President Trump made his stance on religious tolerance quite clear after signing off on a Muslim travel ban earlier this year. This week, Trump further stirred the flames of anti-Muslim ideology both in the United States and across the pond after he retweeted three anti-Muslim videos from Britain First, a far-right, white nationalist British group. On Thursday, former CIA director Leon Panetta went on CNN to criticize Trump for retweeting violent anti-Muslim videos that could endanger the lives of innocent people.
One video claimed to show a Muslim man destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary. Another claimed to show a Muslim migrant beating up a Dutch boy on crutches. The third video claimed to show Muslim men pushing a boy off a building. Fact checkers have already pointed out that the veracity of the anti-Muslim videos are dubious: One is fake, one has a different context than claimed, and one is unverified. But the damage was done when the leader of the United States decided to incite hatred against Muslims in his more than 40 million Twitter followers.
On CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Panetta said the Trump administration needs to put a checks system in the White House to prevent Trump from putting lives at risks.
"I think the president of the United States is playing with fire," Panetta, who also also served as secretary of defense under President Obama from 2011 to 2013, said. "This is a dangerous game to play, and the president, frankly, ought to know better."
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump's retweets, suggesting the authenticity of the videos is not what matters.
“I’m not talking about [the] nature of the video. I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she told reporters Wednesday morning. “The threat is real, that’s what the president is talking about … the need for national security, need for military spending, and those are very real things, and there’s nothing fake about that.”
But political leaders, analysts, and civil rights advocates have expressed concern that by allowing Trump to incite hatred against Muslims, he will consequently encourage hate crimes against Muslims and subsequently strengthen terrorist groups like ISIS. Farah Pandith, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told PBS:
Terrorist organizations like ISIS or al Qaeda build their brand and gain recruits by fueling the idea that the West is at war with Islam, that there is an "us versus them." Every word, action, implication, and opinion by an American president is a signal not only to our nation’s citizens but also to citizens of the world — especially the nearly 1 billion Muslims under 30 worldwide, who are targeted by ISIS-like extremists — that this is who we are as Americans, and that indeed, the extremists are right about us.
State Department officials also said they were concerned over potential, violent protests at U.S. embassies, reported CNN. The 2012 release of an Islamophobic short film and hoax video "Innocence of Muslims" sparked bloody protests at U.S. embassies in the Middle East.
Leaders including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and British Prime Minister Theresa May have condemned Trump's actions.
“Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions," May said in a statement. "They cause anxiety to law-abiding people.”
The war of words between Trump and May caused U.S. diplomats to cancel Trump's planned working visit to Britain in January. Jayda Fransen, the Britain First leader who originally posted the propaganda videos, expressed her delight that Trump had taken notice of her and slammed the U.K. for not welcoming Trump.
Britain First is a fascist, anti-immigration, and anti-Muslim breakaway group from the far-right British National Party. Hate speech, bigotry, and videos alleging violent acts from Muslims fill the Twitter pages of Fransen and Britain First. In 2016, Fransen was convicted of a hate crime when she harassed and verbally abused a woman wearing a hijab.
Some critics have called on Twitter to suspend Trump's account or delete his tweets that contain hate speech. An unnamed spokesperson from Twitter gave CNN Money the following reason for not deleting Trump's tweets:
To help ensure people have an opportunity to see every side of an issue, there may be the rare occasion when we allow controversial content or behavior which may otherwise violate our rules to remain on our service because we believe there is a legitimate public interest in its availability.
It's a stance from the company that has proven divisive. Some will agree this is case of freedom of speech. But others will argue that by inciting violence this way, Trump has revoked his right to freedom of speech on the platform.