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AN INTERFAITH VIEW: The rise of political Islamophobia



A hundred years ago, the political use of anti-Semitism had just taken off in Europe. In Vienna, all the politicians used it — rightwing nationalists, the center parties, even the left Social Democrats. "It's just rhetoric," people said. But there was a young man in Vienna at that time who didn't think it was just rhetoric. His name was Adolph Hitler. Before he was finished, European Jewry had been destroyed, and Europe lay in ruins.

What's the lesson? That once religious bigotry gets into public discourse, it's very hard to get it out. And religious hatred isn't "just rhetoric." It's the political equivalent of lighting a match to find a gas leak — there's nothing so bad that an appeal to religious bigotry won't make it exponentially worse.

For the first time in American history, a major candidate has signaled that he intends to use Islamophobia in a presidential campaign. Rudy Giuliani has recruited the hatemonger Daniel Pipes, Islamophobe Peter King and neoconservative godfather Norman Podhoretz as advisors. Clearly Giuliani wants to enlist the Religious Right and the neocons, and will caucus hard for key Jewish support. He'll also try to attract center-right Catholics, centrist Republicans and powerful elements of the military-industrial complex who remember the glory years — and the profits — of the Cold War. He'll be supported by AM hate radio, the Fox network, and rightwing Web sites and newspapers.

Rudy's message is simple: "Radical Islam is the new evil empire, and I will decide who's radical and who isn't. Those who question my judgment are traitors." Giuliani is already arguing for a robust U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, and will use religious language to suggest a new Christian crusade there.

That's one reason why Pat Robertson's recent endorsement of Giuliani is so important. Robertson's apocalyptic appeals to religious war are well-known, but he increasingly has company on the right. Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Rick Scarborough, Charles Colson, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have all jumped on the "Clash of Civilizations" bandwagon. The suddenness with which they've lost interest in previous social issues suggests that they've always been about getting state power, not morality.

Luckily, the Religious Right is currently split on presidential endorsements, but their inherent power-worship — not to mention their dislike of Muslims—will probably pull the evangelical theo-cons into Giuliani's camp if the other candidates drop out.

Giuliani stands for torture, immigrant-bashing, an increased "Christianization" of America and a neoconservative worldview instead of realism. In the Middle East, he'll support collective punishment of Palestinians in order to show the Arab and Muslim worlds exactly who is in charge. He will uncritically support Israel, and almost surely attack Iran. Domestically, he'll demonize the organized Muslim community, occasionally releasing the most vocal rightwing attack dogs (Pipes, Coulter, Malkin) to hint at Muslim internment — and seizure of organizational assets — if they don't stay in line.

He'll also use what I call "secondary Islamophobia," implying that everybody who doesn't agree with him is aiding and abetting terrorism. He'll use the trauma of 9/11 to undermine the Bill of Rights, intimidate the judiciary and frighten the people. To justify domination of Muslims abroad — and the developing world generally — he will promote the Western fantasy of an Islamic "caliphate" that threatens democracy. In reality, it is precisely Giuliani's kind of political bigotry that truly threatens democracy.

The organized Muslim community has been a good role model for a dignified, principled defense of the Palestinians. Hopefully, it can form the broadest possible interfaith coalition to lead the counterattack against political Islamophobia. It could sponsor vigils, press conferences, press releases and newspaper ads opposing religious bigotry by electoral candidates. And it might begin by respectfully but assertively informing the American people about Rudy Giuliani's hateful allies and advisors.

Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. He taught for eight years at Pacific Union College, and his academic specialties are American Studies and American literature. His column addresses current affairs from an American Christian and Interfaith perspective.

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