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Divisive Presidential Politics Takes Aim at the American Muslim Community

Posted: 05/09/2012 1:04 pm

Looking back on the 2012 presidential campaign up to this point, one wonders why there has been an active effort by some Republican candidates to alienate American Muslims. This is especially surprising since, according to a recently published report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, American Muslims are an active and growing constituency in key swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. Alienating fellow American citizens based simply on their beliefs, as some candidates have done, is not only un-American -- it's bad politics. Republicans especially would do well to remember that just a decade ago the majority of American Muslims were firmly in the Republican camp, voting overwhelmingly in favor of George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Yet, a decade later, the community is strongly in favor of President Obama.

Looking back at history, there are lessons to be learned from the consequences of ignoring and alienating an important voting constituency. When President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, he reportedly remarked to an aide, "We've lost the South for a Generation." His fear was that southern states would become politically hostile toward the Democratic Party and that his rivals would take advantage of racial resentment to win back White voters in the region. Johnson was immediately proven right, losing five states in the south to Barry Goldwater.

Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate and eventual winner of the 1968 presidential election, appealed to southern voters (whom he lost to segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace) using terms such as "law and order" and "states' rights." Nixon's opponents accused him of what is now referred to as "dog whistle politics." Just as a dog whistle emits a sound with a high enough frequency for dogs to hear but which is past the range of human hearing, political messaging can be designed to reach a subset of voters with specific biases while bypassing other voters who might not be primed to pay attention. It has become a hallmark of presidential politics, as multiple ideological and geographic constituencies must be pulled together to make a candidate nationally viable. Even now in 2012 dog whistle politics is alive and well. For instance, witness presidential candidate Newt Gingrich referring to Barack Obama as a "food stamp president."

For American Muslims, however, the dog whistle has been boldly tucked away. In 2005, seeking to raise his national profile, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney publicly called for wiretapping American mosques. In a debate earlier this year, GOP contender Rick Santorum advocated religious profiling of American Muslims. Herman Cain, who at one point was atop the pack of 2012 Republican candidates, stated that he would bar American Muslims from cabinet positions.

To be clear, it is not only Republicans who have come up short on defending American Muslims. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly sought to deflect claims that he was secretly a Muslim without challenging the biases behind the question of whether one could be both a loyal American and a loyal Muslim. It was a Republican, Colin Powell, who provided the most eloquent defense of American Muslims on the topic by forcefully reframing the question. "What if he is?" Powell responded on Meet the Press. "Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?"

What Powell may not have realized at the time was that he likely tapped into the exact sentiments of the up-and-coming Muslim community in America. Muslims in America are increasingly young, American-born, politically informed and socially active. They are alarmed by the fact that politicians have been audacious enough to launch discriminatory barbs against them without even reaching for the dog whistle.

Is there some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid out there who believes he or she could be president? Perhaps. On the one hand, there is plenty of evidence from the field of psychology to suggest that minority groups are prone to feel destined for failure when they perceive that the dominant culture looks down upon them. On the other hand, most psychologists will agree that children are especially drawn to affiliate with successful individuals with whom they feel a sense of shared identity. After 9/11, it was hard to believe that a Muslim could be elected to serve in Congress. Now there are two. That is a message that American Muslims can hear loud and clear.

As American Muslims continue to grow and mobilize as a politically active constituency they will search for a political home. It is time that presidential candidates treat them as loyal American citizens and less like hostile foreigners.

Ben Herzig is a doctor of clinical psychology and a research fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Farid Senzai is assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University and director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

 
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