On January 10, 2018, a group of roughly 50 state lawmakers and interfaith leaders gathered at the state capitol in Pierre, South Dakota. They had come together to pray for tolerance and peace, but the moment was soon interrupted by state Sen. Neal Tapio. He arrived on the scene angry, quickly launching into a speech about the dangers of Islam, noting his support for President Donald Trump’s ban on immigration from some majority-Muslim countries, known as the Muslim ban. He admonished the Christian and Jewish members of the assembly for gathering with Muslim leaders and accused his fellow lawmakers of being blind to the dangers of Sharia, or Muslim religious doctrine.
The state senator later told reporters, “Interfaith dialogue is a part of a war. It’s a silent part, it’s a part about taking away the Christian fabric of our nation.” He added, “I’ve spent three and a half years studying the Quran, I’ve read it twice.” He gestured toward the rally: “I look at those folks as a political movement.” (Tapio declined to comment for this story.)
Tapio would repeat such warnings many times in his bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, entering a Republican primary race in which fears about Islam would prove to be a frequent topic of debate. In total, five candidates in national and local primary races in South Dakota would include anti-Muslim policies on their platforms, often challenging one another to burnish their Islamophobic credentials. Their campaigns included calls for a Muslim registry endorsed by Trump ally and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach; speculations about impending terrorist attacks; and proposals for legislation denouncing Sharia as a “root cause of the global war on terrorism.”
“Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been in use for years, but until recently, it remained mostly on the fringes of the mainstream.”
The South Dakota race is emblematic of a nationwide trend in campaigns since 2016 — one in which more candidates are using Islamophobic rhetoric as a way to establish conservative credentials and galvanize voters. A new study, titled “Running On Hate,” released on Monday by the legal research and advocacy group Muslim Advocates, highlights 80 races nationwide that have used blatantly anti-Muslim rhetoric since 2016. The research, which was shared in advance of its publication with The Intercept, shows that such rhetoric is active in campaigns at all levels of government and in rural, suburban, and urban settings alike.
“Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been in use for years, but until recently, it remained mostly on the fringes of the mainstream,” said Scott Simpson, the primary author of the study, in an interview. That’s changed since Trump, Simpson said: “In this midterm cycle, we’re seeing a lot of new adopters. They’ve seen Trump blast this ideology on the campaign trail, more blatant than any campaign like it — and he won! Now it seems many of them want to try out Islamophobia as a political strategy themselves. And we’re seeing this in every demographic and region.”
The majority of these “new adopters” already have some foothold in the political mainstream. According to the study, 64 percent of candidates employing Islamophobic rhetoric this midterm season “have either previously held electoral or appointed office or have a presidential endorsement.”
The Muslim Advocates report “quantifies and describes known instances of clear anti-Muslim political rhetoric from electoral candidates in the 2017 and 2018 elections taking place before October 5, 2018.” The researchers tracked the use of words like “Muslim,” “Islam,” “Sharia,” “terrorism,” and “mosque” to filter their search. Muslim Advocates hewed to a narrow definition of “clearly anti-Muslim” campaigns: A campaign was counted if it displayed specific characteristics, including “a clear distortion of facts related to the nature of Islam or Muslims,” “contains clear slurs or hostility toward Muslims,” or “advocates for policies that would be clear and unequivocal denials of basic constitutional protections for American Muslims, particularly freedom of worship.” The team also identified many instances of “proxy” Islamophobia used against communities “often confused with Muslims,” such as refugees, Sikhs, and people of Arab, South Asian, or North African descent.
Taken together, the scores of anti-Muslim campaigns reveal a number of striking similarities in both form and content. One fundamental tenet is the belief that Muslims are inherently dangerous people. Islam is often conflated with terrorism, with candidates and conservative political groups frequently invoking the names of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and Al Qaeda, while warning that “weak borders,” refugee resettlement, or “creeping Sharia” will bring Islamic extremism to constituents’ front doors. In one such ad, run by Bryce Reeves, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia, a white, suburban family is frightened by camouflage-clad militants. In Texas’s Bexar County, incumbent District Attorney Nico LaHood called Islam “basically a political system wrapped in a religion,” which, when fully implemented, could produce only terrorists. Candidates used this presumed danger to establish their security credentials, presenting themselves as a strong-armed answer to the Muslim menace.
Alongside this message of implicit danger comes oft-repeated references to an Islamic conspiracy to “take over,” “infiltrate,” or “destroy” the American government and the American way of life. In California, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter has repeatedly accused his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Christian of Palestinian and Mexican descent, of having ties to Islamic terrorism. In one ad, Duncan calls the 29-year-old Campa-Najjar “a Palestinian, Mexican, millennial Democrat” working with the Muslim Brotherhood as a part of a “well-orchestrated plan” to infiltrate the U.S. government. The ad closes with Hunter in military gear. Later, at a campaign event, Hunter reiterated the idea that “radical Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government.” In Virginia, a conservative political action committee supporting Republican House candidate Dave Brat attacked his opponent, a CIA veteran, for teaching at a private, Saudi-funded school. The ad dubbed the school “‘Terror High,’ a terrorist breeding ground.”
