In the weeks following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, the target of Republican candidates’ fear-mongering has shifted from Latinos to Muslims. But for Muslim Americans who have long experienced racist undertones in American society, the sudden pivot comes as no surprise.
After more than two hours of anti-immigration rhetoric during Tuesday night’s GOP debate, Fusion’s Jorge Ramos and Alicia Menendez sat down with a panel of young Muslim Americans to discuss how increasing Islamophobia in the presidential campaign is affecting real people.
“For a long time the Republican Party has kinda had racist and xenophobic undertones, and you can’t really expect to go on doing that without attracting racists,” said Saif Hamideh, a 23-year-old Democratic organizer and son of Jordanian immigrants.
In recent weeks, the anti-Muslim rhetoric, especially from Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, has reached a fever pitch. So much that Hamideh thinks anti-Muslim discrimination is “worse now than after 9/11.”
Hamideh said he thinks some of the other Republican presidential hopefuls try to mask their anti-Muslim sentiments by “talking in code,” but that racism and xenophobia is a common thread among all the GOP candidates.
“I can tell you as a first-generation Syrian American that it’s pretty terrible when you have candidates like Ben Carson comparing people like my father to rabid dogs,” said Nader Abbara, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Miami.
The rhetoric also makes for bad politics, by ostracizing a whole community that typically identifies with conservative views and policies.
“Again and again you see the Republican Party pushing away Muslims,” Abbara said. “Muslims were predominantly Republican and conservative during the Bush years. Now we’ve seen a total shift where Muslims are more welcomed in the Democratic Party. And that’s what’s happening, because we’re being pushed [away] again and again.”
The rhetoric is also dangerous. It’s “inciting fear and inciting hatred,” said Nour Samara, a 24-year-old college student in Miami and daughter of Syrian immigrants.
“I can definitely attest to maybe being an easier target,” said Samara, who wears a hijab.
Samara said the unbridled rhetoric, especially that shouted by Trump, is encouraging uninformed stereotypes—ones that she feels the need to debunk every day. “It becomes like I am a representative for an entire faith group,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”
Muslim Republicans find it exhausting, too. Yasir Billoo, a 37-year-old Miami attorney who has always voted Republican, said the anti-Muslim message peddled by his party this election season “makes us feel less American.”
Billoo said he naturally identifies as a social conservative because of his religion, but can’t back any of the Republican candidates this year. “I might have to sit this one out,” he said.
Watch the full discussion below.