The mainstreaming of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories
When the Center for American Progress (CAP) released the report Fear, Inc. in September (8/26/11), alleging that U.S. anti-Muslim propaganda is largely driven by a well-funded network of groups and individuals, confirmation of its claims came quickly. Just four days after publication, the Fox Business Network aired a wildly inaccurate two-part feature on Follow the Money (8/30/11) smearing the report, its authors and Muslim Americans. Rupert Murdoch-owned media outlets like FBN are among the country’s leading Islamophobic media organizations, according to Fear, Inc.
The first segment featured self-styled terrorism expert Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project on Terrorism—named by CAP as one of the anti-Muslim network’s five key formulators of propaganda, or “misinformation experts”—telling FBN host Eric Bolling that “most of the Islamic organizations in the United States…are run by the Muslim Brotherhood or created in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that believes in imposing Islam and Sharia around the world.” The suggestion that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose connections to U.S. Muslim groups range from historical to tenuous to nonexistent, is secretly connecting and controlling “most of the Islamic organizations in the United States” is a classic conspiratorial trope.
Emerson also told Bolling that Fear, Inc., “reminds me of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” referring to the historic hoax alleging Jews were plotting world domination—missing the irony that the report debunks conspiracy theories about Muslims that bear a remarkable resemblance to classic anti-Semitism.
But the suggestion that Fear, Inc. was itself anti-Semitic was key to Fox’s attack. In the next segment, Bolling gave what he presented as a quotation from the report:
As should have been obvious, the quote was not from Fear, Inc., but rather from an article smearing CAP, from the far-right American Thinker website (8/27/11). That didn’t stop the rest of the segment—Bolling’s questions and his guests’ answers—from focusing on CAP’s supposed anti-Semitic conspiracy-theorizing. “For the Center of American Progress to say there is a grand conspiracy undermines their credibility and is laughable,” said lobbyist David Rehr, who likened CAP to a “left John Birch Society” (not to be confused with the regular John Birch Society–the ultra-right, conspiracy-mongering group prominently featured on Glenn Beck’s now defunct Fox News show).
Though Bolling later corrected his misattribution (9/2/11), it was a good night for Muslim-bashing: There were no corrections issued for the the oft-repeated charges that Muslim American institutions are extremist or that Islamic law threatens the U.S.
Islamophobia is on the risein the United States. Yearly polls taken by ABC News show a 10-point increase in unfavorable views of Muslims since 2001, and a doubling of those who say Islam “encourages violence” since 2002. As the horrors of the September 11 attacks recede into history, anti-Muslim sentiment continues to increase.
Meanwhile, American Muslims and their institutions are under assault from many official quarters. The FBI has been accused by the American Civil Liberties Union of “industrial scale” ethnic and religious profiling (Christian Science Monitor, 10/21/11). The New York City police department has reportedly partnered with the CIA in a massive spying campaign, ethnically profiling mosques and Muslims in cities far from New York (AP, 8/25/11), and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has held three congressional hearings on terrorism focusing solely on American Muslims, despite the fact that a tiny percent of “homegrown” terrorist acts involve Muslim suspects—three of 83 between 9/11 and the end of 2009, according to a recent RAND report (Extra!, 5/11).
Anti-Muslim bigotry has been around in the U.S. for decades, but why the rise now? In addition to Fear, Inc., several recent reports suggest at least part of the answer resides in the emergence of a more highly organized national Islamophobic propaganda network (Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, Summer/11; Political Research Associates, Manufacturing the Muslim Menace, 2011; People for the American Way, The Right-Wing Playbook on Anti-Muslim Extremism, 2011; UC Berkeley’s Center for Race & Gender/Council on American-Islamic Relations, Same Hate, New Target, 2011). FAIR’s 2008 report, Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry and Misinformation (10/8/08), documented the prevalence of Islamophobia in right-wing and centrist U.S. corporate media.
“A small group of conservative foundations and wealthy donors are the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America,” reports Fear, Inc., which identifies five key organizations and chief spokespersons, or “misinformation experts”: Along with Emerson, they are Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, David Yerushalmi of the Society of Americans for National Existence, Daniel Pipes of Middle East Forum and Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch.
These groups and their representatives are the “central nervous system” of the network, supported and amplified by friendly media assets, grassroots and Web-based groups, as well as political figures at local and national levels. Together they fuel Islamophobia in the U.S. through campaigns that attempt to demonize Islamic-American institutions as extremist and portray Muslims as secretly plotting to impose Islamic law on the U.S.
