'I think Islam ... hates us." That statement, delivered by the front-runner in the race to be the Republican nominee for president of the United States, Donald Trump, was his most blunt comments on Muslims yet.
It’s hard to tell if his pause between the words Islam and hates was just for dramatic effect or due to Mr Trump having no sensible idea to put out there. Based on the campaign so far, it’s not entirely clear – but these comments are certainly the clearest sign that Mr Trump is willing to continually up the ante over any reasonable policy prescriptions.
It is not as though anyone ought to be surprised. Mr Trump is making such utterly outrageous comments not because he is brave or heroic in a world where no one wants to hear him. On the contrary, he is pleasing his base – a group that has allowed a warped populism to appeal to its most sordid core.
The more contemptible Mr Trump can be to anything alien to the sensibilities of Republican white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the better he seems to do in the polls among pro-Republican voters. Of even more concern is not that populism is relatively easy to whip up on any number of issues. What is particularly disconcerting is that other leaders in the Republican presidential nominee race are hardly any better.
Mr Trump is refreshing, at least, in that he is rather blunt and open about his ideas. The other nominees appear to agree with him, but are less daring in their willingness to announce it. It’s likely that the most we can expect from them is to say that such bigoted statements about Islam are not smart or appropriate. Such statements have been given before. They’re not condemnations. They’re cowardice.
Let’s identify what this all translates to – and let’s be clear: this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Anti-Muslim sentiment is growing across the board in the United States and in Europe. The mainstreaming of far-right ideas about Muslims and Islam, as well as the nativistic near-xenophobia which is partly reacting to the refugee crisis, has only ensured that sentiment spreads.
When Mr Trump declares that “Islam hates us”, it is not an intellectual argument he is making about some abstract item called Islam. Rather, his followers and supporters will simply attach that to everyone who follows Islam. His statements have a direct impact on the treatment of Muslims at large.
Some have previously argued that Mr Trump was talking about only “radical Muslims” and “radical Islam” in the past. That was a difficult argument to make then, but it is no longer remotely tenable.
Mr Trump was asked directly if he was referring to radical Islam – a term which in and of itself is deeply problematic – and he continued: “It’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.” In about three seconds, Mr Trump cast suspicion on every single adherent to the Islamic faith. Not radicals, not extremists, but every single Muslim. Because how would – or could – we tell the difference?
Of course, it is unclear what Mr Trump is actually referring to when he says Islam. It’s not unsurprising – the amount of literacy and understanding in the public sphere about what Islam represents is appalling, and Mr Trump is no exception. But one might hope he is more equipped to define what he means when he says “us”. Did Mr Trump mean to speak on behalf of all Americans?
If so, then what place do Muslim-Americans – who number several million – play in his understanding of us? Or are they also meant to simply be sacrificed as pawns in a larger game to place Mr Trump onto the Republican ticket and then the White House? If so, at what cost to America and at what cost to America’s understanding of itself?
Do Mr Trump’s supporters understand the ramifications of this kind of discourse, and what impact it has on the United States – not simply in terms of its global reputation, but on the social cohesion that is a hallmark of America?
Islam doesn’t hate the United States, nor is it a threat to America’s existence. But it seems that a far greater threat to the West’s own vigour is the bigoted demagoguery of people like Mr Trump, and the cowardly silence of those who would tolerate him while clutching his coat-tails. Perhaps, indeed, it is people like these who do not only hate Islam – but also in many ways, the West itself.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer