Is Demonizing Muslims the new GOP strategy?

Posted on September 29, 2010 by

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It has been suggested that the planned community center in New York, originally called the Cordoba House, later renamed Park51, was only made light of as a controversy in order to affect the election in November.  This blog intends to explore how the debate about the “9/11 Mosque” has changed as the election looms closer, and why this may be an effective tactic for the GOP to energize their base.

My curiosity about this issue was first peaked when I watched this video on Youtube by the Young Turks in which Cenk laments that Laura Ingraham praised Daisy Khan for her work in building the community center and mosque (Khan and her husband Feisal Abdul Rauf are the principle planners behind the Park51.)

According to a timeline created by Justin Elliot from Salon.com on December 8 2009:

The Times publishes a lengthy front-page look at the Cordoba project. “We want to push back against the extremists,” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the lead organizer, is quoted as saying. Two Jewish leaders and two city officials, including the mayor’s office, say they support the idea, as does the mother of a man killed on 9/11. An FBI spokesman says the imam has worked with the bureau. Besides a few third-tier right-wing blogs, including Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs site, no one much notices the Times story.

At this time though, even the “third-tier right-wing” blog that Elliot mentions was only ironically upset about the community center (in fact the blog seemed to be more concerned with demonizing Sufi Islam as being just as terrorist-friendly as all the other Jihadi Muslim sects.)  The angriest part of the blog was the conclusion which read as follows:

And this is …………. priceless:

Joan Brown Campbell, director of the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York and former general secretaryof the National Council of Churches of Christ U.S.A., who is a supporter of Imam Feisal, acknowledged the possibility of a backlash from those opposed to a Muslim presence at ground zero.

But, she added: “Building so close is owning the tragedy.

That’s the point asshat.

While the profane language is not exactly friendly, in comparison to the venom that we have seen over the last month or so, it is PG.

Elliot’s timeline continues:

Dec. 21, 2009: Conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviews Abdul Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” Ingraham says of the Cordoba project, adding at the end of the interview, “I like what you’re trying to do.”

Elliot’s search of the Nexis newspaper archive turned up no articles about the mosque for almost five and a half months.  Why then did it turn up as such a prominent news item only just recently?

Elliot points to the aforementioned “third-tier right-wing blogger” Pamela Geller, whom he describes as a “right-wing, viciously anti-Muslim, conspiracy-mongering blogger,” as the source of the 9/11 mosque controversy.  Geller’s blog post on 6 May 2010, entitled “Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction,” is identified by Elliot as the beginning of the media coverage of the “9/11 mosque.”  The blog seems to have been written in response to an article that same day by the New York Daily News.  An excerpt from Geller’s blog is telling as to how it sparked such a controversy:

What could be more insulting and humiliating than a monster mosque in the shadow of the World Trade Center buildings brought down by Islamic attack?

Worse still, the design is a mockery of the World Trade Center building design. Islamic jihad took down those buildings when they attacked, destroyed and murdered 3,000 people in an act of conquest and Islamic supremacism. What better way to mark your territory than to plant a giant mosque on the still-barren land of the World Trade Center? Sort of a giant victory lap. Any decent American, Muslim or otherwise, wouldn’t dream of such an insult. It’s a stab in eye of America. What’s wrong with these people? Have they no heart? No soul?

According to Elliot, in the days that followed Geller organized protests against Park51, as well as other activism that elicited the attention of the media.  The New York post then ran an article on 13 May 2010 condemning Park51.  The article describes Geller’s group, Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), as a “human rights organization” and quotes Geller’s May 6 article at length.  Keep in mind that Geller has suggested in all seriousness that Obama is the illegitimate child of Malcolm X, yet the post sources her in this article as though she were any other legitimate reporter, and shares her animosity toward the Park51 project.  The New York Post article also helped to spread the falsehood that the Park51 project was scheduled to open on 11 Sept 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Elliot concludes:

Lots of opinion makers on the right read the Post, so it’s not surprising that, starting that very day, the mosque story spread through the conservative — and then mainstream — media like fire through dry grass. Geller appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show. The Washington Examiner ran an outraged column about honoring the 9/11 dead. So did Investor’s Business Daily. Smelling blood, the Post assigned news reporters to cover the ins and outs of the Cordoba House development daily. Fox News, the Post’s television sibling, went all out.

Within a month, Rudy Giuliani had called the mosque a “desecration.” Within another month, Sarah Palin had tweeted her famous “peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate” tweet. Peter King and Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty followed suit — with political reporters and television news programs dutifully covering “both sides” of the controversy.

Geller had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.”

The story has now spread and seems to be losing its momentum, leaving the blogosphere full of diatribes against the building of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” hateful comments toward Muslims and Islam, and conspiracy theories about terrorist jihad in America.  With Newt Gingrich even going so far as to compare Muslims building a mosque near ground zero to Nazis protesting at the holocaust museum.

To return to the main question with which this blog is concerned: how might this controversy affect the election in November?

An ABC/Washington Post poll on American views of Islam released on 8 Sept 2010 found that:

  • “A quarter of Americans (26 percent) concede feelings of prejudice against Muslims.”
  • 54% of respondents said that Islam is a peaceful religion, while 31% think that “mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims”
  • 55% say they do not have a basic understanding of Islam, and 50% do not know anyone personally that is Muslim.

The poll numbers suggest that unfavorable opinion toward Islam is greater among Republican voters, and best illustrated by the graphs that accompanied the poll:

As this poll clearly illustrates, those that oppose the construction of the Cordoba House (renamed Park51) are in a majority on the Republican side.  This last graph also illustrates that the controversy over Park51 will affect people’s voting behavior in November.  There are a number of different ways of interpreting how this media event came about: perhaps the right wing media decided to sit on the story until the election loomed closer, breaking the story when it was most politically convenient?  Because Republican voters tend to be more Islamophobic, the story fits into the conservative narrative, and would have the predictable affect of encouraging Republicans to vote.  Or even if it had little effect on voting behavior it would still be a wash: a CCN poll on 11 Aug 2010 found that 70% of Americans opposed the construction of Park51, meaning that any response would either favor the GOP or have no effect at all.

The bottom line is that the right-wing media knew that democrats would feel compelled to respond to the controversy and would likely defend the right of Muslims to build a mosque.  With 18% of Americans incorrectly believing that Obama is a Muslim, and 43% unsure of his religion, any favorable (or even neutral) response by Obama to the construction of Park51 would only reify their beliefs.

Sara Robinson in an editorial from the Huffington Post suggests that the GOP is looking for a new group to demonize, and that they have found their pot of gold with Muslims:

Conservatives can do without a god, but they can’t get through the day without a devil. Their entire model of reality revolves around the existence of an existential enemy who’s out to annihilate them. Take that focal point away, and their whole worldview collapses into incoherence. This need is so central to their thinking that if there are no actual enemies around, they’ll go to considerable lengths to make some (or just make some up).

Robinson argues that since the end of the Cold War and the loss of the communist threat to drum up fear among the American people the GOP has flirted with demonizing other groups, but that none have worked out very well for them: Demonizing gays has not turned out all that well, Robinson argues, because as familiarity with gays increases, hatred decreases.

Hating on Latinos seemed promising for a while; but it’s fizzling out, too. Even the most rageaholic right-wingers now realize that the GOP has no future if conservatives don’t knock off that crap, preferably 15 years ago. You’ve got a rising Millennial generation that’s 44% minority — a plurality of it Latino — that will probably not be voting Republican in their lifetimes due to this new New Southern Strategy. So that’s not going to work, either.

For a couple of years around 2008-2009, they tried to ratchet up the liberal-hating. The proximity problem made liberals a bad target from the get. But on top of that, there was a scary rash of nutjobs who didn’t get the memo that this was all just political noisemaking, and the “liberals are a mortal threat to the nation” exhortation wasn’t meant to be taken as a literal call to arms. In less than a year, over a dozen people were murdered in cold blood as a direct result of this hatemongering; and Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bernard Goldberg, and Bill O’Reilly were all put in the uncomfortable position of telling people that they didn’t mean for their blustering eliminationist screeds to be taken seriously. Given the choice between dialing down the liberal-bashing or acknowledging the blood on their hands, they picked the obvious alternative.

Robinson concludes that this is what the Park51 controversy was about:  the conservatives have found a new target that they can demonize for some time to come without any negative repercussions:

They’ve got all the perfect attributes for a solid long-term enemy: brown, Not Like Us, we’ve actually been in a war with some of them, and they’re mostly so far away that it’s unlikely that any red-blooded conservative will ever actually have to acknowledge one as a fellow human being.

While both of these two approaches have merit in explaining the Park51 controversy I would like to add one or two things in conclusion.  While it is possible that the right-wing media calculated that burying the story for five months would have a net positive electoral outcome, in my view and from the research that I have done for this blog, it is far more likely that this story evolved organically: that Geller only became alarmed enough about the community center when the building plans were approved that she went on a crusade against Park51. That the media picked it up and treated it as an objective news item (careful to never insert any bias one way or another, with the obvious exceptions, I’m looking at you FOX and MSNBC.)  And that the story has now fizzled out, but may have consequences electorally because of its proximity to the election.

Robinson may be correct as well in her assessment that demonizing Muslims may be a new strategy for the GOP.  However there is growing concern among commentators and the military that a strategy that demonizes Islam and Muslims and treats them unfairly in the county that we share with many people of different religions and backgrounds will ultimately backfire, and can put our troops in danger, endanger the lives of Americans generally, and will ultimately damage the chance that we will ever have a peaceful world.

Associated links:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/opinion/22rich.html

Olbermann on Mosque

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZpT2Muxoo0

Elliot timeline

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2010/08/16/ground_zero_mosque_origins

Daily Show

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-august-19-2010/extremist-makeover—homeland-edition

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