Islamophobia appetiser: Hate sells, but who’s buying?

Published October 11, 2015
Welcome to the Republican presidential debates of 2015, where scaremongering is not only acceptable, but is rewarded.
Welcome to the Republican presidential debates of 2015, where scaremongering is not only acceptable, but is rewarded.

“We have a problem in this country. It’s called Jews.”

Imagine, for a moment, if this had been said to a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in a public meeting.

Imagine the uproar from both ends of the political spectrum, from civil rights groups and the public at large. Imagine the sheer amount of earnest and soul-searching ‘how did we get here’ op-eds and blogs.

Imagine the outrage.

But, nothing of the sort happened because the man in question made this statement about Muslims.

Speaking at a question and answer session at a Donald Trump town hall meeting, the man went on to say,

“You know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American. We have training camps growing where they want to kill us … That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?”

This isn’t to say that there was no reaction; there was. Several analysts and opinion makers rounded on Trump for not having responded forcefully enough to the questioner. “Why,” they shouted from their talk show and op-ed page pulpits, “did Trump not make it clear that Obama isn’t a Muslim?”

####The Republican appetite for Islamophobia indicates a larger right-wing agenda.

Only a few pointed out that perhaps calling for getting ‘rid of’ an approximately 2.6 million strong community might also merit a mild rebuke, possibly even condemnation.

Instead, Trump waffled, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things … You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We’re going to be looking at that and many other things.”

Later, his spokesman said: “All he heard was a question about training camps, which he said we have to look into … the media want to make this an issue about Obama, but it’s about him waging a war on Christianity.”

Then there’s Ben Carson, another hopeful for the Republican presidential nomination. In a September 20 interview, Carson said he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

When criticised by none other than his fellow GOP candidates, Carson qualified his previous statement by saying that he would be all right with a Muslim candidate who “publicly rejected all the tenets of sharia”.

Essentially, Carson is okay with a Muslim president so long as that president first rejects Islam. How well this played with his constituency can be gauged by the fact that Carson raised about $500,000 to $700,000 immediately after making this statement.

And then, there’s Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, who keeps peddling the myth about no-go zones created by Muslim immigrants in London even after he has been repeatedly told that there are no such zones.

Welcome to the Republican presidential debates of 2015, where scaremongering and playing to the lowest common denominator is not only acceptable, but is rewarded. Other topics on the menu, apart from economic and foreign policy were same-sex marriage, immigration and a lot of talk about ‘values’.

Five years ago, the situation was a little different. When John McCain, the 2008 challenger to President Obama was told by a supporter in a public meeting that Obama ‘was an Arab’, he took the mic away from the lady in question and clarified that Obama was ‘a decent family man’, though he didn’t (much like Trump) address the fundamental bigotry of the speaker. The look in McCain’s eyes at that time was of a man who had glimpsed the hate that lurked below the surface.

Picking on a minority group, accusing it of having a secret anti-American agenda and then exploiting that fear for political gain is very much part of the political history of the United States, or indeed any country at all.

For centuries, American Catholics were considered by the majority (and politically entrenched) protestants as a potential fifth column that placed loyalty to the Pope higher than loyalty to the United States. There were anti-Catholic and anti-Irish pogroms (here the lines of sect and ethnicity overlapped) and the Ku Klux Klan in particular condemned Catholicism as being ‘incompatible with democracy’ and ‘disloyal’.

It was only when the Cold War started that the rival sects formed an anti-Communist consensus. Assassinated US president Kennedy’s Catholic faith was also an issue during his election campaign and he pointedly kept his distance from Church officials and even had to declare, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic.”

Regardless, Kennedy got 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the Catholic vote, just as Muslim-sounding Obama got the majority of the Muslim vote in Pakistan.

The political acceptance of Catholics grew out of their numbers and increasing political clout, which aided and was aided by some landmark legislations as well. But with relatively smaller numbers and less cohesion, the American Muslim community will likely remain political orphans / punching bags for some time to come.

But does Islamophobia actually get votes?

A report by the Centre for American Progress titled, “Fear, Inc. 2.0 The Islamophobia Network’s Efforts to Manufacture Hate in America” argues that in the 2010 New York gubernatorial elections, Republican candidate Carl Paladino’s Islamophobic opposition to an Islamic community centre near Ground Zero didn’t get him the support he expected.

While this was of course a single election in which there were more issues at play, it seems that it may also apply to the presidential elections where the demonising of an entire community cannot be a deciding issue.

So it seems that the Republican Party serves up Islamophobia not so much as a main course but rather as an appetiser on a larger right-wing menu. This dish is served because there is a growing public appetite for it, as shown by the fact that there are about two dozen anti-Islam rallies planned in various US states this weekend alone.

Thus, while Islam-bashing will probably not swing elections except perhaps, at a very local level, the trend is not likely to go away any time soon and will, in all likelihood, accelerate, especially if a floundering Republican Party fails to mount an effective challenge to the Democrat incumbents and is forced to secure the support of a shrinking and shrill political base.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 11th, 2015

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