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Islamophobia: An Electoral Wedge Issue!

Hatem Bazian, senior lecturer, Near Eastern studies and Ethnic studies | February 25, 2015

In 2011, the Center for American Progress published a groundbreaking report, “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” which managed to expose for the first time the funding sources behind the bigotry producing Islamophobic industry, the individuals responsible and the effective strategies that made possible to impact the mainstream.  CAP’s report managed to shift the focus and correctly highlighted the infrastructure behind the growing Islamophobia phenomena and provided empirical evidence that until then was only theorized.

The “Fear Inc.” authors identified seven foundations that provided a total of $42.6 million between 2001 and 2009 to fund organizations and individual spreading anti-Muslim bigotry in the country. What the report clearly documented is that rather than there being a large grouping and widespread anti-Muslim popular movement, the researchers discovered a small network of organizations, scholars and activists that are well-funded and committed to misinformation, machination and bigoted rhetoric. The 2011 report concluded that “the efforts of a small cadre of funders and misinformation experts were amplified by an echo chamber of the religious right, conservative media, grassroots organizations, and politicians who sought to introduce a fringe perspective on American Muslims into the public discourse.”

‘Fear Inc. 2.0’

On Feb. 11, 2015 CAP released “Fear Inc. 2.0,” the second installment in the series, which builds upon the initial research and provides deeper analysis of the Islamophobia network and the current themes utilized in targeting the American Muslim community. The report examines Islamophobia within the religious right and the ability of groups to increasingly deploy “anti-Islamic rhetoric” and to “push this… discourse into mainstream GOP politics.”

report coverThe religious right and the Republican party has an acute Islamophobia problem, with grassroots activists increasingly at ease in expressing anti-Muslim statements. Certainly, debates about national security and terrorism are legitimate topics, but among religious-right activists and sections of the Republican party, Islamophobic discourse has become connected to the broader cultural wars, with a distinct messianic and clash-of-civilizations rhetoric.

In chapter two of “Fear Inc. 2.0, ” the report examines the 2014 Values Voter Summit, pointing out that the gathering “heard from many of the architects and amplifiers of the Islamophobia network.”  Speakers at the VVS made sure to emphasize that we are at war with Islam; statements cited in the report include:

Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN):

“We have jihadists who are subscribing to this radical ideology that dying in the name of Islam gets them to heaven. This is spiritual warfare. And what we need to do is defeat Islamic jihad. Sadly, President Obama has the wrong prescription. He even fails to acknowledge their motivations for bringing about jihad. Yes, Mr. President, it is about Islam. … And I believe if you have an evil of an order of this magnitude, you take it seriously. … You declare war on it, you don’t dance around it. Just like the Islamic State has declared war on the United States of America.”

Mark Levin, a conservative radio host:

Called outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder a “coward because he won’t talk about Islam.”

Brigitte Gabriel, an Islamophobic activist:

Spoke of “the cancer of Islamic barbarism” and claimed that “radical Islamists” constitute 15 percent to 25 percent of Muslims worldwide, an unsubstantiated figure that the Islamophobia network frequently cites.

Republican governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, who has referred to Muslims as “uncorked animals,” urged the United States to make clear its position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“When it comes down to the battle between the descendants of Ishmael [Muslims] and descendants of Isaac [ Jews] … we will stand with those who stand for biblical truth and liberty and that is not something we will ever apologize for or ever be ashamed. We will stand with the nation of Israel.”

Gary Bauer, a former GOP presidential candidate and president of American Values, a religious-right advocacy group:

“President Barack Obama has “more [interest] in defending the reputation of Islam than he does in saving the lives of Christians.” These outlandish remarks prompted a standing ovation.11 Bauer also had some advice for the next Republican presidential nominee saying if that person has “a heart and a brain,” he will tell President Obama that “defending Islam” is not “in his job description.”

Electoral strategy

What is clear is that the religious right has made Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry a major rallying point for activists across the country and deploying it within a broader political strategy. One key element of this strategy, according to the report, is the national anti-Sharia campaign led by David Yerushalmi, “the lawyer responsible for the movement and who drafted the model… legislation used by activists across the country,” with the expressed goal “to shape public attitude and is not about legal substance.”

protest

‘Ground Zero Mosque’ protesters (David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons)

The report cites Yerushalmi’s own framing of the issue in a New York Times 2011 interview: “If this thing passed in every state without any friction, it would not have served its purpose. … The purpose was heuristic — to get people asking this question, ‘What is Shariah?’”

