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Last week, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, was in hot water for comments about the numbers of Muslims who support terrorism and ISIS. Sanchez, running for Senate, said on “PoliticKING with Larry King” that “anywhere between 5 and 20 percent” of Muslims “have a desire for a caliphate and to institute that in any way possible, and in particular go after what they consider Western norms — our way of life.” She added that they are willing to use “terrorism… in the name of a very wrong way of looking at Islam."
Sanchez’s comments were irresponsible as well as inaccurate. If anything, they show that no party has a monopoly on foolish remarks about Muslims. A Latina leader like Sanchez should be inspiring and educating potential voters – not spreading fear and ignorance.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and 2.8 million in the U.S. Assuming that Sanchez was referring to the global number of Muslims, 5 percent of 1.6 billion works out to 80 million people. Twenty percent works out to 320 million people. Both of these numbers far exceed the total population of people living in ISIS-controlled territory. There is no reliable data to suggest that such huge numbers of Muslims want to live in a caliphate and wage terror on the West; Pew’s worldwide study found that most Muslims have an unfavorable view of groups like ISIS.
In fact, most Muslims condemn violence, even if it is committed in the name of their religion. In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, Muslim leaders around the world denounced the killings and appealed for peace. A 2011 Pew poll found that 86 percent of U.S. Muslims said that suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam are rarely or never justified, while a Gallup study found that 89 percent of U.S. Muslims believed that attacks on civilians by individuals or small groups are never justified.
After her words generated headlines everywhere from the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post, Sanchez issued a statement saying, “I strongly support the Muslim community in America and believe that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not support terrorism or ISIS.” She cautioned against “alienating (Muslims) through fear-mongering and discrimination." But Sanchez played to such sentiments with her initial remarks. As a congresswoman who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and the Homeland Security Committee, Sanchez should recognize that words have consequences. Consider that since the Paris attacks, there have been at least 33 instances of anti-Muslim attacks in the U.S. Or that on Saturday, a California man was arrested in connection with a recent fire at a mosque. Sanchez’s original remarks only make people look at Muslims with unfounded suspicion – just as many people continue to hold uninformed views of Latinos.
Yes, Sanchez has been a progressive champion of issues like immigration reform, veterans’ affairs and education. She has the time and potential to become a national figure. However, she has attracted unwanted media attention for her gaffes before. In May she apologized for a flip reference to Native Americans. In a 2010 interview on Spanish-language TV, she stated that, "the Vietnamese are after my seat" (a reference to her Vietnamese-American political opponent at the time). During the 2000 Democratic National Convention, she scheduled a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, only to move it later when fellow Democrats objected to what one news report called "the potentially sexist scenery." Individually, none of these incidents is a career-ender; as they add up, voters may begin to doubt her judgment.
For a politician running for office in one of the most diverse states in the nation, Sanchez's remarks were imprudent. She missed an opportunity to remind viewers that we should not be questioning the loyalties of our fellow Americans. Instead, we should be demanding that our leaders devise effective strategies to keep us safe.