Beyond Bachmann: A Challenge for the GOP

During the past week Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was sternly rebuked by Senator John McCain and other GOP leaders for her attack against State Department official, Huma Abedin, and her call to investigate and root out other "Muslim extremists" who may hold sensitive posts in the U.S. government. But before we assume that the story is over, it is important to recall that this "bait and smear" campaign directed against Muslims and Arabs didn’t start with the letters written and co-signed by Bachmann and her four colleagues. And it doesn’t end there, either. The problem is older, bigger, and runs deeper.

This wasn’t the first time Members of Congress instigated a "witch hunt" targeting American Muslims or Arab Americans in government. Just three years ago, Congresswoman Sue Myrick and three Republican colleagues called on the House of Representatives’ Sergeant-at-Arms to investigate the presence of "Muslim extremists" working as Congressional staffers. And during the Bush administration, Islamophobes tormented a number of Muslim American White House appointees: among them, Suheil Khan and Ali Tulbeh. Even anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, came under relentless attack for his efforts to encourage conservatives to reach out to the Muslim community. Many of these and other earlier attacks were all too often met with official silence, causing personal pain to those who were targeted and to others who feared that they too might be suspect because of their religion or ethnicity.

There are two factors that made this most recent attack different. First, it appears that in picking on Abedin, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s long-time aide, Bachmann and company took the "witch hunt" a step too far. Having been by Mrs. Clinton’s side since her days as First Lady, Huma Abedin is known and deeply respected in Washington and beyond. During the past two decades, Abedin has been repeatedly vetted by the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. That Bachmann would hurl bizarre charges and flimsy allegations at Abedin and her family suspecting them of "Muslim extremist" ties based on no hard evidence other than their faith and where they lived, was considered by many an outrage.

Other reasons that brought this situation to a boil were the person of Bachmann herself and the courage of one of her colleagues to challenge her. The sensation-seeking Congresswoman has often provoked the GOP leadership. Many were infuriated by the way she attempted to co-opt the grass-roots "Tea Party" movement, by starting and then declaring herself head of the "Tea Party Caucus" in Congress and the harsh "slash and burn" attacks that characterized her quixotic presidential bid. In rejecting her attacks on Abedin, Bachmann’s former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, a Reagan administration official, echoed Senator McCain’s description of Abedin as "an honorable woman, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant." At the same time, Rollins accused Bachmann of a "grievous lack of judgment and reckless behavior," suggesting that, for her, such behavior has come to be expected.

Even with Huma Abedin’s sterling character, and Bachmann’s reckless and irritating penchant for show-boating, it took the challenge from Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to serve in Congress, to force the issue into the open. After all, the letters from Bachmann and company had been released a month ago and had been endorsed by the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. It was not until Ellison wrote his piece and several writers echoed his concern, prompting television shows to ask questions, that attention was paid to Bachmann’s charges. This moved Senator McCain to act to defend Huma Abedin and to denounce Bachmann. And once McCain spoke, other GOP leaders and editorials in major daily newspapers quickly followed suit. In the end, the loony Members of Congress who co-signed the Bachmann letters were left stripped of supporters — save for crackpot fringe groups and real haters of Arabs and Muslims.

So far, so good. But before believing that the problem of Islamophobia has been solved, it is important to note that several underlying problems remain. The Center for Security Policy (CSP) — the group that was behind the Bachmann letters, the earlier Myrick effort to investigate Congressional staff, and the attacks on Bush-era appointees and Norquist — is still spreading poisonous lies targeting American Muslims and Arab Americans and those who work with them. The CSP is a key element in what the Center for American Progress has termed the "Islamophobia Network." They, and their companion organizations, are well-funded, with established ties in our law enforcement agencies, the conservative media, and some parts of the conservative movement. It is true that some groups, like the American Conservative Union have ostracized CPS, and some law enforcement agencies have begun to review their training programs to remove trainers and material originating from this "network." But they have, over the years, done real damage. Thousands of law enforcement officials have been trained with their hate-filled material. Millions of Americans hear them frequently as commentators on right-wing TV and radio networks and programs. And as our polling demonstrates, their propaganda campaigns have fed a deep partisan divide on attitudes toward Islam, Arabs, and the Middle East, in general. In one poll we conducted a year and a half ago, we found that while 55 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Muslims and 35 percent had an unfavorable view, among Republicans only 12 percent had a favorable view, with 85 percent holding an unfavorable view. This was part of the reason why several of the 2012 GOP presidential aspirants indulged in anti-Muslim demagoguery during the past primary — they were looking at the polls and playing to their "base."

The bottom line is that, as important as it is it is to defend Huma Abedin or to rebuke Michele Bachmann, Sue Myrick, and their colleagues, this is not enough. We must commit to changing the way we talk about Islam and the Arab World, and our nation’s Muslim and Arab communities and join Senator Scott Brown in making it clear that hate-filled personal attacks "have no place in our national discourse." This is important, as Senator McCain observed, because "what is at stake in this matter is larger even than the reputation of one person. This is about who we are as a nation, and who we still aspire to be." And for Republicans, this challenge is particularly important because, as Ed Rollins notes, the GOP is "the party founded by Abraham Lincoln… that fought slavery and intolerance at every level."