2012: Exploiting Islamophobia to Win Big

by , November 09, 2010

Why did Renee Ellmers, a Republican candidate for Congress from North Carolina, produce a campaign ad skewering her opponent for not vociferously opposing the Park 51 Islamic center planned for Manhattan near Ground Zero, over 500 miles away?

Because it was good campaign strategy, that’s why. She presumed that the Newt Gingrich-hyper-generated history of the Muslims conquering the city of Cordoba 13 centuries ago, complete with illustrations and the juxtaposition of Ground Zero, would pay off, particularly among the disgruntled southern conservatives in her district, which covers the central and eastern parts of the state. And she was right – this blatant exploitation of their fears certainly didn’t hurt and might very well have helped her beat seven-term incumbent Democrat Rep. Bob Etheridge in one of the many GOP upsets of the midterm elections.

In fact, anti-Muslim rage in today’s national discourse is populism’s low-hanging fruit, and many Republicans hungrily grabbed at it with both fists and were duly rewarded this campaign season. Sure, not every one of the Sarah Palin/Tea Party-endorsed candidates won on Nov. 2, but those who did, won in part because of their willingness to indulge in the Islamophobia coursing through the Republican base today, not despite it. The same Republican base that helped the party torpedo the Democrats last Tuesday, taking back the House, six senate seats, six governorships, and 680 slots in state legislatures (the most in the modern era, according to the National Journal).

“I think this election will weigh heavily on us for the next couple of years,” lamented James Zogby, director of the Arab American Institute, talking before an audience assembled at The Palestine Center in Washington, D.C on Thursday. Parsing out the election results in the frame of the current backlash, he said Islamophobia has “exploded” on the Arab-American community in the U.S., “to the extent I don’t think I have ever seen before.”

In Florida, for example, Republican ex-Army officer and two-time congressional candidate, Allen West, has been fond of giving speeches that highlight his perceived historical knowledge of Islam as a religion of murder and hate. Pontificating on the Quran at the Hudson Institute this year, West exclaimed, “this is not a perversion, (Terrorists) are doing exactly what this book says.”

In February, West took it up a notch, speaking before the Freedom Defense Initiative, a jihad-hunting fundraising machine headed by Pamela Geller (Atlas Shrugs) and Robert Spencer (Jihad Watch):

“There is no such thing as ‘war on terror,’” he told his audience, “a nation does not go to war against a tactic. A nation goes to war against an ideology… we are against something that is a totalitarian, theocratic, political ideology and it is called Islam.”

Geller did her best to promote West’s candidacy – “Run West Run!” – and Ellmers was also on Geller’s list of “endorsed” candidates. In ordinary political times, respectable Republican candidates would have steered clear away from Geller and Spencer and other such toxic avengers.

Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller

Not West, not now. On Tuesday, the Tea Party-backed West beat Democratic incumbent Rep. Ron Klein with 55 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, just days before the election, right wing blogs started touting what they said was proof that Democratic Rep. Joseph Sestak, running in a tight race for Senate with Republican Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, had attended a 2006 campaign fundraiser hosted for him by the director of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), an “unindicted terrorist co-conspirator” that is supposedly a front for Hamas, but apparently not so effective to have been charged as such by the U.S. government. Nevertheless, the accusations have been dogging Sestak, a retired Vice Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and in July, blogs like Atlas Shrugs began pushing the issue and circulating this ad by the “Emergency Committee for Israel,” a right wing marriage of Washington neoconservatives and evangelical Christians with a lot of money to burn. It launched with the Sestak attack, and was key in making Park 51 a national issue a few weeks later.

Park 51 protest in New York City

Sestak lost last Tuesday to Toomey, 49 to 51 percent.

In Nevada, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid may have beat back a challenge by Tea Party favorite Sharon Angle, but most would agree she forced him to dance to her tune throughout the entire campaign. Example: when challenged in August by Angle to break his silence on the Park 51 project, Reid succumbed to the noxious Tea Party atmosphere and said Park 51 should be “built elsewhere.”

Later, in October, Angle indulged a delusional audience member by agreeing with him that Muslims were slowly taking over the American legal system.

“We’re talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe it isn’t a widespread thing, but it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it,” she told the audience.

Off the congressional grid, Republican Josh Mandel, whose campaign produced an attack ad that artfully invoked anti-mosque/Muslim feelings while pumping up Mandel’s “real American” status as a “decorated Marine,” “crushed” incumbent Ohio State Treasurer Kevin Boyce, a Democrat, by 15 points.

Notably, national jihad-watchers weighed in on this statewide race, targeting Mandel’s opponent’s deputy, accusing him of attending an “infamous mosque” and “hanging with Islamic extremists.” After the election, the Cleveland Plain Dealer referred to Mandel as “a rising star in his party.”

