The specter of Halloween is almost upon us but the boogeyman has already exploded onto the American political scene. Unlike other fictitious monsters, this year’s king of horror seems real. Rumors abound about his powers and evil motives. He is said to be lurching out of the shadows, biding his time for the opportune moment to strike at the God-fearing, hardworking, and family-oriented people of Middle America. His complexion is dark, his past is sordid, and his middle name is the same as the Arab/Muslim terrorists who want to harm America. For months, conservative talk-radio commentators, right-wing bloggers, and radical preachers have been warning about the ascent of this camouflaged false prophet, warning their millions of supporters not to be fooled by his celebrity status and oratorical powers. As the presidential campaign heated up in the last three weeks, John McCain joined the chorus and unleashed the charismatic and self-styled pitbull with lipstick, Sarah Palin, to name and shame the boogeyman for who he is. In one swing state after the other, governor Palin attacked Barack Hussein Obama’s character and integrity, accusing him of palling around with terrorists and hating America.
Her surrogates and introducers in her rallies warned in even starkest terms about the frightening specter that awaits America if Obama is elected. "Think about how you'll feel on November 5 if you wake up in the morning and see the news, that Barack Obama -- Barack Hussein Obama -- is the president-elect of the United States," warned Lehigh County GOP Chairman Bill Platt. Peoples’ stoked fears of Obama finally exploded into the open at several of Palin’s rallies. The most recent example was captured by al-Jazeera English’ reporter Casey Kauffman and posted on Youtube. The clip shows some of the rally attendees in Ohio voicing their fear of Obama, describing him as a secret Muslim Manchurian candidate who will destroy America. These and other incidents in which a minority of Palin/McCain supporters shouted racial epithets and slurs demonstrated how the most egregious of lies can harden and become reality. The fact that Obama has been fighting hard against these attempts to label him as a cover Muslim or Arab demonstrates the potency of anti-Islamic sentiment in America. In reality, Obama is a proud Christian and so is his wife and children but his detractors have tapped into the magic well of public fear of Islam and suspicion of American Muslims.
This fear was memorably captured in a McCain rally when a woman in her seventies genuinely expressed her apprehension of Obama “the Arab”. McCain himself quickly intervened to reassure her that his opponent is no Arab but a 'decent family man'. The media, political commentators, and many others praised the republican nominee for publicly vouching for Obama’s non-Arabness. McCain, of course, deserves credit for debunking one of the many myths about Obama but his response was unsettling. Watching this whole incident play over and over again in television was probably one of the most agonizing moments for any Arab or Muslim American to witness during this long and brutal presidential campaign. With the notable exceptions of John Stewart of the "Daily Show", Brown Campbell of CNN, and few commentators in MSNBC, nobody reprimanded McCain for, perhaps unintentionally, implying that Arabs are not decent people.
For several months, Arabs (Christians and Muslims) have had to powerlessly watch and listen to their religion and / or ethnicity being equated with terrorism and evil. Islam has become a favorite punching bag and a powerful political weapon to smear one’s opponent and scare the public of a Muslim takeover of the US. In the past month alone, twenty-eight million copies of the anti-Muslim propaganda film 'Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West' were delivered in direct mail in a number of swing states. What was stunning about this latest campaign to link Islam and terrorism was how its producers managed to get their propaganda delivered in Americans' daily newspapers as a paid advertising supplement. This "free gift" from trusted newspapers gave legitimacy and weight to a documentary that many informed commentators called inflammatory, fear-mongering and divisive.
These attempts to demonize Islam have only deepened the level of distrust between the American Muslim communities and the American society at large. A number of surveys have shown that a significant number of Americans admit to being preoccupied with anything Muslim that they would feel uncomfortable living in districts populated by Muslims. If left unchecked, the suspicion and fear of Islam can only become dangerously more pronounced. This is why Colin Powell’s recent defense of American Muslims and Arabs was so much welcomed and needed. The former Secretary of State is one of the few authoritative figures in American public life to say publicly what many others failed or hesitated to say: That American Muslims like Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan who died fighting for America in Iraq share the same values, outlook and attitudes as the rest of society. For every Joe the Plumber, there is Mohammed the soldier (Out of the US military's 1.4 million troops, 3,700 are Muslims), teacher, doctor, lawyer and janitor. The overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans, as the 2007 Pew study found, are “largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.”
Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and director of the Center for Defense and Security Policy at Wilberforce University in Ohio.