AMERICA How Muslim-bashing loses
elections By Stephan Salisbury
During the 2010 mid-term election
campaign, virtually every hard-charging candidate
on the far right took a moment to trash a Muslim,
a mosque, or Islamic pieties. In the wake of those
elections, with 85 new Republican House members
and a surging Tea Party movement, the political
virtues of anti-Muslim rhetoric as a means of
rousing voters and alarming the general electorate
have gone largely unchallenged.
become an article of faith that a successful 2010
candidate on the right should treat Islam with
revulsion, drawing a line between America the
Beautiful and the destructive impurities of
Islamic cultists and radicals.
are learning what Europeans have known for years:
Islam-bashing wins votes," wrote journalist
Michael Scott Moore
in the wake of the 2010
election. His assumption was shared by many then
and is still widely accepted today.
the 2012 campaign ramps up along with the
anti-Muslim rhetoric machine, a look back at 2010
turns out to offer quite an unexpected story about
the American electorate. In fact, with rare
exceptions, "Islam-bashing" proved a strikingly
poor campaign tactic. In state after state,
candidates who focused on illusory Muslim
"threats," tied ordinary American Muslims to
terrorists and radicals, or characterized mosques
as halls of triumph (and prayer in them as
indoctrination) went down to defeat.
from winning votes, it could be argued that
"Muslim-bashing" alienated large swaths of the
electorate - even as it hardened an already hard
core on the right.
The fact is that many
of the loudest anti-Muslim candidates lost, and
for a number of those who won, victory came by the
smallest of margins, often driven by forces that
went well beyond anti-Muslim rhetoric. A careful
look at 2010 election results indicates that
Islamophobic talking points can gain attention for
a candidate, but the constituency that can be
swayed by them remains limited, although not
A closer look It's worth taking a closer look. In 2010,
anti-Muslim rhetoric rode in with the emergence
that July of a "mosque" controversy in lower
Manhattan. New York Republican gubernatorial
candidate Rick Lazio, facing indifference to his
candidacy in the primary race, took up what
right-wing anti-Muslim bloggers had dubbed "the
Mosque at Ground Zero," although the planned
cultural center in question would not have been a
mosque and was not at Ground Zero.
handy alternate reality already sketched out for
him, Lazio demanded that Democratic gubernatorial
candidate Andrew Cuomo, then state attorney
general, "investigate" the mosque. He implied as
well that its leaders had ties to Hamas and that
the building, when built, would somehow represent
a threat to the "personal security and safety" of
A fog of acrid rhetoric
subsequently enshrouded the campaign - from Lazio
and his Tea Party-backed opponent, Carl Paladino,
a Buffalo businessman. Paladino beat the hapless
Lazio in the primary and was then handily
dispatched by Cuomo in the general election.
Cuomo had not joined the Muslim bashing,
but by the end of the race, dozens of major
political figures and potential Republican
presidential candidates - including Newt Gingrich,
Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick
Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Rick Perry - had
denounced the loathsome Mosque at Ground Zero and
sometimes the whole of Islam. What began as a
local issue had by then become a national
political litmus test and a wormhole to the
country's darkest sentiments.
But the hard
reality of election results demonstrated one
incontrovertible fact. Both Lazio and Paladino,
heavily invested in portraying Muslims as somehow
different from everyone else, went down to dismal
defeats. Nor could these trouncings simply be
passed off as what happens in a relatively liberal
northeastern state. Even in supposed hotbeds of
anti-Muslim sentiment, xenophobic rhetoric and
fear mongering repeatedly proved weak reeds for
Take Tennessee, a state in the
throes of its own mosque-building controversy (in
Murfreesboro) at the height of the 2010 campaign.
There, gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey couldn't
slam Islam often enough. Despite raising $2.7
million, however, he went down to defeat in the
Republican primary, attracting only 22% of the
vote. During the campaign, Republican victor Bill
Haslam, now governor, simply stated that decisions
about mosques and religious construction projects
should be governed by local zoning ordinances and
In another 2010
Tennessee race, Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee
Republican congressional candidate and Tea Party
activist, denounced the Murfreesboro mosque plans
relentlessly. Zelenik ran her campaign like an
unreconstructed Indian fighter, with Muslims
standing in as opponents in a frontier war. As she
typically put the matter, "Until the American
Muslim community find it in their hearts to
separate themselves from their evil, radical
counterparts, to condemn those who want to destroy
our civilization and will fight against them, we
are not obligated to open our society to any of
It didn't work. Zelenik, too, was
defeated, attracting 30% of the vote in a
three-way primary race; the winner, state senator
Diane Black, edged her out with 31%. Black
declined to denounce the Murfreesboro mosque
project and went on to win the general election.
Islamophobic failures around the
country The impotency of anti-Muslim
rhetoric was not some isolated local phenomenon.
Consider this: in the 2010 election cycle,
anti-Muslim Senate candidate Sharron Angle was
defeated in Nevada, and the similarly inclined
Jeff Greene lost his Senate bid in Florida.
A slew of congressional candidates who
engaged in anti-Muslim rants or crassly sought to
exploit the Mosque at Ground Zero controversy also
went down, including Francis X Becker, Jr, in New
York, Kevin Calvey in Oklahoma, Dan Fanelli and
Ronald McNeil in Florida, Ilario Pantano in North
Carolina, Spike Maynard in West Virginia, and Dr.
Marvin Scott in Indiana.
candidates bad-mouthing Muslims failed, of course.
Renee Ellmers, a nurse running in North Carolina's
Second District, won her race by about 1,500 votes
after airing an incendiary television spot that
likened the lower Manhattan cultural center to a
"victory mosque" and conflated Islam with
terrorism. But Ellmers' main campaign talking
point was the abomination of health-care reform.
That "victory mosque" was only a bauble-like
embellishment, a dazzling attention grabber.
Similarly, Republican Rick Scott, running
for governor in Florida, featured a deceptive
television ad that referred to the New York
project as "[President Barack] Obama's mosque"
and, like Ellmers's ad, seamlessly fused Islam,
terrorism, and murder. Tea Party favorite Scott,
however, had a slight advantage in gaining a
victory margin of about one percentage point over
Democrat Alex Sink: he poured a staggering $73
million of his own money into the race in which he
largely painted Obama as an anti-business
Despite lavishing more
personal cash on the race than any candidate in
Florida history, Scott won by less than 100,000
votes, falling short of 50% of the total. He was
only the second Florida governor to take office
without the backing of a majority of the
If some virulent political
rhetoric was credited with bringing victory to
candidates at the time, its effect in retrospect
looks more questionable and less impressive. Take
the victorious campaign of Republican Allen West
for Florida's 22nd congressional district. A Tea
Party favorite quick to exploit anti-Muslim fears,
he was also a veteran of the Iraq War and had been
fined by the army for the beating and threatened
killing of an Iraqi prisoner.
campaign, he made numerous statements linking
Islam with terrorism and weighed in loudly on the
proposed Manhattan Islamic center more than 1,600
kilometers away. In an open letter to his
opponent, two-term incumbent Democrat Ron Klein,
he noted that "the mosque symbolizes a clear
victory in the eyes of those who brought down the
Klein then caved and joined
West in opposing the cultural center, claiming
that Ground Zero should only be "a living memorial
where all Americans can honor those who were
killed on September 11, 2001".
election, West reversed the results of his 2008
race against Klein and ever since, his victory has
been seen as one of the triumphs of anti-Muslim
trash talking. A look at the numbers, however,
tells a slightly different story. For one thing,
West, too, had a significant financial advantage.
He had already raised more than $4 million
as the campaign began, more than four times his
total in 2008 and twice as much as Klein. Much of
West's funding came from out-of-state donors and
conservative PACs. For all that money, however,
West won the election by not "losing" as many
votes as Klein did (when compared to 2008). In
2010, West won with about 115,000 votes to Klein's
97,000; in 2008, when Klein had the funding
advantage and a presidential year electorate at
his back, he beat West, 169,000 to 140,000.
Off-year elections normally mean lower
turnouts, which clearly worked to West's
advantage. His victory total amounted to about a
third of the 2008 total vote. And there's the
point. The motivated, far-right base of the
Republican Party/Tea Party can, at best, pull in
about a quarter to a third of the larger
In addition, West became the
Definer: He blocked out the issues, agitated his
base, and got people to the polls. Klein ceded the
terms of the debate to him and failed to galvanize
support. Did anti-Muslim rhetoric help West?
