The GOP 2012 Presidential field is beginning to take shape, and as it does a common theme is echoing among the candidates: Islam is presented as a doctrine incompatible with American values. This discourse is non-factual, and has the potential to alienate and isolate Muslims and Arab Americans alike.
Though perhaps former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had a point when he stated last February that Americans are misinformed about Islam, he himself has repeatedly made inaccurate and offensive generalizations about Muslims and Islam. And while Former Speaker Newt Gingrich is known for flip-flopping, a recent Salon exposé suggests that his recent campaign statements mark a distinct shift in discourse from his days as Speaker of the House, when he won the favor of Muslim congressional staffers by designating a space for Friday prayers in a House office building.
Though these statements and the many more like them are deeply worrisome, what is perhaps most troubling is the possibility that the recent misstatements by Santorum, Gingrich, Herman Cain and others aren’t necessarily reflecting ignorant personal opinions, but rather are part of a calculated political attempt to appeal to their base constituency, and the American public at large. A 2010 poll by Zogby International revealed disturbing biases and a prevalence of misinformation about Arabs and Muslims throughout the American population. 41% of Americans agreed with the statement “Muslims tend to be religious fanatics,” and among Republicans, 60% agreed.
Numbers like these are unsettling and raise important questions about the role of cultural, religious, and ethnic biases in American politics today. The same Zogby poll found that 60% of Americans surveyed wanted to know more about Arab countries and people, and 49% wanted to know more about Islam and Muslims. Arab Americans can play a role in demanding factual and unbiased information about their cultural and religious practices from the media and the political candidates seeking to represent them. Political discourse that is rooted in fear of the “other” will not make America safer. Embracing the rich diversity that makes up America, including its estimated 3 million citizens of Arab descent, will only enforce our nation’s founding principles of equality, justice and freedom for all. It will be interesting to watch the presidential field find its voice on this issue, and though this campaign season has been particularly vitriolic, the next presidential debate will hopefully provide an opportunity for would-be leaders of the free world to step away from xenophobic fear-mongering, and move toward enlightened discourse about the issues facing America today.