The New York Times this morning has an op-ed by Al Jazeera host Mehdi Hasan, whom I regard as one of the world’s best television journalists. Its primary point is one that has been recently promoted by others such as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes: namely, that in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush diligently avoided, and even forcefully rejected, the anti-Muslim bigotry and animus now prevalent in the 2016 GOP primary race. Titled “Why I Miss George W. Bush,” Hasan’s op-ed argues that Bush and his top advisers (such as Karl Rove and Michael Gerson) “understood that demonizing Muslims and depicting Islam as ‘the enemy’ not only fueled al Qaeda’s narrative but also hurt their party’s electoral prospects.”
There is a significant element of truth to this view, and it’s definitely worth pointing out. In my 2007 book that was extremely critical of the Bush presidency, A Tragic Legacy, I described several of Bush’s post-9/11 speeches as “resolute, eloquent and even inspiring” because he “repeatedly emphasized that the enemy was defined neither as adherents to Islam nor Middle Eastern countries and their citizens, but instead was a band of fanatics who exploited Islam as a pretext for terrorism and violence.” I also praised his September 20, 2001, speech to the nation for including demands that “no one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith,” and particularly hailed his September 17 visit to the Islamic Center in Washington to meet with Muslim religious and civic leaders (photo above), after which he said:
It is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel the same way I do. … Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.
It’s easy now to be dismissive of all that as empty rhetoric. But the post-9/11 climate in the U.S. was dangerous for Muslims, and had the U.S. president ignored the potential for mindless vengeance against a small and marginalized minority, or worse, had he stoked it, some extremely ugly and terrorizing sentiments could easily have been unleashed. To see how true that is, consider what the Paris attacks and subsequent exploitation of anti-Muslim sentiment have generated in the U.S. and throughout the West, as exemplified by a horrific incident, captured on video, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, last week where anti-Muslim residents threateningly screamed at a Muslim-American engineer seeking municipal approval for construction of a new mosque.
But there’s a danger that this valid praise for Bush’s post-9/11 rhetoric can whitewash many of the truly heinous things he and his administration did to Muslims after that attack. The actions he took outside of the U.S. are obvious, from torture to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib to the invasion and destruction of Iraq. Hasan acknowledges those anti-Muslim abuses but suggests they were confined to foreign soil: “Mr. Bush’s foreign policy may have harmed Muslims abroad, but at home he courted Muslim-American voters and refused to lazily conflate Islam with terrorism.”
That gives Bush too much credit. The reality is that, on U.S. soil, he perpetrated a wide array of radical abuses aimed at Muslims in the wake of 9/11. In the weeks after the attack, more than 1,000 Muslims and Arabs were swept up by the FBI and detained without charge, often by abusing the powers allowing for detention of “material witnesses.” Thousands of Muslim immigrants were deported from the U.S. in the months following the attack. Bush quickly and secretly implemented an illegal scheme of warrantless domestic eavesdropping aimed largely at Muslims.
As Berkeley professor Irum Shiekh documented in her book Detained Without Cause, “Individuals who slightly resembled the 19 hijackers — those whom officers perceived as being from the Middle East — were subject to surveillance, questioning, scrutiny and detentions.” Indeed, the Bush administration pioneered a radical new theory of executive power that literally vested the president with unlimited authority to do virtually anything in the name of national security, including breaking the law, and those theories were used largely to infringe the civil liberties of Muslims within the U.S.
Beyond all that, the Bush DOJ indicted and prosecuted the nation’s largest Muslim-American charity (Holy Land Foundation), and then permanently smeared the nation’s largest Muslim-American civil rights organization (CAIR) by officially labeling them an “unindicted co-conspirator,” which meant they had no ability to challenge the accusation. They abused new “material support for terrorism” laws to imprison young American Muslims for decades on blatantly trumped up charges, and then stuck them in specially created, hellish Gitmo-like prison wings (in June, my colleague Murtaza Hussain brilliantly documented one of the worst such cases, the “Fort Dix Five,” but there were so many other similar ones). And they pioneered new theories to permit the arrest and imprisonment of American Muslims on U.S. soil without charges of any kind, holding and torturing one of them, Jose Padilla, incommunicado for years without even access to a lawyer (as I’ve recounted many times, it was the alarm triggered by the Padilla case that was the initial impetus for me to want to become a political writer).
As Hasan references, Bush’s pro-Muslim rhetoric was at least partially self-serving. In the 2000 campaign, American Muslims — attracted by Bush’s “humble” foreign policy campaign rhetoric and turned off by the hawkish and devoutly pro-Israel stances of Al Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman — provided substantial and critical support to the GOP ticket, especially in Florida. According to CAIR, “78 percent of Muslims voted Republican in 2000.” As the New York Times noted, “In 2000, a few hundred votes decided the election; an estimated 60,000 Muslims in Florida voted for Bush.” Indeed, a highly influential Palestinian professor at the University of South Florida, Sami al-Arian, actively campaigned for Bush in 2000 in Florida, only to find himself later indicted on extremely dubious charges of materially supporting terrorism, based almost exclusively on his political writings and speeches.
The al-Arian case is illustrative of the key point: The actual domestic record of Bush on American Muslims — as opposed to his pretty rhetoric — is hideous. Its severity is demonstrated by the fact that by 2004, Muslim American voting patterns had reversed almost completely. As NBC News reported in 2004 about the campaign: “To the extent that the get-out-the-Muslim-vote effort succeeds, it will largely benefit the Democrats because it is energized by anger over the Bush administration’s Patriot Act and what is perceived as an anti-Muslim bias behind the Iraq war and Israeli-Palestinian policy.” As one pollster put it in 2004, “The political realignment in the Muslim community is unprecedented in all of American history.” And indeed, according to the NYT, “Arab-American and South Asian-American Muslims, who initially supported Bush in 2000, switched overwhelmingly to the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, in 2004.”
So yes, George W. Bush deserves some qualified credit for his responsible, restrained post-9/11 rhetoric about Muslims, especially as compared to the dangerous bile that has been spewed forth by his party on that topic since he left. But that praise should not serve to suppress or whitewash the truly severe abuses his administration systematically perpetrated against Muslims: not just on foreign soil as part of the war on terror but domestically as well.