Muslims and Americans

2010-08-31 00:00

THE great journalist Henry Louis Mencken once said that nobody ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public — but I may be about to prove him wrong.

Three or four months ago, I started betting various friends that the Democrats would lose control of both houses of the United States Congress in the mid-term elections this November. I was way ahead of the opinion curve, so I got lots of takers. But now, when the general opinion has shifted in that direction, I begin to think I was wrong. And it all has to do with the Ground Zero mosque.

If you have been paying attention and are fully sentient, you will know that it is not actually a mosque. If the sponsors can raise the money (which remains to be seen), it would contain a prayer room, but also a restaurant, a 500-seat theatre, basketball courts and a swimming pool that would be open to all. It would not have a minaret, but there would be a memorial to the 3 000 people (including 300 Muslims) who died in the 9/11 attacks.

And it is not, of course, at Ground Zero. It is two blocks up and around the corner, invisible from where the World Trade Centre once stood. Not that there’s any reason for it to hide around the corner: there’s nothing wrong with an Islamic cultural centre. It should also be pointed out that the Pussy Cat Lounge, an up-market strip club, is closer to the site and not invisible at all.

So should we ask whether those on the right wing of the Republican Party who started this business about a mosque at Ground Zero intended to exploit the latent Islamophobia of the American public? You might as well ask if the Pope is a Catholic. This is a “wedge issue”, deliberately concocted to drive the dimmer elements of the Republican Party into supporting the right wing’s other positions as well.

I hear you protesting that the Republican Party doesn’t have a left wing any more, so how can it have a right wing? But everything is relative in politics, and the real contest this autumn is not being held in November. Most Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to the point where they are safe seats for one party or the other, so the real contest is in the primary (which chooses the party’s candidate) in any given district.

The Ground Zero mosque campaign was begun by players like Fox News and Mark Williams, organiser of the Tea Party Express, who warned that “The mosque would be for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey god”. (It’s really hard to tell Muslims and Hindus apart, especially if you’re really stupid.) But the campaign works for the hard right because a large proportion of the U.S. population is anti-Muslim.

Exactly how large nobody knows, but we may safely assume that the 24% of Americans who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim are not thinking: “Good. When Americans elected a black, Muslim president, we showed how tolerant the country is.” They are thinking: “Oh my God, there’s a black Muslim terrorist in the White House. America is doomed.”

How excited should we get about this? Not very. You would probably get a similar figure if you asked people in almost any Muslim country whether they see contemporary Americans as a new generation of “crusaders”. They aren’t, any more than Muslims are terrorists, but the Muslim Middle East has a rather one-sided view of the Crusades.

After five centuries when the Middle East and North Africa had been mostly Christian, Islam conquered the whole region in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Crusades, three centuries later, were a counterattack aimed at recovering some of the lost territory for Christendom, neither more nor less reprehensible than the original Islamic conquest. It’s just history, and nobody has clean hands. But I digress.

Why am I going to lose my bets on the outcome of the mid-term elections? Because the primaries attract at most 10% of the potential voters, and they tend to be the ideologically committed ones. Hard-right candidates can win that audience over — but when 50% or 60% of American voters come out in the real election, the extremists tend to lose in the critical districts where the outcome might go either way.

The Democrats will keep their Senate majority. They might even keep the House.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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