Obama and the American fringe
The prospect of President Barack Obama winning another four-year term in November is swelling the ranks of anti-Muslim activists and groups on the extremist fringe of American society. Their growth has accelerated every year since Obama took office in 2009.
So says a new report by a civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, that has tracked extremist groups for the past three decades and found that last year alone, the number of anti-Muslim groups tripled, from 10 to 30.
Between 2008 and the end of 2011, according to the center, there was an eight-fold increase in the number of militias and “patriot” groups whose members inhabit a parallel universe where the federal government wants to rob them of their guns and their freedom.
“What groups on the radical right have in common is the belief that Obama wants to destroy America,” Mark Potok, author of the report, said in an interview. “Fears that he will win again are now driving the expansion.”
How many Americans are on the right-wing fringe is not known. The Southern Poverty Law Center gives no estimate and neither does the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which also monitors such groups. But it issued a report last September on a sub-set of the far-right scene, “sovereign citizens” who believe that federal, state and local governments operate illegally and therefore have no right to collect taxes. The FBI called them domestic terrorists and “a growing threat.”
Some of the beliefs held by those on the fringe are too outlandish to influence the political discourse – the government is running secret concentration camps, Mexico plans to recapture the American southwest, there are plans for the United Nations to take over America – but others are not.
The notion that Obama is intent on turning the United States into a socialist country is regularly echoed in speeches by Republican presidential hopefuls.
And the myth that Obama is a Muslim lives on. A public opinion poll of Republicans taken a day before the March 13 primary elections in Alabama and Mississippi showed that 45 percent and 51 percent, respectively, thought he was a Muslim. The methodology of the survey, by a polling institute affiliated with the Democratic party, has been questioned. But even if you cut the percentages in half, they are remarkable and show how stubbornly Obama detractors cling to mistaken beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary.
Those who think the president is a Muslim tend to harbor deeper suspicions. In September 2010, at the height of a shrill debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque in Manhattan, a poll commissioned by Newsweek found that 52 percent of Republicans surveyed thought it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that Obama sympathized with the goal of fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world. Thirty percent thought he favored the interests of Muslim Americans over those of other Americans.
ZEALOTRY GOES MAINSTREAM
The Southern Poverty Law Center traced the rapid growth of anti-Muslim groups to the dispute over the planned Islamic cultural center and mosque, not far from the site of September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Since that controversy, anti-Islam arguments previously confined to little-known web sites run by anti-Muslim zealots have gone mainstream.
The most prominent proponent of the radicals’ theory of “stealth jihad” is Newt Gingrich, one of the four remaining candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. He has termed Islamic law (Sharia) “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and the world.” How so? Radical Muslims use political, societal, religious and intellectual tools to sweep away Western civilization and replace it with Sharia law.
The idea that Muslim Americans, who account for less than one percent of the U.S. population, could succeed in replacing federal and state law with Islamic law, strikes many legal scholars as absurd. But that has not prevented conservative legislators in a string of states from introducing bills to ban the use of Islamic law.
Such efforts look like a search for legislative solutions to a non-existent problem and have begun running out of steam, slowed by common sense and the efforts of such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In the first half of March, five states withdrew anti-Sharia bills or let them expire.
That doesn’t mean the debate is over, nor is it the end of the right’s portrayal of Obama as a socialist foreign-born Muslim enemy of America as we know it. How persuasive that is to mainstream Americans will be clear on election day, November 6.