Hold onto your floppy Sunday hats, America! The Muslims will stop at nothing to implement Sharia law and take away all of your constitutionally protected religious freedom! With the Tennessee renomination of freshman Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), and the defeat of her Tea Party rival, Lou Ann Zelenik last week, all bets are off. This election, for the nomination to the 6th Congressional District, means the beginning of the end for American Christian values and the destruction of our democratic institutions by the Quran. Goodbye democracy, hello slow, agonizing death of of democratic values. Are you scared yet?
The race between Black and Zelenik was deemed the "craziest GOP House race of the year" and it ends a 2-year-long personal rivalry between the two women. Zelenik, who was defeated in the 2010 nomination bid against Black, amped up the paranoia of an Islamic takeover in Tennessee and the nation. Predicated on the building of the controversial Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Zelenik claimed that "they're building an Islamic Center to teach Sharia law. That is what we stand in opposition to." Black, she charged, was not as condemning as she was of the Islamic Center and the vile plot to destroy America.
The lack of any proof beyond fear-mongering did not seem to matter. After her defeat in 2010, Zelenik began the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, a Christian group dedicated to helping citizens understand how Sharia law threatens the nation. In November, it hosted a "Constitution or Sharia?" conference, with a long list of speakers, including the apocalyptically-insightful Frank Gaffney. Zelenik was also endorsed by two lawmakers who went on to sponsor a bill that aimed to ban Islam in Tennessee, effectively equating the religion with treason.
Though the actual content of their most recent campaign messages were nearly identical, Zelenik focused on fearful rhetoric against the radical Islamist threat. Black just was not as strongly opposed to the mosque as Zelenik; Black asserted that she still would respect the freedom of religion in Tennessee. This anti-American treachery was a clear indication of her allegiance to the Islamist cause.
The rhetoric, however, was not enough to prevent Black from walking away with a margin of victory of more than 2-1 in the 6th District of Tennessee's Republican nomination primary.
This contest over who could be more opposed to Islam, and by a tenuous and tortuous extension, the best American patriot and defender of American values, raises serious questions about expectations of political debate in the United States. How does the Tennessee campaign's anti-Islam hysteria indicate a larger undercurrent of cultural discontents in the post-9/11 political climate?
These discontents have been framed as a backlash to American diversity, and specifically, the presence and visibility of Islam in society. Instead of facts, however, this backlash is couched in terms of right and wrong, authenticities and aberrations, and American and anti-American. It is based on suspicion, xenophobia, misinformation, and a narrow and exclusive interpretation of America's cultural and religious character. It is reactionary in nature.
The key plaintiff in the case against American Muslims is a small but loud faction belonging to the social conservative movement. This faction has begun to attach itself to the nebulous Tea Party movement, confounding its original economic message. The rhetoric is working its way through the ranks of leadership and high-ranking members of Congress and at least one prominent Tea Party group. Not even the most conservative of Republican party figureheads are safe from accusations of insidious collusion with the Islamist conspiracy.
This subset of Americans hold vehement distrust and hatred for Islam and reject American diversity on a broader level. It is justified through lazy, uninformed assumptions and an esoterically-narrow interpretation of Americanism, all read through a religiously-extreme lens. This faction finds itself in an epic battle to fend off what it perceives as gross attacks on its religious freedoms by having to share space with Islam. These views lack a complete historical or cultural context that they often dismiss as liberal indoctrination and "anti-American." The wishy-washy, accommodating penchants of liberals are a threat to democratic institutions in its timeless America. Tolerance and accommodation of Islam in society is a capitulation to the enemy, and adherents feel like prisoners trapped in a liberal, progressive hell. America is constantly under attack, and by extension, its religious freedoms and American identity.
