The strategy failed in the US 2010 midterm elections, and Islamophobic candidates will do even worse in 2012.
By Stephan Salisbury
During the 2010 midterm election campaign, virtually every hard-charging candidate on the far right took a moment to trash a Muslim, a mosque, or Islamic pieties.
In the wake of those elections, with 85 new Republican members of the House of Representatives and a surging Tea Party movement, the political virtues of anti-Muslim rhetoric as a means of rousing voters and alarming the general electorate have gone largely unchallenged. It has become an article of faith that a successful 2010 candidate on the right should treat Islam with revulsion, drawing a line between America the Beautiful and the destructive impurities of Islamic cultists and radicals.
“Americans are learning what Europeans have known for years: Islam-bashing wins votes,” wrote journalist Michael Scott Moore in the wake of the 2010 election. His assumption was shared by many then and is still widely accepted today.
But as the 2012 campaign ramps up along with the anti-Muslim rhetoric machine, a look back at 2010 turns out to offer quite an unexpected story about the American electorate. In fact, with rare exceptions, “Islam-bashing” proved a strikingly poor campaign tactic. In state after state, candidates who focused on illusory Muslim “threats”, tied ordinary American Muslims to terrorists and radicals, or characterized mosques as halls of triumph (and prayer in them as indoctrination) went down to defeat.
Far from winning votes, it could be argued that “Muslim-bashing” alienated large swaths of the electorate – even as it hardened an already hard core on the right.
The fact is that many of the loudest anti-Muslim candidates lost, and for a number of those who won, victory came by the smallest of margins, often driven by forces that went well beyond anti-Muslim rhetoric. A careful look at 2010 election results indicates that Islamophobic talking points can gain attention for a candidate, but the constituency that can be swayed by them remains limited, although not insignificant.
Demogoguing the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’
It’s worth taking a closer look. In 2010, anti-Muslim rhetoric rode in with the emergence that July of a “mosque” controversy in lower Manhattan. New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, facing indifference to his candidacy in the primary race, took up what right-wing anti-Muslim bloggers had dubbed “the Ground Zero Mosque”, although the planned cultural centre in question would not have been a mosque and was not at Ground Zero.
With a handy alternate reality already sketched out for him, Lazio demanded that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, then state attourney general, “investigate” the mosque. He implied as well that its leaders had ties to Hamas and that the building, when built, would somehow represent a threat to the “personal security and safety” of city residents.
A fog of acrid rhetoric subsequently enshrouded the campaign – from Lazio and from his Tea Party-backed opponent, Carl Paladino, a Buffalo businessman. Paladino beat the hapless Lazio in the primary and was then handily dispatched by Cuomo in the general election. Cuomo had not joined the Muslim bashing, but by the end of the race, dozens of major political figures and potential Republican presidential candidates – including Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Rick Perry – had denounced the loathsome Ground Zero Mosque and sometimes the whole of Islam. What began as a local issue had by then become a national political litmus test and a wormhole to the country’s darkest sentiments.
But the hard reality of election results demonstrated one incontrovertible fact. Both Lazio and Paladino, heavily invested in portraying Muslims as somehow different from everyone else, went down to dismal defeats. Nor could these trouncings simply be passed off as what happens in a relatively liberal northeastern state. Even in supposed hotbeds of anti-Muslim sentiment, xenophobic rhetoric and fear-mongering repeatedly proved weak reeds for candidates.
Take Tennessee, a state in the throes of its own mosque-building controversy (in Murfreesboro) at the height of the 2010 campaign. There, gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey couldn’t slam Islam often enough. Despite raising $2.7m, however, he went down to defeat in the Republican primary, attracting only 22 per cent of the vote. During the campaign, Republican victor Bill Haslam, now governor, simply stated that decisions about mosques and religious construction projects should be governed by local zoning ordinances and the Constitution.
In another 2010 Tennessee race, Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee Republican congressional candidate and Tea Party activist, denounced the Murfreesboro mosque plans relentlessly. Zelenik ran her campaign like an unreconstructed Indian fighter, with Muslims standing in as opponents in a frontier war. As she typically put the matter, “Until the American Muslim community find it in their hearts to separate themselves from their evil, radical counterparts, to condemn those who want to destroy our civilisation and will fight against them, we are not obligated to open our society to any of them”.
It didn’t work. Zelenik, too, was defeated, attracting 30 per cent of the vote in a three-way primary race; the winner, state senator Diane Black, edged her out with 31 per cent. Black declined to denounce the Murfreesboro mosque project and went on to win the general election.
