Recently speaking at a town hall meeting at an American Legion Hall in Lady Lake, Florida, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum fielded a question, or rather, a comment from a woman in the audience who forcefully proclaimed: "I never refer to Obama as President Obama because legally he is not. He constantly says that our constitution is passé, and he ignores it as you know and does what he darn well pleases. He is an avowed Muslim, and my question is, why isn't something being done to get him out of government? He has no legal right to be calling himself president!"
Though Santorum opposes President Obama on many of the issues, he had a magnificent opportunity to take an ethical stand when addressing this woman, but he chose instead to virtually play into her obvious Islamophobic statements by merely responding to issues she raised related to the Constitution.
"Well look, I'm doing my best to get him out of the government right now, and you're right about how he uniformly ignores the constitution," Santorum responded. "He did this with these appointments over the recess that was not a recess, and if I was in the United States Senate I would be drawing the line."
As the old truism goes, "If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem." By not standing up to this woman's obvious Islamophobia, Santorum was complicit in the demonization, marginalization,, and victimization of Muslims and those perceived as Muslim.
Islamophobia can be defined as prejudice and discrimination toward the religion of Islam and Muslims who follow its teachings and practices. Like racism, sexism, and heterosexism, for example, Islamophobia is much more than a fear, for it is a taught and often learned attitude and behavior, and, therefore, falls under the category of oppression.
Islamophobia routinely surfaced throughout the last presidential election. Members of the political right challenged and spread rumors regarding Barack Obama's cultural, social, and religious background, political philosophies, U.S. birth status, and patriotism. Insinuations flew about his supposed Islamic background connected to his explicit Marxist and fascist (which is a contradiction) political influences.
Opponents referred to him as Barack Hussein Obama -- with emphasis on "Hussein" -- in their attempts to connect him not only to the Muslim faith, but also to the former ruler of Iraq. In actuality, his middle name is indeed "Hussein," which in Arabic translates to "good" or "beautiful." Furthermore, since this country is founded on the principle of freedom of religion, whichever religious or non-religious background any candidate, or any individual, follows should in no way disqualify or call into question their credentials.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released its 2006 report finding that approximately 25% of U.S.-Americans consider Islam as a religion of hatred and violence, and that those with the most biased attitudes tend to be older, less educated, politically conservative, and are more often to belong to the Republican Party.
Today, especially since September 11, 2001, we see growing numbers of violent acts directed against Muslims. During the single year of 2005, for example, CAIR listed a total of 1,522 civil rights violations against American Muslims, 114 of which were violent hate crimes. The report included incidents of violence, as well as harassment and discriminatory treatment, including "unreasonable arrests, detentions, and searches/seizures." For example, the CAIR report included an incident in which a Muslim woman wearing a hijab (the garment many Muslim women wear in public) took her baby for a walk in a stroller, when a man driving a truck nearly ran them over. The woman cried out that, "You almost killed my baby!," and the man responded, "It wouldn't have been a big loss."
Nearly one-quarter of all reported civil rights violations against American Muslims involve unwarranted arrests and searches. Law enforcement agencies routinely "profile" Muslims of apparent Middle Eastern heritage in airports or simply while driving in their cars for interrogation and invasive and aggressive searches. In addition, governmental agencies, such as the IRS and FBI, continue to enter individuals' private homes and mosques and make unreasonable arrests and detentions.
I find the current political tenor very disconcerting as candidates attack, demonize, stereotype, and scapegoat not only other candidates, but also entire groups of U.S. citizens whom they blame for causing the problems of our country.
Democracy demands an educated electorate. Democracy demands responsibility on the part of the electorate to critically examine our politicians so they can make truly informed decisions.
But I observe a certain anti-intellectualism within current political discourse. How often do we hear politicians "accuse" other candidates or those serving in public office of being part of some so-called "elitist" intellectual establishment, or talk about some "elitist" media who are all out of touch with "real" Americans.
And what about the gendering of politics when we are told either that women don't have the temperament to lead or when a politician calls an opponent's manhood into questions by demanding them to "man up"? Or blaming those who support marriage for same-sex couples as contributing to the eventual downfall of not only the institution of marriage, but for the ultimate collapse of civilization as we know it? Or blaming working class and poor people who occasionally need a helping hand from the government?
During economic downturns, charismatic and not-so-charismatic leaders attempt to exploit the fears of the public in their quests for power and control. Conservative political discourse centers on "F" words: Faith, Family, Freedom, and the Flag. This set of buzz words comprise the foundation on which politicians tell us we should decide who is truly worthy of our votes.
It does us all a great disservice, though, when we vote either for or against candidates based in large measure on their religious backgrounds. How many of us oppose Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu candidates? How many of us would even consider atheist, agnostic, Pagan, Wiccan candidates?
We must cut through the coded xenophobic, racialized, and classist language, for often when politicians use the words "poor," "welfare," "inner city," "food stamps," "entitlements," "bad neighborhoods," "foreign," they tap into many white people's anxieties and past racist teachings of people of color. Though white people comprise the largest percentage of current food stamp recipients, 34 percent, the common perception and societal stereotype depicts black people as abusing the system. In addition, the buzz phrase, "personal responsibility," now has become a catch phrase to justify cutting benefits to people with disabilities, older people, and those who have fallen on hard times and need assistance.
So-called "social issues" become wedge issues to attract people to a particular candidate. In the final analysis, though, when middle and working class people vote for these candidates, they essentially vote against their own economic self-interests.
After careful and continuous vetting to plow through the reality from the show; the truth in their message from their appeals to fears and insecurities; their sincerity and ability to bring people together from their overt and covert attempts to divide; their talents and strengths from their bravado and performance; their attempts to maintain their integrity, their compassion, their humanity, and their empathy from their insincerity, manipulation, half-truths, lies, and complicity in perpetuating public fears; their attempts to answer questions honestly rather than giving answers derived from polling data saying what they think we want to hear rather than what they actually believe, these are the things we need to consider when judging our candidates. We must rate them on the quality of their characters, on their policies, and how well we believe they will follow through on what they promise.
As I travel across our country, I observe a large number of homes proudly displaying American flags, the red, white, and blue flying and rippling in the wind on poles or porches in front yards. But patriotism and true commitment to our democracy takes more, much more; for it demands of us all the needed time, effort, and commitment to critically investigate all aspects of the great gift we have been given in our representative form of government: the gift of our vote. Anything less would be to waste our enfranchisement, to silence our voices, and to slap the faces of all who have gone before to envision and protect our form of government.