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The GOP’s Muslim “Southern Strategy”


When Mitt Romney stated that it was Israel’s “culture” that was responsible for the country’s superior economic development he was simply recycling an argument long used to explain black poverty in the US. African American’s were poor, it was argued, because of a “culture of poverty” and a “pathology” which leads them to have children out of wedlock or become dependent on welfare. This framework, developed a few decades ago, became a staple part of political culture with both Republicans (Reagan’s famous “welfare queens”) and Democrats (Clinton’s ending of “welfare as we know it”) using it to further their electoral campaigns.

So it’s not surprising that Romney should choose to rehash this argument in the Palestinian context—its Arab “culture” that is responsible for the economic misery that Palestinians live under, right? Occupation has nothing to do with it. What we see at work here is not only a rehashing of old Orientalist frames, but the addition of Arabs and Muslims to the “Southern strategy.”

Cultivated in the 1960s and 70s, the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” was a means by which white voters in the South could be won over by subtle appeals to anti-black racism. African American men were coded as criminals to be locked up and a new form of racial control was born. Nixon and later Goldwater exploited the fear of “lawlessness,” supposedly brought on by the civil right movements, as a way to position the GOP as “tough on crime” and to win Southern whites away from the Democratic Party. Appealing to white working class voters’ anxieties about what de-segregation would mean for them economically, the GOP also argued against welfare.

The election of Obama in 2008, and Democratic victories in Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina that year, signaled a blow to the old “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 reaching a crescendo during the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy in 2010. 18% of the public believed that Obama was Muslim in 2010. This figure remains about the same today, but larger numbers of conservative GOP voters (34%) identify Obama as Muslim in 2012 than in 2008 (when the number was 16%).

The new GOP Southern strategy now highlights Muslims and Arabs as the key threats to national security and “law and order,” even while the old one lingers on. This strategy is not subtle in its racist appeals in the way that anti-black racism had to be in the post-civil rights era. It is much more blatant drawing upon a long history of bipartisan attacks on Arabs and Muslims.

Thus, 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 Michelle Bachmann’s accusation that Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin is a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) agent is a part of this approach. It is a means of appealing to the Republican base (about 25% of the electorate) which holds far right wing values.

For this base, Romney is not a candidate they can get excited about (as was evident in the GOP presidential primaries). When Bachmann accused Abedin of infiltrating the government on behalf of the MB she was both employing McCarthyite type fear mongering tactics and 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 and the far right wing media apparatus, demonstrated that she could corral this base and bring them along on a Romney-Bachmann ticket. When asked on CNN about her VP ambitions Bachmann coyly replied that it was not her decision to make. More recently, John Bolton (a key Romney foreign policy advisor) expressed disagreement at the push back Bachmann was facing and came to her defense.

None of us should be surprised if Romney does indeed make her his choice for Veep. Yet, it is worthwhile to note that it was none other than McCain who began the attack on Bachmann. Perhaps recognizing the pitfalls of his Sarah Palin adventure, McCain seems to be sounding the alarm of including politically inexperienced, verbally inept, far rightwing tea party candidates on a presidential slate. Dick Cheney similarly weighed in advising Romney not to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Whatever Bachmann’s future may hold, anti-Muslim racism is going to play a part in the GOP’s strategy this election year. But don’t expect Obama and the Democrats to debunk this by taking a principled anti-racist position. Romney has been squealing that Obama has betrayed the country by leaking national security secrets. Obama outflanked Romney from the right by revealing his “kill lists” thereby demonstrating that he can be “tough on terror.” The range of debate at the top of society is going to be stiflingly narrow unless we build social movements that can challenge and speak out against Islamophobia.

Deepa Kumar is the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. She is associate professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. 

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