Probably. Can it work in a presidential election
year when substantial turnout ensures that the
base won't rule? Unlikely.
candidates on the right are already ramping up the
rhetoric for 2012. Herman Cain, the pizza king who
would be president, is but one obvious example. He
says he may not know much, but one thing he knows
for sure: when he's elected, no Muslims will find
their way into his administration.
put it in an interview with Christianity Today,
"Based upon the little knowledge that I have of
the Muslim religion, you know, they have an
objective to convert all infidels or kill them."
Cain told the website Think Progress that he'd
brook no Muslim cabinet members or judges because
"there is this creeping attempt, there's this
attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the
Muslim faith into our government. It does not
belong in our government".
national television audience at a recent
Republican presidential debate, however, Cain
proceeded to say that he really hadn't said what
he had, in fact, said. This is called a
"clarification". What he meant, Cain reassured
television viewers, was that he would only bar
disloyal Muslims, the ones "trying to kill us".
It almost seems as if candidates defeated
in 2010 when using over-the-top anti-Muslim
rhetoric are expecting a different outcome in
2012. Lawyer Lynne Torgerson in Minnesota is a
fine example of this syndrome. In 2010, she
decided to take on Keith Ellison, the first Muslim
member of congress, pounding him relentlessly for
his supposed "ties" to "radical Islamism".
"And what do I know of Islam?" she wrote
on the "issues" page of her 2010 campaign website.
"Well, I know of 9/11." Alas for Torgerson, the
strategy didn't work out so well. She was crushed
by Ellison, garnering only 3% of the vote. Now,
Torgerson is back, her message even more extreme.
Ellison is no longer simply tied to "radical
Islamism," whatever that may be; he has apparently
used his time in congress to become a "radical
Islamist" pushing, she claims, nothing less than
the adoption of "Islamic Sharia law."
Sharia is the new mosque at Ground Zero Sharia has become 2012's Mosque at Ground
Zero, with about 20 states considering laws that
would ban its use and candidates shrilly
denouncing it - a convenient way, presumably, to
keep harping on nonexistent, yet
anxiety-producing, "threats". Since no one knows
what you're talking about when you decry sharia,
it's even easier than usual to say anything, no
matter how bizarre or duplicitous.
prepared to hear a lot about "sharia" between now
and November 2012.
Going forward a few
things seem clear. For one, the Islamophobic
machinery fueled by large rightwing foundations,
PACs, individuals, and business interests will
continue to elaborate a virtual reality in which
Muslim and Islamic "threats" lurk around every
American corner and behind every door.
is important to realize that once you've entered
this political landscape, taking down anti-Muslim
"facts" with reality is a fool's errand. This is a
realm akin to a video game, where such "facts" are
dispatched only to rise again like so many
zombies. In the world of Resident Evil, truth
But bear in mind that, as
the 2010 election results made clear, that
particular virtual reality is embraced by a
distinct and limited American minority. For at
least 70% of the electorate, when it comes to
anti-Muslim slander, facts do matter. Failure to
challenge the bogus rhetoric only allows the
loudest, most reckless political gamer to set the
agenda, as Ron Klein discovered to his dismay in
Attacks on the deadly threat of
Sharia, the puffing up of Muslim plots against
America, and the smearing of candidates who
decline to make blanket denunciations of
"Islamism" are sure to emerge loudly in the 2012
election season. Such rhetoric, however, may prove
even less potent at the polls than the relatively
impotent 2010 version, even if this reality has
gone largely unnoticed by the national media.
For those who live outside the precincts
where right-wing virtual reality reigns supreme,
facts are apparently having an impact. The vast
majority of the electorate seems to be viewing
anti-Muslim alarms as a distraction from other,
far more pressing problems: real problems.
Stephan Salisbury is cultural
writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a
TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is
Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the
Homeland. To listen to Timothy MacBain's
latest TomCast audio interview in which Salisbury
discusses the changing feelings of Americans
regarding Muslims and Islam in the context of the
2012 election, click here,
or download it to your iPod here.