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If there was any doubt as to the depth and extent of
anti-Muslim feelings among portions of the US electorate, this year’s
presidential elections have most certainly put it to rest. The extent to which candidates and
voters alike propagated anti-Muslim themes in order to support a political
agenda has been unprecedented.
Nearly every major candidate relied on fear of Muslims at some point to
stir voter sentiment through fear:
Mitt Romney often
railed against “radical Islam”, Rudy Giuliani routinely
invoked the spectre of “Islamic terror”, Fred Thompson warned that the US is in a “global war with radical Islam”, and John McCain called the fight against “radical Islamic extremists” the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century”. Even Barack Obama, who was
himself the target of anti-Muslim sentiments – tapped into this theme when he
called upon Americans to wean themselves off of Middle Eastern (i.e. Muslim) oil.
Voters – many of whom I would guess couldn’t tell the difference between
an Islamist and the Muslim next door – responded to these overtures with one of the most
sustained and organic email campaigns in recent memory. Repeated tales of Barack Obama’s
alleged Islamic past and/or present were so effective that in one
Texas survey taken only a week before the election, 23% of all voters
still believed that Obama was a Muslim.
The level to which people clung to this meme despite two years of
repeated statements in the media to the contrary is a startling reminder of how
deep-seated the fear of Muslims remains.
It didn’t stop there. One of the more ambitious attempts to stoke anti-Muslim feelings in
order to sway the election was the mailing of 28 million copies of a DVD entitled “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against
the West” to households in swing states.
Like the emails and statements above, the “Obsession” film blurs the lines
between violent radicalism and ordinary Muslims, playing into legitimate fears that
many Americans still have in the wake of 9/11.
But despite the extent and volume of anti-Muslim rhetoric, candidates who embraced these methods this year universally failed to get elected.
From the earliest days of the primary, campaigns seemed to
falter in direct proportion to the extend politicians tried to make anti-Muslim
feelings the foundation of their campaigns. Giuliani and Romney, by far the more strident of the
Republican candidates, found no traction with the anti-Muslim arguments and
dropped out early. In contrast,
John McCain – who rejected Pastor Rod Parsley’s endorsement solely due to his
anti-Muslim comments and publicly stated that Muslim-Americans were qualified
to hold any office in the land – rose to the top of his party.
There’s another beneficial side effect that this rhetoric
had: it galvanized Muslim-Americans to take control of their own political
destiny. After all, if you’re
already a part of the elections (in an imaginary sense), why not dive in
yourself and provide some Muslim reality?
While Muslim-American organizations took a low profile for
fear of unwittingly contributing to the stigma, everyday Muslims took it upon
themselves to get involved at a grassroots level, where they could stay under
the radar and confront anti-Muslim feelings at a personal level. Buoyed by an affinity for Barack Obama,
in part due to the slings and arrows that he took on their behalf, thousands of
Muslim-Americans gravitated to his campaign and fought back through the
political process. And Muslim
Republicans, though smaller in number, worked from within the party to excise
anti-Muslim sentiment, with some degree of success.
Will the next crop of presidential candidates learn from the
lessons of 2008 and stick to more meaningful issues than who can be harder on
Muslims? Only time will tell, but even
if they don’t, there will be a new generation of Muslim grassroots political
activists in both parties waiting to confront them.