Singling Out Islam: Newt Gingrich's Pandering Attacks

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The former House speaker regularly calls for treating Muslims differently -- and his discriminatory remarks are mostly forgiven.   



It's interesting to observe what qualifies as beyond the pale in American politics. For bigoted newsletters written two decades ago, Ron Paul is deemed by many to be disqualified from the presidency. I don't fault anyone for criticizing those newsletters. I've done so myself. They're terrible. So is the way he's handled the controversy. But isn't it interesting that Paul has been more discredited by years-old, ghostwritten remarks than has Newt Gingrich for bigotry that he's uttered himself, on camera, during the present campaign? It's gone largely ignored both in the mainstream press and the movement-conservative organs that were most vocal condemning Paul.

That's because Muslims are the target. And despite the fact that George W. Bush was admirably careful to avoid demonizing a whole religious faith for the actions of a small minority of its adherents -- despite the fact that Barack Obama too has been beyond reproach in this respect -- anti-Muslim bigotry in America is treated differently than every other kind, often by the very same people who allege without irony that there is a war in this country against Christians.  

In the clip at the top of this post, Gingrich says, "Now, I think we need to have a government that respects our religions. I'm a little bit tired about respecting every religion on the planet. I'd like them to respect our religion." Of course, the U.S. government is compelled by the Constitution to afford protection to religion generally, and "our" religion includes Islam, a faith many Americans practice. That's just the beginning of what Gingrich has said about this minority group. In this clip, he likens Muslim Americans seeking to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan to Nazis building next to the Holocaust Museum. He once suggested that the right of Muslims to build mosques should be infringed upon by the U.S. government until Christians are permitted to build churches in Saudi Arabia, a straightforward suggestion that we violate the Constitution in order to mimic authoritarians. He favors a federal law that would pre-empt sharia law -- though not the religious law of any other faith -- from being used in American courts, which would be the solution to a total non-problem.

And no surprise, for he regularly engages in the most absurd kind of fear-mongering. To cite one example:

I think that we have to really, from my perspective you don't have an issue of religious tolerance you have an elite which favors radical Islam over Christianity and Judaism. You have constant pressure by secular judges and by religious bigots to drive Christianity out of public life and to establish a secular state except when it comes to radical Islam, where all of the sudden they start making excuses for Sharia, they start making excuses that we really shouldn't use certain language. Remember, the Organization of Islamic Countries is dedicated to preventing anyone, anywhere in the world from commenting negatively about Islam, so they would literally eliminate our free speech and there were clearly conversations held that implied that the U.S. Justice Department would begin to enforce censorship against American citizens to protect radical Islam, I think that's just an amazing concept frankly.

If Gingrich believed all of this it would be damning. I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether it is more or less damning that his tone, and much of his substance, is in fact a calculated pander. Justin Elliott at Salon demonstrated as much when he delved into how Gingrich used to talk about these issues:

Gingrich's recent rhetoric represents a little-noticed shift from an earlier period in his career when he had a strikingly warm relationship with the American Muslim community. As speaker of the House in the 1990s, for example, Gingrich played a key role in setting aside space on Capitol Hill for Muslim congressional staffers to pray each Friday; he was involved with a Republican Islamic group that promoted Shariah-compliant finance, which critics -- including Gingrich -- now deride as a freedom-destroying abomination; and he maintained close ties with another Muslim conservative group that even urged Gingrich to run for president in 2007.

The article goes on to note:

Gingrich's warm relations with the Muslim community continued well into the mid-2000s. Around 2004, for example, he participated in a planning meeting of the Islamic Free Market Institute, according to an activist who also attended the meeting. "His tone was nothing like what you hear today," recalls the activist. "He was very positive, very supportive. His whole attitude was that Muslims are part of the American fabric and that Muslim Americans should be Republicans." By the standards of the Gingrich we know today, the Islamic Free Market Institute was essentially engaged in "stealth jihad." The now defunct group, founded by conservative activist Grover Norquist in 1998 to woo Muslim Americans to the GOP, was involved in educating the public and policymakers about Islamic or Shariah-compliant finance. Its 2004 IRS filing reported the group spent tens of thousands of dollars to "educate the public about Islam[ic] finances, insurance, banking and investments." To most people, there's nothing nefarious about Islamic finance -- there is a large international banking business centering on special financial instruments that are compliant with Islamic strictures against interest, and so on.

So in 2004 Gingrich attended a planning meeting of a group devoted to promoting Shariah-compliant finance. Fast forward to 2010 and here's what he said in his speech to the American Enterprise Institute: "[I]t's why I think teaching about Sharia financing is dangerous, because it is the first step towards the normalization of Sharia and I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it."

If an American politician suggested, of Christians or Jews, that they should be required to take a special loyalty oath before assuming office; that the government should restrict where they're permitted to build houses of worship; that laws should be passed singling out their religious law as odious; that they don't count when Americans talk about "our" religion; that their main lobbying group should be aggressively investigated: if any American politician said any of those things, they'd be regarded as an anti-religious bigot engaged in a war on Christianity.   

Whereas the accusation that there's something wrong with Gingrich's rhetoric is met on the right with righteous indignation, as if he is the put-upon victim of political correctness or the elite media.

In the 1980s, the Ron Paul newsletters played on white anxiety about urban crime and racism toward blacks. It was awful. And apparently America didn't learn its lesson, for Gingrich 2012, like Cain 2012 before it, is playing on majority anxieties about terrorism and xenophobia toward Muslims. This is particularly dangerous in the civil-liberties climate produced by Bush and Obama, where American citizens can be deprived of their liberty and even their life without charges or due process, a protection that is especially valuable to feared minorities.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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