As the world watches Americans struggle with a hard choice in candidates for president, candidates Hillary Clinton and  Donald Trump need to take a bold stand against theocracy and secular fascism and promote individual freedom and human rights in their election campaigns. 

American elections, while among the freest in the world, are not immune to controversy or drama. The 2016 elections are a prime example of how two major parties can go terribly awry in their nomination of candidates for the highest office in the nation.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (L), U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton

As an American Muslim, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and someone whose work focuses heavily on educating the public, lawmakers and the broader global community on the issue of radicalization and religious liberty, for me the tenor and content of this election cycle has been of particular concern.

On the one hand, our Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, and her family foundation have troubling ties to Islamist money – and openly named the dictator Hosni Mubarak as her “dear friend,” Bashar Al-Assad a “reformer”, and then after the Arab Awakening seemed to have an affinity for Muslim Brotherhood leaders and its movements in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria.

On the other hand, Donald Trump’s sloppy roughshod populism and scorched earth campaign was often at the expense of Muslims. And, while he did highlight the many current weaknesses in our domestic and foreign national security policies, he has done so with no coherent unifying policy vision and advocacy for freedom abroad.

While many have claimed to be shocked at the controversy surrounding this year’s election, those of us who follow closely the most hot-button issues of the day – Islamism and terrorism, civil rights, national security and freedom – are not surprised at all. There is no mystery behind the rise of these two figures.

In a world where both theocracy and secular fascism have been allowed to take hold, the United States is predictably forced to take a stand – either we continue with the status quo, or we use the best of our values to defeat both theocracy and secular fascism, equal enemies of liberty. These two candidates have arisen in a binary world where a third choice, the choice of freedom, has remained elusive.

Regrettably, our government has not always stood on the side of individual freedom and human rights. We have, for far too long, remained in close alliance with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have looked the other way at the abuse of civilians by dictators like Hosni Mubarak, King Salman, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Bashar al-Assad; and, at home, have let offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood have access to the halls of power.

Our CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) program is deeply flawed – while law enforcement and national security experts have done much great work, they are hamstrung by politicians who continue to minimize or outright deny that radicalization is a process that begins well before an act of violence is carried out.

Islamism – the theo-political ideology which underpins violent extremism, seeks the complete subjugation of women, of sexual, religious and racial minorities; and aims to replace legal systems with a particularly malignant, archaic and terroristic interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law.

While people of any religion (or none) can be violent extremists, there is no violent extremism carried out by someone claiming to act in the name of Islam without that person having a connection to Islamism. Islamist terrorists abhor Western societies, even as they benefit from living within them; abhor gender equality even if they once indulged in coed environments, and detest Western innovation even as they use it to carry out their acts.

But Islamism does not begin and end with an act of violence: the act of violence is merely the final stop on a continuum, which is borne out of a radicalization process. That process is one that relies on the existence of an “us versus them” mentality in society in order to force Muslims, especially youth, to see themselves as outsiders, as victims of imperialism and oppression.

Religious liberty is the enemy of Islamism. Islamism can only thrive in environments where freethinking Muslims are maligned and silenced, and where theocracy and secular fascism are permitted to thrive. That is why the 2016 elections are such a tremendous test for the United States, and, ultimately, for the world: with the election of either candidate, we are presented with challenges that will have worldwide ramifications.

That challenge can only be realized when the candidates begin to promote policies which adhere to the same universal human rights at home that we demand of every government abroad.

The United States, while despised by Islamists and regularly threatened with attack, remains one of the safest places on Earth. This is in large part due to our intentional and steadfast commitment to our First Amendment, which safeguards freedom of expression – including religious expression and even offensive speech.

We believe that the freedom to express oneself is not a threat to safety, but in fact a safety valve against violence and extremism. Offensive speech – even deeply hateful speech – is not criminalized; nor is the public expression of faith.

Our immigrant, refugee and other populations have had the opportunity to integrate – marrying their cultural and religious selves with their American identities. This is indeed the essence of the American experience – the freedom to be fully who you are.

This commitment, while not always easy, has, in my view, protected us from the kinds of riots we have seen across the world when a cartoon or piece of writing offends a religious group; or when an incendiary public figure says something repugnant. So, while the world watches us struggle with a terrible choice in candidates for president, we know that the real test is of our commitment to this principle, which is the only real guarantor of our safety.

M. Zuhdi Jasser is the President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Arizona and the co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement. He is also host of the podcast, Reform This! on the Blaze Radio Network. Twitter: @DrZuhdiJasser

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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