Fleshing out Jeff Goldberg’s observation that Joe linked to earlier, our TIME colleague Bobby Ghosh takes a look at Feisal Abdul Rauf, the moderate imam behind the proposed Islamic center near the World Trade Center. As Bobby points out, Rauf is “just the kind of ‘peaceful Muslims’ that Sarah Palin, in her now infamous tweet, asked to ‘refudiate’ the mosque.” The fact that Republican politicians like Palin and Newt Gingrich either haven’t taken the time to learn about Rauf or have chosen to demagogue him despite his moderate background tells you a lot about the state of religious tolerance in the GOP these days.
While many Republican candidates are fond of yearning for “peaceful Muslims” they can work with as allies, in practice they find it suspiciously difficult to identify any actual Muslims who fit the bill. That’s a change from the approach of George W. Bush, who spoke at the Islamic Center of Washington less than a week after the 9/11 attack to remind Americans that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.” Bush spoke so often and forcefully about positive forces within Islam that he managed to influence the views of even his most right-wing supporters–in polling by Pew, 40% of conservative Republicans had viewed Muslim Americans unfavorably in March 2001, but by November that number had plummeted to 19%.
Today, intolerance of Muslims is popular again, and GOP candidates seem less willing to muddy their message by making pesky distinctions between good and bad Muslims. Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is running for governor, recently offered his opinion that Muslims may not deserve religious freedom protection. Ramsey did try to walk back that startling statement earlier this week, telling a local paper that he has “no problem–and I don’t think anyone in this country has a problem–with peace-loving, freedom-loving Muslims that move to this country and assimilate into our society.” But he again limited his reference to hypothetical nonthreatening Muslims without being willing to identify any actual real Muslims or Islamic institutions. Given that Ramsey is running for governor in a state where just this winter someone spray-painted “Muslims go home” across the front of a Nashville mosque and where a GOP congressional candidate has opposed the construction of a new mosque because Muslims are “dangerous”, his unwillingness to identify real live Muslims he considers peaceful was a political statement of its own.