Say what you like about George W. Bush; he respected the Muslims he murdered. Even as he wiped them out and tortured them, he professed his respect for their religion. "The Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion," he said. "The exact opposite of the teachings of the Al Qaeda organization." The problem wasn’t that he hated Muslims; it was that, through invasion and occupation, he sought to love them to death.
There was no reason to disbelieve these claims. Iraq, in particular, was never a war against Islam. It was primarily a war for oil; Muslims just got in the way. The driving logic behind it had no more to do with religion than slavery had to do with skin pigmentation. When it came to marketing the war, not only was disdain of Islam not necessary; it was actively unhelpful. With the war branded as an act of liberation, there was little to be gained by wantonly disparaging the faith of the very people it was now your task to subdue. And so long as the United States was bombing Muslims abroad, there was no need to bash them at home.
Needless to say, this official sensitivity bore little relation to how Muslims were treated by the state. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, broad sweeps of people from predominantly Muslim countries resulted in the "preventive detention" of 1,200, mostly men; voluntary interviews of 19,000; and a program of special registration for more than 82,000. Not a single terrorism conviction emerged from any of this.
Nor did Bush’s tactful words do anything to quell popular Islamophobic attitudes. In 2006, long before the brouhaha over Park51, the so-called "Ground Zero mosque," a Pew survey showed that Muslims were viewed less favorably in the United States than in Russia, Britain or France, while a Gallup poll revealed that 39 percent of Americans supported requiring Muslims in the country, including US citizens, to carry special identification. By the time Obama ran for president, "Muslim" was a slur—an accusation about his faith he felt compelled to deny.
But while these views were prevalent, they did not gain electoral expression or widespread political currency. There was no rush to reprint cartoons of Muhammad or hold vexed national discussions about what Muslim women should or should not wear. Though Islamophobia may have been rife, Islam itself did not appear to provide a rich vein to tap. There were, it seems, precious few votes in it.
That paradox is now unraveling. The fallout over right-wing attacks against Park51, as well as those against several other mosques across the country, suggests that a sizable section of the right believes there is capital to be gained from scapegoating Muslims. From now on, the Koran burnings, mosque torchings and hate crimes directed at Muslims can no longer be understood simply as isolated incidents of bigotry. They will draw their strength and legitimacy from within the establishment and their encouragement from the mainstream media: not acts of individual calumny but insidious calculation.