Activists attacking Muslims and Islam are springing up around the country. But there's a core group of 10 hard-liners
By Robert Steinback July 23, 2011- - Rarely has the United States seen a more reckless and bare-knuckled campaign to vilify a distinct class of people and compromise their fundamental civil and human rights than the recent rhetoric against Muslims.
It would also be hard to imagine a more successful campaign. In the span of the two years since the start of Barack Obama's presidency in early 2009, an astonishing number of people have turned into a kind of political wolf pack, convinced that 0.6% of the U.S. population is on the verge of trampling the Constitution and imposing an Islamic, Shariah-guided caliphate in its place. Like the communists that an earlier generation believed to be hiding behind every rock, infiltrated "Islamist" operatives today are said to be diabolically preparing for a forcible takeover.
Ironically, the Constitution seems more threatened by certain Americans who, prodded into paranoia by clever activists, opportunistic politicians and guileful media players, seem downright eager to deny Muslims the guarantees of religious freedom and the presumption of innocence.
"As an American Muslim, what is of most concern to me is that it is no longer only a small cadre of dedicated Islamophobes who are expressing bigotry and even hatred towards the American Muslim community — but sadly, also many among our elected representatives and government officials," Sheila Musaji, moderator of the website The American Muslim, wrote in an E-mail to the Intelligence Report. "It provides a veneer of respectability and reasonableness to what would otherwise be more easily perceived to be outright bigotry."
And that bigotry has consequences. Recent news reports strongly suggest a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. In May 2010, for example, a bomb exploded at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Fla. In August, a man slashed the neck and face of a New York taxi driver after finding out he was a Muslim. Four days later, someone set fire to construction equipment at the future site of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This March, a radical Christian pastor burned a Koran in Gainesville, Fla., leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan that left at least 20 people dead. Hate crime statistics for 2010 won't be released by the FBI until the fall, but it appears certain they will show increasing violence against Muslims.
The American public psyche has undergone a subtle but profound metamorphosis since 2001, moving from initial rage at the 9/11 mass murder to fear of another devastating attack by Muslim extremists to, most recently, a more generalized fear of Islam itself. That evolution from specific concerns to general stereotyping is the customary track of racism and xenophobia — and in Muslims, those inclined to bigotry may have found their perfect bogeyman.
Muslims are predominantly non-white. They practice an unfamiliar religion with unusual rituals. They are a small population in this land with a largely inconspicuous history here. They are regarded by many as a military enemy of the United States. They are perceived as a threat to the American social and cultural fabric. They have few ideological allies outside their own number. Never before has an American minority group had all of these factors arrayed against them.
And Muslims have one uniquely debilitating additional characteristic: a sliver of global Muslim society willing to resort to terrorism. It's a small sliver, but it doesn't need to be large. If 99.9% of the world's Muslims were firmly dedicated to peace and nonviolence, that would still leave hundreds of thousands posing a legitimate and very significant public danger. It took only 19 jihadist terrorists, after all, to kill 2,977 innocent people on 9/11.
Ginning Up Anger
Earlier this year, on Feb. 13, scores of middle-class Americans who could easily populate any pastoral suburban America tableau turned out in Yorba Linda, Calif., to protest the scheduled appearance of two highly controversial Muslim speakers at a dinner to raise money for local charitable projects. The speakers were Imam Abdul Malik Ali, who has made a series of undeniably anti-Semitic comments, and Imam Siraj Wahhah, who was a character witness for a blind New York City sheikh convicted of seditious conspiracy in a 1993 terrorist plot.
Although there may have been a reasonable basis for the initial protest, things got out of hand quickly. As attendees arrived, many with small children in tow, a breakaway group of the protesters hurled scathing taunts, boos and hoots at them: "Go back home!" they chanted. Individuals yelled, "No shariah! Muhammad was a child molester! Muhammad was a pervert! You beat your women and you rape your children! Why don't you go have sex with a 9-year-old! Get out of here! Eat sand! Take your Shariah and go home, you terrorist lovers!"
It was an ugly scene, made all the uglier by comments offered earlier from the podium of the main rally by Villa Park, Calif., Councilwoman Deborah Pauly, who described the fundraiser as "pure, unadulterated evil" and said she knew "quite a few Marines who will be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise."
