Muslim-Americans are uncomfortably yanked into center of new political storm

Time for beat reporters to dig out their lists of good U.S. Muslim sources again.

Quite suddenly, the United States has tumbled into a major interfaith moment. The current episode began with a New Hampshire town hall question tossed at GOP candidate Donald Trump on September 17. In case you missed it, a man wearing a TRUMP T-shirt stated:

“We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American -- birth certificate, man. But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question. When can we get rid of them?”

 Note: Get rid of alleged training camps? Or get rid of American Muslims, who are the country’s “problem”?  

Either way it was an unusually perfervid attack, compounded by raising of the oft-refuted but persistent claims that President Barack Obama is Muslim and also wasn’t born in America so  is an illegal president. Trump’s fuzzy response didn’t address any of that and he was uncharacteristically silent the following day.

Meanwhile Washington’s Council on American-Islamic Relations was quick on the uptake, as usual. Its chief lobbyist Robert McCaw said that “in failing to challenge the questioner’s anti-Muslim bigotry and his apparent call for the ethnic cleansing of American Muslims, Donald Trump sent the message that Islamophobia is acceptable.”

Eventually, the Trump forces settled on a strategy of either contending that the candidate didn’t hear the question (in which case, of course, he could have issued a full clarification on Friday) or of trying to change the subject, responding that Christians are being persecuted at home and abroad, and that Trump has no obligation to defend the president on anything. As usual, the candidate didn’t back down when challenged on the ABC, CNN and NBC Sunday morning talk shows, though he did say many individual Muslims are “fabulous.”

Matters then accelerated when candidate Ben Carson discussed the Muslim furor with Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said it matters if a candidate’s faith is “inconsistent with the values and principles of America.” Does he think Islam fits American values? “I do not.” Should a Muslim ever be president? “I do not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

In the subsequent panel discussion, Hugh Hewitt, a law professor who’s the sharpest evangelical among radio talk show hosts, reminded viewers that the Constitution forbids any “religious test” for holding office so in America “anybody is eligible” and the nation’s “Founders would be taken aback” by contrary assertions. (In a June Gallup Poll, 60 percent said they’re willing to vote for a qualified Muslim for president and 58 percent for an atheist but-- Democrats  take note -- only 47 percent for a Socialist.)

Among journalists opining on TV panels, National Journal’s Ron Fournier was especially blunt on Fox News’s “Media Buzz.” He said Trump was “feeding ignorance” and that “a decent man” does not leave such questions hanging.

So, in an era of frightening Muslim terror abroad and some lethal incidents at home, will Americans continue the tolerant tone toward Islam that President Bush urged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks?  In particular, do those evangelical voters in Iowa, South Carolina, and elsewhere believe Muslims belong here and should enjoy the same rights and respect as other Americans? Watchclosely how Trump and Carson fare in polling over coming weeks.

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