Why Can't the Clinton Campaign Stop Treating Muslim Americans Like Tools in the War on Terror?

Bill Clinton's DNC address described Muslims as foreigners, welcome only to the extent that they assist in battle against terrorism.

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Today, there are at least 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, with Muslims now comprising roughly one percent of the population and constituting the fastest-growing religious group in the country.

But during former President Bill Clinton’s much-anticipated speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, Muslim Americans were depicted as foreigners, welcome only to the extent that they assist the so-called war on terror.

“If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together,” said Bill Clinton, to uproarious applause. “We want you.”

Muslim civil rights campaigners were quick to raise concerns about the false assumptions underlying the former president’s statement, with Imraan Siddiqi of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) taking to social media Tuesday night to point out the obvious: “Muslims aren’t a foreign entity.”

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— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) July 27, 2016

In an election cycle defined by fever-pitch anti-Muslim incitement, it is an unfortunate necessity for Muslims to emphasize this fact. As the GOP nominee Donald Trump repeatedly vows to impose a ban on Muslims and kill the family members of ISIS, his key supporters continue to ratchet up their rhetoric, fueling a climate of incitement that appears to be contributing to an uptick in hate crimes.

In the immediate aftermath of the July 14 Nice, France attacks, Trump backer and former House speaker Newt Gingrich proclaimed during an appearance on Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported.”

The implication that the "Americanness” of Muslim U.S. citizens is somehow suspect on the basis of religious or ethnic background also surfaced in Bill Clinton’s remarks. And herein lies a troubling reality: even as the Clinton campaign portrays itself as taking a stand for tolerance against Trump-style bigotry, it also employs Islamophobic rhetoric that is dangerous in its own right.

In December 2015, in the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino massacre, Hillary Clinton delivered a foreign policy address at the Brookings Institution in which she stated:

We’re going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space. Just as we have to destroy [ISIS’s] would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space. And this is complicated. You’re going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, etc. But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we’ve got to shut off their means of communicating.

More recently, after the mass killing at the Orlando LGBTQ Pulse club, Clinton was quick to point blame at “radical Islamism,” even though the heads of the CIA and FBI both say there is no evidence that the shooter had material connections to Islamist militant groups outside of the United States.

As Khaled Beydoun, assistant professor Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law, recently argued: “Clinton's rhetoric towards Muslims rings with tolerance. But it is frequently flanked with qualifiers such as ‘terror-hating,’ ‘peace-loving’ or the seemingly benign, yet divisive ‘moderate Muslim’ tag.”

But the Clinton campaign’s problem with Islamophobia also extends to her vast network of surrogates and backers.

Eleven advocacy organizations signed an open letter in December of 2015 expressing concern about her campaign surrogate, the retired general Wesley Clark, who has previously called for the interning of some Muslim-Americans. "If these people are radicalized and they don’t support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine," Clark told MSNBC in July 2015. "It's their right and it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict."

Another major Clinton backer, the pro-Israel donor Haim Saban, declared in the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks that the U.S. should escalate its surveillance of Muslim-American communities. “I’m not suggesting we put Muslims through some kind of a torture room to get them to admit that they are or they’re not terrorists,” he told TheWrap. “But I am saying we should have more scrutiny.”

And Electronic Intifada journalist Rania Khalek recently noted that Clinton’s troubling relationship with Muslim and Arab Americans dates back to the dawn of her career in electoral politics. During her 2000 Senate race, Clinton was criticized for accepting contributions from Muslim organizations targeted by an Islamophobic smear campaign. “Without hesitation,” writes Khalek, “Clinton condemned her Muslim supporters, returned their donations and refused to meet with Arab and Muslim Americans for the remainder of her campaign.”

The Clinton campaign is presenting itself as the reasonable alternative to Donald Trump's bigotry. But that doesn't place it above scrutiny, especially when it casually echoes the Islamophobic themes emanating from the far-right. 

But according to Darakshan Raja, founder of the Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum, “Bill Clinton didn't use Trump's rhetoric. Trump expanded on the rhetoric and policies Bill Clinton implemented. Trump is successful because Bill Clinton as a president passed some of the most draconian laws from the 1994 Crime Bill, the 1996 anti-terrorism laws, and the 1996 illegal immigration bills.”

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Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.