CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Don’t fall for the Islamophobic bait

McCain’s pastor problem: the video

During a 2005 sermon, a fundamentalist pastor whom Senator John McCain has praised and campaigned with called Islam “the greatest religious enemy of our civilization and the world,” claiming that the historic mission of America is to see “this false religion destroyed.” In this taped sermon, currently sold by his megachurch, the Reverend Rod Parsley reiterates and amplifies harsh and derogatory comments about Islam he made in his book, Silent No More, published the same year he delivered these remarks. Meanwhile, McCain has stuck to his stance of not criticizing Parsley, an important political ally in a crucial swing state.

In March 2008—two weeks after McCain appeared with Parsley at a Cincinnati campaign rally, hailing him as “one of the truly great leaders in America, a moral compass, a spiritual guide”—Mother Jones reported that Parsley had urged Christians to wage a “war” to eradicate Islam in his 2005 book. McCain’s campaign refused to respond to questions about Parsley, and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee declined to denounce Parsley’s anti-Islam remarks or renounce his endorsement. At a time when Barack Obama was mired in a searing controversy involving Reverend Jeremiah Wright, McCain escaped any trouble for his political alliance with Parsley, who leads the World Harvest Church, a supersized Pentecostal institution in Columbus, Ohio. Parsley, whose sermons are broadcast around the world, has been credited with helping George W. Bush win Ohio in 2004 by registering social conservatives and encouraging them to vote. McCain certainly would like to see Parsley do the same for him—which could explain his reluctance to do any harm to his relationship with this anti-Islam extremist. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Robert Greenwald’s new video (above) is clearly crafted as a “gotcha” that’s meant to nail the Republicans in response for their exploitation of the Wright videos.

At face value, it’s perfectly legitimate. Rod Parsley is a vociferous Islamophobic hatemonger and McCain should have nothing to do with him. But given that McCain’s association is not particularly personal, is recent and is explicitly political, it’s worth pausing to consider what McCain’s calculations are here and whether he’s taken on the kind of liability of some of us might imagine.

In a Pew poll conducted just over a year ago, Americans ranked “Muslim” as a trait that would make 66% of Republicans less likely to vote for a presidential candidate. Overall, 46% of those polled said they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim candidate and 49% said it would make no difference.

Given that there have been no Muslim candidates in this election, the fact that the question was even being polled is a reflection of the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign that has been waged by Daniel Pipes and others in promoting what has become a widely held belief: that Barak Obama is or was a Muslim.

Were it not for the fact that hostility towards Muslims is widespread in America, and the fact that negative views of Islam and of the Middle East constitute a broadly accepted form of bigotry in this country, Obama could not be “accused” of being a Muslim. Most of those who have defended Obama against this false accusation have chosen to focus almost exclusively on the fact that it’s false while passing over the fact that it could be used as an accusation.

Those who think that McCain’s association with Rod Parsley (or Pastor Hagee) is something for which he might pay a political penalty, seem to be underestimating how deeply Islamophobia has permeated American culture. Yet what’s particularly noteworthy about this prejudice and the way it colors perceptions of all things Middle Eastern is that in a culture where political correctness has had the dubious success of curtailing so many other overt expressions of bigotry, what Parsley and Hagee have to say are things that many and perhaps even the majority of Americans do not find shocking. Islamophobia is the anti-Semiticism of this era. It’s a form of hatred that many people feel comfortable with and which few stand up to oppose.

When one considers the kinds of cultural stereotypes that have shaped America’s views of the Middle East and Islam, it’s not hard to understand why the Islamophobes find it easy to connect with a broad constituency. This isn’t something that started with 9/11. That event merely brought into focus attitudes that had long prevailed.

Check out “Planet of the Arabs” (9 minute video) if you haven’t seen it before and see how far back the fear and hostility goes:

By associating himself with this particular brand of hatemonger, McCain has taken a risk, yet it would seem to be a carefully calculated risk. I suspect his calculations are sound.

Those who want to rebuke him have every reason to feel righteous, but the rebukes are likely to provoke a backlash. We will be accused of being anti-Semitic, of being hostile towards Israel, of undermining the Christian values of America, and of giving comfort to the enemy.

What McCain seems to be doing is hanging out bait in the hope of a double catch: right wing evangelicals who feel culturally embattled and those on the left for whom being righteous serves as a substitute for broad political influence.

If McCain’s pastors really do end up becoming central to the general election, they will likely ending up serving the purpose for which they are intended: to turn this into a contest about which candidate is the most stalwart friend of Israel; who is going to stand up to the threat from Islamic extremism; who will be the most trustworthy defender of American values.

Parsley and Hagee are not McCain’s counterpart to the Wright issue. They are there to help him frame this campaign exactly the way he wants. The media will willingly play its part, and if we are so unwitting, so will we!

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