The unfolding U.S. presidential elections are laying bare what the real dangers are in the new American condition. They come not from our political divisiveness, economic uncertainty or military insecurity - but from our religious character as a people, which, in this case, is not positive. Religious intolerance marks one candidate debate after another - a sweeping denigration of Islam. And it is going to backfire.
The code word "Islamofascism" has become a staple of rhetoric. It braces the talk not only of pundits, but of all the major Republican candidates - from the tough guy at one end, Rudy Giuliani, who lambastes Democrats for not using the word or its equivalent, to the "nice" candidate at the other end, Mike Huckabee, who defines Islamofascism as "the greatest threat this country [has] ever faced."
The pairing of "Islam" and "fascism" has no parallel in characterizations of extremisms tied to other religions, although the defining movements of fascism were linked to Catholicism - indirectly under Benito Mussolini in Italy, explicitly under Francisco Franco in Spain. Protestant and Catholic terrorists in Northern Ireland, both deserving the label "fascist," never had their religions prefixed to that word. Nor have Hindu extremists in India, nor Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka.
In contrast to the way militant zealotries of other religions have been perceived, there is a broad conviction, especially among many conservative American Christians, that the inner logic of Islam and fascism go together. Political candidates appeal to those Christians by defining the ambition of Islamofascists in language that makes prior threats from, say, Hitler or Stalin seem benign. The point is that there is a deep religious prejudice at work, and when politicians adopt its code, they make it worse.
The Democrats gain little by shaping their rhetoric to appeal to the Republicans' conservative religious base, but a readiness to denigrate Islam shows up on their side, too. In last week's debate, moderator Brian Williams put to Barack Obama a question about Internet rumors that claim he is a Muslim. The tone of the question suggested that Obama was being accused of
something heinous. He replied with a simple affirmation that he is a Christian. He did not then ask, "And what would be wrong if I were a Muslim?" Had he done so, it seems clear, he would have cost himself votes in the present climate. (MORE)