by Dr. David L. Johnston
The flames of suspicion, hate and fear swept over our country in the 1940s and 1950s, fanned by the zealous anti-Communist Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. Government employees, people from the entertainment industry, the unions and universities, were dragged before interrogation panels, some staged by the government, some privately sponsored. Thousands lost their jobs and reputations as a result, and hundreds were imprisoned. More gravely, the whole country was caught in a vortex of hysteria, mutual denigration, and bitter debates.
The current campaign in the United States to vilify Muslims is certainly reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Sure, its roots precede the attacks of 9/11, but we can see that it clearly exploded after that date.
If you don’t believe me, just add up these phrases that bounce back and forth in the media, the blogosphere, and the lips of your neighbor next door:
- “President Obama is a Muslim”
- “There is no such thing as moderate Islam. Traditional Islam is radical Islam”
- “Sharia is a threat to America”
- “Practicing Muslims cannot be loyal Americans”
- “Mosques are Trojan Horses”
- “Radical Islam has infiltrated America, the government, and mainstream Muslim organizations”
These thoughts don’t just appear out of thin air: That is what a new study by a Washington think tank, Center for American Progress (CAP), is trying to show. Its 138-page report, “Fear Inc: Exposing the Islamophobia Network in America,” points to seven foundations that together have contributed over $42 million in support of this campaign bent on exploiting the fear and ignorance of Americans about Islam after 9/11.
Following the money trail is crucial, though never entirely possible. Yet at the very least, by exposing the funding traceable via IRS channels, the report authors hoped that some of the donors would think twice about what they are funding. You can’t make Islamophobia disappear with a magic wand, but cutting off some of the money has got to help. And in fact, one of the foundations contacted CAP after the study was published, bitterly complaining that their name was associated with such illustrious merchants of hate. Bingo!
Sadly, lots of money is funneled through private foundations, corporations and individual donors, and often with precise political goals in mind. “Fear, Inc.” reveals that the top seven foundations typically give to conservative, right-wing causes and agents. The number one donor turns out to be The Donors Capital Fund, which in 2009 for instance, dispensed about $60 million for “mainstream conservative groups, none of which are Islamophobic” (p. 16). Yet from 2007 to 2009 they also distributed $21,318,600 to four of the most “Islamophobic” organizations.
OK, so what is their definition of “islamophobia”? Actually, it’s a very helpful one: “an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life” (p. 9). So it’s the reinforcement of “negative stereotypes” that 1) prey on existing fear and hostility toward Muslims, 2) by distorting and exaggerating aspects of Islamic beliefs and practices, 3) with the goal of discriminating against, stigmatizing and even excluding Muslims “from America’s social, political, and civic life.”
Who are these purveyors of hate and misinformation? They fall into four categories:
- The pseudo-scholars and policy experts. Here, five individuals share the responsibility for providing the catchy talking points (“mosques are a Trojan horse”). One of these, FrankGaffney (see my blog “Sharia Conspiracy Theories”) uses his neoconservative thinktank, The Centre for Security Policy, to broadcast a definition of “Sharia” no Muslim would recognize, but which allows him to state – rather ominously – that the Islamic sharia is the greatest totalitarian threat to US security. Next, lawyer and author David Yerushalmi’s rhetoric along the same lines has provided a backbone to the campaign in 23 states to outlaw Sharia (see my blog, “Sharia Law: Should It Be Outlawed?”). Add three more names: Steve Emerson’s overstated analysis of the “Islamic threat” by means of his think tank, The Investigative Project on Terrorism; Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum; and Robert Spencer (who has written the most books by far) and his website JihadWatch.
- Grassroots organizations and the religious right, providing “the muscle of the Islamophobia network” and successfully building on the momentum of the “Ground Zero Mosque” protest (which was neither a mosque nor at ground zero) in 2009-2010. At the top of the list is Lebanese-American Brigitte Gabriel, dubbed “a radical islamophobe” by the New York Times. In 2007, Gabriel founded Act! For America, which now boasts 573 chapters and 170,000 members worldwide. Its national Executive Director is former Christian Coalition strategist Guy Rodgers and its short-term goal is to turn fear of Islam into an electrifying tool in the upcoming presidential campaign so as to defeat President Obama. Another influential grassroots organization is Pamela Geller’s Stop Islamization ofAmerica, which in the words of the Anti-Defamation League “promotes a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam” (p. 69). In the Religious Right category, you find John Hagee (Christians United for Israel), Pat Robertson (American Center for Law and Justice), Ralph Reed (Faith and Freedom Coalition), and grassroots organizations like the Eagle Forum, American Family Coalition, and more recently, the Tennessee Freedom Coalition. Finally, some local Tea Party chapters have embraced Geller and Gabriel’s agenda.
- Media outlets. These enable the mainstreaming of extremist rhetoric, and in particular, Fox News in network TV and radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. David Horowitz is also a major player in the field of Islam-bashing. His Freedom Center (founded in 1988), according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has “helped spread bigoted ideas into American life. Through his two online magazines (FrontPage and Jihad Watch, both directed by Robert Spencer), blog (NewsReal), Islamofascism Awareness Week organized on hundreds of US college campuses, his Wednesday Morning Club and his annual Restoration Weekend in Palm Beach, Florida (Michele Bachman and Newt Gingrich were among this year’s speakers), Horowitz provides the backbone of the anti-Muslim cottage industry.
- The political players. Republican representatives Peter King (NY, who organized the congressional hearings on the radicalization of the US Muslim community) and Michele Bachman are among three other colleagues the study mentions as intentionally using the slogans and material of groups mentioned above.
Lest we think this is a harmless use of democratic free speech and lively political debating, perhaps we should ponder the fact that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik in his rambling 1,500-page manifesto quoted Robert Spencer 112 times and Pamela Geller’s blog AtlasShrugs 12 times. Hate speech can lead some people to act on it. Tragically, McCarthyism is making a comeback – and it has its clones in Europe too.
Let me conclude by saying as a Christian aspiring to follow Jesus, who commanded love of enemy and embodied costly peacemaking: let’s use every opportunity to preach, pray, and implement the Father’s reconciling love!
Dr. David L. Johnston is Resident Scholar and Blogger with Peace Catalyst International. More from David Johnston can be found on his personal blog, www.humantrustees.org.
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