Every political season has its hot-button issues. There's race, abortion, lunar colonies. But the hottest hot-button issue these days, judging from comments by Republican presidential hopefuls as well as what happened during the 2010 mid-term elections, is Islam.
Islam dominated the headlines during the summer of 2010. Remember Terry Jones and his pledge to burn the Qur'an? Or those persistent rumors of President Barack Obama's Muslim faith? Plus, of course, that controversy over Park51, the Islamic cultural center planned for lower Manhattan. Those 2010 elections became a litmus test for how a lot of politicians stood on Islam. An embarrassing number of them are against it.
Although they flirt with racism, sexism, and homophobia at their own risk, politicians indulge in anti-Islamic sentiment with near impunity.
One reason for that is the antipathy that nearly half of Americans feel toward Islam. According to a September 2011 study from the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute, 47 percent of Americans believe that Islam doesn't jibe with American values. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to hold this view.
But the real dividing line runs right through the Republican Party. If you watch Fox News or belong to the tea party, according to that study, you're primed to see Islam as a threat. As a result, the presidential hopefuls have used Islam to mark their political territory and fire up their base.
Newt Gingrich, who once compared the Park51 organizers to Nazis, has waged a long campaign against the putative threat of sharia law in the United States. Yet virtually no one in the small Muslim-American community supports replacing U.S. laws with Islamic law. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, has argued that Islam hasn't generated a concept of equality and that Muslims don't worship the Judeo-Christian God, even though equality is central to Islam and "Allah" in the Qur'an refers to the God of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Only Ron Paul has forthrightly rejected Islamophobia. He even connects the anti-Islamic sentiment that's rife at home with the wars U.S. wages against majority-Muslim countries.
So far, Mitt Romney has largely remained above the fray. He often resorts to carefully couched phrases like "Islam is not an inherently violent faith." But the man who has changed his position on so many issues may well be laying the groundwork for another flip-flop.
Walid Phares, a right-wing pundit and prominent Islamophobe, is one of Romney's advisors. And the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future is masterminded by Larry McCarthy, the attack ad specialist. McCarthy not only designed the Willie Horton spot that swung the 1988 presidential race in George H.W. Bush's favor; he also put together an error-laced ad about Park51 that nearly deep-sixed Iowa Democrat Rep. Bruce Baley in his 2010 reelection bid.
It's not just the Republicans. Despite his effort to reset U.S. relations with the Islamic world, many of Obama's policies have infuriated Muslims. Whether it's the wars that generate civilian casualties who are invariably Muslim, the proxy detentions of Muslim-Americans by other countries, or the expansion of the surveillance of Muslim-Americans at home, his administration has worked hard not to appear "weak on Islam." Add in worsening relations with Iran, and you've got a toxic combination.
Certainly, the economy remains the key campaign issue. But as the Republican hopefuls sharpen their attacks on each other and prepare for a showdown with Obama in the fall, don't be surprised if Islam becomes as defining a political issue as communism was during the Cold War. If politicians push back against this new McCarthyism, we could avoid a repeat of the ugly Islamophobia of 2010. But thanks to no-holds-barred advertising and lots of it, not to mention a pervasive lack of understanding about the world's second-largest religion, the hot-button issue of Islam might just get a lot hotter.