When all else fails to convince the average American of the impending doom of Sharia law, the focus falls back on attacking liberals for abandoning American Christian principles. It is asserted that, no matter how liberals view Christianity in American public life, it pales in comparison to the dangers of Islamic oppression, (or, they will brush you off as a fascist.) The half-baked arguments then righteously persist, as other groups to the left of them (other conservatives, moderates, and liberals) scratch their heads in confusion.
It is, of course, no surprise that this ideology and its variants exist. America is a land of diverse interpretations of life and perspectives on American history and societal inclusion. Translating this culturally intolerant extremism into policy, however, is impossible to sustain and justify because it is undemocratic. With the unintelligent, uninformed, and xenophobic conspiracies upon which this faction of America places its truths, cherished American values, tolerance, inclusion, and minority rights, are compromised. Hate flourishes, crimes are committed, and religious freedoms and other civil liberties are suppressed or narrowed.
In regard to Islam, this ultra-conservative faction latches onto a most extreme interpretation of the religion that many Muslim Americans find incorrect, offensive, and perverse. While political Islam no doubt exists, it is not a mainstream, majority-held view in the Muslim-American community of how their lives should be lived and governed. The faction instead sensationalizes and melds together religion with politics. The benign realities of Islam in America are wrapped in one with the dangers of Islamism. These half-baked arguments are overly-simplified, out-of-context, and lack data. Purist, simplistic ideology is viewed as a blanket solution to all of America's challenges in the face of Islam. The details are certainly not important.
So how can American Muslims compete with this highly-vocal minority of scare tactics and xenophobia? The answer appears to be the moderate political nature of the American electorate.
The campaign between Black and Zelenik proved that there are boundaries to what is tolerable political discourse and what is abhorrently un-American. While xenophobia and misinformation campaigns persist, the future of American Islam seems more hopeful than the loud, deafening rhetoric of this small faction. It is the rejection of the cafeteria-style approach to American values and a direct challenge to this ultra-conservative fringe movement. America, as a set of institutions, is tolerant, inclusive, and evolving.
As Arsalan Bukhari and John Albert write in their Op-Ed article for the Seattle Times:
"A first step toward the goal of honest, civil discourse is to expose and marginalize the influence of the individuals and groups whose Islamophobia is dividing Americans against one another through misinformation. Let us learn the proper lessons from eras past, and rise toward public awareness, acceptance and respect for our fellow Americans. Let us prevent hatred from infecting and endangering our country again."
Indeed, marginalization of these views, which breed hate, violence, and societal discord, is not undemocratic and necessary for the prosperity of America. The "I'm rubber you're glue" argument against common sense is ridiculous. It is holding xenophobic Americans to an intelligence standard of democratic principles.
It is irresponsible and reckless for politicians to tap into the uncompromising elements of this ideology. It exploits and amplifies the currents of conspiracy paranoia. It transforms that into a vile plague that threatens political discourse and policy in D.C., state legislatures, and governor mansions. Fear and hate are base emotions of the human mind that should be tempered by reason, facts, and logic, especially in a democracy. Appealing to simple, lower-order, knee-jerking emotions through naive, ill-informed rhetoric is uncourageous and misleading. It dumbs down our political conversation.
In Tennessee, the voters seem to signal that they realized this by choosing an alternative to the embarrassing, radical faction informing domestic policy. The last, best defense against anti-American values entering the mainstream political discussion does not appear to be this tiny sliver of self-proclaimed patriots of the conservative fringe. On the contrary, it is the moderate character of the American voter who tempers that message.
Zelenik's defeat is a shot across the bow for sitting-members of Congress, state legislators, and nominees who promote uncompromising and xenophobic policies that weaken America's political and cultural institutions. It is a warning to the growing chorus of voices of the radical fringe of the Tea Party that has unleashed accusations against Muslims in the American government. There are, it seems, rhetorical boundaries to demarcate just how much crazy is acceptable in politics.
So, let's all jump off the maddening crazy train headed for Alice's rabbit hole and head back toward the middle of the political spectrum, shall we? November is fast approaching.