Little electoral success for Islamophobes
The impotency of anti-Muslim rhetoric was not some isolated local phenomenon. Consider this: in the 2010 election cycle, anti-Muslim Senate candidate Sharron Angle was defeated in Nevada, and the similarly inclined Jeff Greene lost his Senate bid in Florida. A slew of congressional candidates who engaged in anti-Muslim rants or crassly sought to exploit the Ground Zero Mosque controversy also went down, including Francis X. Becker, Jr., in New York, Kevin Calvey in Oklahoma, Dan Fanelli and Ronald McNeil in Florida, Ilario Pantano in North Carolina, Spike Maynard in West Virginia, and Dr. Marvin Scott in Indiana.
Not all candidates bad-mouthing Muslims failed, of course. Renee Ellmers, a nurse running in North Carolina’s Second District, won her race by about 1,500 votes after airing an incendiary television spot that likened the lower Manhattan cultural center to a “victory mosque” and conflated Islam with terrorism. But Ellmers’ main campaign talking point was the abomination of health-care reform. That “victory mosque” was only a bauble-like embellishment, a dazzling attention-grabber.
Similarly, Republican Rick Scott, running for governor in Florida, featured a deceptive television ad that referred to the New York project as “Obama’s mosque” and, like Ellmers’ ad, seamlessly fused Islam, terrorism, and murder. Tea Party favourite Scott, however, had a slight advantage in gaining a victory margin of about one percentage point over Democrat Alex Sink: he poured a staggering $73m of his own money into the race in which he largely painted Obama as an anti-business incompetent.
Despite lavishing more personal cash on the race than any candidate in Florida history, Scott won by less than 100,000 votes, falling short of 50 per cent of the total. He was only the second Florida governor to take office without the backing of a majority of the electorate.
If some virulent political rhetoric was credited with bringing victory to candidates at the time, its effect in retrospect looks more questionable and less impressive. Take the victorious campaign of Republican Allen West in Florida’s 22nd Congressional District. A Tea Party favorite quick to exploit anti-Muslim fears, he was also a veteran of the Iraq War and had been fined by the Army for the beating and threatened killing of an Iraqi prisoner.
During the campaign, he made numerous statements linking Islam with terrorism and weighed in loudly on the proposed Manhattan Islamic center more than 1,000 miles away. In an open letter to his opponent, two-term incumbent Democrat Ron Klein, he noted that “the mosque symbolizes a clear victory in the eyes of those who brought down the twin towers”. Klein then caved and joined West in opposing the cultural center, claiming that Ground Zero should only be “a living memorial where all Americans can honor those who were killed on September 11, 2001”.
In the election, West reversed the results of his 2008 race against Klein and ever since, his victory has been seen as one of the triumphs of anti-Muslim trash talking. A look at the numbers, however, tells a slightly different story. For one thing, West, too, had a significant financial advantage. He had already raised more than $4m when the campaign began, more than four times his total in 2008 and twice as much as Klein. Much of West’s funding came from out-of-state donors and conservative PACs.
For all that money, however, West won the election by not “losing” as many votes as Klein did (when compared to 2008). In 2010, West won with about 115,000 votes to Klein’s 97,000; in 2008, when Klein had the funding advantage and a presidential year electorate at his back, he beat West, 169,000 to 140,000.
Off-year elections normally mean lower turnouts, which clearly worked to West’s advantage. His victory total amounted to about a third of the 2008 total vote. And there’s the point. The motivated, far-right base of the Republican Party/Tea Party can, at best, pull in about a quarter to a third of the larger electorate. In addition, West became the Definer: He blocked out the issues, agitated his base, and got people to the polls. Klein ceded the terms of the debate to him and failed to galvanize support.
Did anti-Muslim rhetoric help West? Probably. Can it work in a presidential election year when substantial turnout ensures that the base won’t rule? Unlikely.
2012 hopefuls turn up anti-Muslim vitriol
Nevertheless, candidates on the right are already ramping up the rhetoric for 2012. Herman Cain, the pizza king who would be president, is but one obvious example. He says he may not know much, but one thing he knows for sure: when he’s elected, no Muslims will find their way into his administration.
As he put it in an interview with Christianity Today, “Based upon the little knowledge that I have of the Muslim religion, you know, they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them”. Cain told the website Think Progress that he’d brook no Muslim cabinet members or judges because “there is this creeping attempt, there’s this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government”.
Before a national television audience at a recent Republican presidential debate, however, Cain proceeded to say that he really hadn’t said what he had, in fact, said. This is called a “clarification”. What he meant, Cain reassured television viewers, was that he would only bar disloyal Muslims, the ones “trying to kill us”.
