trope in the GOP’s demonization of Muslim Americans as a fifth column) in calling Donald Trump a “homegrown demagogue.”
On Monday night, first lady Michelle Obama spoke eloquently about her struggle as a mother of two bright young black women whose parents had to protect them daily from attacks leveled against their family:
That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight. How we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level — no, our motto is: When they go low, we go high.
As a mother of two young Muslim American boys, one of whom turns 6 this week and is wise beyond his years, I dread having to think about how I will soon have to answer his curious questions to news coverage filled with sound bites that too often feature “terrorism” in the same sentence as “Muslim.” My boys will join my husband and me at the polls on Nov. 8. We shouldn’t have to carry signs that proclaim our love for America and freedom and rejection of terrorism — our participation says it all.
Despite some encouraging words from vice presidential hopeful Tim Kaine and others at the convention, Bill Clinton’s words still remind us of the all-too-common tendency to pigeonhole Muslim Americans in a counterterrorism context. I wish he would have instead said: “If you’re a Muslim American worried about the rise in Islamophobia, know that your fears are ours too. Let’s work to make a future together that does not include those voices of fear, racism, and intolerance.”
I hope Hillary Clinton will be the “change-maker” her husband so eloquently described. Beginning with her speech Thursday night, American Muslims want to see a change in the rhetoric about our community in this charged election season — not only a mention in the context of her “plan to bolster homeland security.” In the meantime, I will follow Michelle Obama’s wise words when talking to my boys. Our motto will be: “When they go low, we go high.” I only wish that Bill Clinton had echoed those sentiments as well, instead of contributing to the hateful echo chamber many in the Republican Party have created.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images