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 House members 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.
A Closer Look
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 Mosque at Ground Zero," although the planned cultural center 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 attorney 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 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 Mosque at Ground Zero 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 $2.7 million, however, he went down to defeat in the Republican primary, attracting only 22 percent 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 civilization 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 percent of the vote in a three-way primary race; the winner, state senator Diane Black, edged her out with 31 percent. Black declined to denounce the Murfreesboro mosque project and went on to win the general election.
Islamophobic Failures Around the Country
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 Mosque at Ground Zero 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's ad, seamlessly fused Islam, terrorism, and murder. Tea Party favorite Scott, however, had a slight advantage in gaining a victory margin of about one percentage point over Democrat Alex Sink: he poured a staggering $73 million 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 percent 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 for 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 $4 million as 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.
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 percent 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 is the New Mosque at Ground Zero
Sharia has become 2012's Mosque at Ground Zero, 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 fueled by large rightwing 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 percent 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.
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Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books).