This is strange. Why are conservatives more hostile to Muslims and Islam today than they were in the terrifying aftermath of 9/11? And why have American Muslims, who in 2000 mostly voted Republican, apparently replaced gays and feminists as the right’s chief culture-war foe?
For half a century, cultural conservatives have vowed to protect America against threats from domestic insurgencies: black militancy, feminism, the gay-rights movement. But those insurgencies involved large and restive groups. Muslims, by contrast, make up only 1 percent of the U.S. population. And they are not restive. Yes, a tiny share sympathizes with Salafi groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS. But unlike the civil-rights, abortion-rights, and gay-rights activists of eras past, American Muslims are not seeking to transform American culture and law. They are not marching in the streets. For the most part, they constitute a small, well-educated, culturally conservative minority that wants little more from the government than to be left alone.
Muslims have become the right’s greatest cultural enemy in large part because they are what remains after the ideological collapse of the “war on terror.” After September 11, George W. Bush outlined an epic, generational struggle—a successor to World War II and the Cold War—to make the Middle East democratic and pro-American. “In our grief and anger,” he told a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks, “we have found our mission and our moment.”
For a time, that mission directed the right’s energies outward. Most conservatives (along with many liberals) supported Bush’s efforts to occupy and transform Afghanistan and Iraq. Undergirding these efforts lay a deep confidence in the power of American arms, the size of America’s bank account, and the universal relevance of American democracy.
Since Bush’s second term, however, when both the Afghan and Iraq Wars went dramatically south, that confidence has collapsed. Today, most conservatives credit Bush for the success of the Iraq surge, but they no longer propose large deployments of American troops to the Middle East, and they no longer believe America can spend limitlessly abroad. And especially since the failed Arab Spring, they no longer proclaim the necessity—or even the desirability—of Arab democracy. Whereas the Bush administration once pressured Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to hold free elections, prominent conservatives now praise his successor, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for having led a coup to overturn their results.
But if conservatives no longer believe they can transform the Middle East, they still greatly fear terrorism by Muslims. A 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center found that Republicans were 31 percentage points more likely than Democrats to be “very concerned” about the threat of “Islamic extremism” around the world. The result is a mismatch between conservative anxieties and conservative methods. Although most conservatives are happy to bomb ISIS, the American right has lost its appetite for a vast overseas struggle against jihadist terror. Instead of tempering their view of the threat, conservatives have domesticated it. By reconceiving the Islamist danger as a largely domestic problem, conservatives can now fight it ferociously without having to invade any other countries.