The report released in August from the Center for American Progress — “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America” – meticulously tunnels through the maze of anti-Islamic sentiment.
Well-received by the mainstream media (and predictably denounced by Islamophobe bloggers and right-wing press), it's a much-needed, ground-breaking work. Detailed and comprehensive — though an easy read — it ties together and pinpoints exactly what's being said in the Islamophobe arena, who's being paid to say it, and who's paying them to say it.
But how well does it meet the hopeful expectations placed on it by the Muslim community?
Muslims looking for a quick-fix answer or a magic wand that will make Islamophobia go away will have to look elsewhere. There are no solutions here, but that's a good thing. By purposefully avoiding any bullet-point strategic or tactical recommendations, the report will force Muslim individuals and policy makers to shake their complacency, apply their own creative mental rigour and draw up their own strategies.
That makes it one of the most literally thought-provoking works in the contemporary Islamic discourse in recent years (and a real strength of the report).
Muslim groups in general have a mixed record on rising to meet such challenges — so it remains to be seen how well-leveraged the report will become as a resource tool — but the foundation laid down in the report is immense.
However, it's not an explicit call-to-action piece, and there's a slight down side to the report's approach as well. The hypertight focus of “Fear, Inc.” on the Islamophobia network itself leaves no room to include the Muslim relationship and response to Islamophobia, depriving the report of some potentially useful context and giving it an overtly singular tone. While this almost isolated perspective — deep and thorough as it may be — is what should spur Muslims to find creative solutions for countering Islamophobia, it also allows room for failure: While the report doesn't tell groups how to do it right, by the same token it doesn't document how they've occasionally done it wrong and inadvertently fed the Islamophobia beast. Since the report does highlight some Islamophobia network messaging points and debunks them, it only seems appropriate to examine (or at least mention) any Muslim responsibility or accountability, if applicable, in those points' development or propagation.
Glossing over the Muslim element in any Muslim-Islamophobe analysis also runs the risk of imparting a subtle, subliminal reinforcement of the “victim” mentality, which may not play well to a non-Muslim observer (and altogether a mindset for the Muslim community to avoid).
These drawbacks are minor, however, and don't diminish the report's importance and efficacy. All of it is pertinent, useful and meticulously researched.
But what does it all mean? How do Muslim individuals and organizations begin analyzing and applying this rich infomation? Are Muslims even ready for the task?
To dig a little deeper, I had a couple of very nice e-mail conversations with the tireless Wajahat Ali, lead researcher for the project (among his many diverse activities). We talked about context, racism, internal divisions, what's next for CAP, and his own personal take and observations.
- The Context of the CAP Report
- Audience of Report is mainstream, global audience
- Reaction of Anti-Muslim Bigots
- Muslim Community Response
- Root of Fear Inc. Hatred
- Post-report Scenarios
[Wajahat Ali]: The report has a tightly focused exposé on the inner-workings of the “Islamophobia network” as we have categorized and identified them. Mainly, we wanted to show how a group of seven funders have empowered a tightly connected, self-reliant and effective network of several individuals and organizations to the tune of $42.6 million over the past 10 years to manufacture fear, hysteria and hate against Muslims.
From the beginning, we realized people will ask us several questions, such as, “How come you didn't mention Europe?” Or, “How come you don't do an academic analysis of Sharia?” and so forth. Of course, the report is not an “end-all-be-all” report on Islamophobia but merely a solid foundational beginning to further explore pertinent issues.
Your question regarding the Muslim community's response to the Network is important and warrants an analysis. However, it was not the focus of this particular report.
I look forward to someone writing it up. I'd very much like to read it.
[MSD]: In the AJE piece, you said it was meant for the general population. Can you expand on that and what you hope the general public will do with this? How would you like to see this best used?
[WA]: I'm not your usual, Washington D.C., “policy wonk.” My background is primarily that of a playwright, attorney, commentator and “accidental” community activist. I told CAP from the beginning that if this report would be one of the millions of reports buried in the cocoon of Washington D.C. under the bureaucratic weight of ineffective, mass produced, policy briefs churned almost weekly by the town, then I don't want to waste my time with it.
