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Are Candidates Exploiting "islamophobia"?

The scapegoat of the 2008 presidential race is not the Mexican immigrant slithering his way through the Arizona desert. Neither is it China shipping dangerous goods to our unsuspecting shores. It is the Muslim. According to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, "Muslims are being used in the way reminiscent of the Willie Horton moment." This was the thesis behind a presentation Cole made yesterday at the National Press Club entitled "Fear for Votes: How Some 2008 Candidates are Exploiting Islamophobia," put on by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The hesitancy with which CAIR and Cole make their bold assertion was apparent in the very title of the event; apparently the "exploitation" of "Islamophobia" is only the work of "some candidates." Regardless, the use of  racist appeals to win votes would be wrong, if, of course, it were actually happening. It isn’t.

Cole’s chief example of the anti-Muslim fervor gripping the country was the erstwhile candidacy of Congressman Tom Tancredo, who ran on the single-issue platform of anti-immigrant hysteria. In passing, he suggested last year that the United States threaten to bomb the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina as a warning to jihadists contemplating a nuclear attack on American territory.

Tancredo’s statements were indeed “crackpottery of the highest order,” as Cole characterized them. But how emblematic is the far-right Colorado congressman of conservative opinion? Tancredo never polled above the low-single digits. In October, he announced that he would not run for re-election to Congress (a body where, despite serving five terms, he has accumulated no seniority whatsoever) and he dropped out of the presidential race in December with barely anyone noticing. The Bush State Department said that his threat to bomb Mecca and Medina was "absolutely crazy." To conflate Tancredo’s outlandish views and statements with Republican opinion is akin to saying that Cindy Sheehan is an accurate barometer of liberal attitudes. If anything, the fact that Tancredo’s candidacy never lifted off is a sign that Republican voters are hardly the rubes susceptible to anti-Muslim appeals as Cole would have us believe.

As for examples of mainstream (never mind actual) presidential candidates using "Islamophobia," Cole’s evidence was thin, and what he examples he did cite show him to be incredibly thin-skinned. Apparently, John McCain’s historically accurate statement that “the United States of America was founded on the values of Judeo-Christian values” is an instance of "Islamophobia," (at worst, McCain's original assertion that America is a "Christian nation" was ignorant and Jews had equal cause to find offense; but either way McCain hardly had any malicious intent towards Muslims). Also racist was his joke at a recent debate that "I am not interested in trading with al Qaeda, all they want to trade is burqas." With this quip, according to Cole, McCain is "branding the wearing of burqas as related to al-Qaeda." Cole then cited a New Hampshire co-chairman of Giuliani’s veterans outreach committee--clearly, a very senior position--who said that "one of the most difficult problems in current history" is "the rise of the Muslims." After the Guardian reported this utterance, he promptly resigned. The only example Cole provided that even approached "bigotry" was the obnoxious sermonizing of Mike Huckabee. But the former governor’s calls for amending the Constitution to make it explicitly Christian or his use of a cross in television advertisements are ecumenically offensive, and have annnoyed some conservatives, never mind adamantly secular liberals.

I asked Cole what he thought of Ron Paul's advertisement, in which he promises "No more student visas for terrorist nations."This would seem the archetypical example of the "fear-mongering" that Cole and his ilk so frequently complain, especially because the professor had explicitly denounced the whole notion of a "terrorist nation" as a racist construction earlier in his lecture. Cole said he had not heard about the commerical and was "surprised because Paul has been better on these issues than some of the other campaigners." CAIR's legislative director said he too wasn't aware of the advertisement. That Paul is so popular with people like Cole and CAIR is hardly a surprise; but neither is the news that he would issue overtly racist appeals for support.

 --James Kirchick