Fueled by the President’s nativist agenda and a new alliance with the alt-right, the professional anti-Muslim industry has never been stronger—or more dangerous.
A tightly bunched crowd standing on the sidewalk along a short stretch of East 42nd Street in New York City is alternately cheering, laughing and booing in unison at a rally. It’s midday on a Thursday. Those that have jobs are likely taking the day off, as few appear to leave as time stretches into mid-afternoon. No one is dry and most are soaked, because it has been raining on and off for hours. Holding an umbrella makes it that much tougher to take selfies or cellphone videos, but everyone seems to be doing them. The group is overwhelmingly white and mostly male. And they have assembled for one reason: to publicly attack Islam.
Some people stand still listening intently while others are slowly circulating back and forth along the sidewalk inside the protest zone. The crowd includes Orthodox Jews, suburban country club dads, red hat-wearing tea party types and young, white-nationalist “Kek” cultists. A few hold protest signs saying “America First,” “Sharia Law for Dummies: Anti-Woman, Anti-Gay/American,” and “#IslamIsUnamerican.” One woman proudly displays a sign reading “Accepting Sharia Law is not Tolerance, it is Ingorance [sic].”
Some of them engage the small, vocal clutch of counter-protesters stationed 10 feet across the sidewalk. They single out counter-protestors they think are Jewish and yell “Shame!” Others flip the bird at the counter-protestors or yell at them “You’re going for a helicopter ride!”, an alt-right reference to an execution method favored by the fascist regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Ostensibly, this protest in late May was aimed at getting the City University of New York (CUNY) to rescind its commencement address invitation to Linda Sarsour, a Muslim woman who is a Palestinian rights activist and who co-chaired the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. But the real purpose was to attack Islam in general (#CancelSarsour didn’t #cancel anything; Sarsour received a standing ovation from the CUNY students after her speech went ahead as planned a week later).
Beyond the litany of anti-Muslim hate tropes, the event was a microcosm of our nation’s professional anti-Muslim network. It revealed how old faces and fears are being further legitimized and amplified by a new, more toxic political climate. This is partly a result of honest concerns about the recent spread of al-Qaeda and Islamic State extremist violence abroad and high-profile terror attacks, like San Bernardino and Orlando, here at home. But a rising nativist tide coupled with a resurgent white nationalism has exploited these concerns, creating dangerous levels of distrust and antipathy toward immigrants in general, and Muslims specifically.
And this xenophobic rhetoric and anti-Muslim fear-mongering enjoys unprecedented access to and influence with the most powerful man in the world. Donald Trump’s most vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric—typified by his declaration, “I think Islam hates us”—and his proposals to ban migrants from Muslim nations has deep roots in the Islamophobia promoted by this network. At the same time, Trump’s campaign and presidency has given an enlarged status and prominence to the groups that organized the protest on 42nd Street.
Islamophobia as an industry
Much like our country has a military-industrial complex comprised of various-sized defense firms competing side-by-side or, very often, working directly with and for each other to wield influence and make money under the banner of “national security,” so too is there an anti-Islam industrial complex. Though dwarfed in size by the former and far less formalized, this Islamophobia industry likewise exhibits interwoven subsidiaries, joint ventures and lobbying groups, which enrich themselves while ostensibly promoting ideals like freedom of expression, women’s rights and, yes, national security. In his book “The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims,” Arab Studies scholar Nathan Lean detailed how, after 9/11, a loose collection of anti-Islam provocateurs and organizations began to slowly cohere together in common cause to spread their broader message.
“Unlike most industries, where products are manufactured under a corporate umbrella, the Islamophobia industry is different. It is more dynamic and flexible, with various moving parts that are not attached to one single branch. Still, its purveyors prowl the same terrain and are connected in many significant ways,” Lean wrote. “Financial ties bind the industry,” he noted, and this network of funders has created an environment “where one is expected to participate actively in Islamophobic discourses in order to receive a monthly paycheck.”
The lion’s share of the money propping up prominent anti-Islam organizations comes from the foundations or trusts of right-wing billionaires and interest groups. According to a 2011 report by the Center for American Progress, anti-Islam groups received more than $42 million between 2001 and 2009 from seven of these major donors, which included the foundations of Lynde and Henry Bradley and the Scaife families, as well as massive dark money conduits like Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust (according to the Center for Public Integrity, the $400 million dark money Donors Trust fund bundles millions from the Olin, DeVos, and Koch families, among many others). A subsequent report that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released earlier this year found that 33 groups it identified as the core of the Islamophobia industry had access to roughly $206 million between 2008 and 2013. And a survey of 2014 and 2015 tax forms, the latest years available, of several high-profile anti-Muslim groups also showed robust—or growing—revenues.
David Horowitz’s Freedom Center, a clearinghouse of right-wing causes célebres including virulent anti-Islam messaging, and another staunchly anti-Islam organization, Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, stand atop of this pyramid. They are lavished with millions of dollars in right-wing funding every year. The Freedom Center, where Horowitz, as CEO, was paid $620,000 in 2014, has long used the largesse of these billionaire benefactors to throw high-profile soirées. The most notable of these is its annual Restoration Weekend, which is routinely attended by numerous Republican congressmen and has previously fêted then-Sen. (now Attorney General) Jeff Sessions, former Breitbart executive chairman (now White House Chief Strategist) Steve Bannon, and far-right anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders (earlier this year, it was divulged that the Freedom Center had violated IRS rules by giving $134,000 in direct grants to Wilders’ political party).
Another major Islamophobia group, Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, received nearly $2 million each year from 2013-2015 from the Donors Capital Fund. It funds projects like Campus Watch and Islamist Watch and holds itself up as a scholarly think tank. In 2015, MEF’s founder Pipes, who once suggested World War II internment camps might be needed for American Muslims, was paid $325,000.
Many millions of these dollars are distributed and redistributed, trickling down through a byzantine network of salaries, reciprocal grants and consulting fees. For example, in 2013, the Freedom Center took in nearly $6 million in fees, donations, and grants, including $500,000 from the Bradley Foundation and $300,000 from the Sarah Scaife and Allegheny Foundations. Some of that money was paid to noted anti-Islam figure Robert Spencer, who made a salary of $186,000 as director of the non-profit Jihad Watch, a subsidiary of the Freedom Center’s “School for Political Warfare.”
Per Jihad Watch’s own 990 tax forms, Spencer also made $5,000 as president of the group, where noted Islamophobe Pamela Geller, who collaborated with Spencer on the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, is listed as vice president. Jihad Watch, in turn, gave one single grant that year of $389,000 to the American Freedom Defense Initiative, where Geller, as president, was paid $210,870 including benefits, and Spencer, as vice president, made an additional $24,461. The AFDI was the last stop on the gravy train, as the group made no outside grants in 2013 and the remainder of its expenses was spent on overhead, travel and advertising.
Other nonprofit groups in the Islamophobia industry, like researcher Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, are little more than a charitable pass-through so funders can write off paying his entire salary. The IPT Foundation’s 2014 990 forms show a total of $2.48 million in expenses that year. While Emerson drew no salary as the foundation’s secretary and treasurer, his nonprofit’s biggest line item, by far, was a $2.3 million “management” fee it paid to “IPT Research,” which Emerson also runs and coincidentally has the same address as the foundation.
“Money—and lots of it—has subsidized massive propaganda campaigns against Islam and bankrolled the work of anti-Muslim naysayers,” Lean concluded in his book. Despite this financial backstop, Lean noted that the Islamophobia industry was still very much on the fringes a decade ago, when it began as a “a strange three-way alliance” between conservative Christian groups, pro-Israeli camps and right-wing factions (that later morphed into the tea party). But in the past few years, the industry has evolved, which was evident at the May protest in New York City.
The impact of Islamophobia
The industry has grown because politicians have begun to market its wares. “You and I aren’t having this conversation 10 years ago, not because these folks didn’t exist back then, they did,” said Todd Green, religion professor at Luther College and author of “The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West.” What’s changed, Luther added, is this industry’s ability to influence and dominate the mainstream narrative about Islam in the country. And aiding and abetting this is a Republican Party that has tightened its embrace of Islamophobia as a political strategy. “Politicians instrumentalize Islamophobia now because they know it works, not because of deep-rooted convictions about Islam,” he said, adding “the 2015-16 campaign really magnified that.”
Heidi Beirich, advocacy director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees. Thanks to the xenophobic rhetoric of the 2016 election and its aftermath, she pointed out that the country has witnessed an undeniable increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric and activity. “We know that when mainstream political officials or public figures engage in defaming populations or propagandizing against them it impacts how those populations are viewed by the public and we know it can lead to violence,” she noted.
The numbers tell an alarming story. A recent California State University study of 20 states found anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes jumped from 131 incidents in 2014 to 245 incidents in 2015, an 87% increase (as is often the case with harassment crimes against minorities, many more incidents go unreported). Likewise, a Georgetown University study of hate crimes found a surge in anti-Muslim violence and harassment between 2015 and 2016. This violence included 8 arsons, 9 shootings or bombings that were primarily focused on mosques, 29 physical assaults and 12 murders. According to the Georgetown survey, American Muslims were six to nine times more likely to be victims of hate crimes last year than in the days before 9/11. Beirich’s group also measured a 200 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate groups in 2016. And in 2017, there have been prominent, fatal anti-Muslim attacks in Kansas and Portland, Oregon.
These chilling examples also expose the Islamophobia industry’s transparent, double standard when it comes to domestic terrorism. Via this framing, any political violence committed by a Muslim is indicative of his or her religion’s fundamental wickedness, while far-right terror acts—committed overwhelmingly by white, male Christians—are either ignored outright or dismissed as isolated incidents with no greater ideological import. This is particularly dangerous, since the threat from right-wing extremist groups is arguably worse.
For example, West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center has found a dramatic rise, especially since 2007, in far-right violent extremism. A 2015 Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security survey of 382 law enforcement agencies said the threat from right-wing extremism in the United States “by far” exceeded that from al-Qaeda-inspired terror. And a GAO survey from this past April found 73 percent of the violent extremist events in the past 15 years were the result of right-wing extremists. Even more troubling, the mainstream press enables the Islamophobia industry’s messaging with its own skewed focus on Islam and terrorism. A recent Georgia State University survey of CNN coverage found that terrorism committed by Muslims drew four-and-a-half times more coverage than terror acts committed by non-Muslims. This rank hypocrisy among the press and the right-wing has become so routine, it’s even given birth to a mocking hashtag that reappears after every under-covered or dismissed far-right terror incident: #WhereWasHeRadicalized.
To document the country’s growing xenophobic reality, two websites—Documenting Hate and HateHurts—were launched to track or report hate crimes and threats, especially those against Muslims. HateHurts was founded by CAIR—a favorite target of the Islamophobia industry, which has long promoted the conspiracy theory that it is a front group for Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood—to focus specifically on incidents of Islamophobia.
Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of CAIR’s Arizona branch, talked about the psychological impact the violence and threats have had on his community in a recent podcast. “Honestly, when I go to the mosque [these threats are] what’s on the top of my mind now,” Siddiqi said. “I think to myself maybe I shouldn’t sit so close to the window in case someone throws a Molotov cocktail through it. Or maybe if it’s Ramadan and we’re engaged in longer prayers, what if someone comes in behind us and starts spraying bullets?” After he posted a similar statement on Twitter, he said he received hundreds of responses from fellow Muslims expressing those same concerns.
The ability to exploit fears and push these prejudices is inextricably tied to contemporaneous public sentiment about Muslims and Islam. And the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign coincided with a broad re-emergence of anxiety about terrorism in the U.S. public’s consciousness. In December 2015, right after a Muslim couple massacred 14 people and wounded 22 more in San Bernardino, California, a Gallup poll found 51 percent of Americans feared being a victim of a terrorist attack, the highest level since right after 9/11. The mass shooting six months later at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a 29-year-old security guard swore allegiance to ISIL as he murdered 49 people and wounded 58 others, was another pivotal moment where the threat of terrorism dominated both the national media coverage and the election campaign.
The 2016 Republican presidential candidates exploited these events to manufacture fears they could use as fuel for their campaigns. Trump, of course, was foremost. But he, along with his GOP primary rivals, were both cause and effect of this surging animosity toward Muslims. His contention that “Obama is a secret Muslim” recycled a piece of anti-Islam propaganda that had been around for years before he first began promoting it in 2011. He insisted, with no evidence, that thousands of Arabs in New Jersey had cheered the terrorist attacks on 9/11, another popular myth among anti-Muslim figures. Trump also called for a Muslim immigration ban, “extreme vetting” of refugees and surveillance or closure of mosques, all of which could be found in a 2013 “Defending Freedom” platform published by Geller and Spencer’s American Freedom Defense Initiative. But Trump was not alone in echoing Islamophobic rhetoric during the campaign.
Ben Carson, who is now Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said during the campaign that he would be uncomfortable with a Muslim as president. His campaign also pushed the long debunked canard that Muslims and Muslim organizations like CAIR never protest terrorism (this common falsehood prompted one Muslim teenager to create a real-time “Worldwide Muslims Condemn Terrorism List” last fall, that currently has nearly 6,000 entries). Ted Cruz brought noted Islamophobe Frank Gaffney and three others from Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy onto his campaign as national security advisers. Gaffney, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “one of America’s most notorious Islamphobes,” pushed the idea that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that Elana Kagan would promote Sharia law if she were confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Thanks to these high-profile endorsements, Islamophobia has entered the political mainstream like never before. The anti-Muslim network has grown and its spokespeople have acquired notoriety and media exposure. These spokespeople come in three different varieties: the agitators, the authenticators and the operators.
Occupying the outer fringe of this professional Islamophobia industry are the grassroots agitators. They set political and cultural brush fires, which they then urge their angry audiences to fan and stoke. Theirs is a never-ending cycle of outrage devoted to earning them more fans, mainstream media attention, cultural relevance and, last but not least, a handsome paycheck from donors.
Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who organized the Sarsour protest on 42nd Street, best represent this group. Spencer published his first book, “Islam Unveiled,” not long after the 9/11 attacks and has churned more out at a pace of more than one book per year since then. Geller, a native New Yorker, worked in publishing for several decades before starting her rabidly anti-Muslim Atlas Shrugs blog in 2005. She and Spencer joined forces in 2010 when they had a breakthrough moment helping to manufacture the infamous “Ground Zero” mosque controversy that gained national attention. During the media frenzy, the pair co-launched their non-profit American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), also known as Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), to capitalize on their newfound fame.
Pictured from left to right: Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Milo Yiannopoulos.
Make no mistake: These agitators can have a very real, very poisonous effect, even if their influence is mostly confined to the grassroots. In the 1,516-page manifesto of infamous Islamophobe and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, for example, Geller was approvingly cited 12 times and either Spencer or his Jihad Watch site were cited 162 times—more than any other individual. Brevik also championed Spencer as an “excellent choice” for the Nobel Peace Prize (Geller and Spencer both claim they are no more responsible for Breivik’s massacre than The Beatles were for Charles Manson’s).
At the Sarsour protest in May, however, another, fresher face was among the speakers, someone who speaks to the anti-Muslim movement’s burgeoning appeal among red-hatted Trump fans and the alt-right: Milo Yiannopoulos. In fact, Yiannopoulos not only spoke, he was clearly the event’s headliner and drew the biggest cheers. A kind of gay British gadfly of controversy, Yiannopoulos shot to fame working as a columnist at Steve Bannon’s white nationalist website, Breitbart, and parlayed his agent provocateur shtick into guest appearances on establishment platforms like HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Earlier this year, however, a conservative blog highlighted a video of Yiannopoulos expressing his appreciation for underage sex with teenage boys. He soon became too radioactive for even Breitbart, where he was forced to resign, and his right-wing book publisher, which canceled his lucrative book deal. The counter-protestors did not let his noxious views go unnoticed, confronting him with the cheer: “How do you spell pe-do-phil-ia? M-I-L-O!”
Yiannopoulos bills himself a “free speech fundamentalist.“ He disingenuously claimed he was fine with Sarsour addressing CUNY students, but not without someone (like, naturally, himself) debating her so the students could hear both sides. His version of wit: “In fact, if they’d asked me, I’d have paid her [speaking] fee, no matter how many goats she asked for.” In “sharia culture,” he was quick to note, women like Sarsour don’t enjoy the right to speak as they do in the West.
His debating style—like many in the Islamophobia industry who claim to champion free expression—is to contrast the West with majority-Muslim countries through gross mischaracterizations, strawman arguments and outright lies, sprinkled with the occasional fact. For every accurate critique of the barbaric practices of female genital mutilation (FGM) or “honor killings,” or the repressive policies toward women and gays in many Middle Eastern, Muslim-majority countries, there were numerous non-sequiturs and myths about Muslims and Islam throw in. After correctly pointing out that the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries in its Global Gender Gap Report, he quickly added: “Now if you believe Linda Sarsour, Saudi Arabia is the best country in the world to be a woman.” She has said no such thing. Likewise, he didn’t try to substantiate his ominous claim that Sarsour “wants to bring Saudi Arabia to America” or that she and other “progressive elites” are trying “to convince the Western world that Sharia is the new feminism.”
These agitators often portray themselves as victims for telling the unvarnished “truth” about Sharia and jihad as well. In her speeches, Geller routinely mentions having survived a “fatwa,” referring to a 2015 incident where police officers in Boston shot and killed a man who allegedly threatened them with a knife after having talked of beheading Geller. In reality, authorities downplayed the real threat to her and called it “wishful thinking” and a “fantasy” by the attacker. Similarly, Spencer drew widespread acclaim earlier this year across right-wing media circles by claiming to have courageously survived a “poisoning” by a “leftist” after one of his anti-Islam speaking engagements in Iceland. A Reykjavik hospital reported that Spencer’s urine did test positive for amphetamine and MDMA (suggestive of the recreational drug ecstasy), but concluded that he showed “no signs of serious poisoning.”
Neither Geller nor Spencer have had any formal training in Islam. Geller is a creature of the Internet. Spencer studied religion, but not Islam itself, in graduate school. Noted Islamic scholar Carl Ernst, who Spencer himself once praised, has called Spencer an “Islamophobe” and dismissed as unserious his books’ scholarly pretensions. Todd Green, who, at the end of May, finished a one-year fellowship at the State Department as an adviser on Islamophobia in Europe, says, “In the academic world, where I come from, the response to the idea that Spencer is any kind of an expert is a collective ‘You gotta be fucking kidding me!’”
