By Caleb Elfenbein
February 24, 2017

Responding to recent property crimes and bomb threats targeting Jewish communities, Ivanka Trump on Monday Tweeted, “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers. #JCC.” It was encouraging to see her make an unambiguous statement against hate. It’s the first such message to come from someone close to the President. It was reassuring when the President himself echoed his daughter’s words a day later.

But in America’s current moment, we need something more than statements of principle. We need concrete measures reassuring minority religious communities of America’s broad commitment to their safety and active inclusion in public life. Such steps are essential to the public interest. Policies promoting religious tolerance will make us all safer and our communities healthier in the long run.

Sadly, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction. The President’s executive order on immigration and refugees exemplifies this sad state of affairs.

Despite official protestations to the contrary, Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees clearly targets Muslims. The courts will ultimately decide whether this breaches constitutional principles related to the establishment clause. With a second executive order on refugees and immigration expected any day, we can certainly hope that Ivanka Trump’s dedication to religious tolerance will influence her father’s policymaking on immigration and refugees.

Still, the President’s executive order, especially in relation to principles of religious tolerance, is but one instance in a larger, disturbing pattern. It is hard to disentangle significant public support for the President’s executive order from a growing sense that it is okay to openly discriminate against Muslims. Hate has hit the mainstream in a big way.

Importantly, Ivanka Trump’s Tweet reminds us that this is not an issue affecting American Muslims alone. The rise in open discrimination against Muslims is part of a much larger phenomenon. The number of active hate groups in the United States has grown exponentially over the last two years. Most recent estimates place the number at well over 800. These groups constitute a very real threat to the principle of religious tolerance that so many of us hold dear. The fear these groups sow and the hate crimes they engender also make our communities less safe for everyone.

Religious tolerance does not mean indifference to threats that extremists in religious communities pose. On the contrary. Religious tolerance requires us to oppose extremism—wherever it exists.

The Department of Homeland Security runs a program called Combatting Violent Extremism (CVE). Established in 2014, the CVE offers grants to local civil society organizations to work against extremism through partnerships between community organizations and local governments, including law enforcement. The White House recently floated the idea of restricting this program to extremism in American Muslim communities. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of violent extremist hate groups in the United States espouse Christian-inspired white nationalism.

The proposed change to the CVE program is bad policy. Hopefully, the President will put actions to his daughter’s statement of principles and change course on proposed reforms to the CVE program. Even without going into effect, the very possibility of the changes has sent a chilling message to people on the ground fighting against religious extremism and promoting religious tolerance.

Since news of the proposed change to the CVE program became public, at least four American Muslim civil society organizations have declined more than $2 million in grants awarded to them under the previous administration. They include the Bayan School in Claremont, California, Ka Joog in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities in Dearborn, Michigan, and Unity Productions Foundation in Potomac Falls, Virginia. Why have they turned down this money? According to these organizations, the religious intolerance that appears to be driving policy and public rhetoric at the highest levels creates anxiety and fear in minority religious communities, making them less likely to reach out to other communities and to local law enforcement agencies.

At present, Jewish and Muslim communities are experiencing the effects of intolerance in especially acute ways. But we should not be blind to the fact that hate affects everyone by fueling violence and impeding free and voluntary participation in public life, which is the lifeblood of our democratic society. The safety and security of all Americans requires that our government set an example by promoting religious tolerance and the development of civil society organizations. That’s what will ultimately protect our houses of worship.

Caleb Elfenbein is an associate professor of history and religious studies as Grinnell College.

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