Another week, another attempt by presidential candidate Herman Cain to assure Republican primary voters that he is serious about addressing the specter of an Islamic revolution in America — a threat apparently germinating right under our noses.
His comments are absurd, repulsive, and clearly intended to stoke irrational animus. They are therefore harmful in and of themselves. But there is an indirect consequence worth identifying.
Mounting a coherent critique of fundamentalist Islam — especially its militant subsidiaries, but also the underlying premises on which fundamentalist Islam itself rests — is a very important endeavor, just as mounting coherent critiques of fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Judaism are very important endeavors. All three embrace a form of theological totalitarianism in furtherance of political goals. This includes, relevant to Herman Cain’s statement, the supersession of divine (or revealed) law over secular law.
There are many actors, domestically and internationally, who view liberal democracy as merely an impediment to the full actualization of God’s will. These actors are sometimes both Muslims and deserving of criticism. The hidden harm of Herman Cain, then, is that with his baseless innuendos and obvious malleability to spoon-fed talking-points, the process of mounting a sensible critique of fundamentalist Islam becomes more difficult. He feeds into the perception that vigorous criticism of Islam or Muslims is somehow a crass, right-wing enterprise, and that anyone who engages in it must have a superficial view of religion in the United States.
I would emphasize in response that the misuse of such criticism by one manipulatable politician does not lessen the importance of the task. In fact, Cain’s wrongheadedness heightens the importance of carrying out the task effectively, and highlights why progressives shouldn’t cede the responsibility of doing so to reactionary demagogs.