Thankfully, CAP agreed and we wrote the report for a mainstream, global audience, with grassroots communities, teachers, students, average Joes and Jibrils in mind. Many times people ignore our fellow citizens, neighbors, co-workers, partners in faith and so forth as simply the “laymen.” But real, effective power in changing minds, thoughts and hearts comes from knowledge and disseminating that knowledge to the people. The report is a fact-based, thoroughly sourced result of a six-month investigation.
We strongly believe it has the ability to expose this divisive network that preys on fear, misinformation and ignorance and convey this knowledge in a clear, easy to understand manner for the mass public to build resilience against such nonsense. So, after reading it, people will say, “We didn't know this 'anti-Sharia' threat was totally manufactured by the Network.” “What? The 'Ground Zero Mosque' was a non-issue that was deliberately hyped by the Network and transformed into an international hysteria which has subsequently threatened our national security?” “These faces I see on Fox News – this is what they've said and written about our fellow Americans who happen to be Muslim, Arab or immigrants? This is vile.”
We are confident the facts in this report will also enlighten several law enforcement officials, politicians, and funders to the true nature, intent and ideology of this Network that has promoted its bias and hate under the guise of allegedly working on national security and counter-radicalization issues.
We hope to end “Islamophobia” because it poisons the communal well of America and advances nothing but division and fear against our fellow citizens, which is utterly un-American and anti-American behavior and completely opposite to our shared values.
We hope this report is a step in steering the national discourse on these important issues towards moderation, civility and common sense.
[MSD]: One of the things I've noticed is that the rhetoric of the professional Islamophobe class gets more and more over the top for fear of profit loss when they get called out or when their arguments get eroded — witness the overall increase in vitriol since the Arab Spring, for example. The response so far to your report seems to bear out this trend. Any take or analysis on their response?
[WA]: Good observation. First and foremost, we can safely say this is a lucrative industry. Islamophobia sells, and it brings home a lot of bacon. Never forget, this is a 24-7, daily job for these people. This is how they earn their daily bread, so they will vigorously defend their dubious occupation, which is quite profitable I might add. I mean, wouldn't you if you were David Horowitz and bringing home $500,000 each year for spreading hate? Or how about the $300,000 that Gaffney pockets. Or, the $200K of Robert Spencer and Brigitte Gabriel.
They simply escalate the “crazy.” The foundation of most their arguments is meritless, so it's easy to expose it as fraudulent and laughable. If there was some shame and honesty here, they would retract their statements and issue corrections. But, an honest, forthright discussion on these important issues is not their priority. They want to continue profiting off this absurd circus they've created, which sadly has gone from fringe to mainstream in the past 10 years and threatens people, communities, families, our national discourse and even our national security.
For example, Gov. Christie of New Jersey recently appointed a thoroughly qualified and well respected attorney, Suhail Muḥammad, to Superior Court. Steve Emerson, one of the leaders of the Network, responded by saying Gov. Christie has a tin ear for “radical Islam.” 2012 Presidential hopeful Rick Perry's close ties to the Ishmaeli Muslim community in Texas was revealed. Pam Geller's response? Rick Perry is obviously a pro-Sharia, fifth column president. President Obama and President Bush's administration reached out to Muslim communities – why? Because, obviously, their administration is infiltrated by radical Islam. President Obama's staffmember Valerie Jarrett gave statements at the ISNA conference a few years back, which was enough for the Network to prove that it was coddling “Radical Islam,” since ISNA, a moderate, mainstream Muslim American organization, is obviously a front and incubator for stealth jihad. Surprisingly, the same smears were not made against Evangelical leader Rick Warren, who also spoke at ISNA the same year.
The Conservative Political Action Conference — which is the annual Hall of Fame conservative meet-up featuring all-stars from the right — is accused by Frank Gaffney of being infiltrated by Radical Islam. Why? They invited Muslim American Republican Suhail Khan to speak, as well as Republican, anti-tax reformer, non-Muslim Grover Norquist — who happens to be a married to a Muslim.
So, their strategy is simply to ratchet up the crazy, the paranoia, the smears, the baseless allegations, the character assassinations, and keep feeding their base and funders' “terror” and manufactured “bogeymen” just enough to continue lining up their coffers. Since there is hardly any truth, logic, facts or substance behind their arguments, what do they care if sane, rational people attack it with facts and evidence? Again, they are exploiting fear, uncertainty, ignorance for the sake of promoting their agenda and lucrative career built upon smearing millions of Americans simply due to their faith.
[WA]: The response from all communities has been overwhelmingly positive. It's really rewarding and encouraging to see this report, which is a 130 page policy report released by a think tank, go viral and spread on Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, and mailing lists by non-DC folk. I'm talking about students, non-academics, grassroots leaders, community leaders of other faiths and ethnicities, the mass media and so forth.
Many Muslim American communities have said, “Thank you! We've been waiting for someone to do this report for years.” They, of course, are sensitive to these issues because their communities have been attacked by these Islamophobia Network organizations and individuals for years. Now, they have facts, evidence, and the categorization and break down of the Network, along with the money trail, to truly dissect it and understand it. It seems to be an empowering, educational and hopeful report. We are proud of that.
Let's not forget this is simply a remake. Muslims are the current bogeyman. In the past, it was Jews, the Irish Catholics, gays and lesbians, and Japanese-Americans. But, eventually, Americans find their moral compass and wake up eventually smelling something rotten festering in their backyard, and we as a society decide to finally clean house. This is us collectively taking out the garbage that is the Islamophobia network and their ideology of hate.
[MSD]: You're touching on an interesting point. Is the root of the network's hatred based on religious difference or racism? For me, that's the possible elephant in the room. In general, the network seems to not target the African – American Muslim communities, who are a great example of long-standing successful American Islamic acculturation (and IMO need to be more represented in various interfaith and Islamic round tables). The network seems to focus on masājid or leaders of Middle Eastern or South Asian background, as those racial identifiers subconsciously resonate more with the terrorists that make the news headlines.
On the other hand, hatred is hatred, and on a tactical level, does it even matter to understand their motivation?
[WA]: It's difficult to parse out each of their motivations, but I do believe some possess a deep-seated, vitriolic hate against Muslims as evidenced by their own rhetoric and actions. Brigitte Gabriel's grassroots group ACT! for America exists for no other reason than to combat and marginalize Muslims and Islam, although she accomplished her agenda under the guise of allegedly fighting radical Islam. The Anti-Defamation League reviewed this organization and disagreed, asserting she is in fact advancing an anti-Muslim, conspiratorial agenda. She has also said Arabs and Muslims have no soul. Geller and Spencer also seem to be driven by an exaggerated, irrational fear of Muslims. They have protested the construction of mosques in America, supported racist, neo-Nazi groups such as the English Defense League and notorious Islamophobes Geert Wilders. They seem threatened by any sign of Muslim – American empowerment or mainstream visibility.
Others such as Frank Gaffney and Steve Emerson need a convenient boogeyman to justify their occupation and existence to their funders. Gaffney emerges from the paranoid, Cold War mindset, in which he railed against the Soviet threat during the 80′s. Muslims were the next logical replacement for him beginning in the 90′s and especially after Sept. 11. The Tennessean reported Emerson milks money from his donors by exaggerating the threat posed by Muslims.
For others, such as Rush Limbaugh, I simply think it's good fodder for profit and entertainment. I don't think he has a deep hatred for Muslims.
There is definitely a racial component to this movement. It seems to be heavily interested in marginalizing politically active Arab-Americans. Gaffney, Pipes, Geller, Spencer and others frowned upon President Obama's outreach to Muslim communities and they are deeply against the “Arab Spring,” suggesting that this will bring forth a radical Islamist agenda that they allege has already “infiltrated” America.
However, these Islamophobes, such as David Yerushalmi and David Horowitz, also have a “colorful” history of being racist towards African-Americans. Yerushalmi has written they are a murderous race intent on killing themselves, for example. Congressman West, who is African American, has really rallied around the Islamophobia rhetoric since entering Congress. “Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology, it is not a religion,” said West in August 2010 while running for office. “This radical understanding of Islam has been around since 622 AD. It is totalitarian, it is imperialistic in its designs.”
Then in January 2011, he said in a television interview that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), an American-born convert to Islam, represents the “antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established.” A surprised Rep. Ellison responded: “Contrary to the views expressed by Congressman West, I work to represent the highest ideals of our great nation—ideals like freedom of worship and respect for all faiths, equal protection under the law as well as a civil and open public discourse.”