It almost seems as if candidates defeated in 2010 when using over-the-top anti-Muslim rhetoric are expecting a different outcome in 2012. Lawyer Lynne Torgerson in Minnesota is a fine example of this syndrome. In 2010, she decided to take on Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, pounding him relentlessly for his supposed “ties” to “radical Islamism”.
“And what do I know of Islam?” she wrote on the “issues” page of her 2010 campaign website. “Well, I know of 911.” Alas for Torgerson, the strategy didn’t work out so well. She was crushed by Ellison, garnering only 3 per cent of the vote. Now, Torgerson is back, her message even more extreme. Ellison is no longer simply tied to “radical Islamism”, whatever that may be; he has apparently used his time in Congress to become a “radical Islamist” pushing, she claims, nothing less than the adoption of “Islamic Sharia law”.
Sharia law is the new Ground Zero Mosque
Sharia has become the Ground Zero Mosque of 2012, with about 20 states considering laws that would ban its use and candidates shrilly denouncing it – a convenient way, presumably, to keep harping on nonexistent, yet anxiety-producing, “threats”. Since no one knows what you’re talking about when you decry Sharia, it’s even easier than usual to say anything, no matter how bizarre or duplicitous.
So be prepared to hear a lot about “Sharia” between now and November 2012.
Going forward a few things seem clear. For one, the Islamophobic machinery fuelled by large right-wing foundations, PACs, individuals, and business interests will continue to elaborate a virtual reality in which Muslim and Islamic “threats” lurk around every American corner and behind every door. It is important to realize that once you’ve entered this political landscape, taking down anti-Muslim “facts” with reality is a fool’s errand. This is a realm akin to a video game, where such “facts” are dispatched only to rise again like so many zombies. In the world of Resident Evil, truth hardly matters.
But bear in mind that, as the 2010 election results made clear, that particular virtual reality is embraced by a distinct and limited American minority. For at least 70 per cent of the electorate, when it comes to anti-Muslim slander, facts do matter. Failure to challenge the bogus rhetoric only allows the loudest, most reckless political gamer to set the agenda, as Ron Klein discovered to his dismay in Florida.
Attacks on the deadly threat of Sharia, the puffing up of Muslim plots against America, and the smearing of candidates who decline to make blanket denunciations of “Islamism” are sure to emerge loudly in the 2012 election season. Such rhetoric, however, may prove even less potent at the polls than the relatively impotent 2010 version, even if this reality has gone largely unnoticed by the national media.
For those who live outside the precincts where right-wing virtual reality reigns supreme, facts are apparently having an impact. The vast majority of the electorate seems to be viewing anti-Muslim alarms as a distraction from other, far more pressing problems: real problems.
The paranoid style in politics often imagines unlikely alliances that coalesce into an overwhelming threat that must be countered by all necessary means.
In Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington conjured an amalgamated East – an alliance between “Confucian” and “Islamic” powers – that would challenge the West for world dominance. Many jihadis fear the Crusader alliance between Jews and Christians. They forget that until recently, historically speaking, populations professing the latter were the chief persecutors of the former.
Now Anders Breivik has invoked the improbable axis of Marxism, multiculturalism and Islamism, together colonising Europe. As he sees multiculturalism as essentially a Jewish plot, Breivik has managed to wrap up the new and old fascist bogies in one conspiracy: communists, Jews and Muslims.
Like his terrorist counterparts who kill in the name of various Islamic sects, Breivik is willing to slaughter people for an invented purity. Modern Norway is a latecomer to the world of nations, becoming sovereign only in 1905. Vikings, Arctic explorers and international humanitarians all went into imagining the place.
Given how readily jihadi texts are dismissed as ravings, it is notable how much attention has already been paid to Breivik’s wacky ideological brew. This is a worrying portent of the line of analysis that says that the “root causes” of Breivik’s madness – immigration and cultural difference – must be addressed. Otherwise, European societies will lose their social cohesion, to choose one current euphemism for the Volk.
To the extent such a view takes hold, the far right may be forgiven for concluding that terrorism works. As for the rest of us, now facing terrorist re-imaginings from both sides of obscure battles in a mythic past, we may long for the leftist and anti-colonial insurgents of bygone days. They at least could offer plausible accounts of what they were up to.
To be sure, tactically speaking, Breivik thought through his operation. Unlike many jihadis, however, he lacked the courage to face men armed like him, and to offer his own life for his beliefs as well as the lives of others. Nonetheless he wanted at his court appearance to strut about in some kind of military uniform.
