In the past several months, Donald Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims in America has become increasingly extreme. He has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. He has insisted that American Muslims "cheer" and "celebrate" terror attacks, that Muslim communities are known to harbor terrorists, and that Muslim assimilation in the United States is "close" to "nonexistent."
Hillary Clinton has responded by attacking Trump’s Islamophobia and his attempt to "demonize and declare war on an entire religion." But in her attempts to rebut Trump, experts say, Clinton has occasionally created an unsettling narrative of her own.
It started last month: "Millions of peace-loving Muslims raise their families across the country," Clinton said after the Orlando nightclub shooting. "They are the most likely to recognize the insidious effects of radicalization before it’s too late, and the best positioned to help us block it. We should be intensifying contacts in those communities, not scapegoating or isolating them."
And it continued on the second night of the Democratic National Convention, when Bill Clinton ended his speech with a similar remark: "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. We want you," he said.
Clinton’s messaging is objectively less radical than that of Trump’s. However, by characterizing Muslim Americans in black and white — as either peace-loving or terrorist-harboring — it perpetuates the growing sentiment in the United States that Muslims, at their core, are un-American.
Donald Trump’s comments are awful. That doesn’t make Clinton’s okay.
"Trump’s rhetoric has become the yardstick by which everyone else remarks are measured," Erik Love, a Dickinson College sociology professor who is currently writing a book on Muslim Americans, said in an interview. "What Secretary Clinton has said becomes by default okay. But it is not okay."
Phrases like "peace-loving Muslims," or references to Muslim Americans as important "contacts" in the fight against terror seem innocuous when overshadowed by Newt Gingrich’s recent remarks that the US should "test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported."
But focus groups with Muslim American communities show that Clinton’s comments also "resonate poorly," Charles Kurzman, a University of North Carolina sociology professor, said.
"When [Clinton] frames the choices this way, it means that for Muslims to be ‘good’ and worthy cultural and political citizens of America, they have to pledge fealty to the same law enforcement, media, and politicians that have been surveilling, jailing, and abusing them based on their names, their faith, and their physical appearances," Neda Maghbouleh, a University of Toronto sociology professor, said in an interview.
In other words, it holds Muslims to an unfair standard: "Americans of other faiths can hold a range of views about the media and cops and politics without threat of having their citizenship revoked. ‘Good’ Muslims simply can't." (Clinton’s campaign did not respond for comment).
Clinton doesn’t always get it wrong.
It’s important to note that Clinton doesn’t always speak this way. After the ISIS attack in Paris last November, Clinton responded that Muslims "have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism."
"Let’s be clear: Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism."— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 19, 2015
Just as Christians are not referenced only in conjunction with the Ku Klux Klan, Muslims communities seek the same disassociation with terrorism. But the fever around the recent attacks has drawn political figures like Trump — and in less severe terms, Clinton as well — to focus on Muslim communities in the US.
This is misleading and damaging, Kurzman argues:
Public debates on terrorism focus intensely on Muslims. But this focus does not square with the low number of plots in the United States by Muslims, and it does a disservice to a minority group that suffers from increasingly hostile public opinion. As state and local police agencies remind us, right-wing, anti-government extremism is the leading source of ideological violence in America.
It shouldn’t have to be said that Muslim Americans are no different than Christian Americans, Jewish Americans, or Atheist Americans. They are active participants in society and, as Vox’s Jennifer Williams put it, "leaders shouldn't advocate for more engagement with Muslim American communities and push back against anti-Muslim rhetoric simply because it's a good counterterrorism strategy."