What we have in the anti-Sharia legislation and targeting Democratic and civil-society leaders is an electoral strategy that seeks to monetize Islamophobia into votes at the ballot box and for sure to influence elections outcome moving forward.

Attempts to influence elections with Islamophobic content were front and center in the 2008 elections, when the Clarion Fund spent about $17 million to send 28 million copies of the documentary “Obsession, Radical Islam’s War Against the West” as an insert in Sunday newspapers, just days before the elections, to voters in swing states; this propagated the idea that Candidate Obama should not be trusted, and the constant speculation that he is a closet Muslim. A similar strategy was unleashed in the 2010 midterm elections, focusing on the “Ground Zero Mosque,” a term coined by the Islamophobia network and then amplified through the conservative media.

Wedge issues are very critical pieces in campaign strategists’ tool chest. Islamophobia and targeting American Muslims create the needed framing, focusing on national security and threat to the “homeland,” which puts liberal Democrats on the defensive while pushing independent voters into supporting rightwing Republican candidates even though it might be against their economic and political interests.

The Islamophobia network agenda in the U.S. is connected to a broader electoral strategy. “Demographics in the United States are changing rapidly” was an important reason for some on the political right to opt for a divisive strategy, write Prof. Saeed A. Khan and Alejandrop J. Beutel in their recently released report, “Manufacturing Bigotry: A State-by-State Legislative Effort to Pushback Against 2050 by Targeting Muslims and Other Minorities,” published by The Institute of Social Policy and Understanding.

report coverIn ISPU’s report, Khan and Beutel point to six issues that are connected to this strategy across the U.S. and are used to mobilize the right wing politically: voter-identification regulations; state-level immigration laws; Defense of Marriage Act/same-sex marriage bans; right-to-work legislations; anti-abortion bills; anti-Sharia/anti-“foreign” bills.

ISPU’s researchers correctly situate Islamophobia within a broader national political context and “empirically measure the attempted disenfranchisement against… groups” that are the face of a rapidly changing America. Thus, targeting Muslims becomes a signpost for the deep discomfort felt about this change, on the one hand, and the shifting political landscape. This is clearly visible in the constant delegitimizing of President Obama on his supposed Muslim-ness, while the reality is a discomfort with the early arrival of the diverse and indeed different America.

Consequently, the Islamophobic activists and network participants have been able to infect civil society’s consciousness and public discourse with an otherization message that views American Muslims, and by extension Muslims around the world, as a threat to America and western society in general. Rather than speak of a changing America and the challenges it poses, the Islamophobic network employs well-tested (and often successful) otherization tactics to keep the status quo in place. For example, former congressman Allen West, from Florida, is indicative of this approach, stating: “radical Islamists are busy building a voting bloc to sneak their political agenda into the American system” and Muslims work to “institutionalize policies that favor them” with the goal to “destroy America from within using a civilizational jihad, and that’s exactly what you see happening.”

The same Islamophobic dynamics in the U.S. political landscape is mirrored with differences in a number of European countries whereby essentialist views of Islam and an otherization campaign focused on Sharia and purported threats posed by Muslim citizens, as non-European groupings. In this context, being a European and Muslim is likewise de-aggregated and expressed as inherently conflicting and oppositional. This framing is used as a rallying cry for extreme right-wing parties; the Stop the Islamization of Europe and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West and the English Defense League are visible manifestations of the Islamophobic political typography. For sure, the Islamophobic network is collaborating and reinforcing anti-Muslim narrative across the Atlantic, and quote each other extensively, as Anders Behring Brivik’s case in Norway illustrates.

Terrorism is real and should be dealt with by real experts that are trained in sound methods to counter it. It does no service to the country nor provide any security if Islamophobia is used as a method to score narrowly conceived political “gains’” by a fringe that maliciously perfected manipulating the society’s real fears of terrorism into supporting racist and bigoted targeting of Muslim Americans.

The Islamophobia network must be opposed and countered, for it neither provides factual knowledge about Islam and Muslims nor enhance security. However, what it does help is a discredited extreme right-wing fringe — one that has no solutions to real and critical economic, social, immigration, security and environmental problems —  to come back into respectability, riding a constructed Islamophobia Trojan horse straight into elected office.