A Mosque-Centered Debate?
By Taylor Marvin
Author Mark Lynch is confident that the ugly conservative opposition to the Manhattan mosque project will eventually hurt the politicians who advocate it:
“It’s not just the clear national security imperative to build strong, positive relations with Muslims at home and abroad, and to avoid strengthening al-Qaeda’s narrative of a clash of civilizations. It’s not just about the security needs in counter-terrorism, where the Muslim-Americans most offended by right-wing bigotry are the main bulwark against radicalization in their communities. It’s that the right-wing campaigns are so deeply and fundamentally contrary to American values. America is exceptional for its acceptance of faith in public life and for its tolerance of different religions within a common national identity. While the GOP base may thrill at the escalating anti-Islamic rhetoric, most mainstream Americans will recoil when this hits prime time. It may not look like it right now, but I think that the rising anti-Islamic trend on the right will backfire by highlighting its true extremism, if not downright lunacy.”
Today Americans Muslims are experiencing greater popular discrimination than ever before. This isn’t an exaggeration: even in the dark days immediately after 9/11, it would have been unthinkable for the mainstream leaders of the Republican party to engage in the sort of naked stereotyping and bigotry Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have recently delighted in. For all his faults George Bush was always sure to make clear that America was at war with a small violent stream within Islam, not the religion itself. Looking at popular rhetoric today, it seems that a broad part of American society and its political leadership has forgotten this. And it isn’t wrong to call this ugly nativism a mainstream Republican sentiment—Palin and Gingrich are both the frontrunners for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, are increasingly undisputed as the real leaders of America’s conservative movement, and have been joined in their denouncement of the mosque project by a variety of established Republican media and political figures. Their attitude towards American Muslims is ugly, unjustified and ultimately bigoted.
However, it’s important to understand why these views have suddenly gained such an audience. Throughout the Bush presidency it’s hard to believe that the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan would have sparked such public anger and violent rhetoric. What changed? The recent emergence of broad anti-Muslim feeling in American culture is ultimately rooted in the US’s current economic and political situation, and there are two main factors that make these views popularly acceptable:
1. Economic Recession. the recent emergence of mainstream bigotry against American Muslims is linked to a general rightward drift of American conservatives. Both these trends are a direct result of the recession. Benjamin Friedman’s book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth detailed just how bad falling incomes are for the public acceptance of ethnic and religious minorities and civil liberties in general. Throughout American history the KKK and other nativist societies have been strongest during periods of slow growth and while the current anti-Muslim sentiment can’t be compared with these much more severe displays of racism, their root causes are the same: times of falling incomes and increased economic uncertainty create a public market for and acceptance of xenophobic expression that encourages politicians to outbid each other by adopting more and more antagonistic positions. This is mirrored in the American immigration debate. While American concern over immigration is both constant and justified it increases during recessions, as Arizona has recently shown. When incomes fall, uncertainty encourages people to identify their own interests in opposition to and in contest with what’s different, whether that may be American Muslims, immigrants, or foreigners.
2. The Republican Party in Opposition. In modern American society, anti-Muslim feelings, while rooted in justifiable concern over Islamic terrorism, are primarily a conservative cause—it’s no coincidence that it has been mostly Republican candidates and organizations expressing their opposition to the Manhattan mosque project. However, these far-right sentiments are only popularly enfranchised because the Republican Party and broader American conservative political establishments are in the opposition. When a political party is in power, it has an interest in and the ability to control its more radical elements; by tending to lean towards the center, the party avoids alienating moderate portions of the electorate and maximizes its chances of remaining in power. That is why far-left Democrats have been much quieter under Obama than during the Bush administration—a dominant party has no real interest in pandering only to its partisan base and ignoring all other political positions. Because the Republicans are out of power, they don’t have to worry about appealing to the American population as a whole or presenting a viable political plan; it’s much easier and potentially more rewarding to pander to the most extreme and most motivated portions of the conservative base. Republican establishment figures like Gingrich and Palin would only advocate such extreme positions when they’re out of power, when they have so much less to lose by alienating moderates. Conservative opposition contributes to the ability of right-wing radicals to spread their beliefs as well. Conservative media organizations such as Fox News or mainstream political sites wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about spreading such disruptive view during periods of Republican ascendancy. Radical and nativist statements are inherently critical of the government, so mainstream Republicans only advocate and adopt these views when they aren’t the establishment.
Lynch is too optimistic. In the short term, that is the 2010 and 2012 election cycles that dominate today’s American political thinking, this type of bigotry probably won’t hurt the conservative candidates and pundits who stoop to its level. The same social and political factors that allowed for the emergence of this type of naked anti-Muslim sentiment have encouraged successful candidates to track much farther to the right than in previous election cycles, meaning the type of candidates who denounce the Manhattan mosque project have already adopted such far right positions and rhetoric to alienate most ideologically moderate supporters. The tea party movement is generally more conservative than the wider Republican Party and while most self-identified Republican voters see themselves as ideologically closer to the Republican party, the difference is slight.
The overall trends of this election season have pushed conservative voters, politicians, and pundits to the right, a drift that has already either marginalized or radicalized the majority of previously moderate conservative voters. This is by no means universal among conservative voters but it’s unlikely that very many of Sarah Palin’s already conservative backers will be offended enough by her anti-Muslim position to ultimately vote for more moderate candidates. The Manhattan mosque project debate and wider anti-Muslim backlash is a fairly insignificant political issue—voters will ultimately make their decisions based on the economy and political ideology, not what will probably prove to be a brief news story. If far-right politicians, a label that does fit an increasingly dominant portion on the Republican party, ultimately lose politically, it will because of a mainstream rejection of all of their political and social views, not only this one issue.
Despite these factors that encourage it, there’s no excuse for these feelings—they’re ugly and truly discriminatory. When Palin denounces the right of a group of American Muslims to build a place of worship on their own private property, she’s essentially saying that all of the world’s Muslims fall into one reviled class: that American Muslims are just as culpable for 9/11 as al-Qaeda and are just as much enemies of the United States. These types of views are wrong and are dangerous because they so perfectly play into the narrative of the West that Bin Laden preaches. Our greatest defense against the hateful ideology of Islamic radicals is the pluralistic accepting nature of the West—a defense the American right is dismantling. If moderate Republicans aren’t willing to denounce the demagogic bigots in their party, then they are ultimately responsible for the spread of their ugly views. The party most vocal about American exceptionalism should look at itself and begin to practice the tolerance and moderation that makes America so exceptional in the first place.
Photo courtesy of Fox News