Smartly tailored uniforms, an abhorrence of cultural difference, and a desire for racial purity are all of a piece with fascist mysticism. As with jihadi ideology, it is precisely the non-rational elements of fascism that give it emotive, and hence political, power. For what Breivik and others see as under threat in the West is the vital source of meaning, of ultimate values, which they associate with the communion of a purified people.
Since the West faces no obvious threat of such existential scale and significance, one must be fabricated. It is here that the unlikely alliance of left wing parties and Islam plays its role, purportedly importing on a mass scale Muslims to colonise Europe. In Norway, Muslims account for less than three per cent of the population; in the UK, less than five per cent. Even so, the fantastical fear of the “loss” of Europe to Islam animates many on the right. It is part of mainstream electoral politics in Europe, and has long been an element of right wing discourse in the US.
In this vision of danger, multiculturalism plays a key role. Many will have noted Breivik’s odd invocation of “cultural Marxists”, folks I have only spotted in small numbers in university departments and cafes frequented by graduate students. Breivik’s reference is in part to the Frankfurt School, a group of German Jewish scholars who fled Hitler for the Western cosmopolis of New York.
The idea is that “Jews” have encouraged cultural mixing in the West, fatally compromising its purity and thus its values, while Muslims and Jews retain their cultural strength and identity. Europe must therefore declare “independence” and fight the Muslim-Jewish-Marxist hordes, apparently starting by killing their children.
We can only assume that Breivik has confused the computer fantasy games he played – using a busty blonde avatar named “conservatism” – with political analysis. What is truly frightening, however, is that the core of this vision of multiculturalism as a threat to the West is shared by leading political parties in the France, the UK, Germany and Italy, among others. This is why there is every chance that Breivik’s murderous and cowardly rampage will achieve some of its aims. Immigration, it will be argued, has unbalanced “our” people. It is already being curtailed in all the leading Western powers.
Shut up, obey, and collaborate
The irony is that the West brought us empire on a global scale and drew its cultural, economic, and political strength from interconnections with all parts of the world. The cosmopolis of New York, London and Paris – a “brown” not a “white” West – are more appropriate beacons of a West flush with power and confidence in its values than the imaginary purification achieved through concentration camps and closed borders.
But just what might be corroding values in the West?
This was one of the questions that animated the Frankfurt School and those who influenced it. They focused on the interaction between capitalism and culture. They noted the ways in which capitalism progressively turned everything into something that could be bought or sold, measuring value only by the bottom line. Slowly but surely such measures came to apply to the cultural values at the core of society. Even time, as Benjamin Franklin told us, is money, a doctrine which horrified Max Weber in his searing indictment of the capitalist mentality as an “iron cage” without “spirit”.
Note for example the ways in which the great professional vocations of the West – lawyers, journalists, academics, doctors – have been co-opted and corrupted by bottom line thinking. Money and “efficiency” are the values by which we stand, not law, truth or health. Students are imagined as “customers”, citizens as “stakeholders”. Professional associations worry about the risk to their bottom line rather than furthering the values they exist to represent. Graduates of elite Western universities, imbued with the learning of our great thinkers, are sent off to corporations like News International. There they learn to shut up, obey, and collaborate in the dark work of exploitation for profit, for which they will be well rewarded, at least financially speaking.
Thanks in part to the grip of corporate power on the media and on political parties, few today in the West can imagine any other politics than those of big money. In the US, and increasingly even in Europe, the income differential between the poor and the wealthy already resembles that of banana republics. The downtrodden are asked to bear the burden of a financial crisis created by bankers. America’s wealthy fly their children to summer camp in tax-free private jets amid a real rate of unemployment of over fifteen per cent.
Neoliberalism has only accelerated these processes at the heart of capitalist society. Here is a far more convincing threat to Western values and “social cohesion” than the lunatic fears of fascists. Notably, this is a threat that emanates from within, not without. It is precisely social democratic parties like Norway’s Labour Party – Breivik’s target – which have sought to contain the corrosive effects of capitalism and ensure the survival of the West’s most humane values.
TAIB BLOGGER INSULTS ISLAM!
SUNDAY, JULY 24TH, 2011 GMT
Hateful anti-Islamic outpourings, including a crude mocking of the Prophet Mohammed, are just some of the very surprising views expressed by a member of the team of American bloggers, hired by PM Najib Razak and Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud to supposedly improve their images.
