In U.S. elections, fear of Muslims
(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In the summer of 2006, a Gallup poll of more than 1,000 Americans found that one out of four favoured forcing Muslims in the United States, including U.S. citizens, to carry special identification. About a third said Muslims living in the U.S. sympathized with al Qaeda.
Almost a quarter said they wouldn’t want a Muslim as a neighbour. Republicans, the poll said, saw Muslims in a more negative light than Democrats and independents, and were more opposed to having Muslim neighbours. Fewer than half those polled thought U.S. Muslims were loyal to the United States.
A few months after the poll, callers to a Washington area radio talk show suggested branding Muslims with crescent-shaped tattoos and special stamps in their identity papers, the better to spot potential terrorists.
Polls are snapshots of attitudes, and attitudes can change. But incidents during the U.S. presidential election campaign, now in its final sprint towards November 4, show that fear and suspicion of Muslims persist undiminished and are being used as a political weapon.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell became the most prominent member of the U.S. establishment to highlight the problem when he broke with John McCain, the Republican candidate and a personal friend of decades, to endorse Barack Obama, target of a prolonged campaign by activists who portray him as a Muslim.
One of his reasons: “I’m troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the (Republican) party say,” he told a television interviewer this week. “And it is permitted to be said such things as ‘well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.
“But the really right answer is, what if he is?” Powell continued.
“Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion ‘He (Obama) is a Muslim and might be associated with terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”
It was the first time that a senior figure of the American establishment had countered suggestions that Obama adheres to Islam by saying “So What?”, a question that should not be surprising in a country of immigrants that prides itself of its diversity. But the association is so toxic that even Obama himself has never asked that question.
FEAR AND BIGOTRY
Obama routinely denies the false notion that he is Muslim and stresses his commitment to Christianity and his regular church attendance. The website Obama has set up to rebuff a wide range of rumours notes the fact that he was sworn into the Senate on his family bible. That he finds it necessary to spell this out speaks volumes about a climate of fear and bigotry.
And about Obama’s caution: the first Muslim to win a seat in the 435-member House of Representatives, Keith Ellison, caused a storm of cyberspace criticism when he carried a Koran to his 2007 swearing-in ceremony. The hubbub subsided when it emerged that the Koran he used was once owned by an American with impeccable credentials – Thomas Jefferson.
Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, was the only Muslim in the House until last March, when he was joined by Andre Carson, a fellow Democrat from Indianapolis. Estimates of the number of Muslims in the United States range from 1.8 to more than 5 million. (The U.S. Census Bureau does not cover religious affiliation).
As the long election campaign neared its end, an obscure New York-based non-profit group called the Clarion Fund provided a textbook example of how fear of Muslims can be used for political ends.
The fund paid 70 newspapers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia to deliver, as an advertising insert, 28 million copies of a documentary on radical Islam. These are all swing states where the Obama vs McCain fight is close.
The one-hour documentary, entitled Obsession – Radical Islam’s War against the West — was produced almost three years ago. It intersperses scenes of violence, including the September 11, 2001, attack on New York, with footage from Nazi rallies. The film found no traditional distributor and was first screened on college campuses last year, introduced by a right-wing activist, David Horowitz.
So why is the DVD mailed out now? Purely for educational purposes, according to a spokesman for the Clarion Fund. Nothing to do with fear-mongering.
The DVD’s sleeve, however, carries a slightly different message. “The threat of radical Islam is the most important issue facing us today. But it’s a topic that neither the presidential candidates nor the media are discussing openly. It’s our responsibility to ensure we can all make an informed vote in November.”
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)