Fear of the other cripples US
Published in Gulf News, 11 August 2010
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
Something that can only be described as sinister is happening to the Republican Party in the United States.
This looks, so far at least, like a good year for the GOP. Their political base is angry and motivated. Getting Republican voters to the polls in November does not look as though it is going to be a problem — and turnout is always a major factor in who wins the midterm elections.
In an election year there is always a temptation to make everything political. It is possible, however, to go too far. One of the most famous campaign ads in American history was a 1964 TV commercial for Lyndon Johnson known as Daisy Girl. It featured an adorable child who began the spot playing ‘He loves me, he loves me not' with a flower — only to be obliterated by a nuclear blast.
The message was unmistakable: Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, could not be trusted with authority over the US nuclear arsenal. Though Goldwater had once made a tasteless joke about the desirability of "lobbing a grenade into the Kremlin men's room", Johnson's ad was universally seen as taking political attacks several steps too far. It aired exactly once.
The lesson from that episode was that even in the rough-and-tumble world of American politics, there are limits. The question is why no one on the political right is drawing an appropriate line today where Arabs and Muslims are concerned.
Specifically, why are Republican leaders purposefully inflaming the debate surrounding the Islamic Centre planned for a site several blocks from the spot in Manhattan where the World Trade Centre once stood? The argument has become poisonous, mainly because people hoping to score short-term political points have chosen to inflame it.
I'm not talking here about run-of-the-mill bigots like Tennessee's Lieutenant Governor, who recently called Islam a "cult" and suggested that Muslims might not be entitled to the American Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom (last week he lost badly in the Republican primary for the Tennessee governorship). Nor am I talking about loopy conspiracy theorists like the Texas congressman who believes Al Qaida is sending pregnant women to the US to have babies who will then be raised overseas as terrorists, and sent back to America 20 or 30 years hence to wreak havoc, protected by their American passports.
No, I am talking about supposedly responsible leaders of the Republican Party like Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the house (meaning, among other things, that he was once second in line for the presidency — under the US Constitution if the president and vice-president both die or are incapacitated it is the speaker who takes over). Recently, Gingrich became one of the higher-profile public figures to oppose the construction of a Muslim Community Centre in lower Manhattan.
Denouncing the plans late last month Gingrich warned of what he termed "creeping sharia" (no, he does not capitalise it; yes, as a former university history professor he ought to know that he should).
"It is simply grotesque to erect a mosque at the site of the most visible and powerful symbol of the horrible consequences of radical Islamist ideology," he wrote.
It should be noted here that the project, formally known as the "Cordoba House" but routinely described in the US media as the "Ground Zero Mosque", sits on property that was never part of the World Trade Centre complex. Not that this fact appears to have given those determined to play politics with it any pause.
In a speech delivered a few days after his article was published, Gingrich asserted that Cordoba House should not be built until Saudi Arabia allows the construction of churches and synagogues. That, he said, would put all of us on an even playing field.
On the contrary, Americans schooled in their history know that what makes the US different from places like Saudi Arabia is precisely openness — the even playing field America offers to all religions regardless of whether others do or not.
Position of power
Gingrich is a national leader of his party. He is potentially a serious presidential candidate. He has already stood near the top of the American power pyramid and knows, or ought to, that serious national politicians have responsibilities that go beyond those of their local brethren.
Fear of the unknown — distrust of something remote from our experience and, perhaps, only dimly understood — is an unfortunate, but common part of human nature. What separates leaders from political hacks is their ability to recognise, and act on, that fact.
Republicans like Gingrich need to think beyond election day and ask what message they are sending to the people in the broader world with whom they will have to engage, should they be lucky enough to win this November.
Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.