The national panic in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks shifted into even higher gear early on the morning of Friday, November 20, when Donald Trump told an NBC News reporter that he would "certainly" implement a system to register and track Muslims in the United States.
This idea is pretty clearly unconstitutional, morally repugnant, and not going to be embraced by the bulk of Republican Party politicians. But it comes at a time when Trump continues to ride high in the polls and has repeatedly benefited from past controversies over his own outlandish and often racist statements, and when Republican politicians most certainly are pushing the envelope on anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies in a way that was alien to the George W. Bush–vintage Republican Party's response to 9/11. Trump's particular statement is mostly just the political clown show in action, but it's part of a larger context that is frightening to American Muslims and genuinely threatening to America's entire geopolitical strategy over the past 15 years.
What Trump said exactly
Trump's support for Muslim-tracking database is not a formal campaign proposal, but rather comes in response to a question he got from NBC News's Vaughn Hillyard, who was trying to drum up a little controversy — and succeeded. "Should there be a database system here that tracks the Muslims in this country?" he asked.
Trump's response: "There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases, I mean, there should be a lot of systems. And today you can do it. But right now we have to have a border, we have to have strength, we have to have a wall. And we cannot let what is happening to this country happen."
The dialogue continued:
NBC: Is that something your White House would like to implement?
Trump: I would certainly implement that. Absolutely.
NBC: What do you think the effect of that would be? How would that work?
Trump: It would stop people from coming in illegally. We have to stop people form coming in illegally.
NBC: But Muslims specifically? How would you get them registered?
Trump: It would be just good management. What you have to do is good management procedures. And we can do that.
NBC: Do you go to mosques and sign people up?
Trump: Different places. You sign them up at different places. But it's all about management. Our country has no management.
NBC: Would they have to legally be in this database?
Trump: They have to be. The key is people can come to the country, but they have to come in legally.
A bit later, Trump was asked how this differs from Nazi Germany requiring the registration of Jews. "You tell me," Trump replied.
Throughout the discussion, Trump appears to be meandering back and forth between his longstanding argument about the need for a wall across the southern US border and the quite different question of creating a nationwide Muslim database. The wording of the questions was not in any way ambiguous, and Trump did specifically endorse the database and appeared to be citing its technical feasibility.
A rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment
The backdrop for Trump's remarks is legislation passed by the US House of Representatives with the support of all Republicans and a sizable minority of Democrats that would make it drastically harder for Syrian refugees to enter the country. The precipitating event for the legislation is, of course, the Paris attacks, which came at a time when European politics was being roiled by an influx of refugees from Syria.
Nevertheless, none of the attackers who've been positively identified so far were in fact Syrian refugees. One attacker appears to have passed through Greece using a forged Syrian passport, and it's possible that some of the not-yet-identified attackers will turn out to have been Syrian and/or refugees. But the focus on refugees despite the lack of specific connection between the attacks and the refugee issue looks to many people like a form of generalized anti-Muslim bias. Proposals from Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz to make special exemptions for Christian refugees tend to reenforce that sentiment.
Separately, Republicans have been attacking President Obama for his reluctance to specifically define the national security threat as stemming from "radical Islam," and Trump has called for selective closures of mosques.
Even the relatively moderate Marco Rubio recently raised the "radical Islam" issue with the use of an analogy that appears to imply that being a Muslim is equivalent to being a member of the Nazi Party (emphasis added):
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You saw Secretary Clinton there did not want to use the words radical Islam. Your response.
MARCO RUBIO: I think that's, I don't understand it. That would be like saying we weren't at war with Nazis because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party, but weren't violent themselves. We are at war with radical Islam, with an interpretation of Islam by a significant number of people around the world who they believe now justifies them in killing those who don't agree with their ideology. This is a clash of civilizations. And as I said at the debate earlier this week, there is no middle ground on this. Either they win or we win, and we need to begin to take this seriously.
Also this month, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute indicated that most Americans view Islam as at odds with American values and the American way of life:
This survey was conducted in September — i.e., before the Paris attacks — and registers an increase in the number of people viewing Islam and American life as incompatible relative to a 2011 survey where just 47 percent agreed that Islam is at odds with the American way.
This is a drastic change from George W. Bush's approach
Under George W. Bush's leadership, the Republican Party took a very different approach to Islam. Within days of the 9/11 attack, Bush rushed to the Islamic Center of Washington, DC, to proclaim that "Islam is peace," seeking to reassure the world's Muslim population that the United States bore them no ill will and reassure America's non-Muslim majority that they had nothing to fear from their Muslim friends and neighbors.
As Eli Lake explained recently for Bloomberg, this approach reflected key strategic priorities of American foreign policy:
As Emile Nakhleh, who was one of the CIA’s top experts on political Islam between 1993 and 2006, told me, there was a recognition following the 9/11 attacks inside the Bush administration that many supporters of the Wahhabi strain of Islam favored by al-Qaeda and its allies were not plotting attacks on the West. In some cases, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the purveyors of Wahhabism were longstanding American allies. "There was the two-ton elephant in the room, and that is Saudi Arabia," Nakhleh said.
So Bush for the most part opted instead to talk about the enemy as "evildoers" or "extremists," even though on some occasions he went off message. It’s why Bush’s second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, condemned as "offensive" the Danish cartoons of Mohammed in 2006 after they sparked riots across the Muslim world.
But since Bush's day, a number of things have changed.
One is simply the political context. As president, Bush was responsible for the overall governance of the country, and it was more important to him to advance a foreign policy agenda than to score political points. By the same token, the Bush administration asks for increases in the federal debt ceiling on several occasions, and his fellow Republicans had no problem with it. With Obama in the White House, the objective incentives change, and charging him with putting political correctness ahead of national security makes sense even though Bush did the exact same thing precisely because in this case assuaging Muslim sentiments is a national security imperative.
The other factor is a generalized rising climate of fear and anxiety. The same PRRI survey also found:
- A 15 percentage point increase between 2012 and 2015 in the number of people saying crime is a major problem in their community
- An 8 point increase in the number of people saying illegal immigration is a major problem
- An 18 point increase in the number of people saying racial tensions are a major concern
- A 5 point increase in the number of people saying America's best days are behind us
The anti-Muslim tide is an ISIS win
The Paris attacks, horrifying as they were, were substantially less deadly than the 9/11 attacks. And they happened, needless to say, in France rather than in the United States. But they appear to have been more successful in prompting a form of broad anti-Muslim backlash in the political system, and in that sense they represent a greater strategic success than anything al-Qaeda ever accomplished. Both groups are deeply unpopular in the Muslim world, and clearly lack the capacity to mount any kind of truly meaningful threat to the enormous and well-equipped militaries of the United States and its allies.
As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross told Zack Beauchamp, "A backlash against the refugee population serves [ISIS] interests in a number of ways" — mostly by increasing polarization between the Muslim world and the West.
ISIS's core narrative holds that the people who view Islam and the American (or European) way of life as incompatible are correct. In their view, the United States and Europe are, and forever will be, at war with Islam and thus all Muslims. And though most European Muslims reject this view, ISIS's argument has been successful at persuading thousands of disaffected European youth to leave their homes to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The possibility that growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States could lead to discriminatory legislation and the growth of a similarly disaffected population of American Muslims is a much larger threat to American security than refugees ever could be. And though Trump's Muslim registry notion isn't going anywhere, US politics is definitely moving in Trump's direction.