The growing cancer inside the Republican Party

It's important to recognise that Islamophobia has become organic to America's Grand Old Party

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar attends a news conference about Islamophobia on Capitol Hill last November. AFP
Powered by automated translation

There was a flurry of news reporting in November and December of last year after Lauren Boebert, a newly elected member of US Congress from the Republican Party, was captured on video telling a crowd of supporters about her nervous elevator ride with Ilhan Omar, a Muslim member of Congress. As her audience giggled in delight, Ms Boebert noted that there was no worry because her Muslim colleague didn't have a backpack – in other words, no bomb. The story wasn’t true – it never happened. But what was true was that she was playing to an audience that was primed to believe her.

The news coverage lasted a few days and then drifted off into the ether. Ms Boebert is part of a new breed of Republican members cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump. They are confrontational, creating outrage to generate attention and money, and bigots who, because they pay no price for their bigotry, continue on their merry way.

A toxic disease of bigotry has taken hold in the GOP polity. It didn't start with this congresswoman or with the former president. The anti-Muslim remarks and policies they serve up are merely the fruit of a poisonous tree that was planted and carefully cultivated by some in the GOP for decades.

This wasn't always the case. During the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, the White House was respectful in its outreach to the still-new American Muslim community. It wasn't the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 that brought on the change; it was the way anti-Muslim ideologues used 9/11 to foment fear and hatred that made the difference. Specifically, it was the ascendancy of neoconservatives and the Christian right in the Republican party that was largely responsible for the change.

Recall how after 9/11, while then president George W Bush was warning Americans not to target Arabs and Muslims, both John Ashcroft, his attorney general, and his neocon ideologues were doing just that. Even some of the networks, not just Fox News, were complicit. When Americans were asking the question "Why did they attack us?", the networks too often gave a platform to well established anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bigots to provide the answers – some were even paid commentators.

At first, the impact was limited. Throughout the 1990s, and as late as mid-2003, polling showed that American attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims were still favourable – among both Democrats and Republicans. There was a steady erosion during the next few years.

It was the ascent of Barack Obama that decisively turned the tide. Racism and anti-Muslim bigotry came together in an all-out campaign to "other" the former president. "He wasn't born here." "He's not like us." "He's a secret Muslim who hates America." All were propagated by a well-funded, well-organised campaign. Many will remember how the late senator John McCain, who ran for president against Mr Obama in 2008, was forced to confront a supporter who challenged him at a 2008 rally by saying that she couldn't support Mr Obama because "he's an Arab". Attacking America’s first black president with conventional racism was less desirable then, so it was more acceptable to focus on his fabricated Muslim identity or Arab heritage.

It continued. In 2009, then Republican congresswoman Sue Myrick wrote the foreword for a book titled Muslim Mafia, a bigoted assault on American Muslim staffers on Capitol Hill. Then, in 2010, former GOP house speaker Newt Gingrich preyed on the growing anti-Muslim sentiment, charging that plans to build an Islamic Community Centre blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre was a thinly disguised Muslim effort to build a "victory mosque" celebrating "their conquest of America". The National Republican Congressional Committee ran TV ads opposing the construction in 17 congressional races.

By 2012, the hysteria within the GOP had grown to such an extent that during a presidential primary debate, almost every candidate on stage pledged either never to appoint a Muslim or to make Muslims take a special loyalty oath before appointing them. Only the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, disagreed.

The campaign continued. In 2012, former congresswoman Michele Bachmann drew headlines charging that Huma Abedin, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton's aide, was a Muslim Brotherhood supporter. And then with Mr Trump's ascent in 2016, the campaign reached its peak with his pledge to ban immigration of Muslims, warning that "there's something going on with them".

So, when a month ago, the Republican congresswoman was telling her fictional elevator story, she knew she was playing to an audience who had been primed to understand it.

Recent polling shows a deep partisan divide on attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims. Republicans have overwhelmingly unfavourable views of both, while Democrats, possibly in reaction to Mr Trump's policies, have far more favourable views.

Considering this background, it's important to recognise that the problem is deeper than one congresswoman or one president. It has become organic to the GOP. They created this bigotry and weaponised it for electoral advantage. It's their cancer, and they must root it out.

It's also important to note the extent to which Democrats have been timid in response. They haven't attacked it and stigmatised it with the same vigour they use to combat bigotry against black, Jewish, Latino, Asian, or other minority Americans. And Democratic leaders, including Mr Obama, have played into this "othering" of Muslims by securitising their relationship with that community – too often viewing them through the lens of national security, instead of dealing with Muslims as simply citizens, neighbours and friends.

Finally, Democrats must acknowledge their responsibility for this “othering” and end their fear of engaging with Arabs or Muslims who raise legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. When Democratic leaders demonise these voices as anti-Semitic or accept the GOP's effort to challenge their fitness to serve in government to avoid the fallout of engagement, Democrats allow the bigotry to continue.

This is a battle that can be won. But it will only be won if it is confronted head-on in both parties.

Published: January 17, 2022, 9:00 AM