If there was any doubt as to the depth and extent of anti-Muslim feelings among portions of the US electorate, this year’s presidential elections have most certainly put it to rest. The extent to which candidates and voters alike propagated anti-Muslim themes in order to support a political agenda has been unprecedented. Nearly every major candidate relied on fear of Muslims at some point to stir voter sentiment through fear: Mitt Romney often railed against “radical Islam”, Rudy Giuliani routinely invoked the spectre of “Islamic terror”, Fred Thompson warned that the US is in a “global war with radical Islam”, and John McCain called the fight against “radical Islamic extremists” the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century”. Even Barack Obama, who was himself the target of anti-Muslim sentiments – tapped into this theme when he called upon Americans to wean themselves off of Middle Eastern (i.e. Muslim) oil.
Voters – many of whom I would guess couldn’t tell the difference between an Islamist and the Muslim next door – responded to these overtures with one of the most sustained and organic email campaigns in recent memory. Repeated tales of Barack Obama’s alleged Islamic past and/or present were so effective that in one Texas survey taken only a week before the election, 23% of all voters still believed that Obama was a Muslim. The level to which people clung to this meme despite two years of repeated statements in the media to the contrary is a startling reminder of how deep-seated the fear of Muslims remains.
It didn’t stop there. One of the more ambitious attempts to stoke anti-Muslim feelings in order to sway the election was the mailing of 28 million copies of a DVD entitled “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” to households in swing states. Like the emails and statements above, the “Obsession” film blurs the lines between violent radicalism and ordinary Muslims, playing into legitimate fears that many Americans still have in the wake of 9/11.
But despite the extent and volume of anti-Muslim rhetoric, candidates who embraced these methods this year universally failed to get elected.
From the earliest days of the primary, campaigns seemed to falter in direct proportion to the extend politicians tried to make anti-Muslim feelings the foundation of their campaigns. Giuliani and Romney, by far the more strident of the Republican candidates, found no traction with the anti-Muslim arguments and dropped out early. In contrast, John McCain – who rejected Pastor Rod Parsley’s endorsement solely due to his anti-Muslim comments and publicly stated that Muslim-Americans were qualified to hold any office in the land – rose to the top of his party.
There’s another beneficial side effect that this rhetoric had: it galvanized Muslim-Americans to take control of their own political destiny. After all, if you’re already a part of the elections (in an imaginary sense), why not dive in yourself and provide some Muslim reality?
While Muslim-American organizations took a low profile for fear of unwittingly contributing to the stigma, everyday Muslims took it upon themselves to get involved at a grassroots level, where they could stay under the radar and confront anti-Muslim feelings at a personal level. Buoyed by an affinity for Barack Obama, in part due to the slings and arrows that he took on their behalf, thousands of Muslim-Americans gravitated to his campaign and fought back through the political process. And Muslim Republicans, though smaller in number, worked from within the party to excise anti-Muslim sentiment, with some degree of success.
Will the next crop of presidential candidates learn from the lessons of 2008 and stick to more meaningful issues than who can be harder on Muslims? Only time will tell, but even if they don’t, there will be a new generation of Muslim grassroots political activists in both parties waiting to confront them.