Republican hopeful Mitt Romney is portrayed by online bigots as a Manchurian Candidate for a secretive cabal of Mormon elites—echoing anti-Catholic conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy being a wind-up toy for the Vatican. Meanwhile, a chain letter currently being circulated warns that the “American Government is under the command and control of…the Freemasons and Leadership of the Catholic Church.”
There are right-wing websites and blogs warning that if President Barack Obama is re-elected, hordes of scheming fanatic Muslims plan to impose Sharia law and turn America into a totalitarian socialist/Nazi theocratic state. Other websites and blogs warn that Obama is a tool of perfidious Jewish agents, a conspiracy theory that takes right-wing, left-wing and incomprehensible forms, although the neo-Nazi version is predictably the most elaborate.
While all these forms of religious bigotry are circulating in various fringe media during election 2012, major news outlets have been the most accommodating to Islamophobia in recent years.
Consider a Washington Times column by Daniel Pipes (9/21/10) headlined “‘Rushdie Rules’ Reach Florida: Obama Endorses Privileged Status for Islam.” Pipes set the stage by recalling how in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini “decreed that British novelist Salman Rushdie must be executed on account of the blasphemies in his book The Satanic Verses.”
Through truly Olympian leaps of logic, Pipes then charged that “in effect,” Obama “enforced Islamic law” by asking a Christian pastor in Florida not to burn copies of the Koran. Pipes concluded that Obama set “a precedent that could lead to other forms of compulsory Sharia compliance” in the United States.
A reader not informed about the reality of Islam as a diverse global religion could easily conclude the following from the Pipes column:
• Muslims in general are bound by the declarations of the most zealous and militant Muslim leaders.
• Islamic Sharia law is a real threat in the US.
• Any Muslim “violence stems from Islamic law.”
• Islamic culture is fundamentally incompatible with Western culture.
Such Islamophobic histrionics aren’t unexpected in a Washington Times column, but in a New York Times news story? A 2011 piece by Scott Shane (12/22/11), headlined “In Islamic Law, Gingrich Sees a Mortal Threat to US,” led with:
Long before he announced his presidential run this year, Newt Gingrich had become the most prominent American politician to embrace an alarming premise: that Sharia, or Islamic law, poses a threat to the United States as grave as or graver than terrorism.
Shane, of course, quoted several experts disputing the Gingrich claim. Thus has post-fact journalism degenerated to equivocation: “Some Experts Say Earth Flat; Others Disagree.”
The threat of Sharia law is not “an alarming premise,” it is a bigoted falsehood. Where do we as reporters draw the line? How about: “Some Experts Say Nazi Genocide a Hoax; Others Disagree.” Is this an offensive, over-the-top headline example? Clearly. When, however, should we call a blatantly false statement false? Isn’t the ethical answer “always,” whether the speaker wears a white hood or Washington’s badge of political legitimacy, a white clerical collar? Factchecking and holding accountable society’s powerful and wealthy in a society is how news media first earned the moniker the Fourth Estate.
FAIR’s October 2008 report Smearcasting, profiling the top dozen anti-Muslim bigots, observed that the oft-quoted pundits portrayed Islam as “fundamentally alien and attributing to it an inherent, essential set of negative traits such as irrationality, intolerance and violence.” These claims were structurally similar to “the charges made in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” FAIR concluded, referencing the infamous anti-Semitic hoax document.
Jim Naureckas of FAIR has noted “the remarkable parallels between antisemitism and Islamophobia” in contemporary rhetoric. This in response to a blog post (FAIR Blog, 4/17/12) about fears of Iranian nuclear weapons development earlier this year by FAIR’s Peter Hart. Hart excoriated Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (9/29/09), who “went straight for bigotry” when he wrote in 2009 that “these Persians lie like a rug.” Hart also dissected a piece by New York Times correspondent James Risen (4/14/12) that speculated that Islam was a religion that countenanced lying.
“They” always lie to “Us.” It doesn’t matter who “They” are, because one of the hallmarks of bigotry is that “Their” religion or ideology, or culture is said to promote lying. They can’t be trusted. In fact, they are probably conspiring against us right now. They threaten our entire way of life. They are not like us. They don’t value human life like we do. So to defend our nation, which reflects eternal truths, we must act now before it is too late. Attack first. Our war is justified. God is on our side.
That’s the universal narrative of justified aggression against a demonized “Other.”
As Americans, we like to tell ourselves that we stand against bigotry—in the face of repeated historical examples that we do not, especially regarding white racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Antisemitism and Islamophobia in most ways are very different forms of bigotry, yet in the United States today they both share a role in political discussions based on conspiracy theories of subversion. Subversion panics spawn countersubversion movements and sometimes fuel political witch hunts.
In The Paranoid Apocalypse (2011), my chapter traces the occurrences throughout our history as a nation when widespread panic about subversion created a countersubversive movement whose bigoted charges became part of the public conversation about politics. Freemasons (1798– 1844); Catholic immigrants (1834–60); Jews (1919– 35); Italian and Russian immigrants, with some deported as anarchists and Bolsheviks (1919–35); Communists and their “fellow travelers” (1932–60); Communist and Jewish control of the Civil Rights Movement (1958–68), secular humanists, feminists and the “homosexual agenda” (1975– ); the “New World Order” (1990– ); Islamic menace and Sharia law (post 9/11). That’s the short list.