One member of the team, named Caleb Howe, has indulged in a number of rants on Twitter that are clearly designed to give extreme offence to Muslims – even though his colleagues on the blogs Red State, New Ledger, Sarawak Report(s), Malaysia Matters and others have been engaged by Najib and Taib as professional promoters.
In one outburst last year he indulged in a sustained, childish rant on his public Twitter page it went like this:
Misjudgement in hiring such unpleasant ’attack dogs’?
The majority of people in Sarawak are not Muslim. However, few would dream of engaging in such an unpleasant and offensive attack on matters held sacred to fellow citizens. So, it seems doubly ill-judged that Taib, who is indeed Muslim, would engage the services of an outfit that tolerates such sordid language and behaviour.
Najib Razak, the Malaysian PM, who has also hired the same blogging network is surely also guilty of the same terrible misjudgement? He poses as a great protector of his own Muslim religion, yet he continues to be associated with a team of Americans who count this man as one of their own.
Caleb Howe is closely linked to Josh Trevino, the right-wing blogger behind the American ‘Red State’ and ‘New Ledger’ blogs and also a PR company called Rogue Strategic Services, who has been engaged by BN leaders, including Badawi, Najib and now Taib Mahmud to create ‘positive publicity’ on their behalf.
Sarawak Report has already exposed how this network of websites has been engaged by Najib and also Taib to promote them with favourable articles in their blogs in the US and back in Malaysia to give the impression that they have positive international endorsement.
Caleb Howe, who is a regular contributor toTrevino’s flagship ‘Red State’ website, also curates a Twitter Page called Malaysia Matters, clearly linked to the Malaysia Matters website, one of Trevino’s projects to promote BN leaders.
The Malaysia Matters website (which has just been re-launched) was started in 2008 by Josh Trevino and a colleague Jerome Armstrong.
Armstrong, who is also a professional ‘blogger for hire’, has made no secret of the fact that the project was commissioned by the Malaysian Government – he lists them as a client on the website of his company WebStrong.
It is significant that, despite the lack of any form of visible apology when the rant was picked up by the American organisation Media Matters, Josh Trevino continues to associate with Caleb Howe both on the Red State and Malaysia Matters projects.
The PM and Chief Minister have chosen to hire bloggers who specialise in a particularly nasty form of invective against people who they purport to disagree with. In the case of Malaysia these people are the political opponents or critics of the BN leaders who have commissioned them.
Anwar Ibrahim and also Sarawak Reporthave been treated to ludicrous and excessive ‘attack dog’ commentary by these websites, based on zero journalism or research. But, now it seems the BN political pay masters themselves have been bitten!
Extreme right-wing, anti-Muslim and pro-Israel
Caleb’s outburst against Islam is not an isolated incident. Indeed the American bloggers hired by Taib and Najib make a surprising choice for Malaysian leaders in a number of other directions. Josh Trevino himself has made no secret of his rabid pro-Israeli views – to the extent that he tweeted that fellow Americans who felt sorry for the Palestinians and took part in the mercy ship flotilla deserved to be shot dead.
Given Najib’s posturing in favour of the mercy ships and praise for the Malaysians who took part, it is surely extraordinary that he continues to hire such a man to conduct his PR attacks against Anwar Ibrahim!
Clearly BN hired Trevino and his right-wing bloggers, because they are as nasty in their attacks as anyone can get. They certainly do not hesitate to make accusations of the sort against Anwar that most US and UK writers would avoid. On the other hand such dangerous weapons usually do backfire. Consider Trevino’s involvement with the Act For Israel organisation and their portrayal of the Malaysians who supported the Palestinian mercy ships.
A matter of taste
It is perhaps of some comfort to Malaysians who are seeing their tax money going into the hiring of such outfits that Caleb Howe and his colleagues are at least as notorious for their unpleasantness towards so-called ‘bed wetting liberals’ as Muslim ‘terrorists’.
Mr Howe has been called to account on another occasion for glorying in the fact that a known liberal film critic, Roger Ebert, was dying of cancer. He poked fun at the fact that Ebert had lost his jaw. This was the Twitter exchange, for which he did on this occasion apologise:
Caleb Howe’s excuse for this inexcusable outburst was that he had been indulging in far too much Vodka:
Given that alcohol is prohibited under the Islamic faith, which Najib and Taib are sworn to uphold and defend, surely this makes Mr Howe and his colleagues even more dubious choices for managing BN’s image?
It seems that as long as the likes of Caleb and Josh keep saying really rude and nasty things about BN’s opponents, then Taib and Najib are happy to keep paying them. Is this wise leadership?