This article first appeared on SWonline.
The Islamophobic Warriors
Robert Spencer has been in the news lately because Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people in his bombing and mass shooting last month, cites him several dozen times in a hate-filled manifesto published on the Internet.
But Spencer first came to prominence in the U.S. in 2010, when along with Pamela Geller, he instigated a controversy around the construction of an Islamic community center, misnamed the “Ground Zero mosque,” in lower Manhattan. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Islam dominated news media coverage in 2010.
David Yerushalmi was featured in a lengthy report in the New York Times as the mastermind behind a crusade to ban the use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. No one can point to any effort to promote Sharia law in the U.S. legal system–yet about two dozen states have considered banning its use anyway, and Republican presidential candidates are falling over themselves to incorporate anti-Sharia rhetoric into their campaigns.
What do Yerushalmi and Spencer have in common? Apart from the obvious–that they are both rabid right-wing Islamophobes–the two men are part of a phalanx of Islamophobic warriors that has emerged from the woodwork and started to gain a hearing in the mainstream over the last year and a half.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist groups and individuals, has a primer on the 10 most outrageous and rabid Islamophobes. In addition to Spencer, Yerushalmi and Geller, they include figures like David Horowitz, Bill Gaubatz, Brigette Gabriel and Debbie Schlussel.
Here are some of their opinions:
David Horowitz: “Some polls estimate that 10 percent of Muslims support Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. An Al Jazeera poll put the number at 50 percent. In other words, somewhere between 150 million and 750 million Muslims support a holy war against Christians, Jews and other Muslims who don’t happen to be true believers in the Koran according to bin Laden.” (from the Columbia Spectator, October 15, 2007)
Debbie Schlussel: “So sad, too bad, Lara. No one told her to go there. She knew the risks. And she should have known what Islam is all about. Now she knows. Or so we’d hope…How fitting that Lara Logan was ‘liberated’ by Muslims in Liberation Square while she was gushing over the other part of the ‘liberation.’ Hope you’re enjoying the revolution, Lara! Alhamdillullah (praise allah) [sic].” (From Schlussel’s website, following the sexual assault on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo on February 15, 2011)
Terry Jones: “Here’s your opportunity, all you so-called peaceful Moslems [Jones’ pronunciation]…We are accusing the Koran of murder, rape, deception, being responsible for terrorist activities all around the world…Present to us your defense attorney who is going to defend the Koran. Let us really see. We challenge you: do it. Let us not talk. Let us have some action and proof…The Koran, if found guilty, can be burned…Or the Koran will be drowned. Or the Koran will be shredded into little bitty pieces…Or the Koran will face a firing squad.” (from an undated video on the Dove World Outreach website announcing “International Judge the Koran Day”)
The question that a reasonable person might ask is: How is it that such extreme racists have been successful in grabbing the limelight over last the year or so? The fact of the matter is that the “Islamophobic warriors,” like the Cold Warriors and McCarthyites of yesteryear, have been enabled by a political system that benefits from scapegoating and fear-mongering as a means to quell dissent and advance an imperial agenda.
Furthermore, while the September 11 attacks and the Bush administration’s “war on terror” created an ideological opening for the warriors, they have risen to even greater prominence during the presidency of Barack Obama. There is an ugly dynamic at work: liberal Islamphobia at the top enables right-wing Islamophobia at the bottom, which then further impacts politics at the top, and so on.
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The Islamophobic warriors
Reading the quotes above, one might be tempted to dismiss these bigots as so many loony right-wingers. Yet the ranks of the Islamophobic phalanx goes beyond the evangelical right and the Tea Party movement. Among their cadre are fixtures of the security establishment, the foreign policy elite and the academy. We should begin, therefore, with a survey of a few of their leading lights:
Frank Gaffney was a Reagan-era deputy assistant defense secretary, serving under notorious neo-con Richard Perle from 1983-87. For Gaffney, it was an easy shift from Cold Warrior to Islamophobic warrior. A member of the neo-con Project for the New American Century think-tank, he is a senior adviser for the group Americans for Victory Over Terrorism (AVOT).
AVOT’s website states that it is “dedicated to victory in the War on Terrorism” through “the shaping of public opinion, the encouragement of a foreign policy based on the founding principles of America, increased research about Islam and Islamism and a steadfast commitment to attacking those who would blame America first.”
