So another norm of public decency falls, like a historical building demolished to make way for one of Donald Trump’s tasteless towers.
When the president of the United States goes after an American Muslim – in this case Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who came to the U.S. as a Somali refugee – using images of the 9/11 attacks, it is cruel, frightening and dangerous in new ways.
It is cruel because Trump essentially delivered his political rant while standing on desecrated graves. The images he employed not only included burning buildings but burning human beings, drafted into a sad and sordid political ploy. Is nothing sacred to Trump? When said aloud, the question sounds like an absurdity. Trump has never given the slightest indication of propriety, respect or reverence. His narcissism leaves no room to honor other people or to honor other gods. Both the living and the dead matter only as servants to the cause of Trump himself.
This cruelty extends to those who have fled war in Syria. Barack Obama did little to serve their interests. Now, the victims of violence are treated as villains in Trump’s fictional version of global threats. Syrian refugees, according to Trump, are “trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is, and how wonderful Islam is.” On the strength of such calumnies, Trump has essentially destroyed America’s asylum system.
This has led to a frightening state of affairs. By all the evidence, Trump is an anti-Muslim bigot. At one campaign event in 2015, a member of the audience stated, “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims.” And he went on to ask, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump responded: “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.” Imagine a normal politician on the left or right being asked about the possibility of getting rid of all the Christians, or getting rid of all the Jews. They would likely use such a moment to clarify that they aren’t, in fact, insanely prejudiced monsters. Trump used such a moment to affirm the instinct of mass deportation and to promise a range of other anti-Muslim actions.
Could this have been a slip of the tongue? No, it wasn’t. Trump has a long history of animus – raw animus – against one of the Abrahamic faiths. He has said, “We’re having problems with the Muslims.” And: “There is a Muslim problem in the world.” And: “The United Kingdom is trying hard to disguise their massive Muslim problem.” And: “Islam hates us.”
The Quran, in Trump’s scholarly opinion, “teaches some very negative vibe.” He has claimed: “You have people coming out of mosques with hatred and death in their eyes.” He once called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has variously and publicly considered the closing of mosques, warrantless searches, and the creation of a national database to track Muslims. In Trump’s view, “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before.”
The president claims to have seen “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims cheering on 9/11 when the towers fell – a lie and a libel. He attacked a Muslim Gold Star mother, claiming that she “wasn’t allowed” to speak at the Democratic convention because of her faith – a lie and a libel. He has praised Gen. John Pershing for executing Muslim insurgents in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig’s blood – a historical myth, but a revealing fantasy of anti-Muslim war crimes.
By all the evidence, Trump believes that Islam is incompatible with American ideals and that Muslims are, as a group, threatening to American security. This is not only rank religious bigotry; it is the attitude most likely to alienate some Muslims from American ideals and turn a dangerous few toward radicalism and violence.
None of this requires us to believe that Omar is a wise or thoughtful public figure. She isn’t. She traffics in the worst anti-Semitic tropes. But Trump’s perception of religious liberty as freedom only for the faiths he prefers is a potential threat to every religious group. What if some future leader views Mormonism as incompatible with American democracy, or evangelical Protestantism? By what principle would Trump supporters be able to criticize discrimination against such groups?
Religious freedom is either rigorously equal, or it becomes an instrument of those in power to favor or disfavor religions of their choice. And those believers who are currently in favor may someday discover what disfavor is like.
Michael Gerson was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006 and a senior policy adviser.
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