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. Since the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009, an astonishing number of people have turned into a political wolf pack, convinced that 0.6 percent 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.
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, Florida. 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, Tennessee. In March 2011, a radical Christian pastor burned a Koran in Gainesville, Florida, leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan that left at least 20 people dead.
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 those inclined to bigotry may have found their perfect bogeyman in Muslims.
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. 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 have all of these factors been arrayed against an American minority group. Muslims also have one uniquely debilitating 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 percent 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.
And there has been serious terrorism from homegrown Muslims. The Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security reported in 2011 that there had been 161 terrorist plots involving Muslim Americans since 9/11, with 69 contemplating domestic targets. Eleven of those 69 carried out their attacks, killing 33 people. In addition, a 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that 15 percent 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 percent—were brought to the attention of the authorities by other Muslims. Similarly, the Pew study found that 76 percent of American Muslims were very or somewhat concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world.
Even so, in an April 2009 Washington Post–ABC News poll, 29 percent of Americans said they felt mainstream Islam advocated violence against non-Muslims. And in March 2011, a Gallup poll found that 28 percent of Americans—almost 90 million people—felt that Muslims who live in the United States are sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
The growing anti-Muslim movement is 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—have been warning that the Islamic sky was falling. Independent journalist Max Blumenthal in December 2010 called it “the Great Islamophobic Crusade.”
Circumstances turned favorable for anti-Muslim activists when a black man with an Arabic middle name, Hussein, won the presidency, exacerbating many whites’ fears about the demographic “browning” of America. Much right-wing opposition to Obama was framed in the simplest, albeit false, terms: The president was a secret Muslim. According to the Pew Research Center, 11 percent of Americans believed Obama was a Muslim in March 2009. In August 2010, it was 18 percent.
In early 2010, a fortuitous gift arrived: an innocuous proposal to renovate an abandoned building in lower Manhattan into a 13-story mosque and community center. Its address: 45–51 Park Place—two blocks from the World Trade Center site.
Just then, a dazzling new anti-Muslim activist burst onto the scene: Pamela Geller. Blessed with sultry Hollywood sex appeal and a sassy, scythe-like wit, the Atlas Shrugs blogger would ride the Park51 project protest to superstardom.
Geller and Robert Spencer joined forces to take control of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA). 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. SIOA insinuated that the project’s financing might be tied to terrorists. They absurdly described it as an Islamic “victory mosque” celebrating the 9/11 attacks. 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.
The Park51 project is moving ahead despite the opposition, currently “opening its doors to New Yorkers of all backgrounds for interfaith workshops, films, and lectures,” according to its website. But anti-Muslim animosity in America has continued to grow, a brakeless bandwagon of hostility.
The 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’s Robert Spencer. He says the Koran is innately violent and calls for the utter subjugation of nonbelievers. 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 attack individuals and organizations that purport to represent moderate Islam in America, painting them as secret operatives in the grand Muslim scheme 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. 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 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.
Robert Steinback is deputy editor of Intelligence Reportmagazine and Hatewatch blog. Excerpted from Intelligence Report (Summer 2011), an award-winning magazine monitoring the radical right, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report
Have something to say? Send a letter to email@example.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.