In short, AVOT combines the Cold War demonization of the left (“those who would blame America first”) with a new enemy (“Islam and Islamism”). Drawing a page from the McCarthyist playbook, Gaffney is one of many who claimed that President Obama might be a “secret Muslim.”
According to SourceWatch.org, AVOK’s reading list is drawn from the writings of Bernard Lewis, Martin Kramer, Samuel Huntington Benjamin Netanyahu and other ideologues and politicians. But what, by contrast, qualifies Gaffney as a warrior is that he is an activist and works to put these ideas into practice. He has, for example, collaborated closely with Yerushalmi to forward the anti-Sharia agenda.
The warriors have long argued that the U.S. has been “infiltrated” by Muslims bent on destroying the West. In 1994, Steven Emerson aired his film Jihad in America on PBS, drumming up fear of the supposed Jihadist threat. He went on to form the Investigative Project on Terrorism in 1995 and spew out conspiracy theories about the “Islamic threat.” His books include American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us (2002) and Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the U.S. (2006). Emerson claims that 80 percent of mosques in the U.S. are controlled by extremists.
Another important Islamophobic warrior and contributor to this line of argumentation is David Horowitz. Horowitz advocates the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood and other “Islamofascists” control most American Muslim organizations, and that this is especially true of Muslim student groups on college campuses.
A former student radical of the 1960s, the “reformed” Horowitz has nothing but invective for the left. He is the author of Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left (2004). Among his other activist attempts, Horowitz organized the “Islamofascism Awareness Week,” which brought prominent anti-Muslim zealots to college campuses in 2007. His Freedom Center is affiliated to Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch. Spencer’s articles on Jihad appear regularly in Horowitz’s Front Page magazine.
The connections between various individuals, their organizations and the larger foreign policy establishment is deep and entrenched. The film Obsession–28 million copies of which were distributed in the run up to the 2008 presidential elections–showcases the range of Islamophobic warriors, and their disturbing and distorted views of Islam.
David Gaubautz worked in the Middle East for the U.S. Air Forces Office of Special Investigations. He built his career after 9/11 by arguing that Muslim civil rights groups such as Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) are actually front groups for terrorist organizations. He is co-author of Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That’s Conspiring to Islamize America (2009).
Andrew McCarthy is an attorney who prosecuted the people responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and is the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of Jihad (2008) and The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America (2010).
Clare Lopez is a former CIA operations officer and speaker for the Center for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, a far-right wing organization with highly distorted vies on Islam and Muslims that regularly offers counter-terrorism training courses for law enforcement officials.
The now well-known Pamela Geller is a prominent Islamophobe and cofounder (with Robert Spencer) of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), a group based on the premise that Muslims are planning to take over the U.S.. She is also a rabid Zionist.
Alongside these white Christian and Jewish warriors are those of Middle East origins who serve to legitimate racist ideas about Muslims through first-person “testimony.” Most are either Muslims who converted to Christianity or Christians from Muslim-majority countries who speak about their personal stories of woe in their former homes.
Nonie Darwish is the founder of Arabs for Israel, and the director of Former Muslims United, whose cofounders include Wafa Sultan, Walid Shoebat and Ibn Warraq. Darwish is the author of Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror (2007) and Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law (2009). For Darwish, an Egyptian by birth, the 2011 Egyptian uprising is proof that Obama has emboldened Islamists, both in Egypt and within the U.S. security apparatus.
Brigitte Gabriel is a Christian Lebanese woman who was part of the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s proxy militia operating inside Lebanon. She is the founder of ACT! for America and the American Council for Truth. She is the author of Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America (2006) and They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Can Do It (2008).
Gabriel believes that “Islamic militants now reside in America, operating in sleeper cells, attending our colleges and universities, even infiltrating our government. They are here–today. Many have been here for years. Waiting. Preparing.”
Walid Shoebat regularly gives lectures to the law enforcement community on “terrorism.” At one such meeting, he stated that the Islamic Society of North America and the Council of American Islamic Relations are “the terrorist arms of the lawmaker: Sharia, Koran and Hadith.” Shoebat has converted to Christianity and believes that the “end times” of Biblical prophecy are one where Muslims will fight along with Satan on Earth.
Among this group, Walid Phares probably has the most credibility. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations and Strategic Studies from University of Miami and has been invited many times to offer briefs and testimony before congressional committees. He leads seminars for government employees and addresses law enforcement and homeland security conferences.
Phares believes that there is a Jihadist strategy to infiltrate key institutions in the U.S., such as the defense sector, the academy and community organizations. His books include Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against America (2005), The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy (2007) and The Confrontation: Winning the War Against Future Jihad (2008)).
What is ironic is that while the Islamophobic warriors are obsessed about “Islamic infiltration,” it is they who have infiltrated the defense sector and security apparatus. This has happened particularly in regard to counter-terrorism training courses that law enforcement officials are required to take. A recently obtained PowerPoint presentation by the FBI’s Law Enforcement Communications Unit reveals a highly distorted view of Islam–not surprising given that it draws from books by Robert Spencer and the Orientalist Rafael Patai.
As NPR notes, “[T]here’s growing evidence that many of these [counter-terrorism] training sessions are providing officers at the grassroots with a biased view of Muslims in America.” This disturbing trend has been thoroughly documented by Thomas Cincotta, and further reported on by PR Newswire, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Gawker.
To summarize, the Islamophobic warriors believe that there is a conspiracy by Muslims to take over the U.S., and that Islamists have already “infiltrated” all levels of society. The goal of Muslims is to replace the U.S. constitution with Sharia law, according to this view. The warriors believe that all Muslim Americans have ties to terrorist organizations and that there are really no “good” Muslims. Thus, Schlussel ranted against recently appointed New Jersey judge Sohail Mohammed that he is a Hamas supporter–she called the man who appointed Mohammed, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a “halal pig.”
The warriors are also doggedly pro-Israel and pro-Zionist. For some, this pro-Israeli stance flows from their evangelical beliefs–for others, it is a product of their politics. Regardless, Islamophobia will no doubt gain more traction in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections–despite the fact that Islam bashing didn’t do very much for candidates in the 2010 elections.
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Islamophobia and the Foreign Policy Establishment
What has enabled such extreme figures–people who were more or less on the fringe in the 1990s–to start gaining a hearing? They have not only influenced politics at the top of society–particularly the public pronunciations of Republican politicians–and grabbed the limelight in the mainstream media, but there has been a burst of book publishing and films, and a proliferation of blogs and websites, dedicated to their world view.
Most obviously, the events of 9/11 and the launching of the “war on terror” legitimized these views and created a larger audience for the warriors. For the Bush administration, the war on terror would serve as an ideological shield to further its vision of brute imperialism in the post-Cold war world. Islamophobia flows from the logic of imperialism.
Within the foreign policy establishment, there are two strands of imperialism–liberal and conservative. While both are devoted to the goal of expanding U.S. hegemony, the former more typically uses humanitarian rhetoric to justify this goal, while the latter often dispenses with such niceties and asserts the right of the U.S. to intervene unilaterally anywhere it wants.
Advocates of conservative imperialism began to articulate their ideas after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. They argued that in the context of a new unipolar world, the U.S. should employ a bold unilateralist strategy and simply assert Pax Americana on the global stage. Many of the individuals associated with this wing of foreign policy would go on to form the Project for the New American Century, and come to be known as the “neo-cons.”
A close associate of the neo-cons, the Orientalist ideologue Bernard Lewis penned his views on Islamism in 1990, in a now-famous essay titled “Roots of Muslim Rage” in which he raised the alarm about an impending “clash of civilizations.” Samuel Huntington then popularized this concept and argued that the new post-Cold war era would be characterized by cultural conflict between various civilizations–with the Islamic one seen as among the more dangerous threats to the West.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in 1993 that the “new threat [Islamism] is as evil as the old Evil Empire.” Cold Warrior Daniel Pipes echoed this point, writing, “[L]ike communism during the Cold War, Islam is a threat to the West.” In short, a new enemy had been found to replace the old one.[i]
In an article in Foreign Affairs in 1991, journalist Judith Miller argued that U.S. policymakers should not try to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Islamists because there was a consensus among all Islamists to defeat the West. As she put it, “In Islam’s war against the West and the struggle to build Islamic states at home, the ends justified the means.” Confrontation, rather than co-optation or dialogue, was the only way to thwart this new enemy.
