Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump's call to bar all Muslims from entering the United States is possibly a tactical move designed to shore up his popularity among a particular segment of the party faithful. "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," a campaign press statement said. The shock value of that statement is guaranteed to keep his name in the political headlines while the US recovers from the mass shooting in California by suspected sympathisers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Mr Trump's tactical objective having been achieved, it is not impossible that he will moderate his views and retreat to a politically and morally more defensible position.
However, the danger is that the strategic harm caused by Mr Trump's astonishing demand will continue long after his tactical moment has passed. At one go, he made the unthinkable and unspeakable part of mainstream American debate. It is one thing for individuals to voice angry sentiments; it is another for a person aspiring to the presidency to give such ideas political credibility. Creditably, more responsible members of his own party, to say nothing of Americans at large, have distanced themselves from his churlish remarks. Clearly, Mr Trump does not speak for all Americans: He does not even speak to all of them.
The larger danger caused by intemperate comments about Muslims is that they mirror extremist pretensions to represent Islam. Most Muslims are not terrorists. Instead, as in areas now under the illegal sway of ISIS, they are the chief victims of terror. Impressionable, alienated and misguided Muslims in Western societies who turn to terrorism act reprehensibly, but they do not detract from the countervailing presence of peaceful Muslims both in the West and in a swathe of the East. To suspect the values and motives of teeming millions from Turkey to Indonesia ironically only serves to underwrite the perverse claim which ISIS makes: that being a good Muslim means hating other religions and destroying "infidel" lands.
By contrast, Muslims belong to a rich tradition which celebrates the life of the mind in the arts, the sciences and humane letters. From the intellectual ascendancy of the Arab, Persian and Turkish worlds, to the contributions that Muslims have made to the rise to self-awareness of Africa, South Asia and South-east Asia, their global role has been underpinned by a keen understanding of religious diversity as a natural fact of social coexistence. The pathological excesses of ISIS, committed not only against humans but also archaeological treasures deemed un-Islamic, seek to destroy that heritage. As Muslims come to terms with divisions within, they could do without hostility which seeks to isolate and exclude them.