Summer's Islam debate seen as too hot to touch in this campaign season

Summer's Islam debate seen as too hot to touch in this campaign season

After a scorching summer consumed with controversy over issues centering on Islam spilling into the political arena, the topic has quickly turned to political dynamite and threatens to derail midterm campaigns if politicians dare touch it.

The debate has focused around a Manhattan Islamic center – including a mosque – located two blocks from Ground Zero and numerous threats -- some carried out -- to burn or rip pages out of copies of the Muslim holy book the Quran. The political nature of the storm escalated to such heights that nearly every public figure weighed in on one side or another.

But a Congress that was vehemently involved in posturing on the issue as it left for summer recess remained deafeningly quiet on the issue when it came back in session last week. President Obama switched gears as well, choosing to focus on the economy this week after putting the White House at the center of the debate again last weekend while defending Islam in his Pentagon address on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

On top of this, a mid-recess Pew Research Center survey completed even before Obama dove headlong into the mosque controversy showed a "substantial and growing number" -- 18 percent -- calling the president, who has said he is Christian, a Muslim.

And with fewer than seven weeks before November’s midterm elections, political analysts and experts say that if candidates attempt to resurrect the controversies, it will be to their own political peril.

“Both sides smell danger on this issue,” said Bill Galston, a former senior adviser to President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWith Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker When Barbara Bush praised Bill Clinton, and Clinton praised the man she loved Meet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska MORE and senior fellow of governance with the Brookings Institute.

“The Republicans [are wary] because they run the risk of going over the top and looking narrow and bigoted, which is never a good thing to appear, particularly to independent voters, who are so important in these midterm elections,” he said.

“And on the Democratic side there is clearly the fear that if they hit the civil liberties and intolerance theme too hard, that’ll play very well in liberal districts but maybe not so well in swing districts where people are maybe a little bit more ambivalent about the whole thing.”

Soon after Obama raised the debate over the Islamic center at a dinner celebrating the beginning of Ramadan on Aug. 13, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle voiced their support and opposition, with even Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidGOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees Dems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination The Memo: Teens rankle the right with gun activism MORE (D-Nev.) coming out against the mosque project and the president saying they could agree to disagree.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) lambasted the center's proponents and likened its construction to building a Nazi museum near concentration camps. Republicans criticized Gingrich, saying that his remarks were too extreme and, as first reported by The Hill, the former House Speaker rescinded a promised video appearance at a Sept. 11 rally in lower Manhattan protesting the center.

“A number of public officials have already gotten burned by unwise public statements, Speaker Gingrich being chief among them,” said Galston. “I would be very surprised if many people decided for whatever reason to turn this into a bigger issue because there are political dangers on all sides.”

Last weekend on ABC's "This Week," the leader of the planned center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, said "for political reasons, certain politicians decided that this project would be very useful for their political ambitions."

Brian Darling, the director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation and former counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), agreed, saying that the void in news from Washington D.C. during the summer months often leads to an eruption of otherwise untenable topics.

“The Congress is back in session and you’re hearing talk about the Bush tax cuts and 'Don’t ask, don’t tell' and other big issues and that’s going to overshadow a lot of the noise in August over the Quran burnings and the mosque in New York,” said Darling. “They just aren’t issues that will affect federal elections.”

Darling and Galston both allowed, however, that politicians involved in New York races -- such as Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y) and Democratic challenger Howard Kudler, as well as Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and his opponent Andrew Cuomo -- may be forced to address the issue of the Islamic center as it’s a local issue.

“It’s still obviously an issue in the New York races because of the fact that the mosque issue is a local big deal,” said Darling.

Out of nearly 1,500 New Yorkers polled in a survey by the Quinnipiac University two weeks ago, 54 percent said Muslims have the right to build the Islamic center because of freedom of religion, but 53 percent of those polled said that right should be denied out of respect to those who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

In a show of just how touchy the issue may be for voters, former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) succumbed to Paladino in their party’s primary election last week after airing a highly controversial ad that featured footage of the 9/11 wreckage while asking questions about the allegiance of the imam heading up the construction of the Islamic center.

Paladino, who has objected to the Islamic center, told State of Politics that the ad was inappropriate and that New Yorkers “don’t have to be reminded” about the carnage of that day.

Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), worries that the anti-Islamic tones that became pronounced during the debate would continue until a public outcry was heard by the public figures.

“Obviously a number of right-wing politicians think bashing Muslims is a winning political strategy,” said Hooper. “It’ll continue to play a role as long as these politicians perceive it to be a winning strategy.

"If it’s clear that the American voters are rejecting Islamophobia and Muslim-bashing, then it’ll change.”