It is the job of educational institutions — universities and newspapers among them — to pursue the truth, even if this risks losing ad revenue or donors. We have our work cut out for us, because there are two popular lies that have animated President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign and are now poised to define his presidency. These lies have dangerous implications: 1) Islam is not a religion; 2) Climate change is a hoax.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for National security adviser, regularly describes Islam as an ideology, that “hides behind being a religion,” and he speaks about violent extremism as a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people.” This is false; it is a lie that is meant to mislead the American public.
As a scholar and a teacher, I have devoted the past 25 years to studying Muslim history and society. I have lived many years in Muslim countries. This is such an obvious lie that I would normally not want to dignify it with a response, but Gen. Flynn is now advising the president-elect, and it is clear that he and his lies will have influence at the White House.
How far we have come from the days when, shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush invited American Muslim leaders to the White House for a traditional Ramadan celebration. He said explicitly, “America treasures the relationship we have with our many Muslim friends, and we respect the vibrant faith of Islam which inspires countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity and morality.”
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The problem with Gen. Flynn’s lies is not merely that they are false, but that they make violence against Muslims licit. After all, he claims that this “cancer” must be “excised,” and I shudder to imagine how that excision would take place.
It is patently immoral to blame 1.7 billion believers for the actions of a few terrorists. Moreover, sociological studies have demonstrated that violent terrorism is actually less common among Muslim populations as compared with the general public. So why lie? Because focusing attention on a phantasm causes us to miss the real threats to our national security, which leads me to the second lie.
Climate change is no hoax. It is real; it is progressing, and world temperatures have already reached levels not seen in millennia. More than 35 years ago, in 1979, the National Academy of Sciences verified the basic science of climate change, and years of research since that time have only supported and strengthened their conclusions.
It is mind-boggling that Trump would appoint Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. But he is not alone. Here in central Pennsylvania, I am represented by a state representative, a U.S. representative, a senator and now a president-elect who all deny that climate change is real. This despite the best efforts of Penn State’s world-class climate scientists (some of whom are registered Republicans) to instruct them.
Trump’s position on climate change does not arise from a vacuum. Like the notion that Muslims are essentially violent, this is a lie that has been carefully crafted and disseminated by special interest groups. It has dire consequences.
Sea levels at U.S. naval bases are rising; Russia and China are moving into an ever-warming Arctic; refugees are fleeing land rendered useless by drought and flood. Even for those who do not care about our moral responsibility to preserve biodiversity, there are national security issues that any president must face.
To be fair, Trump is not the first to use the looming threat of “radical Islamic extremism” as a way to distract us from nefarious activities. Nor has the Obama administration been entirely honest about climate change. The fact is, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is nothing more than a first step toward the radical cuts in fossil fuel use that we must undertake to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
We cannot lie our way out of physics — so long as we burn fossil fuels, the earth will continue to warm regardless of who heads the EPA — but we do not have to head down this dangerous path. As an educator, I have a responsibility to teach my students how to discern truth from lies; as an American, I demand that my representatives reject these lies and serve the people, not the special interests.
Jonathan Brockopp is associate professor of history and religious studies at Penn State. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the university.