When the candidates speak, what do American Muslims hear?

Donald Trump's suggestion that Muslims should 'report stuff' sparked a Twitter movement. Others say that Hillary Clinton's response to a question about so-called Islamophobia was also inadequate.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton enter the town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., on Sunday.

During Sunday night’s presidential debate, Americans heard from an undecided voter named Gorbah Hamed. Her question: how each of the candidates would help Muslims in the United States deal with rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

Republican nominee Donald Trump’s answer to the question focused on terrorist attacks, which he described – as he has in the past – as the work of “radical Islamic terrorists.” He told Muslims to “report the problems when they see them.” The remark sparked Moustafa Bayoumi’s viral Tweet, “I’m a Muslim, and I would like to report a crazy man threatening a woman on a stage in Missouri,” and gave rise to the hashtag #Muslimsreportstuff.

Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton, meanwhile, spoke of an America “where everyone has a place, if you’re willing to work hard [and] contribute to the community.” But many of her remarks also focused on the role Americans Muslims play in counter-terrorism efforts and law enforcement. “We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on the front lines,” she stated, saying it was important for Muslims to see themselves as part of America’s homeland security.

While Mr. Trump’s suggestion prompted concern mixed with amusement, some say that Mrs. Clinton’s response to the question on addressing anti-Islamic sentiment was also insufficient. Several Twitter users expressed their frustration that the Muslim community was only discussed in relation to the self-described Islamic State militant group and terrorism.

“@HillaryClinton I’m with you but please stop saying my value to the country as a Muslim American is national security #debate,” tweeted Zeba Khan. Others called for a discussion of more issues during the debate.

While such concerns have been amplified by social media, it is unclear whether they will actually influence voters' decision on Election Day. Muslims represent 1 percent of American voters, while 43 percent of Americans harbor some degree of prejudice toward Muslims, according to a 2015 Gallup Center for Muslim Studies poll. This means that political fallout from these statements may be fairly limited.

While freedom of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, public attitudes about the importance of preserving that right vary, depending on the religion in question. In a December 2015 poll, just 61 percent of Americans polled said it was very or extremely important for Muslims to be allowed to practice freely in the United States. For Christians, the figure was 82 percent.

“On one hand, it’s heartening that a majority of American people understand that religious liberty is for everyone..., [but] the goal is to have enough in support of this arrangement that it actually works,” Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., told The Christian Science Monitor. He said that universal support for religious freedom is vital to maintaining peace and bridging religious divides.

For President Obama, religious unity starts with drawing a line between acts of terror and the community-oriented behavior of the broader Muslim community. Last month, he explained his refusal to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” calling it counterproductive.

We need to “make sure that we do not lump these murderers into the billion Muslims [around the world] who are peaceful, who are responsible, who in this country, are our fellow troops and police officers and firefighters and teachers and neighbors and friends,” he told a town-hall meeting in Fort Lee, Va.

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