03/16/2011 04:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Conservative Republicans and Islam: A New Crusade for Votes and Funds

Recent hearings of Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY) on the radicalization of American Muslims represent a growing campaign to discredit Muslims, witnessed most recently in the Park 51 controversy (the so-called mosque at Ground Zero), the 2010 elections, and efforts to promote anti-Sharia (Islamic law) legislation. King joins the ranks of other Republican politicians, including Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann, who have jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon to garner votes and fill their campaign coffers. They do not simply target dangerous extremists and terrorists, but question the loyalty of the majority of mainstream Muslims, flouting fundamental American principles and threatening civil liberties.

Post 9/11, King's criticisms of the Muslim-American community included his unsubstantiated assertion that 80 percent of mosques in America were radicalized. The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee provided a bully pulpit which King was quick to use in calling for hearings on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response."

Conservative and Tea Party Republicans have been quick to support the hearings. Rep. Michele Bachmann defended Rep. Peter King's investigations in an interview with Boston's Talk 1200, claiming like King that a "veneer of political correctness" jeopardized the security interests of the country. The New York Times, political commentators, academic experts, civil liberties organizations and religious leaders criticized his actions, referring to King's obsession, witch hunt or a new McCarthyism.

Republicans since the presidential primaries and recent congressional and gubernatorial elections have resorted to Islam and Muslim bashing to win votes and funding. The King hearing came after the 2010 elections in which a perceived threat of Islam was used as a political tool. At the September 2010 Values Voters Summit, Gingrich called for a federal ban on Sharia law. Oklahoma voters passed a resolution in November that prohibits the use of Sharia law when making rulings. Since Oklahoma passed that bill, anti-Sharia laws have been proposed from Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama to North Dakota and Missouri, despite the fact that there has been no call for the implementation of Islamic law in America by the Muslim-American community nor would our legal system and courts allow it. Most recently, Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential hopeful, speaking in New Hampshire, called Sharia law "evil" and claimed that the reason Muslim immigrants came to the U.S. was to escape Sharia law: "They left because of Sharia law." Mike Huckabee called Islam "the antithesis of the gospel of Christ."

Pew Research Center data demonstrates that these Republicans and Tea Partiers know the fears and prejudices of their political base. They are the only groups to think Islam is more likely than other religious groupsto encourage violence. Fully 67% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say Islam is more associated with violence than other religions. This contrasts by more than two-to-one (61% to 29%) with liberal Democrats who believe that Islam is no more likely than other religions to promote violence.

Lost in the fog of war is the fact that these political Muslim bashers are long on fear mongering and short on providing any supportive evidence. They ignore major polls by Gallup, Pew, Zogby and others that show that the vast majority of Muslims are politically, economically middle class and educationally integrated into American society. Their desire not to be confused by the facts contributes to a growing climate of Islamophobia that has led to discrimination, hate crimes, violence, desecration of mosques and the violation of the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. Surveys have shown that Muslims are not looking to install Islamic law in the U.S., promote terrorism or undermine the American Constitution.
It's time to call a spade a spade, a bigot a bigot and stop those who would resurrect the intolerance of the past and add Muslims to a long list of groups that has included Jews, African Americans, World War II Japanese and others who have been victims of religious discrimination and racism.

John L. Esposito is founding director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and author of The Future of Islam. Sheila Lalwani is a research fellow at CMCU.