So, it seems the network has a lot of hate to spread around, regardless of race.
[MSD]: For me, the detailing of the grassroots strategy by ACT! for America was one of the most illuminating portions of the report. I'll be candid: the Muslim community doesn't seem to have the organizational or cultural will or leadership to mount anything near that scale to implement a counterstrategy. I think there's a number of sociocultural factors for that, but do you think such an effort is possible within the Muslim community? What are the risks?
[WA]: Muslim-Americans are not a monolith. We should not seek “unity” for sake of “unity.” It's a fallacy. It's ineffective, unrealistic and untenable. We are the most diverse religious community in America in terms of race, socio-economic background, religious differences, and so forth.
However, there are enough numbers and money in the community that could easily be invested to create a competent, professional, transparent, grassroots organization that has a clear mission statement and clear objectives that are carried out in a methodical manner by people trained and educated to do just that.
It's not rocket science. ACT! For America used a successful playbook that co-founder Guy Rodgers developed in the 90′s with his work for Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. Not all Republicans, conservatives or those on the right agree with ACT! For America or are ACT! members, but they have a core following that is aligned by a simple issue –”countering radical Islam” — and they are thoroughly organized at empowering this base and helping them spread the message.
Muslim-American grassroots efforts hopefully will be created to spread positive messages that preach inclusivity, tolerance, respect and selfless conduct for the betterment of all communities. The key is to make sure that organization doesn't hold itself out to be “the representative” of Muslim Americans. It is simply one piece of the giant mosaic. And, again, it needs to simply have competent leadership, vision and execution. It's not impossible – it just needs some thought and careful implementation.
To think otherwise is to play in to the victim mentality.
[MSD]: Care to speculate why hasn't this happened yet? What is it in the American Muslim consciousness that prevents us from reaching out across our own diversity and successfully building those internal coalitions?
[WA]: This is a very important question that really goes to the heart of lingering, deep-seated problems afflicting our communities from within. I think generalizations should be avoided since it's far too reductive and simplistic to use terms such as “immigrant” communities vs. “indigenous/native” communities. This language is used to explain the schism between immigrant South Asian and Arab-American communities and existing African-American communities, as if this is insolvable and inherently doomed to linger for further generations.
I have faith that my generation and specifically the upcoming generation — the post-post 9-11 generation, if you will — shall transcend these differences that have existed due to ignorance, harmful assumptions, classism, lack of communication, and — let's face it — racism, by acknowledging its existence and finding proactive solutions based on mutual respect, understanding and empathy.
The “racial” divide exists. Many Muslim American communities — not all — have made the mistake of living in culturally isolated cocoons, burying our heads in the sand, sealed behind a projected bubble of illusory protection, assuming that if we ignore our problems or simply live in cultural ghettos, we will be “safe.” Obviously, this isolation has escalated problems both within the Muslim American communities and with our fellow neighbors of different faiths.
Mostly, the African-American Muslim community has borne the brunt of other Muslims' ignorance, fear and hypocritical double standards. Imagine a South Asian or Arab-American woman bringing home an African-American Muslim man as a potential husband? Thankfully, it has happening more, but we all know the horror stories that have occurred in the past. I pray we see more biracial Muslim American couples in the 21st century — it's perhaps the most healthy, productive and successful way of healing these divides for our future communities.
We also suffer from this romantic idealization of a “back in the motherland” Muslim utopia that doesn't exist, nor has ever existed. Yet the myth persists, which perpetuates a type of exclusive, exaggerated tribalism. So, we divide ourselves further along ethno-tribal lines: Punjabi Pakistani-American vs. Muhajjar Pakistani-American, or Syrian-American vs. Lebanese-American, and so forth. Again, some communities want to perserve this “identity” by living in a cultural cocoon. This is all fine and dandy, but of course, it only helps to perpetuate the divides, not heal it.
And, good ol' classism, which is prevalent in all ethnic communities, also creates tension. Those who have “achieved” the American dream feel the need to protect it by living behind gated communities. They'll go on the Bay Bridge from the East Bay straight to San Francisco but never bother to stop where “the other people” live in Oakland, which is where we need to invest our talent, resources, money and support to help up-and-coming Muslim American communties who have not tasted professional degrees, privilege or elitism.
