Duke University Chapel's call to prayer controversy, the highly publicized shooting deaths of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill and the Syrian refugee crisis — all have raised questions about the rhetoric surrounding Islam in politics and the media.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, American beliefs fall on partisan lines concerning Muslim communities. There is a greater discrepancy in the number of Republicans and Democrats who believe just a few Muslims are "anti-American" than in 2002 when "there was little difference" between the parties, the study states.
John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, said Islam's presence in political debates has not changed since the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, but the nature of the dialogue is different.
Presidential hopefuls such as Ben Carson and Donald Trump have not discussed terrorism in broad terms alongside issues like the economy, he said.
Rather, they've radicalized it. "They have wound up making statements that were indiscriminate when it came to dealing with Islam and Muslims," he said. In fall 2015, several politicians — including North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory — called for an end to or reduction in the number of Syrian refugees in the United States.
In a press conference on Nov. 16, McCrory cited terrorist attacks in Paris as motivation to cease sending refugees from Syria to North Carolina. And in January 2015, Duke University canceled a Muslim call to prayer amidst complaints from the community.
Christy Lohr Sapp, the associate dean for religious life at Duke University Chapel, advocated instating the call to prayer as a way of recognizing the Muslim groups on campus.
"A year out, still hearing some of the harsh and disturbing rhetoric that we do has just made those who want our country to be one of welcome be more proactive in their attempt to try to be a face and a voice of welcome," she said. Imran Aukhil, spokesperson for the Islamic Association of Raleigh, said in an email the negative rhetoric from political candidates in the upcoming presidential election will play a role in the decisions Muslims make at the polls. "It's important to keep in mind that Muslims in the United States are representative of Americans around the country — they have varied and differing political views," he said.
Salma Azam, a member of UNC's Ahmadiyya Muslim Student Association, said politicians are saying dramatic things about Muslims to stir up controversy — but she doesn't think they'll follow through. "When you think of the laws, it would be really difficult for them to actually do anything," she said.
And UNC senior Farah Azam, who is president of AMSA, said people have expressed curiosity about Islam after not recognizing the image of radical Muslims portrayed in the media. "I think a lot of people are actually curious because they're seeing all of these conflicting things," she said. "...They're asking questions — 'What is Islam? Who are you guys? You call yourselves Muslim, so what does that mean?' — that's what we encourage.'"