While such insinuations of violence from public officials have not yet become commonplace, consider just a little of what has happened since 2009:
• U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) — who has said there are "too many mosques" in America and asserted, without providing any evidence, that 80-85% were controlled by fanatical extremists — on March 10 held the first round of hearings into the "radicalization" of American Muslims. To most Muslims, the hearings seemed to be little more than an exercise in demonizing their communities and religion. Even many non-Muslims wondered how the public would react if congressional hearings were held into the radicalization of fundamentalist Christians because it is, after all, mainly fundamentalists who have attacked women's clinics and doctors who provide abortions.
• Oklahoma voters last November passed a state constitutional amendment prohibiting judges from making rulings based on Shariah — the Islamic religious code of law and moral conduct — rather than U.S. law. The measure was legally pointless — no American judge can override U.S. law — but critics said it could hurt local companies doing business internationally. A federal judge indefinitely stayed implementation of the referendum, but at least 20 states have considered similar legislation recently to confront the feared Shariah takeover plot.
• Two Tennessee legislators in February introduced a bill that would establish certain Shariah practices as prima facie evidence of an intent to overthrow the Constitution. It would virtually criminalize Islam, theoretically subjecting Muslims who weren't careful in their prayer practices to prison terms of up to 15 years.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, firing off an attack on Muslims during a controversy last summer over a planned Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York City, said approving the center would be akin to allowing Nazis to erect a monument outside the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
• U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) took to the floor of Congress last August to warn of a plot to bring pregnant Muslim women to the Unites States to have babies — later lampooned as "terror babies" — who could then return here in 20 to 30 years as terrorists with American citizenship and passports. Challenged by the news media later, Gohmert could produce no evidence of any plot.
• Two elderly, turban-wearing Sikh men were shot to death on an Elk Grove, Calif., street this March 4 in what police suspect was a hate crime committed by assailants who mistook their victims for Muslims. At least one Sikh was murdered shortly after 9/11 by a man who thought his victim was Muslim, and many others were attacked.
Citizen protests have challenged perfectly legal mosque or Islamic center construction projects in New York City, Murfreesboro, Tenn., Temecula, Calif., Sheboygan, Wis., and elsewhere. Fox News host and conspiracist-in-chief Glenn Beck claimed that 10% of all Muslims — that is, about 157 million people worldwide, more than the entire population of Russia — were terrorists. The crackpot leader of a tiny fringe church in Florida generated a global controversy last fall with a proposed stunt he called "International Burn a Koran Day." This March, Terry Jones followed through on the threat, burning a Koran and sparking riots in Afghanistan that left at least 20 people, seven of them foreigners, dead. A columnist for a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood webzine wrote: "[W]here there are mosques, there are Muslims, and where there are Muslims, there are problems."
Of course, there has been serious terrorism from homegrown Muslims in this country. The Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security reported earlier this year that there had been 161 terrorist plots involving Muslim Americans since 9/11, with 69 contemplating domestic targets. Eleven of those 69 actually carried out their attacks, killing 33 people — 13 at the hands of U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, in late 2009, and 11 by "Beltway Snipers" John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. (It's questionable whether or not Muhammad and Malvo are rightly seen as having been motivated by Islam, although some comments they made suggested that may have been the case.) In addition, a 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that 15% of American Muslims under the age of 30 believed that suicide bombing could be justified.
But the Triangle study found something else, too. Of the 120 suspected plots it said were foiled before execution, 48 — 40% — were brought to the attention of the authorities by other Muslims. Similarly, the Pew study found that 76% of American Muslims were very or somewhat concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world, and a similar proportion opposed suicide bombing in all cases. At the same time, many law enforcement organizations have rejected the claim, made by Peter King in his hearings, that most Muslims don't cooperate with police.
All of this, especially the attacks on Muslims by public figures, is having a real effect. In an April 2009 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 29% of Americans said they felt mainstream Islam advocated violence against non-Muslims (it also found that 48% had an unfavorable view of Islam, the highest proportion since 2001). Sixteen months later, in August 2010, a Pew Forum survey found that 35% of Americans now felt Islam encouraged violence more than other religions. Finally, just this March, a Gallup poll found 36% of Americans believed that Muslims in the United States are too extreme in their religious beliefs. The latest poll also revealed that 28% of Americans— that works out to almost 90 million people — felt that Muslims who live in the United States are sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
Behind the Attacks
This apparently growing movement was not a case of spontaneous public-opinion combustion. In the decade since 9/11, a coterie of core activists — most importantly, hard-liners Robert Spencer, Brigitte Gabriel, Frank Gaffney, David Horowitz and David Yerushalmi, along with the more moderate Daniel Pipes and Steve Emerson — has been warning that the Islamic sky was falling. Independent journalist Max Blumenthal in December 2010 called it "the Great Islamophobic Crusade."
