MIAMI – At a debate held last week, days before the critical primary on Tuesday that could narrow the number of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, front-runner Donald Trump was asked whether he would like to temper his latest anti-Muslim remarks, among them the statement “I think Islam hates us.”
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“Did you mean all 1.6 billion Muslims?” interviewer Jake Tapper asked Trump on the debate stage on Thursday, following up on the earlier statement, made in a CNN interview.
“I mean a lot of them,” Trump responded with a dismissive pucker of the lips.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has demanded he apologize for those comments, which are in keeping with several other Islamophobic remarks Trump has made over the last few months, including a pledge to stop all Muslim immigration to America “until we can figure out what the hell is going on.”
This is the kind of Muslim-baiting rhetoric that Imam Abdullah Antepli, the chief representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, must contend with on a daily basis.
A resident of nearby Chapel Hill, Antepli kept his children home for several days in February last year, after an extremist atheist shot dead three Muslims blocks from their house. The imam’s wife, identifiable as a Muslim in her headscarf, has been jeered at in public and almost run down in a parking lot. Fellow Muslim-Americans, he says, fear things are only going to get worse.
In battling the atmosphere of hate in the country, which he compares to the era of demagogues like Father Coughlin and Henry Ford, Antepli – a naturalized U.S. citizen from Turkey – is confident that his greatest allies are Americans of conscience, particularly minorities who know what it’s like to be scapegoated and excluded. Namely, Jews.
“What we’re hearing now is made out of the same cloth of the anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and racism we’ve seen in America, of the anti-Japanese sentiment that put American citizens in internment camps in World War II,” Antepli said in a recent interview with Haaretz.
“Some communities are more vulnerable to messages of hate and exclusion,” he explained. “Pretty much everything I do lately is partnering with various communities to frame the conversation as an American challenge. If you let this cancer take hold in our society and say it’s okay to say these things against one community – it doesn’t stay in one community. If this exclusion, this anti-Muslim sentiment, goes out of control, it has the potential to rip up our social fabric.”
Born and raised in southeastern Turkey to a secular family, Antepli says the first book read about Jews was the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and it made him virulently anti-Semitic. He grew curious about Islam and met erudite Muslims who led him to study in a madrassa, a religious school. Influenced by the Prophet Mohammed’s connections with the Jews of his time, his outlook began to evolve. Today, he is becoming one of the foremost bridge-builders with the Jewish community, and not just in America.
While serving as the first Muslim chaplain of Connecticut's Wesleyan University in 2004-05, he co-led a student trip to Turkey and Israel with the school's Jewish chaplain, in an effort to bring together warring pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian camps. Later, he spent three weeks with 12 other imams touring concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Birkenau, in order to gain a more profound understanding of the Holocaust and its lessons for humanity.
Most recently, the imam has become a partner in the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a one-year fellowship for Muslim-American clergy and other religious figures that includes two trips to Israel. The program is considered ground-breaking in many circles, but critics in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement have slammed Antepli and other participants as Muslims collaborating in a Zionist whitewash of the occupation.
“We need allies,” he explained. “Hartman and their footprint in American-Jewish communities have been an incredible help and ally, and their support has opened the door to many communities which are allies to stop this cancer. But in certain activist communities who are in the business of boycotting all Israeli institutions, it’s a problem for them.”
These days, Antepli’s energies are more focused on injecting thoughtful Muslim voices into the shoot-from-the-hip debate over immigration that has characterized this presidential election season. To that end, he travels frequently across the country, and thus arrived in Florida a few weeks before the primaries.
With a busy schedule to match that of a presidential candidate, he gave nine speeches in four days, including a talk at Florida Atlantic University. He told students that he was trying to hold up “an honest mirror” to Americans.
“Today 45 percent of Republicans in North Carolina, where I live, feel the religion of Islam should be illegal,” Antepli told the students. “Nothing could be more un-American than this.”
Asked by one student why more moderate voices like his aren’t being heard, the imam said that when they speak up, the media often ignores them.
“There are hundreds of me out there trying to doing the same thing,” said Antepli with a sigh. “Maybe you’re not paying attention or you need to diversify your sources of information. When I’m asked this, I say, maybe you need to stop being lazy about how you get your information.”