Those leading this charge–known as “confrontationists” in political science jargon–included other figures such as Martin Indyk, who served on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council; Jeane Kirkpatrick, a one-time Democrat turned dogged Cold Warrior Republican; and others.
Confrontationists belong to both political parties, and they sometimes switch between camps. For example, Indyk was one of the founding members of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Zionist and conservative think-tank. Now, he is with the centrist Brookings Institute. Similarly, the news media personality Fareed Zakaria–once a Ph.D. student of Samuel Huntington’s at Harvard–was part of the inner circle of Bush strategists who hatched the “war on terror” brand. Now, however, he has morphed into an Obama-type liberal imperialist.
To be sure, the confrontationist position and conservative Islamophobia was not developed from scratch in the early 1990s. Rather, a group of international thinkers closely associated with Israel had begun to put forward its main themes a decade earlier.
One early moment in this work came from Benjamin Netanyahu, then head of the Jonathan Foundation–he organized a pivotal conference in 1979 in Jerusalem. At this conference, as author Karim H. Karim notes, “[L]eading Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie and Panyotidis Vatikiotis played a significant role in developing the dominant discourses on ‘Islamic terrorism,’ which has been key to the construction of Islam as the post-Cold war Other.”
The connections to Israel are multifold. Geert Wilders, the notorious Dutch Islamophobe, states that he formed his views of Muslims while working on a cooperative farm in Israel in the 1980s. Key funders of the Islamophobic warriors include Zionists such as Aubrey Chernik. As journalist Max Blumenthal reports, Chernik not only funds Islamophobes in the U.S., but also “messianic settlers dedicated to ‘Judaizing’ East Jerusalem. The settlement movement’s leading online news magazine, Arutz Sheva, has featured Pamela Geller as a columnist.”
In short, the anti-Muslim network is international in scope–and the connections between respectable ideologues and the Islamophobic warriors are deep. The dynamic has been one where respectable ideologies legitimize Islam-bashing in the mainstream, which then creates an opening for the conspiracy theorists to take their case several steps further. While George W. Bush may have stated that the U.S. was not at war with Islam, the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric uniformly demonized Muslims and was a declaration of open season on all Muslims.
In this sense, the rise of the Islamophobic phalanx bears similarities to McCarthyism. As David Caute argued in his book The Great Fear, McCarthyism wasn’t simply about one extremist senator, Joseph McCarthy, but a political system (including both Democrats and Republicans) that allowed a figure like McCarthy to set the political agenda. McCarthy was a useful tool in prosecuting the Cold War–particularly in creating a climate of fear where dissent could be punished and neutralized.
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The role of Barack Obama
Some on the left and many Muslims believed that the Obama presidency would mitigate and undo the virulent Islamophobia unleashed during the Bush years. But this hasn’t come to pass. The Obama administration represents much more of a continuity with the Bush administration than not–and as a result, it has had to resort to Islamophobia, albeit in a more “enlightened” and articulate manner.
What we have seen is a softening of Islamophobia, not its rejection. At the level of foreign policy, the unilateralists were replaced by the multilateralists–correspondingly, the rhetoric shifted from right-wing to liberal Islamophobia. This isn’t to exclude, however, the odd Bush-style action–such the unilateral mission conducted by the U.S. to assassinate Osama bin Laden, which resurrected the jingoist and vengeful mood of September 11.
A brief overview of Obama’s record on Islam helps to illustrate how his policies and actions created a further opening for the Islamophobic warriors.
When Obama was “accused” of being a Muslim during his campaign, he responded defensively, thereby legitimizing the charge that there is something wrong with being a Muslim. If that wasn’t clear enough, he made sure to avoid the Muslim community at all costs during the campaign. At one point, during a speech in Detroit, two women wearing hijabs were asked to move from behind the podium so that they wouldn’t be in the same frame with candidate Obama.
