Although the administration's policy on Iran is virtually indistinguishable from those of his Republican challengers, they have presented him as an appeaser. The president who "surged" in Afghanistan somehow becomes, through the magic of election-year sloganeering, a pacifist patsy. Although Obama never endorsed the location of the "Ground Zero mosque," his opponents have suggested that he did. Although he was slow to withdraw support from US allies in the Middle East like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, Republican candidates have accused the president of practically campaigning on behalf of the Islamist parties that have grown in influence as a result of the Arab Spring.
Barack Obama, the right wing has discovered, does not have to be Muslim to convince American voters that he has a suspect, even foreign, agenda. They have instead established a much lower evidentiary standard: he only has to act Muslim.
For this, they don't need a birth certificate. All they need are allegations, however spurious, that the president is in league with Iran's Ahmadinejad, Arab Spring jihadists, and anti-Israel forces at home. This more subtle but no less ugly Islamophobia has already insinuated itself into the 2012 elections in a potentially more damaging way than did the overt disparagement of Obama's religious bona fides back in 2008.
The Upcoming Elections
The 2010 midterm elections witnessed a sharp uptick in anti-Islamic sentiment. In addition to the concocted "Ground Zero mosque" controversy, Florida preacher Terry Jones threatened to burn the Qur'an in front of the world's cameras; a group called Stop Islamization of America bought anti-Islamic ads on buses in major cities; and a movement to pass anti-Sharia legislation at a state level began in Oklahoma. In response to this brushfire of hatred, Time magazine devoted a cover story to Islamophobia that year. On the right at least, Islam seemed on the way to becoming a litmus test in the way communism was during thZe Cold War.
Two years later, the hysteria seems to have subsided. The Islamophobes haven't gone into hiding. They tried to organize an advertising boycott of the TV show All-American Muslim; they campaigned against halal meats. But these efforts didn't get much traction.
Meanwhile, Park51-- the real name of the cultural center inaccurately dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque"—opened in its original Park Street location with an exhibition by a Jewish photographer. Terry Jones is pursuing a quixotic bid for the presidency far from the media spotlight. Time has returned several times to the topic of Islamophobia, particularly after Anders Breivik's bombing and shooting rampage in Norway in July 2011, but with none of the intensity of the summer of 2010. The anti-Sharia campaign has passed legislation in several states, and laws are pending in more than a dozen more. But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Oklahoma anti-Sharia statute unconstitutional, and the anti-Sharia crowd has been unable to provide a single piece of evidence that Islamic law poses any challenge to the US legal system.
Don't be fooled, though, by the relative quiet. It's still early in the election cycle. The Republicans, arrayed in a circular firing squad, have been largely focusing their attacks on each other. The last man standing will marshal his resources to challenge Obama. In the unlikely event that Rick Santorum emerges as the Republican candidate, religion will be central to his attack on Obama and the Democrats.
Mitt Romney has a more ambivalent relationship to religion as a wedge issue, given the level of discomfort that many American have toward Mormonism. But there are no Mormon countries to which Romney can be accused of owing primary allegiance. It will be safe, in other words, to challenge Obama for acting rather than being Muslim, for deferring to the Muslim world much as anti-Catholic voters in 1960 imagined John F. Kennedy to be taking his orders directly from the Pope.
Romney is already lining up his ducks, welcoming onto his team Islam critic Walid Phares and attack ad specialist Larry McCarthy (who did an distortion-laden spot on the "Ground Zero mosque" back in 2010). After securing the nomination, Romney will simultaneously appeal to the center and shore up support among evangelicals. The message that Obama is weak, anti-Israel, and appeases Islamic movements and countries could catch the attention of both constituencies.
A disconnect between accusation and reality hardly matters in American politics these days. Obama the "socialist" somehow manages to work hand in hand with Wall Street financiers. Obama the "Nazi" courts AIPAC. Obama the "peacenik" has been very much a war president. And Obama the "Muslim" gets a big thumbs-down from the Muslim world.
The president makes a lousy Muslim Manchurian candidate, for he has disappointed his imagined Muslim handlers at virtually every turn. In an election in which racist slogans are off the table, however, the Islamophobic accusation of "acting Muslim" remains a politically acceptable chauvinism. Given the deep anti-Islamic currents in American culture, such accusations might unfortunately prove effective as well.
John Feffer is the author of the just-published Crusade 2.0: The West's Resurgent War on Islam (City Lights Books). A TomDispatch regular, he is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and will be starting an Open Society fellowship later this year. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.