Omar Elhanafy, vice president of the Muslim student organization at California State University, San Bernardino, hasn’t followed the 2016 U.S. presidential election closely.
But Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims following this month’s fatal shooting spree at a San Bernardino holiday party left Elhanafy, 20, feeling he needed to watch the televised Republican debate on Tuesday night.
“Trump, he kind of has a really powerful voice at the moment and the things that he is saying are kind of scary and kind of shocking to me,” Elhanafy said. After the Dec. 2 shootings, Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
In California’s so-called Inland Empire, which includes the towns where San Bernardino shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik lived and committed their deadly attack, many voters watched the debate through the prism of recent events, but they drew a broad range of conclusions.
Hayden Martin, vice president of the Mojave Desert Young Republicans, attended a debate-watching gathering with fellow Republicans at a Mexican restaurant in Moreno Valley, southeast of San Bernardino. He wanted to hear the Republican contenders address the issues of gun control and what he called radical Islamic terrorism.
Martin, 21, said he was hoping they would speak more candidly about terrorism than President Barack Obama had after the couple, inspired by Islamic State, massacred 14 people in San Bernardino.
“Instead of saying radical Islamic terrorism, (the Obama administration is) saying gun control. It’s disappointing,” Martin said. “Radical Islam is a threat to us and the gun control narrative isn’t a narrative we should continue.”
Riverside County Republican Party Chairman Scott Mann, who also serves as mayor of the city of Menifee, said he was “looking for every single one of those candidates to acknowledge what happened, acknowledge that it’s real, and acknowledge that we’ve got to do something about it.”
That wasn’t how Bushra Bangee, 19, saw things. She was frustrated by how much of the debate focused on Muslims at the expense of other issues.
Watching the debate over pizza with other Muslim students at the Southern California offices of the Council on Islamic Relations, the urban planning major at the University of California, Irvine, noted that the Paris climate talks, which just concluded, weren’t a subject of serious discussion. “What about that?” she asked. “Climate change is considered the largest national security threat.”
Amal Ali, 22, vice president of the Muslim student association at University of California, Riverside, also wondered about security issues that weren’t mentioned.
“Where is the discussion on national security with regards to the Sandy Hook shooting or the Planned Parenthood shooting or any of these things?” she asked, citing two shooting sprees without an Islamist connection.
Ali said she ultimately found the debate exhausting. “Who has the energy and … the capacity to not only listen to this kind of vitriolic rhetoric but also find time to mourn the tragedy itself?” she asked. “My priority was in helping my community and mourning the tragedy that happened in my backyard.”
Martin, the Young Republicans activist, thought the debates were helpful for offering insight into the candidates. “I don’t want to vote for someone like Obama,” he said, “who seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Martin said that since the attacks, he has noticed his peers have shown more interest in politics.
“‘Something’s got to change’ — that’s a narrative I’ve heard from friends and coworkers,” he said.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Alana Wise; Editing by Sue Horton and Howard Goller)