At CNN's Republican debate on Thursday, Marco Rubio appeared to do something very unusual for the GOP stage: He tried to take a stand against Islamophobia, particularly against Donald Trump's Islamophobia.
Only Rubio did it in the worst possible way.
Rubio said, commenting on Trump's comments that "a lot of" Muslims hate America:
I know that a lot of people find appeal in the things Donald says, because he says what people wish they could say. The problem is presidents can't just say anything they want. It has consequences — here and around the world.
And so let me give you one: Two days ago, I met this extraordinary couple who are on furlough because they are missionaries in Bangladesh. It's a very tough place to be a missionary. It's Muslim. And their safety and security very much relies upon friendly Muslims that live alongside them — that may not convert but protect them and certainly look out for them. And their mission field really are Muslims that are looking to convert to Christianity as well. And they tell me that today they have a very hostile environment in which to operate in because the news is coming out that in America leading political figures are saying that America doesn't like Muslims.
So this is a real impact. There is no doubt that radical Islam is a danger in the world.
I can also tell you that if you go to any national cemetery, especially Arlington, you're gonna see crescent moons there. If you go anywhere in the world, you're going see American men and women serving us in uniform that are Muslims. And they love America. And as far as I know, no one on this stage has served in uniform in the United States military. Anyone out there that has the uniform of the United States on and is willing to die for this country is someone that loves America — no matter what their religious background may be.
Rubio's answer isn't that we shouldn't be bigoted against Muslims because we should respect other people and their beliefs. It's that we shouldn't be bigoted against Muslims because it's tactically advantageous to be polite, because we need Muslim allies in the Middle East, Muslims might convert to Christianity, and Muslim Americans could maybe join the military.
This is pretty weak. The problem with Islamophobia is, fundamentally, that it's bigotry. While being nice to Muslims does happen to be tactically advantageous (as Hillary Clinton has also said), it shouldn't be the primary reason for rejecting bigotry.
Not only that, but Rubio actually suggested that we should respect Muslims because they might stop being Muslims — by converting to Christianity.
Vox's Jennifer Williams previously explained the problem with answers like Rubio's:
Reducing our value to this country to simply a useful counterterrorism tool is offensive, even if you are advocating for more engagement with Muslim American communities and pushing back against anti-Muslim rhetoric. You shouldn't seek to engage with us and avoid making us feel alienated and unwelcome because it's a good counterterrorism strategy. You should do that because we're Americans and we belong here.
Yet this is apparently what passes as good for a Republican politician speaking about Islam. Several pundits threw praise on Rubio on Twitter for his comments:
Great comments from Rubio and Kasich re: Islam. But they should've also noted Muslims are the primary victims of jihadism. #GOPDebate— John Haltiwanger (@jchaltiwanger) March 11, 2016
excellent answer from Rubio on Islam and terrorism, and one that shows respect to Republican voters— Ramesh Ponnuru (@RameshPonnuru) March 11, 2016
Credit to Marco Rubio. His comments on Islam...were presidential. (Except I'm not sure that gets him many votes.)— Michael Luo (@michaelluo) March 11, 2016
This accepts an enormously low bar — one that still subtly accepts Islamophobia, but argues that it's tactically advantageous to not appear Islamophobic. As Mike Isaac at the New York Times tweeted, "Rubio's stance is that we all wish we could be outwardly xenophobic but it's totally not presidential."