The Right Wing

The Fear-Mongers: GOP Presidential Contenders Stoke Up Islamophobia in Bid for Tea Party Votes

Islamophobia has exploded onto the political scene as anti-Muslim pundits and activists gain traction in the conservative mainstream.

Once relegated to the right-wing fringe, Islamophobia has exploded onto the political scene as anti-Muslim pundits and activists gain traction in the conservative mainstream. Lawmakers and activists are now targeting anything affiliated with Muslims -- be it a charity, a teacher, or a mosque. GOP politicians like former House Speaker and GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich are fear-mongering over perceived dangers within the American Muslim community to pander to the conservative extremes. But this weekend at the Conservative Principles Conference in Iowa, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain introduced an unprecedented level of bigotry into the GOP platform by declaring he would never appoint a Muslim to his administration.

Cain's anti-Muslim views sparked considerable outrage, but Cain remains unphased. "I does not care; I feel the way I feel," he rationalized. Regardless of how he may feel, his anti-Muslim sentiment does not attract public support. Americans still support the religious freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and believe they should be applied to all, including Muslims. As President George Washington noted in 1790, the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens."  

The Muslim Touch

Right-wing activists have spouted their anti-Muslim bigotry in a host of venues, including state bills that tackle the phantom menace of Sharia law, or public hearings on "Radicalization in the American Muslim Community." Last month, the local chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America held a fundraiser in Orange County, Calif., to raise money for a women's shelter and for homeless services in Southern California. Hundreds of jeering protesters harassed the families as they entered the building, screaming "Go back home!" and, "You beat up your wife too? Are you a molester?"

Rather than denouncing the blatant hatred, three GOP legislators attended the rally to offer their support. GOP Councilwoman Deborah Pauly called the fundraiser "pure, unadulterated evil," adding, "I know quite a few Marines who will be willing to help these terrorists to an early meeting in Paradise."

Last week, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights suit on behalf of a Muslim math teacher who was denied a request to take three weeks off for pilgrimage. A former DOJ official in the Bush administration called the move "a political lawsuit to placate Muslims" -- sparking right-wing activists like Pamela Geller to attack a Muslim teacher and the DOJ as "Islamic supremacists seeking to impose Islam on the public square."

But mosques have ignited the greatest backlash across the country. While Park 51 in New York City has grabbed the most headlines, the planned mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee has spawned the most vitriolic campaign -- resulting in slander, harassment, and vandalism. This weekend, CNN's Soledad O'Brien highlighted a nine-day hearing in Murfreesboro where an anti-Islamic lawyer, Joe Branden, mounted an increasingly popular defense that "Islam is not a religion."

"Do you believe Allah and God is the same?" Branden asked, adding, "Why would we extend to any religion the right to cancel out the Constitution for which we're founded upon?"  Of the 23 witnesses he called to testify, not one of them was from the Murfreesboro Muslim community. 

Cain-streaming Hate

Rather than standing up to this un-American behavior, many GOP politicians are exploiting it for political gain. Weighing in on the Islamic Center in New York City, Gingrich parroted the right-wing fringe in declaring the Muslims behind the center are "radical Islamists who want to triumphally prove that they can build a mosque right next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists." Speaking at the Conservative Principles Conference in Iowa this weekend, Gingrich called the DOJ defense of the Muslim teacher "an absurdity ."

"It's part of this desperation of our secular elites to do everything they can to prove they are not anti-Muslim," Gingrich said. 

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza [and potential GOP presidential candidate], recently told Christianity Today that he resents Muslims for "trying to convert the rest of us" because, "based upon the little knowledge I have," Muslims "have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them." Cain then doubled down on his bigotry at the conservative conference this weekend, telling ThinkProgress's Scott Keyes that he "would not" appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or to the federal bench because there is a "creeping" attempt "to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government."

Though his campaign later walked back his comments, Cain told Fox News' Neil Cavuto yesterday that "many of the Muslims are not totally dedicated to this country" but that if a Muslim pledged to follow the law, he'd consider hiring one. Responding to Cain's repeated Muslim-bashing as a candidate, Council of American Islamic Relations' Ibrahim Hooper said, "Even post 9/11 you didn't have this level of  mainstreaming of anti-Muslim hate as you have now." Peter Wehner, deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, called Cain's comments "an ugly and undiluted form of bigotry ."

"For public figures to stoke the embers of Muslim bigotry" by claiming "every serious Muslim is a recruit for sedition -- is a moral offense," Wehner said. "And be forewarned: it won't stay confined. Bigotry rarely does."
 

The Pro-Tolerance Forces

Despite the concerted effort of conservative lawmakers and pundits to market Islamophobia to the public, they are out of touch with the American people. While anti-Islam activists and GOP officials continue to cultivate an anti-Islam campaign, 66 percent of Tennesseans said "they either supported or did not object to the construction of a new Islamic center in Murfreesboro," according to a recent survey by Middle Tennessee State University. "Muslims deserve the same rights as any Americans," according to 67 percent of respondents, who also agreed with the statement that "it is wrong to profile people as potential terrorists solely on the basis of their Muslim beliefs.

The tolerance of Tennesseans reflects the general attitude of the American public. A recent poll found 69 percent of Americans "would not oppose having a mosque   near where they live or work." Despite heavy-handed fear-mongering about Muslims, only 26 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Muslims. More in tune with the American sentiment, Democratic lawmakers are pushing back on right-wing mainstreaming of Islamophobia. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., announced Friday that he is seeking "a federal investigation into allegations that border control agents are unfairly targeting Muslim Americans traveling between the United States and Canada." Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sponsored a March 29 hearing on protecting civil rights of Muslim Americans -- "the first of its kind for Congress" and a positive counterweight to King's anti-Muslim hearings. Citing the recent "Koran burnings and restrictions on mosque construction," Durbin said "It is important for our generation to renew our founding charter's commitment to religious diversity and to protect the liberties guaranteed by our Bill of Rights." 
 

ThinkProgress staff Tanya Somanader, Faiz Shakir, Benjamin Armbruster, George Zornick, Zaid Jilani, and Alex Seitz-Wald contributed to this report.
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