Islamophobia on the Rise; Why Now?

Initially triggered by the uproar over the planned Islamic center near Ground Zero, we are experiencing a new upsurge in anti-Muslim fever. It’s all over the news. Time magazine asks on its cover “Is America Islamophobic?” In the New York Times, “American Muslims Ask, Will We Ever Belong?

As I read all of this, I find myself asking: “Why now?” We are approaching the ninth anniversary of September 11. I would have thought that this sort of hatred and racism would have peaked several years ago. By now, we should be on the downslope.

After all, there have been no terrorist attacks by Muslims on U.S. soil since September 11. The Iraq war is slowly winding down, as we come to view Iraqis more as allies than enemies. Why is the rhetoric heating up at this particular juncture?

I believe I know. The answer is the upcoming November elections. Here’s the logic:

The “far right” — and to a large extent the entire Republican mainstream — view demonizing Obama as a key to success in November. The more unpopular Obama becomes and the more his policies are cast in a negative light, the greater the opportunity for Republicans to win seats in Congress this fall. So far, none of this is surprising.

What makes the current situation worse than typical is that a significant part of demonizing Obama rests upon popularizing beliefs that are completely and utterly false (as explored in detail in a recent Newsweek article). Primary among these beliefs is the one that says Obama is secretly a Muslim. According to the Newsweek poll, a quarter of the country (and 52% of Republicans!) now think this is true — even though it is false. As explained in the Newsweek article, the growth and persistence of this myth is aided by statements by conservatives, from those on Fox News to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, that subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) encourage this belief.

Getting people to believe Obama is a Muslim is only half the battle, however. The belief won’t have a negative impact on Democrats if people hold a positive or even neutral view toward Muslims in general. That’s why the dropping of the second shoe is promoting people’s prejudices against Muslims.

Now you have a syllogism that works for Republicans: “I hate Muslims. Obama is a Muslim. Therefore I hate Obama.” With this in place, success in November becomes almost a sure thing. And so you have national Republican figures getting worked up about mosques to a degree that would otherwise never happen.

For some people, the syllogism may also work in the opposite direction: “I hate Obama (usually for some other entirely false reason); I hate Muslims; Therefore, I believe it when people say Obama is Muslim.”

Either way, it’s part of a disturbing trend of discarding facts and truth from our political conversations. It’s all part of our current “fact-free environment.”

You’ll read how all of this is also part of a long history of such trends in our country. At other times, it was Jews, Japanese, Irish, and of course African-Americans that were the target. And you’ll read how such sins are not unique to Republicans and conservatives. You’ll hear it said that this is all pretty much “politics as usual” — as played by both parties. I would argue that there are qualitative differences between the tactics of Democrats vs. Republicans. Regardless, none of this is any justification for tolerance of the present situation.

No matter what your politics, it’s time to stand up and reject promoting myths as a legitimate political strategy.

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