For much of January, one might have thought that the Republican candidates for president were already competing against a single opponent. Not one called Hillary or Barack, but with a moniker even more chilling in the eyes of hard-line Republicans: Islamic fascism.
The American public, worried about mortgages, recession and a seemingly interminable war in Iraq, was unimpressed -- those who fear-mongered the most about Muslim terrorists have faltered at the polls. Even the remaining front-runners, John McCain and Mitt Romney, have said bigoted things about Muslims and their religion. But Islamophobia as a campaign strategy has failed, and it may well come back to haunt the Republicans in the general election.
Back when the GOP presidential field was still flush with tough-talking right-wingers, no one was more outrageous in targeting Muslims than Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who suggested that Muslim terrorists inside America were plotting the imminent detonation of an atomic bomb on U.S. soil. How to prevent this Tom Clancy scenario? "If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina," Tancredo declared. "Because that's the only thing I can think of that might deter somebody from doing what they otherwise might do."
That sort of wild-eyed bigotry only fuels the cycle of mistrust and vengeance. One can only imagine how much more difficulty Tancredo generated for U.S. diplomats attempting to explain to America's Muslim allies why a presidential candidate was talking about nuking Islam's holiest cities, the larger with a population nearly that of Houston.
But the failure of Islamophobia as a campaign strategy is no better illustrated than by the spectacular flame-out of Rudy Giuliani. Throughout his campaign (deep-sixed after his dismal showing in Tuesday's Florida primary), the former New York mayor evoked the Sept. 11 attacks at an absurd rate. Giuliani and his advisors appeared to revel in demonizing Muslims. They also reveled in their own ignorance -- never learning the difference between "Islamic" and "Muslim."
"Islamic" has to do with the religion founded by the prophet Mohammed. We speak of Islamic ethics or Islamic art, as things that derive from the religion. "Muslim," on the contrary, describes the believer. It would be perfectly all right to talk about Muslim terrorists, but calling them Islamic terrorists or Islamic fascists implies that the religion of Islam is somehow essentially connected to those extremist movements.
Giuliani complained that during their debates, Democratic rivals "never mentioned the word 'Islamic terrorist,' 'Islamic extremist,' 'Islamic fascist,' 'terrorist,' whatever combination of those words you want to use, [the] words never came up." He added, "I can't imagine who you insult if you say 'Islamic terrorist.' You don't insult anyone who is Islamic who isn't a terrorist."
But people are not "Islamic," they are Muslim. And one most certainly does insult Muslims by tying their religion to movements such as terrorism or fascism. Muslims perceive a double standard in this regard: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols would never be called "Christian terrorists" even though they were in close contact with the Christian Identity Movement. No one would speak of Christofascism or Judeofascism as the Republican candidates speak of Islamofascism. Muslims point out that persons of Christian heritage invented fascism, not Muslims, and deny that Muslim movements have any link to the mass politics of the 1930s in Europe.
Giuliani's pledge to take the United States on an offensive against Islamic fascism, which he also said would be a long-term battle, failed to excite the imagination of voters. It may well have alarmed them in a way different from what Giuliani intended: If, by Giuliani's logic, the United States is only on the "defensive" now, with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, what would being on the offensive look like? Would Giuliani have started four wars? Interestingly, Giuliani did especially poorly in Florida among retired and active-duty military personnel.
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