In looking back at the now-completed Presidential contest it is striking to note the degree to which Arabs, Muslims, and Islam itself, were factored into the race.
While Arab Americans and American Muslims were, in fact, deeply involved in the election (especially on the Democratic side, where the Obama campaign hired Arab American staff, formed an official Arab American committee, launched a website, etc.), more often than not these communities found themselves (and, in the case of Muslims, their religion) slighted or used in hurtful ways.
A principal precipitator of much of this was, of course, the mere presence of Barack Obama on the Democratic ticket, and the efforts by his opponents to negatively exploit his name, parentage, and upbringing. Early in the campaign, emails began virally circulating alleging not only that Obama was a Muslim, but a "secret Muslim" with a dark agenda to undermine America. The stories were bizarre, but even the most bizarre tale told often enough and echoed on talk radio, can take hold and be accepted as truth- at least by some. The story morphed into different forms, and so what began as "Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim" became "He’s not a real American", or "He’s an Arab" became "He doesn’t share our values", etc. These stories, if not countered, might have proved fatal to his candidacy.
In their zeal to stomp out this smear campaign, the Obama camp spared no effort, at times reacting with what amounted to an excessive aversion to all things Muslim. It was this that prompted two Obama staffers, on their own initiative, to ask two hijab-wearing women to move their seats out of camera sight at a June 2008 event. And while churches and synagogues were venues for campaign events, Muslims took note that mosques were avoided. It was this same degree of excess that caused, at the first hint of controversy, the hasty dismissal of a young Arab American Muslim who had been hired
Finally, toward the very end of the campaign, Republican Vice- Presidential candidate Sarah Palin attempted to smear Obama on the basis of his friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a distinguished Columbia University Professor who had once been a neighbor of Obama’s in Chicago. Apparently, for Palin, the mere fact that Khalidi is Palestinian provided sufficient grounds to argue that Obama "consorted with terrorists and terrorist supporters." Once again, the Obama campaign quickly separated themselves from the story — albeit a bit too abruptly for some Arab Americans.
None of these incidents passed unnoticed, with the mainstream media writing extensively on each, sometimes causing even greater concern for Arab Americans and American Muslims who wanted to be part of the election ’08 story, but not in this manner.
The assault on Islam wasn’t limited to blind emails smearing Obama, or baseless attacks by his opponents. It also came in the form of a frontal assault on the religion, itself. Early in the campaign, when John McCain needed to shore up his support from the Evangelical Christian Right, two pastors associated with that wing of the Republican Party came to his side. Capturing the endorsements of the Reverends Rod Parsley and John Hagee was initially viewed by McCain as a coup; but as media reports about their bizarre theologies and Islamophobic attitudes (as well as their hostility to Catholics, Jews and others) proliferated, McCain was forced to renounce the endorsements of both.
From late summer through November a shadowy group with ties to the Republican Party (and also to an Israel-based charity) attempted, in their own way, to insert Islam into the campaign. Beginning at both conventions, they were the responsible for the distribution of tens of millions of copies of an Islamophobic DVD called "Obssession: Radical Islam’s War against the West". In September alone, the group sent out 28 million copies of "Obsession" to households in battleground states playing the fear card to influence voters. The group has strong ties to the above-mentioned Reverend Hagee and his Christians United for Israel, and the National Jewish Republican Coalition – both of which also engaged in Muslim-baiting tactics this year in an effort to influence voters.
There was more. Arab-baiting was used in a number of Congressional campaigns, and by a plethora of right-wing bloggers and talk radio hosts – all of whom worked overtime in an effort to impede Arab American or Muslim involvement and/or smear Islam.
It was hurtful and harmful, to be sure; but the real story of 2008 is that none of this dissuaded Arab Americans and American Muslims from playing a significant role in this year’s elections, from the Presidential contest to state and local races. In the process of shrugging off troubling slights, the communities were strengthened, deepening their roots in the political process. And it is important to note that, in no instance, was this Arab- or Muslim-bashing successful, since from Barack Obama on down, candidates, who were targeted, defeated their opponents.