Once in power, Obama toned down the Islamophobic rhetoric, but has done little in reality to stop the attacks on Muslims. In practice, he continued Bush’s wars and extended the domestic attacks on Muslims and Arabs by continuing policies of torture, extraordinary rendition, etc. He has even gone further than Bush in some ways–for instance, in giving himself the power to execute U.S. citizens suspected of ties to terrorism, such Anwar al-Awlaki, without so much as a trial or the apparently unnecessary burden of proof.
The Obama White House’s recent “counter-radicalization” strategy only deepens Bush’s policies, even while it offers several caveats that American Muslims should not be discriminated against. The administration’s modus operandi is one in which it roundly rejects Islam-bashing–and then proceeds to institute proposals that do precisely that.
Obama has been able to use the language of multiculturalism to advance the ridiculous proposition that “al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents represent the preeminent terrorist threat to our country”–and that the government therefore protect Americans from “al-Qaeda’s hateful ideology” and attempts to radicalize Americans.
First even members of the security apparatus don’t believe that al-Qaeda is a threat to the U.S, let alone the “preeminent” one. As of July 2011, the Washington Post was reporting that it was widely believed in the CIA, as well as among counterterrorism officials, that al-Qaeda was all but finished. A Foreign Affairs article by author John Mueller titled “The Truth About al-Qaeda” arrives at the same conclusions.
Second, American Muslims are not really susceptible to al-Qaeda’s message–most of all, for the simple reason that being Muslim doesn’t equate to having sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism.
A Gallup poll released in August 2011 showed that 92 percent of Muslim Americans had no sympathy at all for al-Qaeda. What is heartening is that over 50 percent of people in other religious communities also believed this about Muslims, with Jewish Americans at the top with 70 percent.
As for radicalization leading to violence–the key proposition put forward in the Obama White House policy paper–Muslim Americans, by a far higher number than any other religious group, believe “that attacks on civilians by individuals or small groups are never justified.”
Yet the Obama White House is proposing a “counter-radicalization” strategy that not only continues the policy of racial profiling, but also opens the door to the idea that “homegrown” terrorism is a threat that must be policed–through seeking the support of teachers, coaches and community members who are to be turned into a McCarthy-type informer system.
Why? There are a number of reasons for this, but one is certainly that the U.S. military’s “counterinsurgency” strategy–that is, the attempt to win “hearts and minds”–is largely failing in the prosecution of the “war on terror.” This is especially true in Afghanistan.
Thus, Obama has turned back to counterterrorism and must therefore resuscitate the “Islamic terrorist” enemy to underscore the grave threat posed by al Qaeda–consequently reviving Islamophobia, albeit with a liberal guise. And in raising the specter of Muslim “radicalization” in the U.S., Obama legitimizes the right-wing conspiracy theories espoused by the warriors.
It is worth emphasizing that what makes this particularly insidious is that Obama is able to do so while convincing the public that he is not an Islamophobe.
At the end of the day, there are still many people who would claim that, in his heart, Obama is not anti-Muslim. But the fact is that no matter what Obama may personally believe about Muslims and Islam, he is a part of a political system that is based on projecting U.S. power and interests around the world. In doing so, he will use every means at his disposal, including Islamophobia.
The Islamophobic warriors were a fringe minority in the 1990s. After September 11, they came out of the woodwork with their rhetoric of the “clash of civilizations,” and during the Obama era, they have only strengthened their position.
To some degree, the fact that Obama has a Muslim middle name would have furthered the warriors’ argument that the government was infiltrated by Muslims. Yet the proposition that Obama is a “secret Muslim” has credibility only among 20 percent of the U.S. public–a shockingly high number, but nevertheless a minority. To succeed in the mainstream, the anti-Muslim crusaders needed the further opening created by the Democrats’ liberal Islamophobia.
In the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections, we can expect to read many stories about the Islamphobic warriors, the Tea Party bigots and all the other scary right-wing forces that support Republican Party candidates. We will be asked to accept all of Obama’s betrayals and vote for the lesser of two evils. Yet as an analysis of the Islamophobic warriors shows, when you vote for the lesser evil, you wind up getting both the lesser and the greater evil anyway.
Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. Her book on Islamophobia is forthcoming from Haymarket Books (Spring, 2012).
[i] Quoted in Fawaz Gerghes, America and Political Islam, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 24.