Trump, Cruz inject tough rhetoric on Islam into GOP race

Trump, Cruz inject tough rhetoric on Islam into GOP race
© Greg Nash

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump opens new line of impeachment attack for Democrats Bloomberg to spend 0M on anti-Trump ads in battleground states New witness claims first-hand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes MORE and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House Senators confirm Erdoğan played 'propaganda' video in White House meeting MORE (R-Texas) are injecting forceful rhetoric on Islam into the Republican presidential race after last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

Both candidates have campaigned heavily against illegal immigration and are now stressing national security following the slaughter in France that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken credit for.

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Cruz has suggested that the United States only accept Christian refugees from Syria — a majority-Muslim country — while Trump has floated closing down mosques in the United States.

“Nobody wants to say this and nobody wants to shut down religious institutions or anything, but you know, you understand it,” Trump said on Fox News’s “Hannity” on Tuesday. “A lot of people understand it. We’re going to have no choice.”

Trump has also floated heightened surveillance of mosques, registering American Muslims in a database and offering them a special ID listing their religion.

Democrats have roundly denounced such talk. President Obama called Cruz’s push “shameful,” while Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Bottom Line Lobbying world MORE (D-Nev.) painted the Republican Party as intolerant.

“I've been disgusted in recent days to see some of my Republican colleagues shunning the American tradition of sheltering those fleeing death, torture, rape and oppression. Frankly, I've been disappointed by Republican fear mongering and bigotry,” he said.

Trump’s calls for heightened scrutiny of Muslims comes against the backdrop of a raucous fight in Congress, with the House on Thursday approving legislation that would subject refugees from Syria and Iraq to heightened vetting.

One of the attackers in Paris appears to have entered Europe with a group of refugees fleeing Syria, confirming the worst fears of intelligence officials about terrorists carrying out attacks against the United States and Europe.

In response, Republicans have sought to slow the flow of refugees from Iraq and Syria, with the question of a “religious test” looming large in the debate.

Cruz this week introduced legislation intended to prevent all Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the United States. His legislation, which was blocked Thursday by Senate Democrats, targets countries controlled by foreign terrorist organizations while exempting refugees fleeing genocide.

“Listen, there are Syrian Muslim refugees who are facing a humanitarian crisis. And all of us, our hearts feel for them,” Cruz said Thursday on Glenn Beck's radio show.

“Americans are compassionate people. But the administration has admitted it cannot vet those refugees to determine who are ISIS terrorists. So we ought to be resettling the Syrian Muslim refugees in the Middle East, in majority-Muslim countries.”

The call for a religious test has also received a measure of support from one of Cruz’s presidential rivals, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who argued Thursday that current law already requires a religion test.

“Everybody should go through the same screening process, but I can tell you that a persecuted Christian — a Christian family that has been uprooted in their community, whether it's in Iraq or Syria ... they're not Islamic terrorists,” Bush told reporters in New Hampshire. 

The calls for a sharper focus on Islam is nothing new for the GOP, as Republicans have long argued that Obama and the Democrats' refusal to link terrorism with the religion cripples the administration’s foreign policy.

“For Cruz and Trump, for both of them, political correctness is really the enemy,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist. “It's a matter of speaking very plainly and describing the problem in a way that makes sense to most people.

“There's a pretty significant [terrorism] threat here, and so political correctness is not going to make us more secure. Cruz and Trump are tapping into that fear that's out there,” added Mackowiak, who writes for The Hill’s Contributors blog.

Still, Trump’s suggestion of creating special IDs for Muslims is a departure from the rhetoric that President George W. Bush used after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he declared that the country was fighting against “evil, not against Islam.” 

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) distanced his conference from the talk, stressing that that the refugee bill passed by the House would not create a religious test for those entering the country.

And Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, criticized her GOP rivals.

“Let's be clear ... Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” Clinton said Thursday in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

David Payne, another Republican strategist, said the heightened focus on terrorism after Paris could present an opening for one of the other Republican candidates.

“There could be a moment where a candidate comes out and exhibits a Bush-like moment focusing on peace and common ground," Payne said. "It's tricky, it's always tricky with the attack so close at hand and the immigration topic so front of mind with American voters.

"There's an opportunity — there's space in the campaign — for that to be said," Payne continued, but added, "It's so heated right now, of course, it's tricky to be the transcendent one."