WASHINGTON (CN) – In the weeks after the election, mosques across the country have seen an escalation in backlash and a sharp uptick in hateful letters, emails and phone calls.
The rise has been so sharp that the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the U.S., is having a hard time keeping up with it.
“The election seems to have empowered and emboldened the undercurrent of bigotry in our society,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said in a phone interview.
“People who might not normally air their bigoted views now believe that it’s acceptable,” he added. “And that’s a very troubling phenomenon.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted nine letters sent to mosques, threatening Muslim genocide in President-elect Donald Trump’s America.
“He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews,” the letters read, arriving at mosques in California, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Though the FBI does not classify generalized letters like this as hate crimes, the bureau’s own statistics show a surge in hate crimes against Muslims – they spiked last year 67 percent.
And 49 percent of Americans think at least some Muslims in the U.S. are anti-American, according to a Pew poll from January. In the same poll, 42 percent said there were “just a few or none” anti-American U.S. Muslims.
Although some Muslims voted for the president-elect – 13 percent, according to a CAIR exit poll – Trump told supporters on the campaign trail that he thinks “Islam hates us.”
Sharpening the edge of his promise on the campaign trail to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., Trump has in recent weeks stacked his cabinet with people who openly espouse anti-Muslim views.
“Personally, I’m not so worried about Mr. Trump – I think a lot of what he said and did was just showboating,” Hazem Bata, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, said in a phone interview. “But it’s the people that are around him that I think are going to cause a lot of damage.”
Trump’s national security pick, Gen. Michael Flynn, has said Islam is a political ideology. He has also called Islam a cancer and recently tweeted that fear of Muslims is rational. Flynn is a board member of ACT for America, which Hooper said is “the most virulent anti-Muslim hate group in America.”
Trump also tapped Breitbart News CEO Steve Bannon as his chief White House strategist. The publication regularly publishes anti-Muslim content, and gives a platform to people like Pamela Gellar, Frank Gaffney and Brigitte Gabriel, who founded ACT for America.
All have been flagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center as key figures in Muslim-bashing activism.
Trump’s cabinet in the making, combined with growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., has left some American Muslims gripped with fear.
“You’ve got people that are afraid to leave their house,” Bata said. “And that’s not hyperbole – they are literally afraid to leave their house.”
“You’ve got some kids that don’t want to go to school because either they’ve been bullied or they’re afraid of being bullied,” Bata added.
The current climate in the United States has a lot to do with that.
At California State University, San Bernardino, Brian Levin with the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said anti-Muslim prejudice is higher now than it was after 9/11.
Levin, who has studied extremism for many years, called the rise in Americans with prejudiced views against Muslims “alarming.”
The country can still only speculate about Trump’s plan for national security, but Levin said he worries about anti-Muslim sentiment entering the mainstream and becoming enacted as policy.
“If there are people who are setting policy that subscribe to the notion that all Muslims are a threat – or a cancer – or that it doesn’t constitute a faith, that’s going to have significant consequences for how American citizens who adhere to that faith feel and engage in civic participation,” Levin said in a phone interview.
“People who believe a faith of over 1 and 1/2 billion people are homogenously evil or a cancer are not fit morally or strategically to serve in national office,” he added.
The Belief That Islam Is Un-American
Anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States has several themes, but chief among them is the notion that Islam is un-American. Belying this belief is a fear of the widespread imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia, and the misconception that it is at odds with American democracy.
The Council on Foreign Relations notes that some extremist groups have invoked Sharia to justify cruel punishments such as amputation and stoning, but scholars say Sharia actually offers little guidance on criminal law, nor does it promote any particular form of government.
Written by jurists and law professors, not rulers or legislators, Sharia instructs Muslims to pray five times a day, to be charitable, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and to fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
It governs other aspects of a Muslim’s life: commercial interactions, marriage and divorce, social behavior and morals, ritual worship, war and peace, and punishments.
Most importantly, the law cannot be imposed on non-Muslims. Indeed, Sharia requires Muslims living in countries where the religion is not in the majority to obey the national law.
Helping to fuel the counterargument is Frank Gaffney, a brief member of the Reagan administration who claims President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Three years ago, in a column for Right Side News, Gaffney suggested that Egyptian-based Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to destroy the West from within. Gaffney said the organization has infiltrated the U.S. government.
“We know for a fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has as its mission the worldwide imposition of Islam’s toxic, brutally repressive and anti-constitutional supremacist doctrine known as Shariah,” he wrote. “And yes, it means here, too.” (Emphasis original.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center says Gaffney’s think tank, the Center for Security Policy, has evolved into “a conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.” Reports that Gaffney is advising President-elect Trump during the transition have been denied by both Gaffney and the Trump camp, but the latter would neither confirm nor deny whether Gaffney had visited Trump recently.
Trump did, however, cite a flawed poll from Gaffney’s organization to justify his proposed Muslim ban in the U.S. The poll asserted that 25 percent of American Muslims think violence against Americans in the U.S. is justified as part of a global jihad, while 51 percent think they should have the choice of being governed by Sharia.
Nathan Lean, author of “The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims,” noted in a phone interview that the poll was conducted for the Center for Security Policy by The Polling Company.
Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is The Polling Company’s CEO and president.
Lean is among those to have heavily criticized the poll’s methodology.
Though Gaffney might not have an official role in the transition, Lean said an unofficial influence is just as troubling.
Calling it inevitable that Conway will receive an official role in the Trump administration, Lean said this is concerning in light of her connection to people like Gaffney.
In a December 2015 press release announcing the proposed Muslim ban, Trump put forth erroneous and troubling assertions about Sharia, claiming that it “authorizes such atrocities as murder against non-believers who won’t convert, beheadings and more unthinkable acts that pose great harm to Americans, especially women.”
Islam does not condone the killing of the innocent, regardless of their faith. It also forbids forced conversions and depriving women their rights – facts that any legitimate Islamic scholar would know. And that’s what worries Lean.
“The fact that now Donald Trump has Frank Gaffney in the back of his mind as someone that’s credible when it comes to information about Muslims is frightening,” Lean said.
Offering a troubling forecast, Lean predicted that anti-Muslim discourse will grow and Islamophobia in the U.S. will get significantly worse in the coming months.
“It’s worse already than it was six months ago,” he said. “I think that the election of Donald Trump has given license to a swath of people in this country who feel that they should and are able to act out their animosities toward various minority communities.”
“Muslims are certainly at the top of the list,” he added.
Do Drastic Times Call for Drastic Measures?
The 9/11 attacks, the rise of al-Qaida and the brutality of the Islamic State group have left some Americans understandably concerned about terrorism. But there is a deep partisan divide over how best to approach the domestic terror threat.
Rep. Michael McCaul noted Wednesday during a speech at conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation that more than 100 Islamic State group supporters have been captured or killed in the United States.
McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs House Homeland Security Committee, spoke about the need to “define the threat to defeat it.”
President Obama has avoided associating terrorism with Islam, but that approach is likely to change under the Trump administration.
During the town hall presidential debate, Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for refusing to call out “radical Islamic terrorists.”
Clinton said in response that it would be a mistake to imply that the United States is at war with Islam. That plays into the hands of terrorists, she said.
McCaul declined a request for comment for this story, and The Heritage Foundation canceled an interview with a national-security expert at the last minute. It did not respond to a request to reschedule the interview.
Brian Levin with the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism cautioned against broad-brushing an entire faith, which he said could hurt our national security.
“We have enough unstable people that groups like Daesh is trying to fire-start,” Levin said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group. “We don’t need to buy into the moronic narrative of Daesh by producing fear-based caricatures.”
While acknowledging that violent extremists should be approached head-on, Levin cautioned against alienating Muslims in the process.
“There’s no legitimate national-security expert that buys into these anti-Muslim diatribes,” he said. “All it does is establish that they’re ignorant.”
Although President-elect Trump passed McCaul over to head the Department of Homeland Security in favor of retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, McCaul will no doubt influence national-security legislation.
On Wednesday, McCaul advocated that foreign travelers seeking visas should undergo “extreme vetting,” to include a more intensive background check on the front end of travel.
The Obama administration already employs a version of extreme vetting for Syrian refugees, who are subjected to additional screening measures. But McCaul went further, suggesting that America shut down immigration from “high-risk countries where we cannot confidently weed out terror suspects.”
“This includes Syria,” McCaul said.
Such a proposal would likely have Trump’s support. On the campaign trail, he promised to deport the 12,000 Syrian refugees currently living in the U.S., and falsely accused many Syrian refugees of “definitely” being aligned with the Islamic State group.
Like McCaul, Trump also called for shutting down immigration from “dangerous countries.”
Aside from what the new administration could mean for foreign Muslims seeking entry to the U.S., Ibrahim Hooper with CAIR expressed concern about other forms of discriminatory legislation being passed.
In particular, Hooper said he is worried that Congress will pass an anti-Muslim Brotherhood bill, which could have dire implications for CAIR.
Ben Carson, whom Trump has tapped to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is among those who have called for CAIR to be investigated on the basis of claims by fringe groups that the council has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Should Congress pass an anti-Muslim Brotherhood bill, CAIR could find itself in the crosshairs of a campaign to shut it down.
“In the past, nobody listened to them because they were a lunatic fringe,” Hooper said. “Now they’re a lunatic fringe in the White House.”
Nathan Lean said Frank Gaffney “has fought tooth and nail for years” to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated as a terrorist organization.
It’s not out of the question. In February, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to do just that.
The bill is stalled, but Lean expressed concern about this policy idea moving forward in the next few years.
“It can create a very dangerous situation for a lot of people that have nothing to do with terrorism that are fully committed to the project of American democracy and want to live in a country where they are able to abide by the religious teachings that they so choose,” Lean said.
For now, Hooper and Hazem Bata with the Islamic Society of North America say they see a silver lining – Trump’s campaign was so hateful to so many different groups that it has accelerated coalition building.
“When you vilify Latinos, LGBTs, African Americans, Muslims and so many other groups, it makes it very obvious,” Bata said.
“There’s no hiding the hatred – it’s forcing minorities to get their acts together and build coalitions in ways that we haven’t done before,” Bata added.