07/19/2011 10:31 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2011

Herman Cain's Political Islamophobia

I struggled with the decision to write a response to Herman Cain's recent appearance on Fox News Sunday in which he declared that local communities across the U.S. have the right to ban the construction of mosques. His statements were so ludicrous, so bigoted and so fundamentally at odds with contemporary understandings and applications of the First Amendment that, on one level, they hardly merit a response. But I also recognize that Islamophobia is a growing problem in the U.S. and comments like Cain's do resonate with some Americans.

In the end, Cain's political Islamophobia cannot go unchallenged.

Responding to questions from Chris Wallace on Sunday concerning a planned Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the Republican presidential candidate and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza argued that local communities like Murfreesboro can and should ban the construction of Islamic houses of worship in light of their legitimate concerns about Islam. "Our Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state," noted Cain. "Islam combines church and state. They're using the church part of our First Amendment to infuse their morals in that community, and the people in the community [of Murfreesboro] do not like it."

Cain is not the first Republican politician to employ this type of argument in recent years as a means to gain popular support at the expense of Muslim Americans. He is not even the first to do so in light of the Murfreesboro controversy. In July of last year, Ron Ramsey, Tennessee's Lieutenant Governor and then gubernatorial candidate, opined whether "you could even argue that being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life or cult." A month before this, Lou Ann Zelenik, a Republican congressional candidate, stated that the proposed Islamic Center in Murfreesboro comprises "a political movement designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee." These statements concerning Islam resonate with those made by more high-profile Republican politicians, such as Newt Gingrich's characterization of Islam as a "cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization."

Cain's comments reflect a strategy among some Republican politicians to challenge Islam's place in the American religious landscape by calling into question whether it is even a legitimate religion. By casting doubts on Islam's status as a religion, these politicians can let like-minded supporters off the hook over any concerns about the Constitution and the First Amendment's guarantees for religious liberty. The First Amendment, after all, protects religious communities and not "foreign" political ideologies.

But on what grounds can a case be made that Islam is not a legitimate religion? For Cain, the case is rooted in the assumption that Muslims want to force their "intolerant" political and moral convictions on those who are are not Muslim. Never mind that Muslims are in no position in the U.S. to force anything on the larger population, even if that's what they wanted to do. According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Never mind that many Muslim Americans pay taxes, abide by local laws (including zoning laws for proposed Islamic centers such as in Murfreesboro), serve local communities as doctors, teachers and lawyers, and share values and convictions that are in harmony with the U.S. Constitution. Never mind that if any religious community has forced or imposed its convictions on the rest of the population in American history, it has been Protestants.

From restrictions on the rights of Catholics, Jews and atheists to hold public office in some states well into the 19th century, to bans on polygamy and gay marriage to reflect an orthodox Christian view of marriage, to the prohibition of mail delivery on Sundays and the implementation of Sunday blue laws, the historical evidence all points to one religious tradition in the U.S. that has done what Cain claims that Islam is trying to do: Protestant Christianity.

Calls by Cain to restrict the freedom of Muslims to construct houses of worship are not really about whether Islam can be classified as a legitimate religion according to the laws of the land. No, these calls simply reflect the reality of Islamophobia in America and the fact that in some political circles, easy points can be scored by denigrating Islam and by linking Muslim Americans with violence, terrorism and political oppression.

It's possible that Cain did score points among some potential voters for his remarks on Sunday, though I would like to think that he turned off far more voters. Either way, until comments like his are challenged and rejected not simply by the media but by other high-profile politicians, including Republican presidential candidates, the only real "winner" in this ordeal will be religious bigotry.