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Muslim Americans takes center stage in second presidential debate

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Sunday’s presidential debate between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican contender Donald Trump was so bizarre it’s hard to know where to start writing about it.

The second meeting between Trump and Clinton, held at Washington University in St. Louis, Trump far more composed than in his first performance, but dogged now by the foul-mouthed misogyny revealed in a taped conversation from 2005. A series of hacked emails between top Democratic party officials released by Wikileaks last week showed Clinton lumping praise on Wall Street, but the salacious outrage of Trump’s tape overshadowed the debate. Trump scored a headline-worthy moment when he vowed to put Clinton in jail for her mishandling of classified emails, a sentiment that last had its moment in the spotlight during the Civil War.

Dan Rather described what he saw in apocalyptic terms: “Rome was once a proud republic that devolved into a place of barbaric spectacle epitomized by the savagery at the Colosseum. As I saw the pit of the debate stage tonight as 9pm Eastern approached, I had a sense we could, if we are not vigilant, fall into a similar downward spiral.”

The din of unrepeatable slurs that preceded the debate also overshadowed everything else the candidates discussed, although they did discuss U.S. foreign policy and revealed startlingly different opinions on how Russia could aid in the destruction of ISIS. Trump would like to partner with Russia, but Clinton describes Russia as a chief slaughterer of Syrian civilians, preferring to aid Syrian and Kurdish groups to both defeat ISIS and weaken Assad.

The town-hall style debate also featured a Muslim voter named Gorbah Hamed who asked Trump about the rise of Islamophobia that coincided with his rhetoric against them. In the first debate, Trump and Clinton were able to sound similar notes on the need to defeat ISIS, but this time both Clinton and sounded similar tones on what responsibility both Muslims have in alerting law enforcement to attacks plotted by fellow Muslims. Trump puts their responsibility in much more hostile terms, but both demand Muslims remain America’s first defense, and cast their inclusion as being essential to defeating terrorism.

“We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines. I’ve worked with a lot of Muslim groups around America. I’ve met with a lot of them and I’ve heard how important it is for them to feel that they are wanted and included and part of our country. Part of our homeland security,” she said.

But drafting Muslim Americans in the war on terror is a rather bleak way of making a community police its own. Clinton added Muslims had been in the United States since “George Washington.’ That’s not the whole story. The first Muslims in the United States arrived here from Africa as slaves, and did not immigrate here of their own free will.

“And we’ve had many successful Muslims. We just lost a particularly well-known one with Muhammad Ali,” she said.

Trump’s reply to the woman was devoid of any kind of historical context beyond the history that has transpired since he announced his candidacy last year.

“And we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on. When they see hatred going on, they have to report it,” he said. “Muslims have to report the problems when they see them. And, you know, there is always a reason for everything. If they don’t do that, it’s a very difficult situation for our country. Because you look at Orlando and you look at San Bernardino and you look at the World Trade Center. Go outside and you look at Paris, look at that horrible thing. She won’t say the name and President Obama won’t say the name. But the name is there. It’s radical Islamic terror.”

Clinton said Trump’s rhetoric was “is a gift to ISIS and the terrorists, violent jihadist terrorists,” stating a name for the phenomenon that doesn’t include Islam.

“We are not at war with Islam,” she said, repeating an old chestnut of George W. Bush. “And it is a mistake and it plays into the hands of the terrorists to act as though we are. So I want a country where citizens like you and your family are just as welcome as anyone else.”  

Both the Donald and Hill echoed the sentiment of former president Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that divides Muslims into helpful Muslims and malingering Muslims.

“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. We want you,” he told a cheering crowd.

Trump used a similar wording on Sunday, saying Syrian Muslim refugees were suspect: “We know nothing about their values and we know nothing about their love for our country.”

Trump and Clinton are wildly different on many issues, from whether or not we should be friends with Russia to whether American policing needs reform. But both them are happy to frame Muslim citizenship as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. Clinton couches this sentiment in more gentle terms than Trump, but both talk about Muslims in terms of their loyalty, and not their worth as citizens.

“Yes, Bill Clinton, I am a Muslim and I do love America and freedom. But why is “terror” even part of this conversation?” wrote Blair Imani, a Muslim American activist and commentator, after Clinton’s DNC speech. “Muslims must be mentioned outside of the context of terrorism and uplifted within the contexts that we live in daily.”

About Wilson Dizard

Wilson Dizard is a freelance reporter and photojournalist covering politics, civil rights, drug policy and everything else. He lives in Brooklyn with his bicycle, camera and drum set.

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