The partisan divide on issues related to Arabs and Muslims has become disturbingly wide. For example, when, in a recent poll, we asked American voters whether they had favorable or unfavorable attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims, the results were shocking.
Attitudes towards Muslims: Democrats -- 54% favorable, 34% unfavorable; Republicans -- 12% favorable, 85% unfavorable.
These were but part of a broader survey of American attitudes conducted by Zogby international, and released by the Arab American Institute. 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% of Democrats say that it is, while 79% of Republicans say it is not.
What has happened to the "Grand Old Party" of George H.W. 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, William Hagee and Gary Bauer, presently constitute almost 40% of Republican voters. This group's emphasis on the divinely ordained battle between the forces of "good" (i.e. 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, though with a secular twist. And into the mix must be thrown Islamophobic right-wing radio and TV commentators like O'Reilly, Beck, Limbaugh, Savage and company, who daily spew their poison across the airwaves.
The combination produces a lethal brew that is dangerous not only for the intolerance it has created, but 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% say they would "like to know more" about Islam, with 80% wanting "to know more" about the Arab World. In answer to the same questions, 71% and 58% 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 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 programs debating Republican operatives like Liz Cheney and former Senator George Allen. Speaking from the same talking points they criticized the President, accusing him of demonstrating weakness and selling America short in order to curry favor 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% of Democrats approve while 73% of Republicans disapprove.
This split is manifested in other behaviors. 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 which 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 finds over 60 Members -- all Democrats and not a single Republican -- with 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 Park 51 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 New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg (an independent), Governors Crist (Florida) and Christie (New Jersey), and Congressman Ron Paul were supportive, with most others in the Republican Party not only opposing the Islamic center 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 fall 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.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.