'Secret Muslims,' Open Bigotry:
- Islamophobia in the 2008 presidential campaign
'Secret Muslims,' Open Bigotry
In the 1990 Polish elections a whispering campaign suggesting Polish
Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Roman Catholic, was a "secret
Jew" attracted widespread attention in the U.S. press, as did a
nearly identical rumor about the leading challenger in Poland's 1995
election. In no uncertain terms, U.S. news reports called the
rumors "ugly examples" (Washington Post, 12/31/90) of
the "increasingly visible expressions of anti-Semitism" (New York
Times, 1/21/91), the most notable such "anti-Semitic acts" in Poland
(Washington Post, 7/8/95).
U.S. media rejoiced that such religious intolerance did not
characterize Americans, as an Atlanta Journal Constitution op-ed
explained (5/23/91) :
For all the current debate over diversity in American culture, it's
important to recognize how thoroughly imbued we are with this
classically liberal view of citizenship. We do not divide ourselves
into "true ethnic Americans" and those of other "nations." People of
all races, religions and national origins are, we believe, fully
entitled to the name American.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (11/16/90) explained the
persistence of the false rumor that the Polish candidate was secretly
a Jew as an expression of "Poland's peculiar cultural virus,"
remarking, "What are facts when contrasted with prejudice?" Cohen
described such an affair as a measure of "a country's moral
temperature, of gauging its character and its ability to deal
rationally with its problems instead of setting off down the road,
club in hand, in the search for scapegoats."
It seems Poland's "cultural virus" is not that peculiar. Despite the
self-congratulatory words, the American campaign of 2008, like Poland
in 1990, has seen Democratic candidate Barack Obama targeted by a
relentless campaign suggesting he is a member of a religious minority-
-not a secret Jew, but a secret Muslim.
Beyond a whisper campaign, the targeting of Obama is happening in the
open--in online magazines (Insight, 1/17/07; Human Events, 3/20/07;
FrontPageMag.com, 1/7/08), on right-wing talk radio shows (Rush
Limbaugh, 1/19/08; Savage Nation, 9/8/08), even in hardcover (Jerome
Corsi's Obama Nation, published by CBS's Simon & Schuster in 2008).
Those calling Obama a Muslim clearly see the term as a pejorative and
have a sense that the "charge" will resonate with their audiences and
with a significant slice of the American electorate.
So far, it seems as though they may be on to something. A Pew
Research Center poll (6/18=29/08; reported 7/15/08) found that twelve
percent of both Democrats and Republicans reported having the
erroneous belief, while 10 percent of all voters profess to not
knowing his religion because they've "heard different things" about
it. Fifty-two percent of respondents who knew Obama was a Christian
intended to vote for him, versus 37 percent of those who mistakenly
believed he was Muslim.
But with few exceptions, media have not reacted nearly as forcefully
to the bigotry behind the rumor campaign on their own turf as they
did when the tactic was tried in Poland. Instead, journalists often
accepted the idea that there was something suspicious or bad about
being Muslim by referring to the canard as a "smear" (New York Times,
1/17/08; ABC News, 12/5/07), an "unsubstantiated charge" (Washington
Post, 6/28/08), or an example of "nasty and false attacks" (New York
For NPR's Alison Stewart (Bryant Park Project, 1/29/08), the rumor
that Obama had attended an Islamic school as a child in
Indonesia "sounded like a page out of the Lyndon Johnson smear of
Barry Goldwater in 1964." Stewart was referring to Johnson's 1964 TV
campaign ad suggesting that President Goldwater would launch a
nuclear war. In other words, according to Stewart's analogy, the
suggestion that you attended an Islamic school is tantamount to the
claim that you are likely to blow up the planet.
While the Post's Cohen devoted two entire columns to Obama's "pastor
problem"--first (1/15/08) asking where Obama's "sense of outrage" was
over his pastor Jeremiah Wright's "praise for an anti-Semitic
demagogue" (Louis Farrakhan), and then, after Obama denounced
Farrakhan's comments, asking (3/18/08) why it took so long--he has
given the anti-Muslim rumor campaign against Obama a mere two
sentences (4/22/08, 7/1/08).
In this context, it's not surprising that the number of Muslims
running for political office in the U.S. is declining from its
already small number, according to the American Muslim Alliance
(Chicago Tribune, 6/30/06). In 2000, some 700 Muslims (out of a
population of more than 2 million--Pew, 5/22/07) ran for office in
the U.S.--a figure that plummeted 90 percent to just 70 in 2002, and
had only crept up to 100 by 2004.
With the Islamophobic premise behind the rumor campaign is going
largely unquestioned, Muslims have been repeatedly shunned in the
2008 race. One glaring example was at a campaign event in Detroit
where Obama staff took two women wearing hijabs, traditional head
scarves, out of the view of TV cameras--a clear message, as one of
the women put it (Politico, 6/18/08), that "they do not want him
associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters." (The Obama campaign
later apologized for relocating the women.)
Later that month, the Obama campaign started a website called "Fight
the Smears'' to, "among other things, debunk portrayals of Obama as a
Muslim" (International Herald Tribune, 6/30/08). Just a month later,
a website (Muslim Brotherhood Watch, 7/31/08, 8/1/08) alleged that
Obama's Muslim Outreach Coordinator Mazen Asbahi's past involvement
with the Ann Arbor Muslim Students Association, and his serving on
the board of an Islamic trust--a role he had held for a few weeks
eight years earlier--constituted ties to the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood.
Shortly after this online "exposé," the Wall Street Journal (8/6/08)
pointed out that an imam who was a past member of the Islamic trust
board had been charged in a State Department investigation of alleged
racketeering and fundraising for Hamas, a case that ended in a
mistrial. Asbahi had resigned from the board after hearing of the
charges against his fellow board member, yet this tenuous association
was enough to prompt Asbahi to resign from the Obama campaign in
anticipation of the distraction the media coverage would create.
Much has been made in the media about the unknown origins of some of
the anti-Muslim rumors about Obama. The Washington Post (6/28/08),
for instance, published a lengthy investigation of these email rumors
under the headline "An Attack That Came Out of the Ether," and CNN's
Joe Johns (CNN Newsroom, 7/15/08) has described the rumors that Obama
is a Muslim as originating from "the dark side of the Internet."
Islamophobia in the current election cycle may have started in "the
ether," but the record shows it has run into too little resistance
from media and political elites, who have done too little to reject
it, and in some cases served to advance it.
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