Finally, intrafaith problems persist. There are Shia vs. Sunni divides and even multiple divides among those respective religious identities. I am a Deobandi Sunni, but I cannot break bread with you because you are Barelvi, or I am Salafi but you are Sufi, so let's engage in a mutual takfir-off and call each other a heathen and infidel, because, you know, that's the best way to resolve our differences.
I think Muslim American communities can unify on takfiring – we seem to be exceptionally talented at the craft.
There has to be a realization that there has never been nor ever wil be one model “Muslim American identity.” It's a fallacy. A pipe dream resulting from smoking too much pipe. It needs to be abandoned for sake of a more rich, healthy, realistic vision of an America that has existed before our very eyes — one that is vibrant, messy, constantly evolving and representative of the best of both America and Islam's rich diversity.
The tent of Islam in America has to widen to include all communities who claim to be Muslim. You don't have to accept their ideologies, actions or beliefs, but you have to accept their existence and their right to identify as a Muslim. That is key. Instead of closing the tent and excluding some of our best resources –i.e., our fellow Muslims — due to differences in ideology, race, or class, we need to be intelligent, compassionate, strategic and open to seeing how we share similar values and goals, despite our differences.Then we can use that as a foundation in uniting to serve God and our fellow neighbors.
[WA]: I cannot speak for CAP. But, the report was intended to create a foundation for further analysis on niche issues. So I see this report as a jumping off point, a stable base which we can use to explore the similarities or differences between Islamophobia in U.S. and Europe. There is definitely a strong trans-Atlantic relationship between both Islamophobia networks and I think that hasn't fully explored in depth and detail.
[MSD]: Any general observations about that relationship, or about Islamophobia in Europe in general, that you can make yet? Any effective counter-responses there that you've noticed?
[WA]: There is a tremendous connection between the Islamophobia network in Europe and the one that has currently risen in the United States. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who killed 76 people (mostly youth) in August, was ideologically inspired by the Islamophobia network in America. He left behind a detailed, meticulous 1,500 page manifesto outlining his reasons for his crime and also as a “training manual” to inspire fellow perverse criminals. He mainly opposed what he calls the Islamization of Europe, multiculturalism, and Muslim immigration to Europe. He cites Robert Spencer's blog and writings more than 162 times, and he cites the Islamophobia network players more than 200 times in total. He shares their same worldview when it comes to seeing Muslims as suspects, threats, anti-”Western” and so forth.
Pam Geller and Robert Spencer, the co-founders of the hate group Stop Islamization of America, were inspired by the European group Stop Islamization of Europe, founded by a marginalized, far right, racist and fascist Islamophobe named Anders Gravers. Geller has called Danish politician Geert Wilders, perhaps the world's most notorious and well known Islamophobe, her “hero.” In turn, Wilders refers to Geller as his “hero.” Wilders has called for a ban on Muslim immigration to Europe, a ban on mosques and a ban on the Qurʾān. Congressman Allen West of Florida refers to him as his “comrade,” and David Horowitz and Brigitte Gabriel have also praised and defended him as well. Wilders was recently invited by the grassroots organizations Tennessee Eagle Forum and TN Freedom Coalition to give a hate-filled screed against Islam and Muslims in front of 3,000 people at Cornerstone mega-church. He parroted all the fears, hysteria and misinformation about Muslims, Islam and Sharia that have been spouted by American Islamophobes. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. David Horowitz's blog condensed his speech into talking points and subsequently praised it.
Individuals have written academic pieces and investigative journalism pieces on this, but we should expect more detailed analysis similar to the CAP report exposing this transatlantic network sometime in the next year.
[MSD]: What other areas do you see needing investigation?
[WA]: I also believe a more focused analysis on the effect, or lack thereof, the Islamophobia Network has on foreign policy is warranted. Another would be the effects this type of rhetoric has on our national security.
I would also love a report to trace the similarities if any of the Islamophobia network's “fear-mongering” playbook deployed against Muslims compared to what other minorities in America have suffered in years past. My research shows the tactics to be eerily similar.