A brouhaha has erupted between Republican presidential contender Donald Trump and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Clinton recently knocked Trump for denouncing Muslims and vowing to prevent them from entering the U.S.
Clinton said Trump “is becoming ISIS's best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists. So I want to explain why this is not in America's interest to react with this kind of fear and respond to this sort of bigotry.”
A battle ensued between liberal and conservative pundits over whether ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has in fact used “videos” of Trump to attract recruits. When Clinton’s campaign could not produce evidence of a specific ISIS video, Trump accused Clinton of lying. Clinton’s defenders point out that ISIS social media sites cite Trump as evidence that Americans hate Muslims.
The most thoughtful commentary I’ve seen on the fracas comes from social scientist Ravi Iyer of the nonprofit organization Civil Politics, whom I met last fall at a workshop on polarization. Clinton’s critique of Trump, Iyer points out, is justified by research on how extreme rhetoric can exacerbate conflict.
The research, he elaborates, suggests that “those who benefit from conflict need the level of perceived competition to be ever greater, in order to justify their combative stance within their own group, implying that the extremes on both sides of any conflict do indeed have common goals.” This hypothesis is supported not only by abundant social-science research, Iyer asserts, but also by an examination of sports rivalries and history.
Iyer concludes by noting that “human beings love competition, and often those who promote the competition amongst us reap the rewards. Unfortunately, some of these competitions have enduring consequences, and there are times when those of us who would prefer to build bridges rather than walls need to get psychology working for us, rather than against us.”
I couldn’t agree more. I just wish Iyer had pointed out an irony embedded in Clinton’s critique of Trump. Clinton is right that Trump, by demonizing Muslims, might radicalize those who would otherwise be nonviolent and thus make a bad problem worse. But Clinton’s denunciation of Trump is hypocritical, because she has supported and enabled the horrific wars perpetrated by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since 9/11. These U.S.-led wars have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims, a large proportion of whom are civilians, and have displaced millions more.
Violent U.S. actions, not mere rhetoric, helped spawn ISIS and the militants who have terrorized Paris, Boston and California. If you are a Muslim trying to inflame hatred of the U.S., what would be your go-to propaganda? Donald Trump sound bites or photos of Muslim kids killed by U.S. bombs?
Clinton, not Trump, will probably be the next U.S. President. She has the potential to be a great leader--if she acknowledges that violent U.S. foreign policies have exacerbated rather than reducing Muslim militancy and seeks more creative, nonviolent strategies.