clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Today’s GOP should take lessons on Islam from George W. Bush

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On September 17, 2001, President George W. Bush gave a speech at the Islamic Center of Washington, DC, urging Americans not to fear Islam and to embrace Muslim-Americans as fellow citizens.

"When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world," he said. "Some don't want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they're afraid they'll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America."

Over the past few weeks, a number of Republican presidential contenders seem to have forgotten Bush's entreaty. And it's not just Ben Carson, who said on Sunday that he could not support a Muslim for president. Donald Trump, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz have all indulged exactly the sort of Islamophobia that Bush warned against.

Bush's deep respect for Islam

George W. Bush in 2013

(Stacie McChesney/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images)

Bush, for all the disastrous problems with his "war on terror," made speech after speech stressing that America was not at war against Islam itself and indeed sought to embrace the religion and its adherents.

"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," Bush said in his September 17 address. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

This was partly strategic, a way to undercut jihadists' narrative of representing "true" Islam in a religious war against the US. But Bush, who emphasized Muslim contributions to human civilization and to the US, also seemed earnestly concerned about combating any backlash against Muslims in the US.

"America rejects bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith," Bush said. "Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country. Every immigrant can be fully and equally American because we're one country."

This remained a consistent message throughout Bush's presidency. "The killers who take the lives of innocent men, women, and children are followers of a violent ideology very different from the religion of Islam," Bush said at a 2005 Iftar dinner at the White House — the fifth year in a row he had hosted such an celebration.

Have today's Republicans forgotten that message?

Ben Carson

Ben Carson. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Some Republicans have maintained Bush's legacy on combating Islamophobia. Jeb Bush, for example, has partly kept up his brother's legacy, recently swatting down the conspiracy theory that Obama is anything but, as he says, a Christian. Chris Christie has also stood up against Islamophobia, hitting back against as critics (whom he called "crazies") of his decision to appoint a judge who happened to be Muslim-American.

But others have not. A strain of Islamophobic politics has remained in the Republican party since 2001, and appears to be surging now with several leading candidates more openly championing that cause.

The problem goes beyond Ben "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation" Carson. And it's not even just him and Donald Trump, who recently responded to a supporter's rant about how we would "get rid" of Muslims (or Muslim "training camps," it's not totally clear) by saying "we need this question!"

Ted Cruz, for example, did say that banning Muslims from the presidency was unconstitutional in a Sunday interview. But he also refused to say whether Obama was a Christian — "The president’s faith is between him and God," he said. Speculation about Obama's "true" religion is generally code for the idea that Obama is secretly Muslim, and (the allegation goes) hence disloyal to the US.

Cruz has said that the 9/11 hijackers "weren’t a bunch of ticked-off Presbyterians" — as means of highlighting, in a very un-Bushian way, the role of Islam in the attacks. In 2012, Cruz called the influence of Islamic law in American society "an enormous problem," a reference to a far-right conspiracy theory that Islamic law is corrupting American society and institutions.

Bobby Jindal has made Islamophobia a hallmark of his recent political rhetoric. In a January 19 speech to the London-based Henry Jackson Society, Jindal warned of "dangerous" Muslims "who want to come to our country but not adopt our values." He went on, "Sharia law is not just different than our law, it's not just a cultural difference, it is oppression and it is wrong." He's also endorsed weird Fox News-promoted theories about "no-go zones" in Europe, areas dominated by Muslims in which non-Muslim Europeans are afraid to tread.

During the JV Republican debate last Thursday, when Jindal was asked about Ahmed Mohamed, the ninth grader arrested for bringing a clock to school, he looked uncomfortable and almost immediately pivoted to talking about Christians. "The biggest discrimination going on is against Christian business owners and individuals who believe in traditional forms of marriage," he said. The other three Republicans on stage— Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki — weren't a lot better.

It's a far cry from the days when George W. Bush spoke for the party.

VIDEO: JV Republican Debate question about Ahmed Mohamed's arrest

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.