It’s been a while since the GOP presidential candidates have engaged in a good old-fashioned round of Who’s the Biggest Islamophobe. Those party-poopers Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney usually sit out the game. But in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong showing in early voting for Egyptian parliamentary elections, their opponents will be tempted to take a swing at “the Muslim menace.” The endorsements and votes of Iowa’s social conservatives are still up for grabs. And perhaps the most coveted–Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader–is concerned enough about Islam to include a plank in his candidates’ pledge requiring “rejection of anti-women Sharia Islam.”
If it’s not clear what the difference is between “Sharia Islam” and Islam, that’s probably the point. It’s hard to imagine presidential contenders putting their names on a vow to reject an entire world religion, but so far Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum have signed on to the Family Leader’s pledge. Newt Gingrich has extra incentive to whip out his fear-mongering talking points, as his recent surge in national and Iowa polls depends on social conservatives overlooking awkward facts about his personal life and political conversions.
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As it happens, Gingrich is well-prepared for this role, having led the charge in 2010 when the establishment of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan (the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”) was proposed. Gingrich reserves special contempt for the Obama administration, secularists and elites–he would probably say that list is redundant–who in his view “don’t have a clue” about the overt and stealth threats posed by Muslim enemies of the United States. Throughout this year, Gingrich has referred to the Muslim Brotherhood as “a mortal enemy of our civilization,” and in May he went so far as to warn an audience that “if they can kill us, they will.”
That sort of dire language is hailed as visionary wisdom by anti-Muslim activists on the right who have spent the fall on high alert. You may have missed the great Butterball Controversy of 2011, but they did most assuredly did not. Leading Islamophobes Pamela Geller and Bryan Fischer sounded the alarm about Butterball turkeys that have been certified halal. “Yet again,” wrote Geller, “we are being forced into consuming meat slaughtered by means of a torturous method: Islamic slaughter.” I had already purchased an organic, certified humane, heritage breed turkey because it is delicious and comes pre-brined, but I was doubly pleased to learn that by doing so I was “fight[ing] for [my] freedom!”
Activists have also been in an uproar over the new TLC reality show “All-American Muslim” about Muslim families living in Dearborn, Michigan. The Florida Family Association, which is trying to organize a boycott of the network, alleges that the program is “propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law.” In an alert to members, the organization complained that “the show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks.” Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch, has urged the network to produce a program about Muslim-Americans who “ended up participating in jihad activity.”
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It would be easy to write off these activists as extremists whose fears of a religious “other” have spiraled out of control. But Herman Cain’s similarly radical and bigoted statements about Muslims did not stop him from becoming a presidential favorite earlier this fall. We chuckle when Pamela Geller sees a stealth jihad on her Thanksgiving plate. But we should do more than raise an eyebrow when a presidential candidate says he would single out Muslim appointees to take a special loyalty oath.
Most recently, Cain repeated a story he’s told before about a surgeon who helped remove his stage IV colon cancer. While Cain was undergoing chemotherapy following surgery, he told the audience, he learned that one of the surgeons had the last name Abdallah. “I said, ‘That sounds foreign.’ Not that I had anything against foreign doctors, but it sounded too foreign.” Upon learning that the doctor was from Lebanon, Cain said, “My mind immediately started thinking, wait a minute, maybe his religious persuasion is different than mine!” A medical worker reassured Cain, telling him, “Don’t worry, Mr. Cain, he’s a Christian from Lebanon.” Cain’s response? “Hallelujah! Thank God!”
I cannot think of a more bigoted statement by a major party candidate in recent history. Cain’s comment has not gone unnoticed, but it should have been grounds for being immediately forced out of the race. If Newt Gingrich said the same thing about a physician whose name “sounded black,” the country would be outraged. Wouldn’t we? Please? So why is it possible for Cain to repeatedly smear an entire religious tradition without facing condemnation within his party or without facing questions about it every time he appears in public?
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Herman Cain’s candidacy may be a joke and Pamela Geller may be a nut. But we must have a no-tolerance approach to anti-Muslim bigotry, especially in political campaigns. Otherwise, we need to explain to the high school football player in Dearborn and the Muslim pre-med student at Berkeley why it’s okay for their fellow citizens to blithely smear them as dangerous and un-American.
Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.