Midterms 2018: More candidates using anti-muslim rhetoric than ever - but it's not working
Fear-mongering is not new in American politics. This midterm election season American voters have seen a growing number of candidates - nearly all Republican - smearing their political opponents either as terrorism threats or with Islamophobic rhetoric. But according to a new report, the politics of anti-Muslim fear will no longer win campaigns.
On Monday, ahead of the midterm Election Day, Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy group in Oakland, California, released their Running on Hate 2018 report noting a sharp increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric from election campaigns in the state and local level. In the report, Muslim Advocates observed and analysed more than 80 candidates that used Islamophobic narratives in their campaigns.
Forty of these candidates are running for seats in Congress and about 23 of them have made it to the general election. Thirteen of these candidates are incumbents.
“We’ve seen anti-Muslim candidates running in every region,” Muslim Advocates Public Advocacy Director Scott Simpson told The Guardian. “We’ve seen them running at every level of office, from the school and planning boards all the way to governor and Congress. We’ve seen it in liberal places and conservative places. It has really taken root and become very widespread.”
The lot of these 80 candidates espoused typical Islamophobic narratives and conspiracy theories often insinuating that Muslim extremists were infiltrating the US federal government. Throughout the election cycle, Muslim-American candidates were the subject of fake news from anti-Muslim websites, online harassment and armed protests.
Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar - who are both projected to be the country’s first Muslim congresswomen - were smeared with false accusations of being “jihadis,” “anti-semitic” or working for “terrorist groups.” Deedra Abboud, an attorney who ran for the US Senate seat in Arizona, was subjected to an onslaught of ant-Muslim cyber-harassment. In addition to the racist vitriol online, right-wing militia groups staged armed protests outside of Abboud’s campaign stops.
But Islamophobic campaigns did not just attack Muslim candidates. In a desperate attempt to save Republican Dave Brat’s re-election in Virginia’s 14th district, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) superPAC accused his Democratic opponent Abigail Spanberger has terrorist sympathies.
While awaiting for her CIA security clearance to process, Ms Spanberger used to work as a substitute teacher at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Virginia. CLF broadcasted a 30-second ad smearing the former CIA official for teaching at “Terror High” and described the school as a “terrorist breeding ground.”
California Republican Duncan Hunter is running the most notable anti-Muslim campaign, according to Muslim Advocates. In his latest campaign ad, Mr Hunter has accused his Democratic challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar of legally changing his name several times “to hide his family’s ties to terrorism” and described him as a national security threat. Mr Campa-Najjar is a Christian of Palestinian-Mexican descent.
But here’s the thing: Stoking anti-Muslim fear into the hearts of American voters is a losing strategy. According to the report, only 11-14% of the 80 candidates that ran on Islamophobic campaigns were elected or “safely projected” to win their elections come around Election Day next month.
The report also found core anti-Muslim voters to only represent a small--albeit a conscientious--and fringe electorate, and attempts to demonise the Muslim community does more to turn vex constituents than gain voter support.
“Many candidates faced serious repercussions from voters and a backlash from even members of their own party,” the report added. “Some faced recalls and pressure to withdraw, or their entire campaign became largely defined by their anti-Muslim rhetoric.”
In fact, the report found “super-majorities from both parties, of every demographic and region, preferred the candidate who defended Muslims.” This even includes Trump voters.
Out of the 80 candidates that ran on Islamophobic campaigns, 52 of them have either lost their primaries, are projected to lose, withdrew or were recalled. While President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign might have won him Florida, Georgia, Wyoming, South Dakota, Arkansas, Michigan and South Carolina in 2016, many Republican candidates that ran on anti-Muslim conspiracy theories lost their primaries in those same exact states this election season. In North Dakota and Tennessee, Nebraska and Michigan, several candidates either lost their elections, dropped out or had to resign for their anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Shahed Amanullah, an adviser to national grassroots organization Muslim Caucus of America, told the Independent the intensity of anti-Muslim feelings among fringe groups mistakenly convince some candidates that they will get greater traction in the mainstream.
“In the wake of the Trump era, those wishing to leverage anti-Muslim sentiment are finding out that a large swatch of the American public is now keenly aware of Islamophobia and is now willing to push back on it in ways that weren’t possible a few short years ago,” Mr Amanullah said. “The energy generated by anti-Muslim sentiment online can give candidates a false sense of security.”
The data backs Mr Amanullah’s assessment. Included in the 51-page report are survey results from Probolsky Research, a Republican polling firm, that prove fewer and fewer Americans harbor negative feelings towards Muslims. Out of 1000 survey participants, only 7 percent had a “negative impression” of Muslims. Furthermore, 71 percent said it is “inappropriate” for candidates to speak ill of Muslims during their candidates. If candidates spoke negatively about Muslims, 57.6 percent said they would be more likely to vote against candidate. Only seven percent said they would more likely vote for the candidate if they did.
While President Donald Trump might have won the 2016 presidential election with a campaign run almost entirely on fear on immigrants and Muslims, the report reveals a seismic shift in how American voters view their Muslim neighbors and whether or not they are capable of honorably serving public office.
Shahed Amanullah pointed out that in 2006, the election of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn), a black Muslim-American, stunned much of the political establishment to the point where there were open debates about his loyalty and oath of office. But now, the nation anticipates having two Muslim women--one of whom wears the hijab--serving their congressional districts on Capitol Hill. “The most notable thing about this occurrence is how uncontroversial it seems,” Mr Amanullah added.
But what does this mean for the future of American electoral politics? It’s likely we’ll see more Muslim Americans in public office.
“Aside from partisan grumbling, we have no uprising against the presence of Muslims in high political office,” Mr Amanullah said. “So it is safe to say that American of all stripes, both conservatives and liberals, now accept that American Muslims can serve honourably in governance.”