During the 2010 midterm elections, Republican Tea Party gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino achieved moderate fame for being one of several candidates to make Islamophobia a central component of his campaign — specifically, opposition to the construction of a “Park51” Islamic community center in the area surrounding the fallen World Trade Center towers in New York City. Among other things, Paladino promised in a campaign ad to “use the power of eminent domain to stop [the Park51 community center] and make the site a war memorial instead of a monument to those who attacked our country.”
But Paladino never got the chance to use such powers, because he was soundly defeated by Democrat Andrew Cuomo that year, who walked away with 63 percent of the vote. A number of factors contributed to his loss, but a new Center for American Progress report entitled “Fear, Inc. 2.0: The Islamophobia Network’s Efforts to Manufacture Hate in America,” argues that Paladino’s emphasis on Islamophobic rhetoric may have hurt his chances, noting “only two of the 17 political campaigns where Park51 was made a central issue proved successful in 2010.”
These losses signify Islamophobia’s waning political impact as a method for achieving victory at the ballot box, according to CAP’s findings.
“While Islamophobia clearly still has a home on the political right, the past few years indicate that it has failed to gain traction among moderate conservatives,” researchers concluded.
The 2012 elections saw similar outcomes, with some of the most outspoken Islamaphobes losing their seats. Among them were Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) and Florida state Rep. Adam Hasner (R), and most notably Florida Congressmen Allen West (R), who has held events with prominent anti-Muslim activists and claimed that Islam is inherently violent. West was trounced in 2012, even though he outspent his opponent by more than $13.4 million.
Several conservative politicians attempt to use anti-Islam rhetoric in their campaigns during the 2014 elections, but to a lesser degree than in the past. The study points to Larry Kaifesh, a Republican candidate who ran a deeply anti-Islam campaign against Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) in 2014. Kaifesh blasted President Obama for saying that ISIS is not Islamic, and CAP researchers cited him as directly attacking Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, saying, “I think if you follow Islam the way Muhammad wanted you to, you will be intolerant of nonbelievers, you will support aggression and you will believe that there will only be peace in the world if the world is Islam.”
Nevertheless, Kaifesh lost his race, as did several others who centered their campaigns on anti-Muslim talking points.
“Of the nine candidates vying for federal and state offices who sought to boost their elections chances by playing into Islamophobic sentiment, only one non-incumbent was victorious, with four of the other candidates suffering defeats,” the report said.
Yet while politicians dialed back the Islamophobic rhetoric in 2014, the trend seems to have had a resurgence in recent weeks, triggered largely by the rise of ISIS and the tragic slaughter of Charlie Hebdo journalists by jihadists in Paris. Although millions of Europeans — including many Muslims — marched in peaceful solidarity with those killed in France a few days after the attack, conservative American lawmakers such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and Rep. Steven King (R-NY) tried to use the situation to frame Islam as an existential threat to America. Both lawmakers went on radio and television to warn against the creation of so-called “no go zones” in the United States, pointing to regions in the United Kingdom and France where militant Muslims supposedly rule with an iron fist and local police forces refuse to enter. These “no go zones,” however, were quickly proven to be a fabrication, prompting an apology from Fox News. But Jindal doubled down on his comments anyway, conducting another radio interview in which he expressed concerns about Muslims coming to “conquer” the United States and impose rigid interpretations of Sharia law.
“If we’re not careful the same no-go zones you’re seeing now in Europe will come to America,” Jindal said.
Politicians who use this kind of rhetoric are attempting to capitalize on latent anti-Muslim sentiment held by many American voters — feelings that often rise following media coverage of attacks by jihadists. The report lists a 2014 poll conducted by the Arab America Institute showing that American views of Muslims have worsened over the past few years: in 2010, 35 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Muslims, but that number dropped to only 27 percent in 2014. In addition, 2014 survey results supplied to ThinkProgress by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 47 percent of Americans mostly disagree or completely disagree with the question “[Are] the values of Islam … at odds with American values and way of life?”
However, as the report notes, anti-Muslim feelings are not in and of themselves a powerful vote-getter, nor is Islamophobia absolute in the United States. A near-equal percentage of respondents — 44 percent — disagreed with the same statement in the PRRI survey, and another poll conducted in 2011 found that most Americans are comfortable or somewhat comfortable with having a mosque built near their home or a Muslim teaching at an elementary school in their community.
Wednesday’s report is a follow-up to a similar study released in 2011 that analyzed the wide network of organizations that orchestrate and fund anti-Islam efforts in the United States.