While it seems only yesterday that the country came together to watch President Barack Obama take the oath of office – and historic step – as the nation’s first African American president, the 2012 election is right around the corner. In addition to the presidential race, the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 in the Senate are being contested. At the state level, there are 11 gubernatorial races and numerous legislature contests. The implications are clear: There is a lot at stake for the country as candidates use increasingly creative ways to attract voters. The role of minorities in elections has been extensively studied, but has typically focused on Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans. American Muslims, on the other hand, have generally been understudied, especially in the context of voting and elections.
American Muslims have become a policy issue that needs to be studied. If this community makes up a small percentage of the population, why does it receive so much media coverage? Even though much of what is reported about Muslims is primarily negative, policymakers tend not to care much. As the election cycle picks up steam, Republican and Democratic candidates alike are finding it increasingly easy and even beneficial to bash Muslims to garner some extra votes. “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. This sentiment was widely accepted then and today. At that time, “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,” Stephan Salisbury wrote in July 2011 for Salon.com. He added that nearly every “candidate on the far right took a moment to trash a Muslim, a mosque or” treat Islam with revulsion. A year later, the vitriol has intensified, with top GOP presidential candidates jumping on the Muslim-bashing bandwagon.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, for instance, suggested in 2007 that he would not appoint Muslims to his cabinet. Now that he is competing for the Republican nomination for the presidency, this logic seems to only intensify, especially since similar comments were heard from former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who made it clear, in an interview with Think Progress in March 2011, that he would not consider any federal appointments of Muslims. Cain explained: “There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.” One current GOP front-runner, Newt Gingrich, uses a similar argument in a July 2010 speech at the American Enterprise Institute about Muslims using “stealth jihad” to impose Islamic law. The former House speaker calls stealth jihad an effort “to replace Western civilization with a radical imposition of sharia.” Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post, “The United States’ problem, Gingrich argued, is not primarily terrorism; it is sharia – ‘the heart of the enemy movement from which the terrorists spring forth.’ Sharia law, in his view, is inherently brutal – defined by oppression, stonings and beheadings. Its triumph is pursued not only by violent jihadists but by stealthy ones attending the mosque down the street.” Gingrich says “sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and the world as we know it.” Today, unfortunately, the belief that Islam is a religion that criminalizes its members and makes them somehow un-American is commonly held by all the Republican presidential candidates.
Signaling anti-Muslim messages and the apparent need to show intolerance toward American Muslims may prove to be an important feature of the 2012 campaign. After all, Republican voters are more likely to have negative views toward Muslims, therefore GOP candidates are more likely to use Muslim-bashing as a means to attract voters. But in addition to this, feelings about Muslims are also a strong predictor of feelings about Obama. Political scientists Michael Tesler and David Sears – who wrote the book Obama’s Race in 2010 – found that the “general election vote choice in 2008 was more heavily influenced by feelings about Muslims than either 2004 voting or preferences in McCain-Clinton trial heats.”
There has been a steady rise of “Islamophobia” in the years after September 11, 2001. Muslim employees, businesses, charities and mosques have been targeted with increasing vehemence. Muslim kids have seen a rise in bullying at school directed at them. The initial reaction of government officials “toward Islam was largely positive after 9/11. But as the war on terrorism expanded, officials in Washington became less inclined to confront anti-Muslim bias, and sometimes viewed Muslims as suspects,” Shibley Telhami wrote in the New York Times in 2008. Islamophobia was used as a campaign strategy in 2008, but was largely unsuccessful. Many warn that the tactic may have gained traction more recently, and could be a successful approach to winning votes in the 2012 presidential election. American Muslims, in this case, would become increasingly isolated and potentially be racially (or religiously) profiled more frequently by their own communities. Islamophobia is being used as a means to garner votes in congressional campaigns, such as that of Allen West in the 22nd Congressional District of Florida and those of various prominent Tea Party members in 2010.
The growing use of Islam as a scare tactic to get elected has also propelled American Muslims into the public spotlight to explain themselves and become more active in their own communities and politics. For many American Muslims, this is no longer a matter of choice, as many feel that they are being discriminated against on a daily basis. The need to get involved in more grassroots activism, politics and the press is more important than ever for American Muslims, who are realizing that they live in the U.S. and need to invest in the future for themselves and their children. §
Farid Senzai is a fellow and the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also an assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University. This article is part of a larger report on American Muslim political participation to be published by ISPU at www.ispu.org