The Continuing Relevance of the Obama Muslim Myth

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney issued a misleading statement earlier in the week claiming that the Obama administration’s “first response” to the attacks on the US embassies in Libya and Egypt “was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” Romney’s claim was later echoed by Republicans like GOP chairman Reince Preibus and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. But as ABC’s Jake Tapper points out, the statement in question, which originated in the US Embassy in Cairo, actually was released before the attacks, not afterward.

The statement underscores the continuing relevance of the Obama Muslim myth. To be clear, we can’t know Romney’s motives or those of Preibus and Palin. The primary intention is surely to attack Obama as weak or feckless in foreign policy. But the way in which the statement was worded (accusing Obama of sympathizing with Muslims killing Americans) is likely to resonate with members of the public who cling to the still widespread belief that President Obama is a Muslim, which has persisted since the 2008 campaign. In particular, numerous pundits and politicians have used coded language to suggest that Obama has dual loyalties or is not loyal to this country. Here are just a few examples from prominent Republicans:

May 2009: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich alleges on “Fox News Sunday” that there is a “weird pattern” in which Obama administration officials were “prepared to take huge risks with Americans in order to defend terrorists” and suggests that the Obama administration was proposing “welfare” for terrorists. He then claims on “Meet the Press” that the Obama administration’s “highest priority” is to “find some way to defend terrorists.”

June 2009: Senator James Inhofe calls Obama’s Cairo speech “un-American” and says “I just don’t know whose side he’s on.”

February 2010: During a conference call with conservative bloggers, Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.) accuses the Obama administration of having a “a terrorist protection policy” and conducting a “jihad to close Guantanamo.”

By contrast, no prominent Democrats attacked the Bush administration for sympathizing with Muslims when it condemned cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that Muslims found offensive. The line of attack didn’t resonate because Bush was seen a conservative Christian. Obama has in some ways been more aggressive and successful than Bush in killing suspected terrorists, including Osama Bin Laden, but he is still treated differently. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that misperceptions about his religion are part of the reason why.

[Cross-posted at]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.