Nevertheless, the ascent of Trump has now broadened the reach of even this fringe, agitator class. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon invited Spencer on his Breitbart radio show several times and has heaped praise on him as: “one of the top two or three experts in the world on this great war we are fighting against fundamental Islam.”
Within any political movement or belief system, there always exists a powerful role to be played by converts. Norwegian social anthropologist Sindre Bangstad, author of the book “Islamophobia and the Rise of Anders Breivik,” notes that these voices—which include people like Nonie Darwish, who spoke at the Sarsour protest, Walid Phares, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Zuhdi Jasser—are often afforded much more credibility in mainstream discourse than a Spencer or Geller precisely because of their “cultural authenticity.”
Born in Egypt, Nonie Darwish lived for a period of time in Gaza as a child, where Israeli Defense Forces killed her father. She left Cairo in 1978 to come to the United States, converted to Christianity, and now speaks at prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale and the University of California-Berkeley as a strong advocate for Israel while writing books on the perils of Islam and Sharia. Darwish’s analysis of Islam, however, exemplified by this talk at a right-wing political conference last summer, is replete with simplistic, Manichean reasoning and routinely casts Islam as the foil to the more superior Christianity. “Everything in Islam is opposite to Biblical values,” she declared.
Walid Phares immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in 1990. After arriving here, he earned a Ph.D., taught at U.S. universities and has been an on-air contributor and foreign affairs analyst for Fox News since 2007. In 2011, Phares was one of only two Muslims invited to testify before Rep. Peter King’s (R-NY) infamous 2011 congressional inquiry on “radical Islam.” There were two major problems with this. One, Phares isn’t Muslim. Two, he was once a member of a Lebanese Christian militia accused of massacring Muslims. The latter revelation came via a Mother Jones exposé detailing how Phares had played a much larger role than previously known in advising the Lebanese Forces militia that committed atrocities against Muslims and Druze groups during the 1980s.
Nevertheless, Phares advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 as well as Trump’s campaign last year. Right after the damaging “Access Hollywood” tape came out last October, Phares’ instincts for anti-Muslim hyperbole kicked in. He defended Trump by tweeting out an accusation that a “triangle Clinton machine-Iran regime-Muslim Brotherhood” conspiracy was coordinating propaganda against his candidate.
Pictured from left to right: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Zuhdi Jasser
Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be the brightest star in the Islamophobia industry’s firmament, however. Born to a Muslim family in Somalia, Hirsi Ali says she was subjected to female genital mutilation at the age of five. She immigrated to Kenya as a teenager. Then, in 1992, at age 23, she sought asylum in the Netherlands, claiming to be fleeing a forced marriage.
Eleven years later, as an avowed atheist, she was elected to that country’s lower house of parliament as an outspoken critic of Islam. In 2004, she worked with director Theo Van Gogh on “Submission,” a short film that attacked Islam for subjugating women. Van Gogh was subsequently assassinated and nearly beheaded by a Dutch Moroccan terrorist and Hirsi Ali’s life was threatened. In no small part for her role in making the film, Time named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world a year later. Her bestselling memoir, “Heretic: My Life,” was published in 2006.
However, that same year, a Dutch news program revealed that Hirsi Ali had lied about key details of why she sought asylum in the Netherlands, including her claim of a forced marriage, as well as greatly exaggerated the practice of “honor killings” and other supposed Muslim traditions in her native country. She soon left her adopted home under a cloud of controversy. Since moving to the United States permanently in 2007, she has been a sought-after speaker and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Hoover Institute at Stanford.
Her attacks on Islam as “at war” with the West have not abated, however. In 2007, Ali called Islam a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” While promoting her latest book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now,” Hirsi Ali told the New York Post: “The assumption is that, in Islam, there are a few rotten apples, not the entire basket. …I’m saying it’s the entire basket.” On the same promotional tour, she told then-“The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart: “If you look at 70 percent of the violence in the world today, Muslims are responsible.” When pressed for proof, Hirsi Ali backed down and said she meant to say 70 percent of fatalities were Muslims, including those caused by civil wars.
Last month, Ali, along with Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who co-founded the Muslim Reform Movement, testified before the Senate in a committee hearing on “Understanding the Tools, Tactics, and Techniques of Violent Extremism.” Ali hailed Trump’s call for an ideological campaign against “radical Islam” as a much-needed paradigm shift. Her fellow witness, Nomani, echoed her praise. Nomani had already come out as a Trump fan in a Washington Post op-ed last November, “I’m a Muslim, a woman, and an immigrant. I voted for Trump.” In it, she said she had been most concerned about “the influence of theocratic Muslim dictatorships, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in a Hillary Clinton America.” And, at the very moment reports of anti-Muslim hate crimes were skyrocketing across the nation, she claimed: “The checks and balances in America and our rich history of social justice and civil rights will never allow the fear-mongering that has been attached to candidate Trump’s rhetoric to come to fruition.”
