George W. Bush Needs to Speak to His Party

The former president may be the one person who can stop the rise of a new strain of ugly, divisive politics.

George W. Bush talking to party.
Former President George W. Bush on July 26, 2015 in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for the Starkey Hearing Foundation

Six days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, then-President George W. Bush gave brief remarks at the Islamic Center of Washington, just a short drive from the White House. “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith,” Bush said. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

Bush couldn’t stop or defuse anti-Muslim prejudice. That was impossible, and just a few weeks after he spoke, a 51-year-old Yemeni-American man was shot to death outside of his store, two days after someone left a note—“We’re going to kill all f–king Arabs”—on his car windshield. But what Bush did, successfully, was keep anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric out of national politics. He made clear that the United States was fighting a war against terrorists—not Muslims—and reminded Americans that “the majority of the victims of the terrorists have been innocent Muslims.”

Bush worked hard to sow tolerance for Muslim-Americans, convinced—like President Obama—that respect and openness was an asset in the fight against jihadists. Integrated, assimilated communities don’t give aid to violent extremists. In the week since the Paris attacks, however, his would-be successors—the 2016 Republican presidential field—have jettisoned these efforts. Now, much of the GOP is stirring anti-Muslim sentiment. And perhaps the only person who can stop it—or at least, turn down the heat—is Bush.

At the moment, Republican rhetoric is spiraling out of control. Donald Trump, for example, is open to a “database system” to track Muslims. “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases,” he said. And in an interview with Yahoo News, Trump said that “we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago,” with regards to surveillance of Muslims. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, likewise, wants a religious test for refugees: We’ll accept the Christians and reject the Muslims.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio isn’t as extreme—although he’s open to monitoring any place that spreads “radicalism”—but he believes the Western world is in a fight against “radical Islam,” and is bewildered by those who don’t follow his labeling. “I don’t understand it,” said Rubio when asked about Hillary Clinton’s pointed refusal to use the term in the last Democratic presidential debate. “That would be like saying we weren’t at war with the Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves,” he said, comparing Islam—a vast religion with 1.6 billion adherents—to Nazism.

And on Thursday, following all of this—as well as rhetoric from GOP governors and lawmakers—the House of Representatives voted to put new restrictions on refugees, “drastically tightening screening procedures,” despite the incredibly strict scrutiny already placed on refugees to the United States.

Democrats are a part of this ugly politics, too. Forty-seven Democrats voted with 242 Republicans to pass the bill, and at least one local Democrat—the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia—has endorsed internment-style policies for Syrian refugees. But driving anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric are Republican politicians.

This is dangerous. Not just because of damage it could do to our ideological struggle against jihadists, but because it corrodes the ties between citizens. Americans are afraid, and this validates their fears. It tells them, explicitly, that Muslim Americans are dangerous—a potential Fifth Column that needs monitoring, questioning, or worse. And for those prejudiced enough to do violence, it loosens the bonds that might keep them from acting on their fear and hatred.

President Obama has urged Americans to show tolerance, but Republicans won’t listen. Not only did he insult them, but this is a partisan issue and Republicans stand to gain. Why would they back down now?

Because we’re moving toward an ugly place. Because we shouldn’t indulge our worst impulses. Because this rhetoric puts actual lives at risk—since Paris, authorities have seen a surge in anti-Muslim threats and vandalism.

Republicans won’t listen to Obama on this score, but they might heed George W. Bush, who still holds sway with the party. He doesn’t need to say anything new or novel. He just needs to remind his party that there’s more to politics than winning—that some victories aren’t worth the cost to the country.

“America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” said Bush in his remarks at the Islamic Center in September 2001. “Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”

Now more than ever, this is what the Republican Party needs to hear.