Tuesday's presidential primary in Wisconsin brought with it a welter of statistics about the demographics and preferences of the people who went to the polls, as all primaries do. Many of these statistics will have unearthed things unique to Wisconsin, but at least one was distressingly common: 70 percent of Republican voters backed Donald Trump's call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States. That's a number that fits snugly into a deeply consistent pattern as the primaries go on. In state after state, roughly between 64 and 78 percent of Republican respondents say they back a proposal to bar an entire religion from American shores. The support for Trump's idea far outstrips the number of votes he's been getting. Republicans may not all like him, but they overwhelmingly like Islamophobia.
Over the past week, a pair of polls has shown that anti-Muslim sentiment is by no means limited to the GOP. In fact, it appears to have become the position of a slim majority of all Americans. One of these polls showed the idea gaining the support of 50 percent of voters; the other showed 51 percent backing it, a figure that jumped six points in three months. Polling is a tricky business, but it's clear that, whatever the true figure, the notion that Muslims as a whole are a suspect class is now a solidly mainstream one. This is both unsurprising and, of course, very troubling.
It's no accident that such animus is spreading. There's a reason the editors of Charlie Hebdo chose to publish their recent, instantly notorious anti-Muslim editorial in English. They knew there would be a willing audience for it. American culture has allowed prominent people to get away with despicably bigoted views about Muslims that would be totally unacceptable if they were directed towards any other religious or ethnic group. Global media has either accommodated or actively pushed the idea that Muslims are an Other to be viewed with monolithic suspicion.
Beyond the fact that Western powers are currently either occupying or continually bombing a string of Muslim countries, and have been doing so for decades, our political class has directly fed the spread of Islamophobia. Republicans have obviously made such racism a core, common feature of their party. It's hard to say, for instance, that Ted Cruz's calls to patrol Muslim neighborhoods are somehow more palatable than Trump's brand of hatred. But, as those polls mentioned above showed, this is not some GOP-only disease. Not only do a sizable number of Democrats back Islamophobia, but there's evidence that even more of them do if Trump's name isn't attached to the idea.
During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton has consistently criticized her rivals over their Islamophobia, but she always makes sure to add that their proposals are also bad because they're bad for security. “We have to enlist help from American Muslims, Muslims around the world, in defeating the radical jihadist and the hateful ideology,” she said in one statement. “Instead, Donald Trump is providing them with propaganda. He is playing right into their hands.”
Clinton is not alone; President Obama has also indulged in this sort of rhetorical approach, including at the sole visit he's made to an American mosque in his entire presidency. (While there, he also made sure to mention the canard that Muslims are not denouncing terrorist atrocities enough.)
This language has always irked me to no end. It carries with it an implication that Muslims could easily tip over into extremism at any moment. Why isn't it enough to say that racism is wrong because racism is wrong? Don't Muslims deserve to be told that? Don't they deserve to feel like they need not be participants in a government anti-terrorism program to merit the outrage of leading political figures on their behalf?
The prominence of Islamophobia has waxed and waned during the primaries, but it's likely to be a big wedge issue during the general election. It's hard to imagine the anti-Muslim climate getting worse, but everything gets worse as a campaign broadens out. Beyond whatever happens in the election, though, the bigger problem is that this kind of racism is now a major part of American life. We have to do much, much more to stamp it out.