How Trump Helps ISIS
MIAMI BEACH -- The fruits of Donald Trump’s rhetorical excess at the expense of Muslims and immigrants was brought home, literally, to Abdullah Antepli earlier this year. It left his teenage daughter in tears—and worried about her status in the only nation she has ever called home.
Abdullah Antepli is a college professor and imam-in-residence at Duke University. A naturalized American citizen who lives in Durham, N.C., with his wife and two children, Antepli emigrated from Turkey. Not his kids. They are “natural-born” citizens of the United States, to use the phrase Trump uses like a cudgel against Ted Cruz.
The oldest, 14-year-old Zainab, roots for the Duke Blue Devils and dreams of being on the U.S. Supreme Court. Her hometown is Cleveland, Ohio, the American heartland city where Trump plans to be crowned the 2016 Republican presidential nominee in July.
It seems that Zainab Antepli was in a quarrel with a friend at school—typical teenage politics—when her friend upped the ante. “I hope Trump wins and you disappear,” she told Zainab.
Successful national political candidates in this country deliberately avoid stoking racial, ethnic, or sectarian hatreds for just this reason. They know that their audience includes impressionable young Americans not yet of voting age. Trump’s vocabulary illustrates the problem perfectly: His infelicitous descriptions of those he disfavors—Muslims, Mexican immigrants, journalists, Democrats, his fellow Republican candidates—is the language of the schoolyard bully.
Such talk causes real damage, and not only to the feelings of vulnerable first-generation American kids or the overall cause of civil discourse in this country. Trump’s talk directly aids and abets terrorists. How do we know this? Because the terrorists say so themselves.
In “Terror in the Name of God,” a scholarly book I’d recommend to Donald Trump—and our current commander-in-chief, for that matter—Boston University professor Jessica Stern documents why jihadists launch terrorist attacks against innocents in the U.S. and Europe. One reason is to make moderate Muslims living in the West—a vast swath of the world community that ISIS leaders term the “gray zone”—feel afraid. Another is to fuel the kind of backlash represented by Trump and his followers.
“They want to make Muslims in the West feel unsafe,” she said. “They also want to increase prejudice against Muslims in the West.”
Professor Stern made these remarks at the Faith Angle Forum, a seminar being held in Miami Beach on the day Trump was swamping Marco Rubio’s own presidential hopes in Florida while also winning three of the four other states on the primary calendar. The bi-annual conference on religion’s role in American public life, organized by the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, is also where Abdullah Antepli related his poignant story about his daughter.
Neither Stern nor Antepli are apologists for Muslim terrorists; far from it: Stern termed ISIS an “apocalyptic cult.” Antepli says it makes him “uncomfortable” when President Obama—and George W. Bush before him—robotically call Islam “a religion of peace.”
“It’s really silly, to say the least,” he said, adding that when well-meaning liberals say that terrorist attacks, such as the mass murder in San Bernardino, have “nothing” to do with Islam, “I want to pull my hair and scream.”
Both academics also said that Obama’s own rhetorical tic of absolving jihadists of any religious connection to Islam is silly and counterproductive. (The president is so stubborn he won’t even say ISIS, let alone “Islamic State.”)
But the professors’ real opprobrium was reserved for the 2016 Republican Party front-runner. “Trump is validating the narrative that the West is at war with Islam,” Antepli told me over lunch after the conference ended. “This is the central marketing tool for ISIS, al-Qaeda, and all these terrorist organizations.”
In so doing, added Stern, “Trump is falling into a trap.”
It’s a trap of his own making. And it wasn’t set accidentally. At the beginning of this decade, Donald Trump was known as a New York real estate tycoon famous for his personal vanity and celebration of material wealth, a habit of using bankruptcy laws to stiff his investors, and his success as a reality television star.
From this unlikely pedigree emerged an ascendant presidential candidate who capitalized better than any of his rivals on the current politics of anger. See if you can spot a theme in what made this possible.
--Trump entered the current political conversation by insisting that Barack Obama wasn’t actually born in Hawaii, as his birth certificate shows. These records were faked, Trump suggested, to hide the fact that he was born in Kenya to a Muslim father. Trump often implied that Obama shares his father’s faith.
--“Thousands and thousands” of New Jersey Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks, Trump proclaimed as his campaign began getting traction. Although the true number is probably a dozen, when confronted on this claim Trump doubled down by adding ethnicity into the mix. “There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down,” he said.
--At campaign rallies, Trump retold hoary stories he pulled from the Internet about Gen. John J. Pershing killing Muslim terrorists in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. The claim is absurd, but it ginned up his crowds, who also roared approvingly when he vowed to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the country “until we find out what the hell is going on.”
--Trump also mused aloud about a national Muslim registry, suggesting that even American Muslims might not be allowed back in the United States. When a protester in Oklahoma City held up a sign reading “Islamophobia is not the answer,” Trump embarked on a lengthy defense of waterboarding—leaving no doubt just whom he envisions being tortured by the U.S. government.
--Most recently, Trump claimed that a comprehensive Pew Research Center survey of the world’s Muslims showed that “27 percent, could be 35 percent, would go to war” against the United States. Except that Pew never did any such poll.
“Donald Trump is saying it’s okay to be anti-Muslim,” Wajahat Ali, a California-born Muslim of Pakistani descent who was a participant in the Faith Angle Forum, told me after the seminar ended.
“He’s deliberately playing on fear, ignorance, and hate in return for a short-term political agenda,” added Ali, a writer and creative director at Affinis Labs, a Virginia firm devoted to social-activism entrepreneurship. “But the consequences of spreading these toxic narratives are devastating—and global. ISIS is saying to Trump, ‘Thanks for doing our job for us.’”