Popular expression of this bigotry underpins campaigns against mosque construction (Extra!, 10/10) as well as against the imagined threat of Islamic law, known as Shariah. Anti-Shariah laws have passed in four states and are under consideration in more than 20 others (New York Times, 7/30/11; Forward, 7/22/11). The main force behind these campaigns is Yerushalmi, an attorney who has said Muslims “are our enemies” (Anchorage Daily News, 4/1/11), calls for “war against Islam and all Muslim faithful” (American Muslim, 10/28/09) and, according to Mother Jones (3/1/11), has “tried to criminalize adherence to the Muslim faith.” (Not limiting his bigotry to Islamophobia, Yerushalmi has referred to blacks as “the most murderous of peoples,” called unauthorized immigrants “undeserving of rights” and applauded the decision of America’s founders to deny women and blacks the right to vote—McAdam Report, 5/12/06.)
According to a New York Times profile (7/30/11), Yerushalmi writes reports, files lawsuits and drafts model legislation, “all with the effect of casting Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the cold war.”
While the First Amendment prevents U.S. law from being based on any religious tradition, Shariah does occasionally emerge in U.S. domestic law proceedings, typically when a will specifies that an estate is to be divided in accordance with Muslim tradition (just as a will may stipulate dispositions in accordance with other religious traditions). Putting today’s anti-Shariah campaign in historical context, Eliyahu Stern, a professor of religious studies and history at Yale wrote in a New York Times op-ed (9/2/11), “The suggestion that Shariah threatens American security is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusation, in 19th-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious.”
The anti-Muslim network’secho chamber was demonstrated in June, by the publication of “Shariah and Violence in American Mosques” in the Middle East Quarterly (Summer/11), the journal of Islamophobe Daniel Pipes. The study, coauthored by Yerushalmi, portrayed American mosques as teachers of violence and Islamic supremacy. As Spencer reported on the study for his site Jihad Watch (6/7/11),
The study also stated that in 85 percent of American mosques, the imam recommended studying “violence-positive texts,” a vague charge that prompted SPLC’s Robert Steinback to ask (Intelligence Report, (6/13/11), “If a priest or rabbi had a Bible on hand and ‘recommended’ the reading of the Book of Leviticus, would that establish that he favors killing adulterers, idolaters and incorrigible children?”
Spencer’s piece ran in Human Events (6/14/11), and Jihad Watch’s sister publication FrontPageMag.com (6/10/11) ran an interview with Yerushalmi on the study. Fox & Friends (6/13/11) hosted a discussion of it with the Center for Security Policy’s Gaffney, who thanked the hosts for taking on this “mortal threat.” In a Washington Times column (6/7/11), Gaffney said the study “describes an ominous jihadist footprint being put into place across the nation,” adding, “most mosques in the United States are actually engaged in—or at least supportive of—a totalitarian, seditious agenda they call Shariah.”
The claim that more than 80 percent of mosques teach violence and Islamic supremacy, and another dramatic but unsupported figure from years earlier alleging that 80 percent of American mosques are run by radical imams, are regularly parroted by national media figures and politicians.
Appearing on Laura Ingraham’s nationally syndicated radio show (1/13/11) in advance of his hearings on domestic terrorism, Rep. King repeated a number of Islamophobic smears, calling Muslims “an enemy living among us.” According to the Center for American Progress blog Think Progress (1/25/11), when King was asked by substitute host Raymond Arroyo how many mosques he thought were “infected” by “radical jihad sentiment,” King said that “over 80 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams.”
Actually, a 2004 study of Detroit-area mosques by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that “the vast majority of American-Muslims eschew extremist views.” A joint study of Muslims and mosques carried out by scholars at the University of North Carolina and Duke, Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans (1/6/10), found that American mosques encourage political participation and reduce social alienation and thus “contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism,” as a New York Times (8/7/10) summary of the study put it.
“Rarely has the United States seen a more reckless and bare-knuckled campaign,” wrote the SPLC’s Steinback wrote (Intelligence Report, Summer/11), “to vilify a distinct class of people and compromise their fundamental civil and human rights than the recent rhetoric against Muslims.” As noted, the New York Times, among other outlets, has done occasional reports debunking anti-Muslim smears. But such a large-scale campaign of hatred and scapegoating requires a forceful and sustained effort by journalists to challenge and refute the bigotry.