The witch hunts in Salem (mostly targeting uppity women) get an asterisk, because they were in the colonial period, but they have made a comeback today in lurid stories in right-wing media about FemiNazis and feminist sluts who extol contraception and abortion. Many bigoted assertions appear in the public conversation in the form of conspiracy theories and panics, and today they drive much of right-wing politics, as explained by Amanda Marcotte in “How Abortion Caused the Debt Crisis” (RH Reality Check, 8/1/11).
I wrote an article for the New Internationalist (10/04/04) on antisemitic conspiracy theories post-9/11, in which I argued, “Specific allegations change based on time and place, but the basic elements of destructive conspiracy theories remain the same.” The four main elements are:
• Dualistic division: The world is divided into a good “Us” and a bad “Them.”
• Demonizing rhetoric: Our opponents are evil and subversive… maybe subhuman.
• Targeting scapegoats: “They” are causing all our troubles—we are blameless.
• Apocalyptic aggression: Time is running out, and we must act immediately to stave off a cataclysmic event.
These four tools of fear use conspiracy theories as a narrative form of scapegoating that now target Muslims and Jews in lurid tales tied to the 2012 presidential election.
“Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups in America and elsewhere,” writes Frank P. Mintz in The Liberty Lobby and the American Right: Race, Conspiracy, and Culture (1985). This kind of theory identifies “elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power.”
Michael Barkun agrees in A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Con-temporary America (2006): “Conspiracism is, first and foremost, an explanation of politics. It purports to locate and identify the true loci of power and thereby illuminate previously hidden decision-making.”
The continuity of subversion panics and conspiracism helps explain the creepy parallel rhetorical structure to the forms of Islamophobia and antisemitism circulating as online political commentary these days.
While there are similarities in form, I reject any claim of equivalence. Major left-leaning media do not carry naked antisemitic conspiracy theories, and when such bigoted claims are posted as comments on blogs, they generally are rebuked. Major right-leaning media such as Fox News, however, regularly carry the noxious anti-Islamic pronouncements of Frank Gaffney, Newt Gingrich and other “Smearcasters.” Most troubling is that Islamophobic material is not only spewed out by right-wing media, but seeps into coverage on corporate centrist media.
As a reporter, I have attended national conventions of Christian right activists where anti-Islamic bigotry is paraded from the podium and piled on the display tables. As I travel across the country, I hear right-wing talk radio spreading Islamophobic statements and alarmist stories about Sharia law. It is so bad that in August 2011, Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman wrote a column (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 8/10/11) stating the “threat of the infiltration of Sharia, or Islamic law, into the American court system is one of the more pernicious conspiracy theories to gain traction in our country in recent years.”
Sharia law is seen by conspiracists as the first step toward converting the United States into a totalitarian Islamic state. Aren’t all Muslims commanded to convert all nations? The Islamophobes who claim this conveniently ignore that the same commandment to “convert” all nations was uttered by Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew (28:16–20). It’s called “The Great Commission,” and it’s where early Islam got the idea in the first place. In Islam, Jesus is a prophet. It all depends how you read the sacred text today. Most Christians—like most Muslims—do not read it as a call to arms.
Furthermore, in the U.S. there are already Jewish Halachic rabbinical courts, as well as tribal courts held by some Indian nations. If Sharia courts come to the U.S., they will exist, like these others, as forms of arbitration agreed to by the observant parties in dispute, and not as a plot to supplant US law.
In terms of vast numbers and aggressive public organizing, the threat of religious theocracy is more likely from Christian fanatics than Muslim fanatics, if recent books by former Christian right activists Frank Schaeffer (Crazy for God, 2007) and Colonel Doner (Christian Jihad, 2012) are accurate. Both writers talk about plans to make America a “Christian Nation.” They now think that’s a bad idea. So do dozens of progressive authors, including Michelle Goldberg, Sara Diamond, Fred Clarkson and Esther Kaplan, who for over two decades have written about the role of Christian right theocrats in pulling the Republican Party to the right.
Meanwhile, corporate media seem unable to accurately report the fact that whole sections of the Republican Party voter base are Christian “dominionists” who want to “take dominion” over the United States and turn it into a Christian nation (AlterNet, 9/1/11). This includes some totalitarians who envision a patriarchal theocracy that rivals the conspiracist fears of Sharia law. A key mobilizing narrative of these Christian right activists—and thus the Republican Party—are conspiracy theories about liberal treachery and subversion.
Conspiracy theories often meld with bigotry and are toxic to democracy. In the worst case scenarios, the universal conspiracy theory narrative that justifies aggression can lead to the expulsion of the dreaded “Other,” or even genocide. From Armenia to Germany, to Cambodia, to the streets of Sarajevo, to the killing fields of Rwanda and Darfur—get them before they get us.
A free press is supposed to be the Fourth Estate that prevents such episodes of authoritarianism and oppression in society. The idealized role of a free press in a democracy is to provide enough facts so that citizens can make informed decisions. Governance is supported through informed consent. That’s not what we have in the United States today.
Pluralist democracy depends on widespread condemnation of bigotry whenever it appears. Anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon diatribes dot the Internet. Antisemitism remains a real problem in the margins of American society. Islamophobia is widespread and growing in the United States. No form of religious bigotry should be ignored.
It is bad enough we live in a post-fact society—which we must protest. But more repulsive is that we live in a post-morality society, where bigotry is not challenged by the corporate media because it is popular, sells advertising, and is an accepted part of the demonizing political warfare that some call democratic elections without any apparent sense of shame.
Chip Berlet has written about bigotry for over 30 years, and has just completed a study on antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus for Political Research Associates. Additional resources for this article are at http://www. researchforprogress.us/jump/fair2012.html.