Sunday, August 15, 2010

Did Bush Help Stave Off Islamophobia?

Josh Marshall,

A few weeks back I asked whether we weren't seeing a perceptible rise in Islamophobia, paradoxically many years after the 9/11 attacks. And if we are, why? There are many potential and probable reasons. But of all the emails I received, the couple that struck me most were the ones that pointed to George W. Bush. Yes, him, George W. Bush. Whatever his other errors and shortcomings, with the exception of a few very poorly chosen words at the outset (calling the War Against Terror a "crusade"), Bush was quite consistent in arguing that America was not in a war against Islam. And that put a real brake on the forces of xenophobia, extremist religion and religious hatred, almost all of which were in his own party.

For those of us who believe his policies in the Middle East were close to catastrophic, this fact may seem of somewhat trivial importance. But in the US I think it was actually a pretty big deal.

I think this analysis vastly overrates the importance of George W. Bush as a man and vastly underestimates the differing circumstances we now find ourselves in.

First and foremost, when he was President, Bush was under the same constraints that any President is when trying to balance domestic politics with foreign policy. It's easy for a Congressman to spout off about "Islamofascism" and other such non-sense - he or she isn't negotiating treaties and trying to conduct foreign policy out of their office. Whereas a President, through his State Department, is trying to conduct foreign policy. Specifically during the Bush years the U.S. needed Turkey and Saudi Arabia to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn't in the interests of Bush to engage in a bellicose "us vs. them" demonetization of Islam.

Now obviously this alone does not counter Josh's point but follow me a little more and let me draw a parallel between Bush's foreign policy interests in the Islamic world and domestic interests with Hispanics. Bush and Karl Rove have long advocated a more sensible approach to immigration than just about anyone else in the Republican Party. There may have been many motivations for this but one was certainly political interests of the party. They understood that demoniation of Hispanics was bad for the GOP in the long run. But Bush was never able to pass immigration reform and base Republicans vociferously opposed him on this issue. If Bush couldn't keep a lid on his party's raving xenophobia regarding Hispanics, what makes us think that he had anything to do with quelling Islamophobia?

I think the real answer as to why there is a percieved increase in Islamic related fear-mongering is simply the changed political circumstances. We now have a mixed race President with the middle name "Hussein", the GOP is a significant minority in both chambers of Congress, and it's election season. We're seeing an increase in Islamophobia simply because it serves the domestic political interests of Republicans. The party has never been shy about exploiting racial fears for electoral gain, that's page 1 of the post-Nixon GOP playbook.

The other point I would like to make here is that we may be looking back with rose colored glasses a bit. It's not as if there was no Islamic fear-mongering while Bush was President. In fact, there was quite a bit of it during the 2006 mid-term elections concerning Minnesotan and Muslim Keith Ellison's campaign for, and election to, Congress.

George W. Bush didn't quell Islamophobia, we're just living through election season and forgetting that the GOP will always gin up psuedo-controversies that divide Americans based on race and ethnicity for political reasons.

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