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Why Islam-Baiting Doesn’t Work

Muslim-bashing failed as an electoral tactic in 2010. It will do even worse in 2012.

| Mon Jul. 18, 2011 10:45 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

During the 2010 midterm election campaign, virtually every hard-charging candidate on the far right took a moment to trash a Muslim, a mosque, or Islamic pieties. In the wake of those elections, with 85 new Republican House members and a surging tea party movement, the political virtues of anti-Muslim rhetoric as a means of rousing voters and alarming the general electorate have gone largely unchallenged. It has become an article of faith that a successful 2010 candidate on the right should treat Islam with revulsion, drawing a line between America the Beautiful and the destructive impurities of Islamic cultists and radicals.

"Americans are learning what Europeans have known for years: Islam-bashing wins votes," wrote journalist Michael Scott Moore in the wake of the 2010 election. His assumption was shared by many then and is still widely accepted today.

But as the 2012 campaign ramps up along with the anti-Muslim rhetoric machine, a look back at 2010 turns out to offer quite an unexpected story about the American electorate. In fact, with rare exceptions, "Islam-bashing" proved a strikingly poor campaign tactic. In state after state, candidates who focused on illusory Muslim "threats," tied ordinary American Muslims to terrorists and radicals, or characterized mosques as halls of triumph (and prayer in them as indoctrination) went down to defeat.

Far from winning votes, it could be argued that "Muslim-bashing" alienated large swaths of the electorate—even as it hardened an already hard core on the right. The fact is that many of the loudest anti-Muslim candidates lost, and for a number of those who won, victory came by the smallest of margins, often driven by forces that went well beyond anti-Muslim rhetoric. A careful look at 2010 election results indicates that Islamophobic talking points can gain attention for a candidate, but the constituency that can be swayed by them remains limited, although not insignificant.

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A Closer Look

It's worth taking a closer look. In 2010, anti-Muslim rhetoric rode in with the emergence that July of a "mosque" controversy in lower Manhattan. New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, facing indifference to his candidacy in the primary race, took up what right-wing anti-Muslim bloggers had dubbed "the Mosque at Ground Zero," although the planned cultural center in question would not have been a mosque and was not at Ground Zero. With a handy alternate reality already sketched out for him, Lazio demanded that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, then state attorney general, "investigate" the mosque. He implied as well that its leaders had ties to Hamas and that the building, when built, would somehow represent a threat to the "personal security and safety" of city residents.

A fog of acrid rhetoric subsequently enshrouded the campaign—from Lazio and his tea-party-backed opponent, Carl Paladino, a Buffalo businessman. Paladino beat the hapless Lazio in the primary and was then handily dispatched by Cuomo in the general election. Cuomo had not joined the Muslim bashing, but by the end of the race, dozens of major political figures and potential Republican presidential candidates—including Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum—had denounced the loathsome Mosque at Ground Zero and sometimes the whole of Islam. What began as a local issue had by then become a national political litmus test and a wormhole to the country's darkest sentiments.

But the hard reality of election results demonstrated one incontrovertible fact. Both Lazio and Paladino, heavily invested in portraying Muslims as somehow different from everyone else, went down to dismal defeats. Nor could these trouncings simply be passed off as what happens in a relatively liberal northeastern state. Even in supposed hotbeds of anti-Muslim sentiment, xenophobic rhetoric and fear mongering repeatedly proved weak reeds for candidates.

Take Tennessee, a state in the throes of its own mosque-building controversy (in Murfreesboro) at the height of the 2010 campaign. There, gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey couldn't slam Islam often enough. Despite raising $2.7 million, however, he went down to defeat in the Republican primary, attracting only 22 percent of the vote. During the campaign, Republican victor Bill Haslam, now governor, simply stated that decisions about mosques and religious construction projects should be governed by local zoning ordinances and the Constitution.

In another 2010 Tennessee race, Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee Republican congressional candidate and tea party activist, denounced the Murfreesboro mosque plans relentlessly. Zelenik ran her campaign like an unreconstructed Indian fighter, with Muslims standing in as opponents in a frontier war. As she typically put the matter, "Until the American Muslim community find it in their hearts to separate themselves from their evil, radical counterparts, to condemn those who want to destroy our civilization and will fight against them, we are not obligated to open our society to any of them."

It didn't work. Zelenik, too, was defeated, attracting 30% of the vote in a three-way primary race; the winner, state senator Diane Black, edged her out with 31 percent. Black declined to denounce the Murfreesboro mosque project and went on to win the general election.

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