And of course, there was the successful state ballot initiative in super red Oklahoma, touted by Gingrich and others as the first shot across the bow at the coming Muslim invasion. The “Save our State” amendment will modify the state constitution to ban Sharia law. Comedian Stephen Colbert, while noting that there are only 15,000 Muslims in Oklahoma today, had the best take yet: “Just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ban it. That’s why I have long fought for ballot measures to ban cat pilots, baby curling, and man-futon marriage.” (video here).

Looking at the smoldering post-election landscape and the long presidential campaign trail ahead, it’s clear that Islamophobia as a political tool is here to stay –- wielded by Republicans who use it to excite and galvanize the right wing, embarrass their opponents and sow the seeds of fear and paranoia in everyone else. And it’s so damn effective!

Zogby says President Bush may have “kept a lid on” the worst of the backlash after 9/11, however selfishly, by promoting the meme that his military invasions were not a “war on Muslims.” But the election of Barack Obama and the accompanying economic crisis unleashed the vitriol simmering under the surface, stirred by what Zogby called the expanding “cottage industry of terrorism experts” like Geller, Spencer, Daniel Pipes, Clifford May and Frank Gaffney. They inhabit largely Republican think tanks like the Center for Security Policy, the American Enterprise Institute and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which as a monolith of anti-Muslim rhetoric, all provide daily talking points to Republican politicians like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and up-and-comers like West and Ellmers.

Allen West

They also inspire and conspire with evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham (son of the Rev. Billy Graham), who felt emboldened enough to call Islam “wicked” and “evil” during a televised town meeting-style forum last April. Why not, when he knows that nearly half the electorate, or those identifying as Republican or ‘leaning Republican,’ likely agree with him on some level.

According to poll results announced by the Arab American Institute on Nov. 1, 66 percent of Republican voters now hold an unfavorable view of Arabs; 85 percent hold an unfavorable view of Muslims. Compare that to 28 percent who hold a favorable view of Arabs, and 12 percent who hold a favorable view of Muslims.

From Zogby:

“The GOP has become captive of several groups that now dominate the party’s base and have transformed its thinking. The ‘religious right’ and its ‘end of days’ preachers like Pat Robertson, William Hagee and Gary Bauer, presently constitute almost 40% of Republican voters. This group’s emphasis on the divinely ordained battle between the forces of ‘good’ (i.e. the Christian West and Israel) and the forces of ‘evil’ (Islam and the Arabs) has logically given rise to anti-Muslim prejudice.

“Then there are the Christian right’s ideological cousins, the neo-conservatives, who share an identical Manichean and apocalyptic world view, though with a secular twist. And into the mix must be thrown Islamophobic right-wing radio and TV commentators like [Bill] O’Reilly, [Glenn] Beck, [Rush] Limbaugh, [Michael] Savage and company, who daily spew their poison across the airwaves.

“The combination produces a lethal brew that is dangerous not only for the intolerance it has created, but the sense of certitude and self-righteousness it projects.”

The incoming Republican chairs to the foreign policy/security/intelligence committees and shifts in the party leadership in the House are “really problematic,” said Zogby. He pointed out several members who are quite known for promoting interventionist, anti-Arab/Muslim policy prescriptions and are expected to rise in the ranks next year, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Foreign Affairs), Eric Cantor (Majority Leader), Dan Burton (Foreign Affairs-Middle East), Peter King (Homeland Security), Lamar Smith (Judiciary) and Steve King (Judiciary-immigration).

“You have people who have a decidedly anti-Arab, anti-Islam mindset … it’s born out of the same ideological fervor of the last (Bush) administration,” said Zogby. As for the broader problem of Islamophobia and the Republican wave of influence in Washington politics, he said, “I think it will have an impact on the President and it will make the climate very difficult.”

You bet. Especially with the presidential campaign right around the corner. In fact, I’ve argued that it is already here. Watch the Islamophobia that poisoned the well in the midterms metastasize like a vulgar cancer for what already promises to be a Republican/Tea Party crusade to throw Obama – a man who upwards of 46 percent of Republicans believe is a secret Muslim – out of the White House for good.

Though the so-called Tea Party movement was supposedly born out of a backlash to the President’s “socialist” economic policies in times of financial crisis, it has done nothing to dissuade its adherents from scapegoating immigrants and Muslims for the country’s problems. Zogby tells Antiwar.com that “if a popular (GOP) leader criticizes this bigotry it could have an impact.” I am not so optimistic. As Zogby said himself, “once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to get it back in.” And this is one hell of a vengeful Jinn.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos