Michael Flynn
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

American history is full of moments when it was broadly acceptable to malign particular religions. For years, people in public life attacked Catholics, Mormons, and Jews in particular.

But we’re now witnessing something new. No successful presidential candidate has ever been as overtly hostile to a major religion as Donald Trump was to Islam.

As with so many other things Trump said, we all had a slender hope that maybe it was just hot air and he wouldn’t follow through. The selection of Michael Flynn as national security advisor is an ominous sign.

The media has been focusing on Flynn’s tough stance on radical Islam. (“Flynn a Frequent Critic of Muslim Militancy, Culture,” ABCNews reported). That wildly misses the point. What’s astonishing is Flynn’s claim that Islam is not a religion, but rather an ideology.

Why is that such a big deal?

Some background. Conservative Christians have been attacking Islam since 9/11 – not only because of its connection to terrorism but because they believe Muhammed was a false prophet and pedophile. But they’ve also spent the last eight years arguing that religious freedom is under attack (because bakers are not allowed to refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding).

This created a dilemma. How could they square their love of religious freedom with their desire to clamp down on one particular religion? So about a decade ago, a new idea arose in conservative Christian circles: Islam it is not a religion.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Pat Robertson explained, “we have to recognize that Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law.” Ben Carson said Islam was “a life organization system,” not a religion.

Republican Congressman Jody Hice explained the implications. “It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.”[my emphasis]

This notion had been on the fringes of the Christian right – until this month, with the appointment of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. “Islam is a political ideology,” Flynn said earlier in the year. “It definitely hides behind being a religion.” He repeated that idea in his book.

Now let’s place this in the context of what Trump said and did during the campaign. He was anti-Muslim in a specific way that could lay the groundwork for discriminatory practices or for grassroots attacks.  While conservative religious leaders attacked Islam theologically, Trump made a more practical argument: Muslims in America are not helping in the war on terror and may be secretly helping the enemy. Remember:

  • He claimed, falsely, that he saw “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
  • He claimed, falsely, that Muslim Americans were not assisting in efforts to stop terrorism. “When they see trouble they have to report it. They are not reporting it. They are absolutely not reporting it and that is a big problem.”
  • Referring to the attacks in San Bernadino, California, Trump claimed, falsely: “If you look at San Bernardino as an example, San Bernardino, they had bombs all over the floor of their apartment. And everybody knew it, many people knew it. They didn’t turn the people over. They didn’t do it.” In addition to it not being true in San Bernadino, it’s also disputed as a general matter by law enforcement officials and academic studies.
  • In fighting the gold star family of a Muslim soldier, Trump suggested that the real reason for their criticism was that they disliked his plan to exclude “radical Islamic terrorists.”
  • He claimed, falsely, that even among “second and third generation” Muslims in the United States, “there’s no real assimilation.”
  • Then there was the history-making proposal during the campaign that we impose, for the first time in American history, a religious-test on immigration. This was followed by comments that he would be open to a registry for Muslims.

Flynn himself sometimes conflates “radical Islam” with “Islam,” as when he tweeted, “Fear of Islam is RATIONAL” when he was passing on a video claiming that “Islam” “wants 80 percent of humanity enslaved or exterminated.”

At this point we don’t know whether Trump is going to follow through on any of this. What is clear is that he has laid the groundwork for both extreme government action and tacitly-tolerated grassroots discrimination with a potent argument: Muslims are the enemy within.

To be clear, this is separate from the argument of whether terrorists are really Muslim, or hijacking the religion. Personally, I think we should think of Islam as being in the middle of a civil war. But Trump has moved well past that debate. He is arguing that American Muslims – not Islamic radicals, but American Muslims in general – are a serious threat.

“We have a real problem, and it has start…with the Muslim community turning in the bad seeds, turning in the bad apples,” Trump said. “And if they don’t do that, then we’re gonna have to do something.”

I doubt Trump will do much overtly against American Muslims right now. But next time there’s a terrorist act involving a Muslim – whether it’s someone foreign or locally-born – we’ll find out what that “something” is. With Islam no longer considered an actual religion by the National Security Advisor, it’s not likely that the administration will view the First Amendment as much of an obstacle.

Steven Waldman

Follow Steven on Twitter @stevenwaldman. Steven Waldman is the president and co-founder of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. As senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was the prime author of the landmark report Information Needs of Communities.