The partisan divide on issues related to Arabs and Muslims has become disturbingly wide with a recent polll showing that old-fashioned xenophobia is dangerously high among US Republicans.
Shocking poll on US attitudes towards Arabs
The partisan divide on issues related to Arabs and Muslims has become disturbingly wide. For example, in a recent poll, Zogby International asked American voters whether they had favourable or unfavourable attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims. The results were shocking.
Attitudes towards Arabs: Democrats - 57 per cent favourable, 30 per cent unfavourable; Republicans - 28 per cent favourable, 66 per cent unfavourable. Attitudes towards Muslims: Democrats - 54 per cent favourable, 34 per cent unfavourable; Republicans - 12 per cent favourable, 85 per cent unfavourable.
These were but part of a broader survey of American attitudes released by the Arab American Institute (AAI). The poll's other findings were equally troubling, with the answers to question after question yielding the same patterned response. For example: "Is Islam a religion of peace?" 62 per cent of Democrats say that it is, while 79 per cent of Republicans say it is not.
What has happened to the "Grand Old Party" of George HW Bush and James Baker? For one, the GOP has become captive of several groups that now dominate the party's base and have transformed its thinking. The "religious right" and its "end of days" preachers like Pat Robertson, John Hagee and Gary Bauer presently represent almost 40 per cent of Republican voters. This group's emphasis on the divinely ordained battle between the forces of "good" (ie, the Christian West and Israel) and the forces of "evil" (Islam and the Arabs) has logically given rise to anti-Muslim prejudice.
Then there are the Christian right's ideological cousins, the neo-conservatives, who share an identical Manichaean and apocalyptic world view, although with a secular twist. And into the mix must be thrown Islamophobic right-wing radio and TV commentators such as Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and company, who daily spew their poison across the air waves.
The combination produces a lethal brew that is dangerous not only for the intolerance it has created, but for the sense of certitude and self-righteousness it projects. This too comes through in our polling.
When we ask Americans, in separate questions, whether they "know enough about Islam and Muslims (or Arab countries and people) or need to know more", among Democrats, 68 per cent say they would "like to know more" about Islam, with 80 per cent wanting "to know more" about the Arab world. In answer to the same questions, 71 per cent and 58 per cent of Republicans say they "know enough" and "don't want to learn more".
There have been policy implications to this intolerance. In the days following President Barack Obama's historic speech in Cairo that was designed to rebuild tattered ties with the Arab and Muslim worlds, I appeared on a number of television programmes debating Republican operatives like Liz Cheney and the former senator George Allen. Speaking from the same talking points they criticised the president, accusing him of demonstrating weakness and selling America short in order to curry favour with Muslims.
Such stridency has only served to deepen the partisan divide. When asked whether they approve or disapprove of the White House's outreach efforts to Arabs and Muslims, 82 per cent of Democrats approve while 73 per cent of Republicans disapprove.
This split is manifested in other behaviours. Especially relevant here are the conclusions of two additional studies released this month by the AAI. The first of these is a congressional scorecard for 2009-2010 that evaluates the voting records of all 435 members of Congress on 20 different pieces of legislation or congressional actions on a range of foreign or domestic policy concerns important to Arab and Muslim Americans. The study found that over 60 members - all Democrats and not a single Republican - had excellent records on these issues.
The second of these AAI studies recorded and rated the comments made by all elected officials and candidates for federal or state-wide posts regarding the Park51 controversy. With a few exceptions, Democrats were largely supportive of not only the project but, more broadly, of the rights of Muslims. The GOP side was the reverse. Only the New York mayor Mike Bloomberg (an independent), governors from Florida and New Jersey, and Congressman Ron Paul were supportive, with most others in the Republican Party not only opposing the Islamic centre but indulging in shameful anti-Muslim rhetoric - often echoing right-wing bloggers and radio personalities. More disturbing were reports that some GOP congressional candidates who had initially made more supportive statements were forced by party leaders to retract them and fall in line with their strategy of making the "Ground Zero mosque" a wedge issue to use against Democrats in the November elections.
Whether simply exploiting insecurity and fear of Arabs and Muslims in a crude effort to win votes - tactics that worked so well for Republicans in the post-9/11 environment, or mixing these national security concerns with good old fashioned xenophobia, with a touch of Islamophobia, to infuse their supporters with intensity - it's a dangerous game with worrisome consequences. And with the GOP poised to wield even greater influence after this election, I believe that those who place value in the need to promote greater understanding have every reason to be concerned.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute