How on earth, my Australian friends have been asking me, can so large a fraction of the American public believe that the American president is an illegal Muslim immigrant actively collaborating with Islamic terrorism—an obviously impeachable offence? Australians tend to ask the question with a smile and a shake of the head at these crazy Americans. Well, yes, America is a wild and crazy country, no denying that. But let me suggest, if I may, that this particular piece of craziness is not a wildflower in the meadow of American craziness but a genetically engineered plant—in both senses of the word plant—a plant planted for a specific function.
To begin with just a bit of recent history, Republican strategists and their allies in the media initially sought during the 2008 presidential campaign to present the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, as an angry black racist, patently playing to the still-strong elements of race hatred in the Republican Party's southern base. That effort failed after Obama gave what many regard as an historic speech. A fallback strategy, aimed at giving race hatred, increasingly a sin that dares not speak its name, a new hook to hang on, mobilised anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment by planting and cultivating the bogus charge that the Democratic candidate was an illegal Muslim immigrant. The Obama campaign chose to bury these completely fabricated charges, rather than dignify them with a response, by effectively celebrating Michelle Robinson Obama's picture-perfect black American family during the Democratic nominating convention, most strikingly in the campaign film then watched by many millions.
I pause to point out that if Republicans, then or now, actually believed that the president were a seditious illegal alien, they would long since have sought to impeach him. For that matter, Democrats would have sought to impeach him. That no such attempt has been made or will ever be made ought to tell you that Republican strategists don't believe their own charge for a minute, and yet Republican office-holders from the top down have meticulously abstained from repudiating it. It may look to you like an urban myth. It may look that way to a good few Americans as well. It is, in fact, a classic electoral dirty trick.
The electoral tactic the Republicans chose during the weeks leading up to the anniversary of 9/11 is a tactic familiar from previous campaigns. I speak of the elevation of some divisive social issue, often quite minor in itself, into a brief national obsession calculated to distract the general electorate at the crucial moment from an unpalatable Republican economic agenda. As 9/11 approached, the earlier canard that Obama was an illegal Muslim immigrant was intensified by linking it to a Lower Manhattan Islamic community centre. The calculated demonisation of this centre as a 'Ground Zero Mosque' began with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, where the phrase may have been coined. It continued through his Fox News channel. Transparently, the intent was to provoke Obama into defending the centre in the name of freedom of religion but also, because those whose freedom was being challenged were Muslims, to lend credibility to the politically targeted charge of crypto-Muslim identity and traitorous collaboration with Islamist terrorism.
The strategy worked, but perhaps all too well. It took on a life of its own and triggered an embarrassing wave of general anti-Muslim prejudice in the US stretching noticeably beyond anything felt immediately after the bombings themselves. Among the uglier manifestations: a stabbing, an arson attempt, vandalism etc. This sort of thing exceeded anything that could plausibly pay a dividend to Republicans in November. But to stop it, Republicans—and most especially former president George W Bush, whose silence has become increasingly audible—would have had to do what they were trying to corner Obama into doing. They would have had to stand up for the religious freedom of American Muslims even when praying at a spot within walking distance from the future memorial to the 9/11 victims. That public act of devotion to the Constitution would have been good for the country, of course, both at home and abroad, and good for the world. However, it would have gone exactly counter to the Republican electoral strategy. And so it didn't happen.
In any case, the terminal spinout of the strategy may have come when a Florida pastor announced a public burning of the Koran on September 11. This Koran-burning abomination became a major international scandal, so undermining American security military strategy in Afghanistan that General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces there, denounced it and the Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, phoned the pastor personally to persuade him to call it off.
The pastor finally did call it off, but the damage had been done.
In the pursuit of domestic electoral advantage, the right wing had lent substantial new credibility to the claim that the United States was at war with Islam, undermined the US effort to stabilise Afghanistan, and strengthened the opposition facing the fragile US-backed government in Iraq. President Obama had failed to rise to the occasion with a speech remotely comparable to his 2008 speech on race relations. His modest remarks on the anniversary were appropriate but, in context, seemed almost literally the least he could do. Most regrettably, perhaps, the visionary plans he had announced so boldly late in 2007 to lay to rest the damaging belief that the United States was at war with Islam now seemed lost forever. And that loss matters to Australia scarcely less than it does to America.
After the 2001 attacks, George W Bush had declared quite plainly that the US was not at war with Islam. However, his language thereafter, especially 'global war on terror' when clearly only Muslim-sponsored terrorism was in view, had had an alienating and offensively incriminating effect on Muslims around the world. After the unwarranted US invasion of Iraq, the notion took hold quite powerfully and widely that America was indeed at war with Islam. Approaching the 2008 election, then-senator Barack Obama's descent from a Kenyan father of ostensibly Muslim culture and his boyhood in Indonesia with his mother and an Indonesian Muslim stepfather seemed to many liberals to be unique assets for a historic new departure in American international relations.
Some of you may have dipped into Obama's The Audacity of Hope, in which so much is said of Indonesia. Imagine the potential benefits for Australia of a significant rapprochement between the US, the most powerful country in the West, and Indonesia, the largest country in the Muslim world, a functioning democracy, and your largest near neighbour. Sadly, Obama's opponents have turned his potential diplomatic assets into electoral liabilities and, in the mid-term electoral campaign, showed themselves willing to undermine their country's foreign policy and even our American armed forces' battlefield security for short-term political gain.
And it may yet be, when all the dust has settled, that they will not have procured even that. Yet whatever the outcome of the election and whatever the future of the Islamic community centre in New York, the larger result of the campaign against it and the campaign to market an Islamicised version of President Obama will have been long-term, unseen collateral damage to a nascent American detente in the war with Islam that never was.