"Erupting so many years after the September 11th trauma, this spasm of anti-Muslim bigotry might seem oddly timed and unexpectedly spontaneous," Blumenthal wrote. "But think again: it's the fruit of an organized, long-term campaign by a tight confederation of right-wing activists and operatives who first focused on Islamophobia soon after the September 11th attacks, but only attained critical mass during the Obama era. … This network is obsessively fixated on the supposed spread of Muslim influence in America."
This stalwart core of activists labored to find traction through the decade after 9/11. They created a slate of organizations dedicated to exposing and combating various aspects of the Muslim threat they perceived.
Two factors largely neutralized their efforts: The U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, which many Americans may have considered an adequate response to 9/11, and a conservative president, George W. Bush, who consistently argued that terrorism, not Islam or Muslims in general, was the nation's enemy.
During that post-9/11 lull, the activists, many of them bankrolled by deep-pocket organizations including Aubrey Chernick's Fairbrook Foundation, began to hone strategies to take on what they saw as the spread of Muslim influence in mainstream America, Blumenthal reported. In 2004, they tried but failed to block the tenure application of Palestinian-born Columbia University professor of Middle East studies, Joseph Massad. Then they engineered a protest of a community center planned by the Islamic Society of Boston. That effort failed, too, and the center was approved in 2007.
The activists got their first taste of success when they contested the planned opening of a secular Arabic-English elementary public school in Brooklyn, N.Y. Its intended principal, educator Debbie Almontaser, was widely known as a politically moderate Muslim, but opponents, under the banner Stop the Madrassa, succeeded in recasting her as a dangerous extremist. Though the school was ultimately approved, the opposition compelled Almontaser to resign when she lost the support of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The New York Times described the effort that ruined Almontaser "the work of a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life."
"The fight against the school… was only an early skirmish in a broader, national struggle," the Times reported. Daniel Pipes, one of the leaders of Stop the Madrassa, told the Times, "It's a battle that has really just begun."
A Star is Born
Pipes was right. Circumstances turned favorable for this corps of anti-Muslim activists beginning in late 2008. A black man with an Arabic middle name — Hussein, also the name of an infamous American enemy in Iraq — had just won the presidency, exacerbating many whites' fears about the demographic "browning" of America. The public began to weary of protracted U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, realizing it might never yield triumphantly pro-Western results. The economy tanked. Conservatives began casting about for issues to emotionally fire up their temporarily staggered base, seizing first upon immigration.
At the same time, much conservative and right-wing opposition to Obama came to be framed in the simplest terms, even though they were false: The president was a secret Muslim, a man with allegiances to people who weren't like real Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, 11% of Americans believed Obama was a Muslim in March 2009. By last August, it was 18%.
Then, in early 2010, a fortuitous gift arrived: An innocuous proposal by a New York City imam and his financier partner to renovate an abandoned building in lower Manhattan into a 13-story mosque and community center came to light. The gift was its address: 45-51 Park Place — two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.
Just then, a dazzling new anti-Muslim activist burst onto the scene: Pamela Geller, the well-to-do ex-wife of a Long Island used-car mogul who previously busied herself rearing her four children, writing blogs and posting slam poetry-style videos trashing all things liberal on her YouTube channel.
Geller had joined Stop the Madrassa and blogged often about the matter on her website, Atlas Shrugs. Blessed with sultry Hollywood sex appeal and a sassy, scythe-like wit — a personable Ann Coulter and articulate Sarah Palin rolled into one — Geller would ride the Park51 project protest to superstardom.
She first blogged against Park51 in December 2009. Four months later, she and Robert Spencer joined forces to take control of the organization Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), then an insipid adjunct of a Denmark-based group called Stop Islamisation of Europe. Geller's charisma and Spencer's savvy blended to create a propaganda powerhouse. One of their first projects was buying controversial bus ads in New York and Miami that invited Muslims to reject Islam. The ad campaign created virtually instant notoriety for SIOA.
That June, Geller and Spencer staged a protest in Lower Manhattan to oppose Park51. The rally drew thousands, and plenty of media coverage. Drawing on tactics used against Almontaser, Massad and the Boston community center, SIOA strove to depict the American-born project leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf — a man who had quietly led a small mosque in lower Manhattan for many years prior and worked with the FBI for years— as an anti-American "radical Islamist." They insinuated, with scant evidence, that the project's financing might be tied to terrorists. They absurdly described it as an Islamic "victory mosque" celebrating the 9/11 attacks, modeled after Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, though no Muslim had ever suggested such a thing. It wasn't long before prominent conservatives including Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and then-New York gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio had embraced and rebroadcast much of SIOA's rhetorical fire.