Many of these ideas have existed for years, emanating from such sources as the Center for Security Policy, ACT for America, and the Clarion Project, and blogs such as Creeping Sharia, Jihad Watch, and Refugee Resettlement Watch — a long-standing network of anti-Muslim groups and publications. “It’d be a mistake to think that these ideas are just being spouted at random,” said Moustafa Bayoumi, author of the book “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.” “Islamophobic ideology has been weaponized against Muslims for many years now. Trump may have brought it out in the open, encouraging more people to utilize these ideas at all levels, but these ideas have a deep foundation in American politics.” Simpson agreed: “There’s a real danger in dismissing these ideas as crazy. There’s actually a lot of sophistication to some of these organizations and their messaging.”
“Islamophobic ideology has been weaponized against Muslims for many years now. Trump may have brought it out in the open, encouraging more people to utilize these ideas at all levels, but these ideas have a deep foundation in American politics.”
The implications of this burgeoning anti-Muslim ideology are grave. By characterizing Islam as a dangerous political outlook rather than a religion, detractors cast Muslims outside the constitutional protections afforded to religious communities by the First Amendment. The strategy has become more explicit in recent years, with candidates such as Tapio openly questioning whether Muslims deserve the right to freedom of religion.
In addition, the constant portrayal of Muslims as dangerous or foreign has left the faithful feeling more vulnerable to hate crimes and discrimination, said Bayoumi. “By constantly casting Muslims as outside the norm, you dehumanize them and embolden people to treat them as the ‘other,’” he said. “This culture of suspicion and microaggression against Muslims has grown significantly in recent years, and in many ways it’s much more toxic, more harmful to a community, than the dramatic actions of hate. And that’s just the kind of result you’d expect when the political culture trafficks so freely in Islamophobia.”
In a parallel tale of bigotry, Muslim candidates — or, as in the case of Hoboken’s new Sikh Mayor Ravi Bhalla, those perceived to be Muslim — have been subject to their own barrage of hateful messaging. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, two women poised to make history as the nation’s first female Muslim members of Congress, have been subject to vicious attacks online and at campaign events. Detractors have called the two women “enemies of the state,” alleging everything from links with terrorist activity to incest and anti-Semitism. Right-wing groups have also taken aim at Deedra Abboud in Arizona, Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan, and Gregory Jones in Alaska, and many others with similar accusations. “It’s been shocking, the kind of language that’s freely used against Muslim candidates,” said Vetnah Monessar, the Florida executive director of Emgage, which works to build Muslim political engagement. Monessar cited the Florida gubernatorial race between the incumbent and a GOP challenger: “The worst has been at the very top — the Islamophobic rhetoric from Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, for example.”
“It’s been shocking, the kind of language that’s freely used against Muslim candidates. The worst has been at the very top.”
Despite these obstacles, more Muslims have launched campaigns this year than any before, excluding 2001. The surge in candidates, mostly running as Democrats, makes up what some have dubbed the “blue Muslim wave.” Zainab Baloch, a city council candidate in Raleigh, North Carolina, who had one of her campaign posters defaced with racial slurs, said her experiences of Islamophobia have only galvanized her — and brought out supporters from some surprising quarters. “After the incident, I was really shaken. I didn’t think those slurs would hurt me the way they did,” she said in an interview with The Intercept. “But in the end, it was a reminder of how important it is for our community to keep getting back out there. And I got letters from many people, non-Muslims, who said that kind of hate didn’t represent our city. Even Republicans reached out to say they don’t support the hate. So that gives me a lot of hope to keep on going.”
And the recent data shows that Islamophobic campaigns are, in fact, a losing strategy. Of the 80 campaigns cited by the Muslim Advocates’s “Running on Hate” report, only 11 candidates, or 14 percent, have won or are safely predicted to win their races in November. Muslim Advocates conducted a survey of 1,000 voters to gauge reactions to Islamophobic rhetoric and overall impressions of Muslims. The study identified that the majority of both Republican and Democratic responders rejected blatantly anti-Islam rhetoric, with only a “small and hostile sliver” of the population — roughly 15 percent — heartily endorsing such ideas. “It’s still concerning,” said Simpson of the findings. “That sliver still represents a lot of folks. But it’s encouraging to know that the vast majority of Americans don’t feel this way.”
Monessar, the Florida activist, agreed. “This election cycle has brought a lot of toxic things to light, but we’ve also seen a lot of allies, including Republicans, speak out against the hate,” she said. “Voter registration among Muslims is rising sharply. We’re seeing more community members engage in all levels of the political system. These things give us hope.”
Correction: October 22, 2018, 11:20 a.m. EST
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of candidates in campaigns cited by Muslim Advocates who had won or were likely to win their races. It is 14 percent.