Nomani’s Muslim Reform Movement includes Dr. Zuhdi Jasser as a co-founder. A former U.S. Navy medical doctor who formed the American Islamic Forum for Democracy after 9/11, Jasser is no stranger to op-ed pages, cable TV green rooms and congressional hearings, having established himself as someone who will reliably warn of the looming “Islamist threat.” In 2008, he narrated a documentary on Islam produced by the Clarion Fund, which has received tens of millions of dollars from the Donors Capital Fund. “Third Jihad,” as the film was called, juxtaposed graphic scenes of terrorist violence with Jasser talking about the “cultural jihad” being waged from inside America. In 2010, he jumped on the bandwagon opposing the “Ground Zero mosque,” pointedly playing up an alleged conflict between the national and religious loyalties of Muslims in a New York Post op-ed: “Ground Zero is purely about being American. It can never be about being Muslim.”
As the star witness of King’s 2011 congressional hearings, Jasser referred to the threat from “political Islam” as “a cancer that’s within” the country. He also accused Muslim-American groups of “circling the wagons” to protect their religious brethren rather than helping identify extremists to law enforcement. In fact, Muslim communities helped thwart 40 percent of all alleged al-Qaeda plots from 2001-2009, according to one report, despite being targeted by numerous invasive government surveillance programs. Like Nomani, Jasser has fully embraced the new President. In February, Jasser told White House adviser Sebastian Gorka on Breitbart radio that after having an “[Obama] administration who was being whispered to by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers,” Trump will “finally” defeat radical Islam.
“It remains unacceptable and taboo for a place like Harvard to promote a white supremacy or someone who studies eugenics,” noted Institute for Social Policy and Understanding fellow Erik Love. “That’s unacceptable at reputable American academic institutions and think tanks or the U.S. Senate looking for a witness to testify at a hearing.” But thanks to people like Hirsi Ali and Jasser, who purport to speak from an authentic, insider experience, Love said that Islamophobia is not yet recognized as another expression of structural discrimination, despite pulling the same abusive levers of power used on other non-race based targets of prejudice like Catholics, Jews and Hispanics.
Positioned at the top of the Islamophobia industry is a select tier whose primary mission, unlike the agitators and authenticators, is to instrumentalize the hashtags, street protests, op-eds, books and documentaries into political action. Their sights are set on influencing government officials and policymakers at the local, state and federal level so that anti-Muslim policies become embedded into the law of the land.
Pictured from left to right: David Horowitz, Frank Gaffney,
Daniel Pipes, Brigitte Gabriel, John Guandolo.
Among the most well-known of this class within the Islamophobia industry are Horowitz, Gaffney and Pipes. They represent the old hands in the anti-Islam movement. David Horowitz’s Freedom Center, which now functions like an umbrella group for a number of far-right cause celebres including Spencer’s Jihad Watch, is a revamped version of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture he founded back in 1988. In 1990, Pipes founded the Middle East Forum and wrote a seminal National Review article “The Muslims are Coming! The Muslims are Coming!”, which serves as the ur-text for much of modern Islamophobic rhetoric.
Gaffney’s calling card is surreal conspiracy theories that are forever widening to include any of his critics. A former deputy assistant defense secretary under Reagan, Gaffney’s paranoia even got him banned from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference for two years, when he baselessly accused two board members of the American Conservative Union as being compromised by the Muslim Brotherhood, one simply because he is Muslim, the other because he has a Muslim wife.
When he isn’t finding imaginary national security threats from “stealth jihad,” Gaffney consistently downplays or disappears real dangers posed by right-wing extremists. In a talk at the right-wing American Freedom Alliance last summer, Gaffney ran through slides that identified “Good” vs. “Bad” Muslims, mocked Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for their moderating comments about Islam, and dove head-first into a long diatribe about Muslim Brotherhood, Sharia and “the destruction of our society from within.” In one particularly telling moment, Gaffney began discussing the threat to the West from ISIL. He then segued to his next slide by saying “but of course there are a lot of other violent extremists…”, only to show a slide that listed even more groups associated with Muslims, including one bullet point that simply said “Iran.” Later, he circled back around to mock the threat posed by right-wing extremism in a slide that listed “Conservatives, returning veterans, Tea Party member, and gun owners” as among those being unfairly targeted by the Obama administration and U.S. law enforcement.
A more recent entry to the operators class is John Guandolo, who was present at the Sarsour protest. A former FBI agent who was forced to resign in disgrace nine years ago after sleeping with a cooperating witness, Guandolo has since tried to reinvent himself as an expert on Islamic terror. His “Understanding the Threat” program provides three-day training seminars to law enforcement agencies at a rate of around $10,000 a day on “civilizational jihad” and the “sharia threat” to local communities. During his speech at the Sarsour protest, he claimed: “One-hundred percent of all published Sharia law says it is obligatory to wage jihad until the entire world is under Islamic rule and 100 percent of published Islamic law only defines jihad as warfare against non-Muslims.”
Guandolo has made this claim for years, despite numerous Islamic experts having debunked it. Qasim Rashid, national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA who wrote the book “EXTREMIST: A Response to Geert Wilders & Terrorists Everywhere,” noted in a recent Independent UK column the irony inherent in this kind of ugly, distorted perception of Islam. “Only two groups in our society promote the ‘Quran teaches terrorism’ myth: anti-Muslim pundits and ISIS extremists. Both are wrong,” he wrote. “Blaming the Quran for terrorism is not only demonstrably false, it wastes precious resources that could be spent on stopping war and famine.”
Guandolo is credited with crafting much of the bill that then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) introduced in 2014 to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Bachmann’s move three years ago was a watershed moment of legitimization for the Islamophobia industry, establishing a legislative beachhead on Capitol Hill. Each successive Congress has seen nearly identical bills introduced in both the Senate, with Ted Cruz as the sponsor, and in the House, with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) taking over from Bachmann. Of note: Bachmann’s 2014 bill had 19 co-sponsors, while the 2017 House version now has 60.
One of the relatively newer members of the industry’s operator class, Brigitte Gabriel, has also become one of its most powerful. Gabriel’s ACT for America claims to have a network of more than 500,000 members and 1,000 volunteer chapters across the country. And while the industry’s agitators and authenticators promote broader anti-Islam messaging aimed mostly at a general audience, ACT makes its D.C. lobbying ambitions clear, calling itself the “NRA of national security.” Gabriel’s annual conclave in Washington, D.C., ACTCON, routinely draws well-known conservative intellectuals and government officials—as well as hours of coverage on C-SPAN—and typically secures space inside the Capitol, thanks to sponsorship by a member of Congress, for its threat briefing.
“We are at war with an ideology because Islam is a political movement cloaked in religion. It’s the ideology, stupid. It’s radical Islam,” Gabriel told the audience in her 2016 ACTCON keynote address. Gabriel’s message resonates even more strongly among establishment conservatives and Republicans because she trades on her own authenticator backstory. Gabriel immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, where she said she watched Muslims wage jihad against Christian “infidels” like her family. But like so many others in the Islamophobia industry, her personal history doesn’t line up with reality. After investigating her claims, Nathan Lean, the Islamophobia researcher, called her tale of living in a bomb shelter for seven years “tendentious, if not outright deceitful.”
Gabriel’s reach into the corridors of power is significant. Former congressman and now CIA Director Mike Pompeo was a frequent attendee at past ACTCONs and sponsored Gabriel’s legislative briefings on Capitol Hill. Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security advisor, is also a friend of Gabriel’s and sits on ACT’s board of advisors, as does Walid Phares. In a post-election 2016 fundraising appeal, ACT boasted it would have “a direct line to Donald Trump, and has played a fundamental role in shaping his views and suggested policies with respect to radical Islam.” Indeed, Gabriel has been recently photographed outside the White House and with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort. And she was dining with Trump at his Florida retreat the night he launched a cruise missile strike against Syria this past April.
For all of the Islamophobia industry’s recent successes, none can compare to Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. “He has welcomed known members of organized anti-Muslim movement into his administration in a way that is unprecedented,” said Lindsay Schubiner, advocacy director for the Chicago-based watchdog group Center for New Community. Referring to the long list of Trump’s cabinet, staff, and unofficial advisors that harbor anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim sentiments, Schubiner says Trump “is incorporating their policy ideas, wholesale, into his platform, as we’ve seen with his attempts at making the Muslim ban a policy reality.”
Some of Trump’s White House appointees have had more of an impact than the high-profile cabinet appointments of figures like Pompeo, Sessions and Carson. Bannon reportedly oversaw the drafting of the first Muslim emigré travel ban during the presidential transition. Signed just nine days after Trump took office, the ban was publicly released before the new President’s own Defense and Homeland Security secretaries had a chance to read it. The results were nothing short of disastrous; it prompted mass confusion and protests at airports across the country and has suffered numerous judicial defeats (after a string of similar legal defeats in appellate courts, the administration’s revamped, 2.0 version of the ban just won a partial victory in the Supreme Court at the end of last month).
Bannon’s role should come as no surprise. He has a long history of anti-Islamic rants. For example, during a January 2016 broadcast of his Breitbart radio show, he intimated Islam was worse than the rise of Nazi Germany: ”You could look in 1938 and say, ‘Look, it’s pretty dark here in Europe right now,’ but there’s something actually much darker. And that is Islam.”