Shariah as Pariah
The Park51 project secured all of its needed approvals and is currently moving ahead despite the opposition. (This time, Mayor Bloomberg took a different tack, coming out strongly in favor of the mosque's construction in the name of religious tolerance.) But despite Park51's apparent advances, anti-Muslim animosity in America has continued to grow, a brakeless bandwagon of hostility.
Brigitte Gabriel's ACT! for America, the core group's effort at creating a grassroots-mobilization movement, sought to derail the appointment of University of North Florida professor Parvez Ahmed to the Human Rights Commission of Jacksonville, Fla. But the video that ACT released in December 2010 supposedly proving that he, too, was a clandestine extremist, fell flat. ACT, which claims 155,000 members and 500 chapters nationwide, also was instrumental in spurring protestors to go to the Yorba Linda community center, although a defensive Gabriel later argued that ACT had not "organized" the protest.
Perhaps the most bewildering "success" story of the anti-Muslim campaign has been the public panic over the feared imposition of Shariah law in America. Shariah is hardly a fixed concept; virtually every Muslim-majority country utilizes a different variant of it, from extreme, as in Saudi Arabia, to almost imperceptible, as in Turkey. It seems laughable to think it could ever take hold in the United States, a nation with 300 million non-Muslims and a Constitution that hasn't wobbled in 220 years. Still, legislators across the country are scrambling to be the first in their state to file anti-Shariah legislation — purposeless but propagandistic laws that inevitably will be challenged as unconstitutional and almost certainly thrown out.
Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy helped set off the Shariah panic with the September 2010 release of its report, "Shariah, the Threat to America," which depicted Islamic Shariah law as a global threat comparable to Soviet communism a generation ago. "Shariah's pursuit in the United States," the report asserted, "is tantamount to sedition."
Even observers with deep concerns about radical Islam balked at endorsing such loopy paranoia. "This report makes this good point in a seriously bad way, which, if allowed to guide policy, will continue the discrimination against Muslims who are also good Americans," observed John G. Stackhouse, professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The report is noteworthy, however, because so many legislators have bought into its extremism. One of its principal authors is attorney David Yerushalmi, who used virtually identical reasoning in drafting the astonishingly harsh anti-Shariah bill filed in Tennessee.
Two Key Tactics
This coordinated anti-Muslim movement relies heavily on two key tactics. The first is arguing that the most radical Muslims — men like Osama bin Laden — are properly interpreting the Koran, while peaceful, moderate Muslims either don't understand their own holy book or are strategically faking their moderation. The primary architect of this theory is SIOA co-founder Robert Spencer, who has researched Islam outside academia for more than three decades. He says the Koran itself is innately violent and calls for the utter subjugation of non-believers. Critics charge that Spencer ignores other passages and centuries of interpretive scholarship that mitigate the Koran's occasional violent verses. Some also point out that the many violent admonitions of other holy books, including the Bible, are not usually taken literally by believers.
The second key tactic is to relentlessly attack individuals and organizations who purport to represent moderate Islam in America, painting them as secret operatives in the grand Muslim scheme (typically attributed to a conspiracy led by the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood) to destroy the West.
One doesn't have to probe very deeply to find the fingerprints of the eight central activists — Spencer, Pipes, Horowitz, Gaffney, Emerson, Gabriel, Geller and Yerushalmi — on almost every aspect of the recent surge in anti-Muslim fervor in America. The conservative media, led by FOX News personalities Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Eric Bolling and including the upstart Pajamas Media online network, evangelist Franklin Graham, and a contingent of sympathetic right-wing bloggers and commentators, have joined in to help construct a "movement" that 9/11 itself didn't generate.
It is particularly perplexing trying to discern the ultimate goal of this corps of activists. If their aim is to isolate and destroy the violence-prone fanatical Muslim fringe, then it doesn't make sense to undermine moderate Muslims and argue that only confirmed terrorists are interpreting the Koran correctly. But both tactics make perfect sense if the aim is to build a widespread, irrational fear and hostility against Islam in general — encouraging, rather than helping defuse, an eventual global confrontation between East and West.
© 2011. Southern Poverty Law Center.