Election 2014  
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Romney Campaign's Ugly Anti-Muslim Strategy to Win Cash and Votes

The Romney campaign courts anti-Muslim bigots for political gain while the Democrats stay silent, despite an alarming spate of attacks on Muslim religious centers.
 
 
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The political debate over Islam in the United States reached its height during the Republican presidential primaries last year when Herman Cain's Islamophobic remarks drew controversy.

“I would not be comfortable [appointing a Muslim to the presidential cabinet] because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims – those that are trying to kill us,” Cain said during a debate in New Hampshire. “So when I said I wouldn’t be comfortable, I was thinking about the ones who are trying to kill us.”

Mitt Romney fired back at Cain and seemingly defended Muslims: “We recognize that people of all faiths are welcome in this country. Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance.”

Fast-forward a year later, and things have changed. Cain is no longer in the race, and Romney has gone from defending Muslims to courting anti-Muslim bigots on the right in his bid to win the presidency.

While not actively voicing anti-Muslim sentiment on the stump , Romney is clearly pandering to Islamophobes in the U.S. And there's a very simple reason why: the Romney campaign is banking on subtly appealing to the Republican Party's base of anti-Muslim voters, as well as donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Meanwhile, the alarming spate of attacks on Muslim religious centers continues—and no politician is stepping up to combat the toxic Islamophobia.

Romney “needs to find ways to attract the far right that would have preferred a more right-wing candidate,” Deepa Kumar, author of the recently released Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, told AlterNet via email. “Most of the GOP presidential candidates used Islamophobia during the primaries because appeals to racism have always been useful for the GOP. Anti-Muslim racism comes with an added bonus in that it helps position one as being 'tough on terror.'” Kumar calls the GOP tactic of appealing to anti-Muslim sentiment the Republican Party's "new Southern Strategy," referring to the tactic of appealing to anti-black racism among white voters in the South.

Recent weeks have seen a number of examples that point to this anti-Muslim political strategy. In early August, Romney held a private dinner with key figures on the Christian right, like Gary Bauer and James Dobson. The meeting also included retired Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin, a notorious anti-Muslim activist and the executive vice president of the right-wing Christian group Family Research Council. As Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald reported, Boykin earned a rebuke from President George W. Bush after Boykin, in uniform, proclaimed that Islam's God was “an idol,” the Christian God “was bigger,” and cast the “war on terror” in religious terms. Since retiring from military service, Boykin's rhetoric against Muslims has only grown more extreme. He has said that Islam “should not be protected under the First Amendment” and that “there should be no mosques in America.”

Bauer, too, is no stranger to stoking Islamophobia. In 2010, to loud cheers at the Values Voter summit, Bauer said: “Islamic culture ... keeps hundreds of millions of people on the verge of violence and mayhem 24 hours a day.” Romney is courting these figures in a bid to motivate the Christian evangelical base, many of whom agree with Bauer and Boykin on Islam and see the U.S. and Israel as waging holy war to defend “Judeo-Christian civilization.”

The day after the meeting with Bauer, Boykin and Dobson, a reporter asked Romney for his thoughts on Michele Bachmann's McCarthyist campaign alleging Muslim Brotherhood infiltration in the US government. Since June, Bachmann (R-MN) and several of her Republican colleagues have led a baseless campaign alleging that figures in the Obama administration, most prominently Huma Abedin (an aide to Hillary Clinton), had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The genesis of this idea can be found in Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official and leading anti-Muslim activist who recently produced a 10-part series on the “Muslim Brotherhood in America.” The fear-mongering over the Muslim Brotherhood is part of a common trope often heard on the Islamophobic right: that Muslim organizations have ties to “extremist” groups in the Middle East and are secretly plotting to take over the US and impose “sharia law.”

Needless to say, Romney skirted the question from the reporter, and did not take the opportunity to denounce Bachmann's campaign, as other leading Republican figures like John McCain and John Boehner have. Instead, he said, “I’m not going to tell other people what things to talk about. Those are not things that are part of my campaign.” But an adviser to the Romney campaign, arch-neoconservative John Bolton, defended Bachmann's witch hunt. On his radio show, Gaffney asked Bolton what he thought of Bachmann's allegations. “What I think these members of Congress have done is simply raise the question, to a variety of inspectors general in key agencies, are your departments following their own security clearance guidelines,” Bolton said.

Other figures associated with the Romney campaign are also squarely in the anti-Muslim camp. Florida Republican Adam Hasner, a chairman of the “Jewish Americans for Romney Coalition,” has close links with Pamela Geller, a peddler of hate who routinely publishes vitriol against Muslims on her blog. As Salon's Seitz-Wald also reported, Hasner has joined Geller in the fight against “sharia law”—a pet cause of the anti-Muslim right, despite the fact that there is no formal Islamic legal regime (sharia is best understood as a moral code, and its interpretation varies in different cultures). Hasner also invited Dutch politician Geert Wilders to a conference in Florida; Wilders is a controversial figure who has stated that he “hates Islam” and that the Muslim holy book, the Koran, is a fascist book.

And then there's Walid Phares, an adviser to Romney on foreign policy and the co-chair of Romney's Middle East policy advisory group. Phares was a member of a right-wing Lebanese Christian militia that was tied to massacres of Muslims and Palestinians in Lebanon. He is also a prominent Islamophobic activist who has stoked fears about sharia law in the U.S. As a landmark report on Islamophobia in the U.S. published by the Center for American Progress documented, “Phares promotes the conspiracy theory of mainstream Muslim organizations posing as radical Islamist cells. He warns that 'jihadists within the West pose as civil rights advocates' and patiently recruit until '[a]lmost all mosques, educational centers, and socioeconomic institutions fall into their hands.'”

The courting of anti-Muslim figures and appointments to official positions in the Romney campaign is not for nothing. Romney benefits in cash and votes from this strategy.

Anti-Muslim Donors

As AlterNet has documented, many big-time Romney campaign funders are enthralled with Israeli militarism and occupation. And many of these same donors fund the Islamophobia network in the US.

Take Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged to spend up to $100 million to help Romney win the presidency. Adelson has warned of “Muslim student organizations tak[ing] over the campuses.” He has funded the Clarion Fund, an organization that has put out two anti-Muslim films, Obsession and The Third Jihad.

Foster Friess, a right-wing evangelical, is another Romney donor tied to the small coterie of figures stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. Friess is a promoter of so-called “peaceful Muslims,” as he puts it on his Web site—a subtle way of tagging the majority of Muslims as violent. Friess filmed an introduction to Obsession, urging people to buy the anti-Muslim film, and gave at least $270,000 to Zuhdi Jasser, the Muslim darling of the right-wing. Jasser is a key promoter of the false conservative meme that sharia law is a threat to the U.S., and also opposed the Park 51 Islamic center near Ground Zero. As Max Blumenthal wrote in the Nation, Jasser is one of a “seemingly sober set of self-proclaimed 'dissident' Muslims who have seized the post-9/11 media spotlight to defend pro-Israel positions, Western military intervention in the Arab world and police spying on Muslim Americans.”

Another prominent Romney donor is Irving Moskowitz, who gave $1 million to a pro-Romney super PAC in April. Moskowitz, in addition to being a key player in Israel's attempts to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem, is also a major funder of Islamophobic groups in the U.S. As Think Progress' Ali Gharib reported, Moskowitz's “foundation has given $485,000 to the Center for Security Policy, a hawkish Washington think-tank run by former Reagan administration official and conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney. As reported in CAP’s Fear, Inc. Gaffney’s group pushes Islamophobia in the U.S., and Gaffney has proclaimed that practicing the Islamic faith is tantamount to "sedition."

These donors have influenced the Romney's campaign's eagerness to court anti-Muslim figures. But perhaps even more importantly, there are votes to be won.

Anti-Muslim Voters

The Republican base is home to a groundswell of anti-Muslim sentiment. Extensive polling data bears this out.

A July 2012 Pew poll found that “nearly one-in-five voters (17%) say that Obama is Muslim.” That number is even higher among conservative Republicans. According to the Pew poll, “the number of conservative Republicans who say Obama is a Muslim has doubled since October 2008 (from 16% to 34%).” Furthermore, “discomfort with Obama’s religion is concentrated among those who say he is a Muslim. Two-thirds of registered voters who say Obama is a Muslim say they are uncomfortable with his faith (65%).”

The antipathy to Obama because of his perceived Muslim religion (he is a Christian) extends to Islam itself. A September 2011 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that “47 percent of Americans agree that Islam is at odds with American values.” That number grows even higher when looking exclusively at Republicans and Tea Party supporters. “Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Republicans and Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement (66 percent) agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values,” the institute states. Forty-five percent of Republicans and 54 percent of those who identify with the Tea Party believe that “American Muslims are trying to establish Shari’a law in the U.S.”

The Romney campaign's attempt to tap into anti-Muslim sentiment comes at a time of increased violence toward Muslims in the United States. A number of attacks on Islamic religious institutions have occurred in recent weeks, including the burning of a mosque in Missouri, graffiti on Muslim graves and air rifle shots at a mosque in Illinois. As one article in Salon documented, there were eight attacks in a recent 10-day period on mostly Muslim religious institutions. FBI data shows that anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by 50 percent in 2010, the last year when that data is available.

The need for political leadership to combat the ugly tide of Islamophobia this election season is more pronounced than ever, but the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party have largely run away from challenging the GOP on this issue. Instead, they have stayed mostly silent as the GOP's hate machine runs rampant with alarming consequences for American Muslims.

Author and academic Deepa Kumar explains why. “The discourse about 'Muslim terrorism' is so dominant in this country, and Muslims have been so thoroughly vilified, that no savvy politician is going to come to the defense of Muslims. To do so, you would actually have to have principles and ethics, both of which have little place in our money dominated electoral system,” said Kumar. “The Democrats at best stay silent and at worst tacitly add to this climate. At the broader level, this is because both Democrats and Republicans share a common vision for US foreign policy.”

Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and an assistant editor for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.