It may not be what you think.
When Mitt Romney claimed that Israel’s “culture” is responsible for its economic superiority, he was recycling the “Southern Strategy”— this time with Muslims and Arabs added to the mix.
The GOP devised the Southern Strategy in the 1960s and ’70s as a way to win over white voters with subtle racial messages about crime and welfare. African-American men were coded as criminals to be locked up, and poverty was presented as a product of “black culture” not to be encouraged through government “handouts.”
Romney’s backhanded hailing of Palestinian “culture” fits this framework.
The election of President Obama in 2008 — and Democratic victories in Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina that year — signaled a blow to the traditional Southern Strategy. Yet if Obama’s African-American roots were no longer going to be as useful, his Muslim familial connections would quickly rise to prominence. Obama was “accused” during his campaign of being a “secret Muslim,” a charge that would come back again and again.
Amazingly, even today 17 percent of the public believes he’s Muslim. A whopping 34 percent of conservative GOP voters identify him as Muslim, more than twice the level during his presidential campaign in 2008.
The new GOP Southern Strategy highlights Muslims and Arabs as the key threats to national security and “law and order,” even while the old strategy persists.
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., is raising money for his reelection campaign in part by praising the endorsement of a libertarian blogger who claims Obama is Muslim.
Similarly, the accusation of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin is a Muslim Brotherhood agent is a part of this approach. It is a means of appealing to the Republican base (about 25 percent of the electorate), which holds far right-wing values.
When Bachmann accused Abedin of infiltrating the government, she was not only employing McCarthyite fearmongering, but also positioning the Republican Party, and Romney, as a “lesser evil.” That is, if Romney is not the darling of the far right, he is certainly better than a Democratic Party infiltrated by Muslim agents (be they Obama or Abedin).
Bachmann’s attack on Abedin — and its ringing endorsement by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Romney’s foreign policy guru John Bolton — indicates that Romney has no problem stirring up the ugly pot.
Muslims and Arabs have been incorporated into the Southern Strategy, and Islamophobia will continue to thrive this election season unless people of conscience speak out.
Deepa Kumar is the author of the new book “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.” She is associate professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University and can be reached at email@example.com.
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