Rand Paul’s Islamophobic Speeches a Ploy to Win Over Conservatives

About Owen Jennings

Sen Rand Paul speaks at the 2013 Values Voters Summit

Sen. Rand Paul speaks at the 2013 Values Voters Summit

At the recent Values Voters Summit, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) spoke on the “War on Christianity”, but his speech was not about prayer in schools or the so-called ‘war on Christmas,’ his focus was radical Islam. Our live blog of the summit outlines his argument, which stresses that Christians around the world are being threatened by “a fanatical element of Islam,” and used isolated incidents of violence against Christians as an excuse to paint every Muslim worldwide as radical and evil. The speech has been widely condemned as hateful, bigoted, and wildly inaccurate.

In all likelihood, his hyperbolic war rhetoric was simply a dramatic attempt to broaden his support beyond the libertarian wing of the GOP to curry favor with the wider Tea Party movement, neoconservatives, and the Christian Right. If so, it is a dangerous game.

This is not the first time Rand Paul has used the threat of a radical Islam boogeyman for political advantage. His PAC ran advertisements against Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), attacking foreign aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan, and painting the governments and citizens of those states as “Anti-American regimes and radical jihadists.” He has also argued for those that attend radical speeches promoting the overthrow of their governments to be deported or put in prison. All the while, Paul continues to support American citizens who continually and frequently threaten to overthrow the U.S. government. While Paul does not attack Islam nearly as much as some of his Tea Party colleagues, he is no stranger to using Islam for political advantage. Not only has he attacked Muslims before, but he gave a very similar speech back in June, at a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. This message is nothing new, but it is being hammered home.

What is consistently and glaringly missing from Paul’s anti-Muslim speeches is any mention of the multitude of attacks by Christians against Muslims, or most other faiths for that matter. There is still, for example, widespread discrimination against Muslims in Bulgaria, a predominantly Christian country. This does not mean that there is a ‘War on Islam,’ but neither do Paul’s examples prove a ‘war on Christianity.’

According to Paul, the “war on Christians … came to Boston this year just in time for the marathon”. Beyond the awful phrasing used, he then goes on to completely undermine his argument, admitting that the bombers didn’t target Christians specifically. Despite this admission, he suggests that the motive of the bombing was to attack “us as a people, a Christian people.” Not only is that logic insulting to religious freedom in the U.S., but logically makes any terrorist attack against Americans an assault on a particular faith, rather than on our people as a whole and on our nation.

Beyond simply attacking Islamic radicalism, his other stated goal is to stop the U.S. giving “giving aid and comfort” to these countries, with an emphasis on aid. With specific mentions of refusing aid to the Muslim Brotherhood, and halting the arming of rebels in Syria, he is moving closer to the Tea Party consensus on those issues, whilst still offering his libertarian base spending reductions. One of his more bizarre statements was that “I say not one penny more to countries that burn our flag,” referring to an incident in Egypt in which private citizens, not the Egyptian government, burned a U.S. flag. Obviously, withdrawing foreign aid designed to assist in the prevention of widespread poverty and disease for such reasons would establish an absurd precedent.

Assuming he did not make this speech purely out of a conviction that Islam threatens Christianity, why would Paul use a speech at the Values Voters Summit to attack Islam, rather than talk about the much more topical government shutdown?  Considering the audience at the summit, an audience that is not traditionally libertarian, the reasons becomes clearer. This is just one speech in a process of “quietly making himself acceptable to the ‘conservative mainstream.’” One of Paul’s and the libertarian movement’s most striking weaknesses within the GOP is foreign policy. To the largely hawkish Republican mainstream, and the similarly inclined Tea Party movement, the stances of Rand Paul and his father Ron Paul before him have, by and large, been unpalatable. By accusing Islamic states of supporting a radical “war on Christianity,” Paul has found a common scapegoat. Alongside the ‘strong’ foreign policy stance against these Islamic nations, his narrative also matches the tone of the Christian Right, alleging that Christianity is under fire, even if the circumstances in Egypt are utterly unlike any situation in the US. In covering so much popular ground, Paul may be increasing his chances in a possible GOP presidential primary, at only a slight risk of alienating his base.

With only 6% of the vote in the Values Voters straw poll, Paul hardly won over the crowd. Despite trying to find common ground in his speech, more Far Right conservative candidates, including Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, proved considerably more popular. Nevertheless, through the cherry-picking of instances of religious violence, Rand Paul has brought himself closer to the Tea Party movement as a whole.

Owen Jennings was a Fall 2013--Spring 2014 intern for Political Research Associates