Pictured from left to right: Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller.
The man the Trump White House sent out to defend the travel ban, White House policy chief Stephen Miller, had also helped to draft it. Miller, a 31-year-old former legislative aide to Bachmann and to Sessions, had a long background of viewing counterterrorism primarily as a war against Islam. While studying at Duke University 10 years ago, Miller was president of the local chapter of the Students for Academic Freedom, part of David Horowitz’s Freedom Center network. Miller was also the first nationwide coordinator for the anti-Islam group Terrorism Awareness Project, which promoted events like “Islamo-fascism Awareness Week” on campuses across the country.
Another White House advisor to Trump, Sebastian Gorka, has also carried out the administration’s public, anti-Islam messaging. Gorka, who was Breitbart’s national security editor, is a rabid Islamophobe with anti-Semitic leanings as well. Just months before he began working at the White House, Gorka was fired by the FBI for his anti-Muslim diatribes. He has also been linked to a Nazi fraternal group in his native Hungary, and the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer has not-so-subtly called him “one of our guys.”
Last February at CPAC, Gorka and Zuhdi Jasser appeared on Breitbart radio to discuss a conference panel with a less than subtle title: “When Did World War III Begin?” On the show, Gorka highlighted Trump’s national security speech last August in Youngstown, Ohio as a seminal moment in recasting the narrative in the fight against Islamic terror. The speech, which mentioned “radical Islam,” “Islamic terrorism” or “radical Islamic terrorism” 10 times, drew rave reviews from right-wing figures like Mark Levin, while Gaffney called it “Reaganesque.”
In May, Trump focused a speech on Islam again, this time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Miller reportedly played a key role in drafting the speech, but speaking in-person to a Muslim audience abroad, Trump pulled his rhetorical punches a bit. He promised he “was not here to lecture,” calling Islam “one of the world’s great faiths.” He added: “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.”
But beyond those platitudes, what was more remarkable is how little of his core message had changed since the Youngstown speech. “The speech was riddled with problematic assumptions and framing,” Luther College’s Green explained. Trump still framed the battle over terrorism as one of “ideology” and “good versus evil,” a common feature of Islamophobic propaganda that is also employed by extremist groups like ISIL. But the most troubling part of the speech, for Green, was when Trump deviated from his prepared remarks to again say “Islamic terror” when he was supposed to say “Islamist.” Trump’s staff excused this as merely a slip-up due to Trump’s exhaustion. But Green isn’t buying it.
“I believe the ‘slip up’ is more indicative of Trump’s true mind,” Green said. “When he went off script, he reverted back to the kind of language he used on the campaign trail. This language of ‘Islamic terrorism’ is his native tongue, so to speak, whereas the written speech was an effort to force him to speak a foreign language, one that does not come easy to him. …It implicates an entire religion as the source of terrorism and connects terrorism to something organic within Islam. Many Muslims hear this as an attack on Islam.”
While The New York Times portrayed Trump as having “softened his tone,” the reaction to the speech among the Gaffneys and Gellers was surprisingly muted, suggesting that they, like Green, heard very little that was actually new or moderate. Within a few days, there were signs that their faith had been duly rewarded. The White House statement on the occasion of Ramadan, for example, usually an ecumenical message of peace and celebration, reiterated the administration’s commitment to fighting “terrorism and the ideology that fuels it.” By the end of June, Trump had become the first President in nearly two decades to not hold an annual iftar dinner during Ramadan. And to top it all off, days later, the Supreme Court temporarily reinstated parts of the travel ban and agreed to hear the case in full next fall. Trump is now on the verge of winning his first big legal battle of his presidency, and the biggest beneficiaries would be his fervent supports in the Islamophobia industry.
“Certainly, the anti-Muslim groups newfound access to power has driven a lot of increased activity for them,” Schubiner of the Center for New Community acknowledged. “But I also think now that they’re more in the spotlight, they’re more visible to a much wider swath of communities in the U.S., who recognize their views are extreme and fueled by conspiracy theories. In the long term, that could have a negative effect on their ability to hold onto the kind of power that they’ve gained in the Trump administration.”
The best counterweight to this organized archipelago of anti-Muslim hysteria, in other words, just might be all the millions of people who chose not to show up and stand on the sidewalk at that rainy protest in May on East 42nd Street in New York City. Christians and Jews and Muslims. Women and men. Native-born citizens and immigrants. White people and people of color. The passersby who live in the most diverse city in the country and shook their heads at the language they heard targeting their neighbors, their friends, their co-workers or themselves. All those that make a choice every day to resist this President’s rhetoric and to reject Islamophobia.