A few weeks ago, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal delivered a speech to the Henry Jackson Society in London focusing on the dangers posed by “radical Islam” to the world’s “freedom- loving people”. It was little more than a mix of sloganeering and jingoism. Mr Jindal is no simple-minded demagogue like Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann. As a former Rhodes Scholar and a White House aspirant, one supposes that he thought through his remarks.
And yet, he ended up raising questions about Islam and Muslims in general. For example, after noting that he had no interest in defaming any religion, he disingenuously asked: “How many Muslims in this world agree with these radicals? ... I hope it’s a small minority. But it is clear that far too many do.” He later added: “A so-called religion that allows for and endorses killing those who oppose it is not a religion at all, it is a terrorist movement ... Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem.”
The subtext was inflammatory too. He warned against “non-assimilationist Muslims” moving to the West where they have taken advantage of the “wide berth” that democracy provides and established “their own nation within a nation”. These are “no-go zones”, he said.
But he was wrong, just like Ms Palin and Ms Bachmann who said the same sort of things. Polling by Zogby Analytics shows that extremist violence has scant support across the Arab world. Most Muslim religious institutions have condemned the violent groups that use religion to justify their actions, as have the many Arab and Muslim states that have declared war on ISIL and other forms of extremism.
Further, the charge that there are “no-go zones” in western democracies has been debunked. When a so-called terrorism expert made that claim on Fox News about Birmingham, England, British prime minister David Cameron said he was “clearly a complete idiot”. The channel apologised three times.
But not Mr Jindal. He has repeated his “no-go zones” remark several times, even suggesting that America needs to be careful the same doesn’t happen to it, complete with the “imposition of Sharia”. What concerns me is not just that he is dead wrong but that his Republican Party intends to double down on this theme in the forthcoming election campaign.
In 2008, Ms Palin, the party's vice-presidential candidate, suggested that Barack Obama might be a Muslim and a whispering campaign took hold and tried to make much of the Democratic nominee's middle name, Hussein. That didn't work, nor did the party's 2010 opposition to the effort to build a Muslim community centre in lower Manhattan, not far from the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Several of the party's Congressional candidates ran ads suggesting that it would facilitate a Muslim takeover of America. But 15 of those 17 candidates lost.
In 2012, the Republicans tried Muslim-baiting again but that effort died an early death.
But that’s not all. Despite the fact that no Muslim in the US has ever even suggested imposing Sharia, Republican law makers in more than two-dozen states have attempted to pass anti-Sharia law legislation. And in every one, the efforts have failed.
With this sorry history, one would think that a Rhodes Scholar such as Mr Jindal might drop the issue. But no, he has brought it back to the fore. Why? The simplest answer is that, despite its wrongheadedness, the issue remains red meat for the Republican faithful. Our polls show that there is a deep partisan divide on matters involving Islam and Muslims. Strong majorities of self-identified Republicans have unfavourable views of Muslims.
There is also a demographic divide. Younger voters, educated women and racial minorities are on one side. These voters tend to have a more tolerant and open view of the world and are more accepting of Muslims and other minority groups. But older white voters and those calling themselves “born again Christians” are far less tolerant. On this issue, self-identified “independents” largely support a more tolerant view of Muslims. The result is that while the Muslim-baiting tactic might work with the Republican Party faithful, it’s a proven loser with the broader electorate.
While I have little concern that this Jindal nonsense will win out, the damage that it continues to do to our public discourse and the hurt that it creates for Muslims in America remain a concern. America will not be the one nation it claims to be until the Republicans stop acting like Europe’s fringe far-right groups.
Considering that a substantial minority of Republicans actually believe that president Obama is Muslim, he can’t be the one to challenge them on this issue. Muslim-baiting will not end until a Republican leader steps forward and takes on the likes of Jindal, Palin, Bachmann. When that happens, we will be back on the road to sanity.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa