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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 11:45 AM EDT

Islamophobic Failures Around the Country

The impotency of anti-Muslim rhetoric was not some isolated local phenomenon. Consider this: In the 2010 election cycle, anti-Muslim Senate candidate Sharron Angle was defeated in Nevada, and the similarly inclined Jeff Greene lost his Senate bid in Florida. A slew of congressional candidates who engaged in anti-Muslim rants or crassly sought to exploit the Mosque at Ground Zero controversy also went down, including Francis X. Becker Jr. in New York; Kevin Calvey in Oklahoma; Dan Fanelli and Ronald McNeil in Florida; Spike Maynard in West Virginia; Ilario Pantano in North Carolina; and Marvin Scott in Indiana.

Not all candidates bad-mouthing Muslims failed, of course. Renee Ellmers, a nurse running in North Carolina's Second District, won her race by about 1,500 votes after airing an incendiary television spot that likened the lower Manhattan cultural center to a "victory mosque" and conflated Islam with terrorism. But Ellmers' main campaign talking point was the abomination of health-care reform. That "victory mosque" was only a bauble-like embellishment, a dazzling attention-grabber.

Similarly, Republican Rick Scott, running for governor in Florida, featured a deceptive television ad that referred to the New York project as "Obama's mosque" and, like Ellmers's ad, seamlessly fused Islam, terrorism, and murder. Tea party favorite Scott, however, had a slight advantage in gaining a victory margin of about one percentage point over Democrat Alex Sink: He poured a staggering $73 million of his own money into the race in which he largely painted Obama as an antibusiness incompetent. Despite lavishing more personal cash on the race than any candidate in Florida history, Scott won by less than 100,000 votes, falling short of 50 percent of the total. He was only the second Florida governor to take office without the backing of a majority of the electorate.

If some virulent political rhetoric was credited with bringing victory to candidates at the time, its effect in retrospect looks more questionable and less impressive. Take the victorious campaign of Republican Allen West for Florida's 22nd Congressional District. A tea party favorite quick to exploit anti-Muslim fears, he was also a veteran of the Iraq War and had been fined by the Army for the beating and threatened killing of an Iraqi prisoner.

During the campaign, he made numerous statements linking Islam with terrorism and weighed in loudly on the proposed Manhattan Islamic center more than 1,000 miles away. In an open letter to his opponent, two-term incumbent Democrat Ron Klein, he noted that "the mosque symbolizes a clear victory in the eyes of those who brought down the twin towers." Klein then caved and joined West in opposing the cultural center, claiming that Ground Zero should only be "a living memorial where all Americans can honor those who were killed on September 11, 2001."

In the election, West reversed the results of his 2008 race against Klein and ever since, his victory has been seen as one of the triumphs of anti-Muslim trash talking. A look at the numbers, however, tells a slightly different story. For one thing, West, too, had a significant financial advantage. He had already raised more than $4 million as the campaign began, more than four times his total in 2008 and twice as much as Klein. Much of West's funding came from out-of-state donors and conservative PACs. For all that money, however, West won the election by not "losing" as many votes as Klein did (when compared to 2008). In 2010, West won with about 115,000 votes to Klein's 97,000; in 2008, when Klein had the funding advantage and a presidential year electorate at his back, he beat West, 169,000 to 140,000.

Off-year elections normally mean lower turnouts, which clearly worked to West's advantage. His victory total amounted to about a third of the 2008 total vote. And there's the point. The motivated, far-right base of the Republican Party/tea party can, at best, pull in about a quarter to a third of the larger electorate. In addition, West became the Definer: He blocked out the issues, agitated his base, and got people to the polls. Klein ceded the terms of the debate to him and failed to galvanize support. Did anti-Muslim rhetoric help West? Probably. Can it work in a presidential election year when substantial turnout ensures that the base won't rule? Unlikely.

Nevertheless, candidates on the right are already ramping up the rhetoric for 2012. Herman Cain, the pizza king who would be president, is but one obvious example. He says he may not know much, but one thing he knows for sure: When he's elected, no Muslims will find their way into his administration.

As he put it in an interview with Christianity Today, "Based upon the little knowledge that I have of the Muslim religion, you know, they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them." Cain told ThinkProgress.org that he'd brook no Muslim cabinet members or judges because "there is this creeping attempt, there's this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government."

Before a national television audience at a recent Republican presidential debate, however, Cain proceeded to say that he really hadn't said what he had, in fact, said. This is called a "clarification." What he meant, Cain reassured television viewers, was that he would only bar disloyal Muslims, the ones "trying to kill us."

It almost seems as if candidates defeated in 2010 when using over-the-top anti-Muslim rhetoric are expecting a different outcome in 2012. Lawyer Lynne Torgerson in Minnesota is a fine example of this syndrome. In 2010, she decided to take on Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, pounding him relentlessly for his supposed "ties" to "radical Islamism."

"And what do I know of Islam?" she wrote on the "issues" page of her 2010 campaign website. "Well, I know of 911." Alas for Torgerson, the strategy didn't work out so well. She was crushed by Ellison, garnering only 3 percent of the vote. Now, Torgerson is back, her message even more extreme. Ellison is no longer simply tied to "radical Islamism," whatever that may be; he has apparently used his time in Congress to become a "radical Islamist" pushing, she claims, nothing less than the adoption of "Islamic Sharia law."

Sharia is the New Mosque at Ground Zero

Sharia has become 2012's Mosque at Ground Zero, with about 20 states considering laws that would ban its use and candidates shrilly denouncing it—a convenient way, presumably, to keep harping on nonexistent, yet anxiety-producing, "threats." Since no one knows what you're talking about when you decry Sharia, it's even easier than usual to say anything, no matter how bizarre or duplicitous.

So be prepared to hear a lot about Sharia between now and November 2012.

Going forward a few things seem clear. For one, the Islamophobic machinery fueled by large right-wing foundations, PACs, individuals, and business interests will continue to elaborate a virtual reality in which Muslim and Islamic "threats" lurk around every American corner and behind every door. It is important to realize that once you've entered this political landscape, taking down anti-Muslim "facts" with reality is a fool's errand. This is a realm akin to a video game, where such "facts" are dispatched only to rise again like so many zombies. In the world of Resident Evil, truth hardly matters.

But bear in mind that, as the 2010 election results made clear, that particular virtual reality is embraced by a distinct and limited American minority. For at least 70 percent of the electorate, when it comes to anti-Muslim slander, facts do matter. Failure to challenge the bogus rhetoric only allows the loudest, most reckless political gamer to set the agenda, as Ron Klein discovered to his dismay in Florida.

Attacks on the deadly threat of Sharia, the puffing up of Muslim plots against America, and the smearing of candidates who decline to make blanket denunciations of "Islamism" are sure to emerge loudly in the 2012 election season. Such rhetoric, however, may prove even less potent at the polls than the relatively impotent 2010 version, even if this reality has gone largely unnoticed by the national media.

For those who live outside the precincts where right-wing virtual reality reigns supreme, facts are apparently having an impact. The vast majority of the electorate seems to be viewing anti-Muslim alarms as a distraction from other, far more pressing problems: real problems.

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