When, in the last years, Marine Corps Intelligence put together a report on the practice of "cultural Islam" in Afghanistan, it noted that "Afghans are a traditionally superstitious culture," specifically referencing the weight given to dreams and symbols as well as "practices"such as the evil eye superstition." The "official use only" document noted that the Taliban sometimes plays to "Afghan mystical traditions" in its propaganda, but also uses Afghans' "fear of God to" turn locals against United States forces." Through their heavily footnoted 12-page analysis, Marine Intel hoped to provide U.S. troops with a useful primer on Afghanistan's history, religious beliefs, cultural practices, and social mores to help troops to counteract insurgent "information operations."
It doesn't take a genius to realize that if you can't stop your forces from repeatedly blowing up wedding parties, conducting airstrikes on unarmed children, massacring villagers, urinating on dead locals, and burning their holy book, all efforts at employing sophisticated cultural knowledge to win hearts and minds and "counterac[t] enemy propaganda that portrays Coalition forces as oppressive foreign invaders that do not respect Islamic life in Afghanistan" are likely to fail in spectacular fashion. Instead, Americans might be better served by conducting analyses of cultures closer home as TomDispatch regular and co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus website John Feffer does today in his illuminating (and chilling) look at election year Islamophobia in America.
And if you really want to understand Second Wave Islamophobia in all its intricacies and the many peculiarities twenty-first century America -- a "superstitious culture" if ever there was one -- you need to read Feffer's new book, Crusade 2.0: The West's Resurgent War on Islam. It covers the bizarre American campaign against Muslims, foreign and domestic, real and imagined, from the moment President George W. Bush first brought the word "crusade" back from the dead to this very moment in the Obama age. Someday, this episode in our history will undoubtedly be seen as a kind of American derangement and Feffer's book will be the Ur-text. Nick Turse
Creating the Muslim Manchurian Candidate
The Right Wing's Election-Year Islamophobia
By John Feffer
Those who fervently believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim generally practice their furtive religion in obscure recesses of the Internet. Once in a while, they'll surface in public to remind the news media that no amount of evidence can undermine their convictions.
In October 2008, at a town hall meeting in Minnesota for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a woman called Obama "an Arab." McCain responded, incongruously enough, that Obama was, in fact, "a decent family man" and not an Arab at all. In an echo of this, a woman recently stood up at a town hall in Florida and began a question for Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum by asserting that the president "is an avowed Muslim." The audience cheered, and Santorum didn't bother to correct her.
Though they belong to a largely underground cult, the members of the Obama-is-Muslim congregation number as many as one third of all Republicans. A recent poll found that only 14% percent of Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi believe that the president is Christian.
These true believers treat their scraps of evidence like holy relics: the president's middle name, his grandfather's religion, a widely circulated photo of Obama in a turban. They occasionally traffic in outright fabrications: that he attended a radical madrasa in Indonesia as a child or that he put his hand on the Qur'an to be sworn in as president. An even more apocalyptic subset believes Obama to be nothing short of the anti-Christ.
By and large, however, this cult doesn't attract mainstream support from the larger church of Obama haters. Indeed, these more orthodox faithful have carefully shifted the debate from Obama being Muslim to Obama acting Muslim. Evangelical pundits, presidential candidates, and the right-wing media have all ramped up their attacks on the president for, as Baptist preacher Franklin Graham put it recently on MSNBC, "giving Islam a pass."
The conservative mainstream still calls the president's religious beliefs into question, but they stop just short of accusing him of apostasy and concealment. What they consider safe is the assertion that Obama is acting as if he were Muslim. In this way, Republican mandarins are cleverly channeling a conspiracy theory into a policy position.
There is a whiff of desperation in all this. After all, it's not an easy time for the GOP. The economy shows modest signs of improvement. The Republican presidential candidates are still engaged in a fratricidal primary. By expanding counterterrorism operations and killing Osama bin Laden, the president has effectively removed national security from the list of Republican talking points.
One story, however, still ties together so many narrative threads for conservatives. Charges that the president is a socialist or a Nazi or an elitist supporter of college education certainly push some buttons. But the single surefire way of grabbing the attention of the media and the public -- as well as appealing to the instincts of the Republican base -- is to assert, however indirectly, that Barack Obama is a Manchurian candidate sent from the Islamic world.
Obama and the Muslim World
A succession of Republican candidates have attempted to run to the right of party favorite Mitt Romney by asserting that only a true conservative can defeat Obama in November. Most of them boasted of the same powerful backer. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum all declared that God asked them to run for higher office. Together with Newt Gingrich, they have deployed various methods of appealing to their constituencies, but none is more potent than religion.
Rick Santorum, a Catholic and the favorite of the evangelical community, has been particularly adept at using his soapbox as a pulpit. The president subscribes to a "phony theology," Santorum has claimed, "not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology." Although he occasionally asserts that "Obama's personal faith is none of my concern," he nonetheless speaks of the president's attempt to "impose values on people of faith"-- implying that the president is certainly no member of that community.