A few weeks back, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal delivered a speech to the Henry Jackson Society in London focusing on the dangers "radical Islam" poses to the world's "freedom loving people". Far from a serious discussion, the speech amounted to little more than a dangerous mix of trite sloganeering and reckless jingoism. Jindal is no simple-minded demagogue like Sarah Palin or Michele Bachman. Because he is a Rhodes Scholar and a presidential aspirant, one supposes that he thought through his remarks.
While Jindal claimed to be addressing the threat from "ISIS and all forms of radical Islam", he got carried away with his rhetoric and ended up raising questions about Islam and Muslims, in general. For example, after noting in his remarks that he had no interest in defaming any religion, he disingenuously asks "How many Muslims in this world agree with these radicals?...I hope its a small minority. But it is clear that far too many do". He later adds this thought, "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...OK, it is their problem and they need to deal with it". Jindal goes on to demand that Muslim leaders condemn these radicals stating that "if they refuse to do it, then they are part of the problem".
Even more dangerous and inflammatory was the sub-text to Jindal's speech in which he warns about "non-assimilationist Muslims" moving to the West where they have taken advantage of the "wide berth" democracy provides and have established "their own nation within a nation", "no-go zones", where they impose "their own set of laws".
Like Palin and Bachmann before him, Jindal's charges are flat out wrong. Our polling 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 ISIS and other forms of "radical Islam".
Further, the charge that there are "no go zones" in Western democracies has been repeatedly debunked. When a so-called terrorism expert made that claim about Birmingham, UK on Fox News, British Prime Minister David Cameron called the "expert" "clearly a complete idiot". Fox News apologized three times for this slanderous remark. But not Jindal. Following his London speech, he repeated the charge several times, even suggesting that "if we're not careful the same no-go zones you're seeing now in Europe will come to America" complete with the "imposition of Sharia law". He continued, saying that it was "not acceptable [for] people who want to come and conquer us. That's not immigration...that's colonization...if they don't want to be Americans, they shouldn't come to America". The reality, however, is that we have Muslim Americans in Congress (one of whom is a former law enforcement official who now sits on the House Intelligence Committee), and Muslim Mayors, and City Council Members, and State Representatives, and Judges, and Police Chiefs-all of whom are Americans who uphold the US Constitution, and not Sharia Law.
What concerns me is not just that Jindal is dead wrong in his assumptions and allegations. More troubling is that his remarks suggest that the GOP, instead of learning from past failed attempts to exploit fear of Muslims, intends to double down on this theme in 2016.
In 2008, then Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin not so subtlety suggested that Barack Obama might be a Muslim and a whisper campaign caught hold attempting to make much of the Democratic nominee's middle name, Hussein. That didn't work, nor did the Republican Party's 2010 opposition to the effort to build a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. Terming it a "Victory Mosque", 17 GOP Congressional candidates ran ads suggesting that if their opponent won, they would facilitate a Muslim takeover of America. Fifteen of the 17 lost. In 2012, Republicans tried Muslim-baiting again with 5 of the candidates running for the party's presidential nomination pledging that they would not appoint any Muslim to a post in their Administration or at the very least require that Muslim's take a special loyalty oath to America. Because Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was especially sensitive to religious discrimination, he refused to bite. When he became the GOP standard-bearer that issue died.
But that's not all. Despite the fact that no Muslim in the US has ever even suggested imposing Sharia law, in over two dozen states Republican law makers 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 might drop the issue. But no, Jindal, a potential presidential aspirant, has brought it back front and center. Why? The simplest answer is that, despite its wrong-headedness, 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 unfavorable views of Muslims and wouldn't trust a Muslim holding a government post.
It is worth noting that this partisan divide masks 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. On the other hand, 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 GOP faithful, it's a proven loser with the broader electorate.
But hey, for the party that has voted 56 times to over-turn Obamacare and has staked out a hard anti-immigration stance, I guess tacking on another sure-fail issue to their divisive agenda makes sense.
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 remains a concern. We will not be the "One America" we claim to be until America's Republicans stop acting like Europe's fringe far-right and start acting like German Chancellor Angela Merkel who rebuked her country's anti-Muslim activists by saying "We are all Germans".
Since a substantial minority of Republicans actually believe that the President is a 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 or Palin or Bachmann. When that happens, we will be on the road to sanity and security.
Dr. James J. Zogby is The President of Arab American Institutes.
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