x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

In the race for the Oval Office, fear of Islam is just noise

As the race for the White House heats up, Republican candidates especially will take the common course of exaggerating the threat of global Islamist terrorism. My advice? Pay no attention.

Presidential campaign seasons in the United States are times of absurdly grandiose language. Every four years, Americans are told by presidential aspirants that the US faces the most critical juncture, crossroads, difficult road ahead - or some other traffic reference - in its history.

We're told by stumping candidates that the country is radically divided, Washington is gridlocked, the economy may disappear sometime in the next five minutes and that foreign foes near and far are skulking and scheming to slice Americans into pieces.

For these reasons, it is likely that Republican candidates especially will take the common course of exaggerating the threat of global Islamist terrorism while on the 2012 campaign trail.

In fact, it's already happening. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told NBC's David Gregory in a May 15 instalment of Meet the Press that the US is "at one of the great turning points in American history … we are in much greater danger in national security and homeland security than people realise."

He went on to proclaim that "this conflict with radical Islamists is so much more profound, and is going to last so much longer" than many Americans think.

To Mr Gingrich, Islamist extremism represents one of the main threats to the American way of life. I would challenge him to ask any American how many compatriots they know who died of Islamist terrorism since September 11. Mr Gingrich would get a blank stare.

But if he asked any American how many people they know who died in the last 10 years of cancer, car accidents, drug abuse, hurricanes, heart disease, tornadoes, floods or fighting an unneeded war in Iraq, he would probably need an abacus.

Still, it is likely that Republican candidates for president will try to convince Americans that the threat of global terrorism is one of the most pressing problems facing the US and, because the governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan are unwilling or unable to police their populations, someone other than Barack Obama must be installed to make them do so.

Candidates are especially likely to resort to terrorist exaggerations on the campaign trail if the economy in the US continues to improve. The US stock market is smoking right now, the country is no longer in a recession, and unemployment figures are slowly starting to fall, which means that candidates may need the most severe scare tactics to try to drag Mr Obama down.

And few rhetorical devices instil fear like telling people they're about to be blown up.

Thankfully, some of the faith-baiters have already dropped out of the 2012 presidential race. Donald Trump, who views foreign policy in terms of hostile boardroom takeovers, announced he's not running. And the ultraconservative former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, whose teleprompter on his FOX News programme is basically a King James Bible, doesn't want to leave his multimillion dollar contract with that network. Neither of these people had a chance at beating Mr Obama; it will just be nice to hear fewer Islamophobic statements on the campaign trail.

Stirring up horror of foreign foes, real or perceived, is nothing new in American politics, of course. Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign put together a TV advertisement that featured a cute little girl and then a nuclear mushroom cloud, insinuating that nuclear Armageddon would be the result of electing Johnson's opponent Barry Goldwater.

People around the world, though, should know that fears of Islamist terrorism do not dominate the thinking of most Americans. It's just that during US presidential campaigns challengers will hurl the largest rotten tomato they believe will sully the president's suit.

Mr Obama's challengers will refer in their speeches to "crossroads" and "pathways" beyond which the president is incapable of leading the United States. Yogi Berra, the baseball icon, once seized on silly traffic analogies by quipping, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

I say, when you hear about a fork in the road - especially when it comes to nonsensical political rhetoric - ignore it.


Justin D. Martin is a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin