(RNS) Former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention started off strong, mixing bits of his personal life with anecdotes about his wife, Hillary, and her qualifications to lead the country.
His speech on Tuesday (July 26) followed the outline that every successful speech does: a little personal history, a little talk of experience and then a call to action.
But it’s in the call to action that Clinton fell — hard.
He began by listing groups of people who should vote for his wife in November, including immigrants and African-Americans.
But then he said: “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.”
Therein lies the problem. In his effort to call out to specific groups of Americans, he made a dangerous assumption.
American Muslims are no different from other Americans. There is no “test” they have to take to prove that they “love America and freedom” and “hate terror” to “stay here.” American Muslims are as essential and evident in the fabric of this nation as any other. Their role as Americans is not to “help us win” the war on terror, just as it is not the African-American community’s job to fix institutional racism.
As Peter Beinart put it, Clinton, whether he meant to or not, “lapsed into Trumpism.”
In the 1990s, one of Bill Clinton’s key concepts was an insistence that with rights come responsibilities. So if individuals wished to receive government assistance, they had to work. As Beinart puts it, the problem with applying that thought process to Muslims today is that they’re not looking for government assistance; they only want an end to discrimination.
Minutes after the former president ticked off his list of people who should join his wife’s presidential campaign, watchers took to Facebook and Twitter to voice their concerns, disappointment and frustration.
Facebook user Ahmed Bedier wrote, “Dear #BillClinton –there is no ‘if’ about it, by default Muslim-Americans love freedom, their country and hate terror. We’re not guests, we’re part of the fabric of this nation and have already helped build it and continue to make it better.”
He followed it with, “P.S. We don’t need your permission to stay.”
Journalist Sara Yasin tweeted, “Aaaand Clinton reiterates this idea that Muslim-Americans are mostly valuable for the cause of fighting terror.”
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, tweeted, “Imagine if he said, If you’re black and you hate crime.”
In Clinton’s call to action, he tried to distinguish between “good” Muslims and “bad” Muslims and, by so doing, pushed the already ostracized group into a well-defined subgroup, separating “us” and “them.”
Let’s hope Thursday’s DNC tribute to Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who sacrificed his life to save American and Iraqi lives from a suicide bomber in Iraq, can help remind the American people that there is no test to determine how “American” someone is.
American Muslims helped build this country. Although Bill Clinton seemed to think they needed his personal invitation to stay, I have news for him: We’re not going anywhere.