Why Does John Bolton Defend Islamophobes?

The incoming national security adviser has spoken to the complexities of the Islamic world—and the worst instincts of his base.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 29:  Former United States ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition spring leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas on March 29, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The Republican Jewish Coalition began its annual meeting with potential Republican presidential candidates in attendance, along with Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
John Bolton speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2014. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Is John Bolton, President Trump’s incoming national security adviser, an anti-Muslim bigot? Bolton, unlike Trump, has shown that he understands the nuances of Islamic world. But he also ignores these nuances when it suits him. That’s unacceptable. Before he takes the job, Bolton must account for his past.

The caricature of Bolton as an overt Muslim-baiter is misleading. Several news and political organizations, including Buzzfeed, Vox, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have published erroneous accounts of a speech he gave in 2016. Vox says that during the speech, Bolton told a joke in which the “punchline was that President Obama was a Muslim.” Buzzfeed quotes Bolton as calling Obama the “Muslim king of the Muslim world.” That’s not true. In the speech, Bolton said that “King Abdullah of Jordan, who is not simply the Muslim king of a Muslim country, unlike our president,” had spoken of the fight against radical Islam as “a civil war within Islam.” Bolton wasn’t saying that Obama was Muslim. He was saying that Obama wasn’t a Muslim king, and that this gave Abdullah greater insight and credibility than Obama. The reference to Obama’s religion was tasteless, but it was also ironic, and Bolton was making a serious point.

Another report, published several days ago on Alternet, says, “During the Bush administration, [Bolton] regularly railed against the infiltration of Islamists in the U.S. legal system.” But the report offers no link or citation, and I’ve seen no evidence to back it up.

On several occasions, Bolton has sharply rejected anti-Muslim bigotry. In 2014, during a Fox News interview, Greta Van Susteren asked him: “Are we being too soft on radical Islam, in terms of how we speak about them?” Bolton said yes, but he drew a distinction. He said that Obama was mistaken to think that references to “radical Islam and Islamic terrorism” were “insulting all of Islam.” Bolton explained: “There is no such thing as ‘the Islamic world.’ It makes no more sense to talk about that than it does to talk about ‘the Christian world.’ People have different views, and they have different experiences.” He chastised Bill Maher for indicting Islam as a whole. It’s “fundamentally flawed,” said Bolton, to posit that Muslims or members of any other group “all think alike.”

A year later, in December 2015, Trump called for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The next day, on Boston Herald radio, Bolton was asked about Trump’s idea. “That’s certainly completely wrong,” he replied. “That’s just not consistent with our views about America and how we should operate.” Bolton said Trump was “playing on the frustration and the fear” among Americans. Bolton faulted Obama for not fighting terrorism strongly enough to assuage the public’s fear. But he cautioned: “Our problem is the radicals, the terrorists. It’s not an entire religion. I think we absolutely have to make that clear—not because I care what the rest of the world thinks, but because I care about what we think about ourselves.”

In the 2016 speech that’s been widely misquoted, the context of Bolton’s remark about Obama and Abdullah has been lost. He began by telling the audience that when discussing radical Islam, “It’s important that we try and say at the outset, every time this subject comes up, that we are talking about politics and ideology here. This is not a question of religion. …  It’s actually Muslims themselves who have felt the worst effects of Islamic terrorism and who suffer under its rule.” Then Bolton made his point about Abdullah’s message: that “this is a civil war within Islam. It’s a struggle for how the religion is perceived around the world.”

So Bolton understands Islam’s complexity. But that raises a question: Why, in that case, does he consort with, coddle, and promote Islamophobes?

Vox, Buzzfeed, CAIR, and other critics of Bolton get one thing absolutely right: He has a foul record of collaborating with Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney, and other career Muslim bashers. In 2013, Bolton wrote a glowing foreword to a book by Geller and Spencer, ignoring their incendiary ravings. On Gaffney’s radio show, when Bolton was asked about a McCarthyesque campaign to hunt for Muslim Brotherhood agents in the Obama administration, he defended it as procedurally routine.

The three Bolton statements most worthy of interrogation aren’t the ones that have circulated widely. The first is from a July 2009 interview with Geller. She asked Bolton about the view, which she attributed to Mitt Romney, that “jihadism has nothing to do with Islam.” Bolton replied: “As the saying goes from the Franklin Roosevelt era … ‘Not all Democrats are horse thieves, but all horse thieves are Democrats.’ Taking that forward, the terrorists today are Islamic fundamentalists. That’s where the threat lies worldwide.”

The clear implication of Bolton’s retort was that while not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims. That claim is false and pernicious. Why would he say this, when he knew better? Because in the interview, Bolton was sitting on a couch with Geller. His guard was down, and he was playing along. He was thinking about her, not about the people he was insulting.

A year later, Geller recruited Bolton to speak at a rally against construction of an Islamic center in Manhattan, near the site of the 9/11 attack. She called it the “Ground Zero Mosque,” though it wasn’t a mosque and wasn’t at Ground Zero. Speakers at the rally, backed by Republican politicians, argued that because the 9/11 hijackers were Muslims, no mosque should be built near the site. Bolton delivered a speech by video, in which he falsely described the imam behind the project as a radical and an apologist for terrorism.

But Bolton added a second objection that took issue with Islam, not terrorism. He accused the project’s advocates of telling their opponents: “We want to increase religious tolerance and understanding, and if you don’t agree with that, we’re going to increase religious tolerance and understanding whether you like it or not.” Bolton said the project should be transferred to a site “that doesn’t cause the emotional pain that this particular location … has aroused.” At no point did he offer a principled reason for excluding peaceful Islamic worship from the vicinity of the attack. He simply postulated that it was wrong to impose religious tolerance on anyone who doesn’t want it.

If Bolton had dropped that line of argument after the “Ground Zero mosque” debate, you could speculate that his more recent comments showed he had learned not to accord prejudice such respect. But in 2016, after the terror attack in Orlando, Bolton returned to the same theme. President Obama avoided references to Islam when describing the Orlando attack, which had been committed by a Muslim who was also a second-generation American. Obama reasoned that to speak of such attacks as Islamic would help terrorists recruit Muslims and would feed prejudice against Muslim Americans. Bolton called Obama’s response outrageous. On Fox News, he accused Obama of delivering “a lecture … about what’s wrong with the rest of us who don’t have the tolerance that he does for people that he thinks are being unfairly criticized.”

What exactly was Bolton saying? Did he not agree that Muslims were unfairly criticized? Was he defending intolerance? If so, against whom?

I can’t answer these questions. Nor can I tell you which man—the exponent of Islamic diversity, or the exploiter of sectarian fear—is the real John Bolton. But Bolton can. He needs to be publicly interrogated. He needs to explain what appears to be, even on a charitable interpretation, a pattern of deference to people who reject tolerance of Muslims. If he can’t explain it, or if he won’t, then he shouldn’t be the national security adviser. You can’t protect a country you don’t understand.