By Sarah Posner
Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, is RD’s associate editor and covers politics for the site. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, Salon, The Washington Spectator, the religion blogs at the Washington Post and the Guardian, and other publications. RSS feed Twitter Email
That these questions were treated as legitimate lines of inquiry at a conference that serves as a dog and pony show for Republican presidential candidates demonstrates the success of a cottage industry of anti-Muslim fearmongers—politicians, religious groups, ministers, self-styled national security experts, former government officials, retired military officers, pundits, and writers—who have cultivated a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that totalitarian Islamic radicals are bent on infiltrating America, displacing the Constitution, and subverting Western-style democracy in the U.S. and around the globe.
As Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, opens his hearings into
The conspiracy theorists succeed by using self-styled, unqualified “experts” to stoke fears of secret plots of Muslims to take over America and replace its Constitution with shari'ah law. That they even point to shari'ah, says Lena Salaymeh, a Harvard-trained lawyer now working on her doctorate in Islamic legal history at Berkeley, is evidence of their ignorance about Islamic law, politics, and culture.
If one untangles what that cottage industry is saying, one can detect five claims of the shari'ah conspiracy theory: that the goal of Islam is totalitarianism; that the mastermind of bringing this totalitarianism to the world is the Muslim Brotherhood, the grandfather of all Islamic groups from Hamas to the Islamic Society of North America; that these organizations within the United States are traitors in league with the American left and are bent on acts of sedition against America; that the majority of mosques in the United States are run by imams who promote such sedition; and that through this fifth column shari‘ah law has already infiltrated the United States and could result in a complete takeover if not stopped
In an interview with the Center for American Progress, Intisar Rabb, a member of the law faculty at Boston College Law School, explains that:
In pre-colonial times, Salaymeh added, jurists—legal thinkers—would determine fiqh, the understanding of what divine law is based on their interpretation of religious texts. It’s important to note, however, that because human interpretations of divine revelation vary, and because there’s no central Islamic authority, there is no fixed legal definition of shari'ah.
In post-colonial times in the Middle East and North Africa, as a means of “coalesc[ing] popular support against imperialism,” Salaymeh explains, some activists promoted “Islamic unity,” in which use of “Islamic law” became a popular rhetoric. Rabb, too, noted, "Historically, Sharia served as a means for political dissent against arbitrary rule."
“So shari'ah became a battle cry of resistance,” Salaymeh says. “It’s used by certain political groups to claim they are not being represented, or that their government is not representative of the people. So it’s more about representation and identity than it is about specific codes or laws.”
Even though some political activists in Middle Eastern and North African countries promote “Islamic law” in reaction to the imposition of European-style government and legal systems on them there is no single school of thought on what shari‘ah, or divine law, is or means—and there is no single, accepted legal code. “If Islamic law were some book where you could look to it and cite to it, and say, it says right here that western democracy is bad, then maybe that would make sense. But that’s just ridiculous... This claim of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy has nothing to do with anything historical, or anything in legal texts.”
The cottage industry, she says, points to some aspects of Wahhabism, such as requirements on dress codes, and portray that as representative of Islamic thought.
That strict Wahhabism—which the Saudi government helps promote and fund in and outside of Saudi Arabia—is not representative of Islam globally. Such Wahhabism, according to Salaymeh, is an “extremist strain” on the periphery of the Muslim community. “In a weird way,” she says, “the neo-cons are in dialogue with the extremists and are legitimating the extremists’ position by refusing to recognize that there are other interpretations of Islam and experiences of Islam that are not the Wahhabi one.”
The most recent public attacks on Muslims have come in the form of the vituperative opposition to the First Amendment right to build mosques, most visibly in Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer’s “Stop the Islamization of America” crusade launched to prevent the building of the Park51 community center in New York, as well as in blatant public displays of anti-Muslim bigotry.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who at the time was slated to be the leader of Park51, was, and still is, routinely portrayed as a covert radical jihadist, largely because he represents a more liberal view of America, one which the right portrays as being just as anti-American as the supposed pervasive radical Islamism in our midst.
During the uproar over Park51, Newt Gingrich, who last week launched a presidential exploratory committee, gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute warning of
In tandem with the Geller-Spencer crusade against Park51 a report, “Shari'ah: The Threat To America,” was produced by the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think tank whose president, Frank Gaffney, was banned from the CPAC this year because its organizers believed him to be a “crazy bigot.” When it was released last fall, Gaffney’s report was praised by Republican members of Congress Trent Franks (AZ), Michele Bachmann (MN), and Pete Hoekstra (MI). For Gaffney, though, the conspiracy’s tentacles even extend to his fellow conservatives. He has claimed that CPAC has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood because the board of the American Conservative Union—CPAC’s host organization—includes Muslim Suhail Khan and because another board member, and conservative powerbroker, Grover Norquist (who is married to a Palestinian American) has advocated for Republicans to reach out to Muslim voters.
Gaffney, a former Reagan Administration appointee, has become a fixture at many conservative events, despite his confrontation with CPAC’s organizers. Although he was banned as a speaker, he did make an appearance in the audience of “The Shari'ah Challenge to the West” panel. Indeed, the views of the panelists were virtually indistinguishable from Gaffney’s. Moderated by Cliff May of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, panelists included former CIA director James Woolsey; the American Enterprise Institute’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and the National Review’s Andrew McCarthy—a leading proponent of the conspiracy theory that shari‘ah poses a threat to America and that the left, and President Obama in particular, are part of a fifth column that promote, or at the very least, enable it. (Both McCarthy and Woolsey are also affiliated with the FDOD.)
Gaffney’s efforts have proven to be quite lucrative for him, despite the fact that he leads a non-profit organization. According to the Center for Security Policy’s 2008 tax return, Gaffney earned a salary of $288,300. And Gaffney is not alone. In the midst of the uproar in Murfreesboro in opposition to a proposed mosque, the Tennessean reported that not only had Steve Emerson’s non-profit Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation funneled nearly $3.4 million to a related for-profit entity (an arrangement that raised eyebrows of tax experts), but that other “experts” in spreading Islamophobia draw big salaries from their non-profits. Other frequent witnesses in Islamophobic documentaries, including Woolsey, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have had financial stakes in companies that profit from consulting on homeland security and counter-terrorism issues.
Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs, and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at The George Washington University, said,
Other players in the shari‘ah scare industry claim to have academic credentials, but are just as poorly regarded by scholars. Daniel Pipes, whose Middle East Forum has long issued dire warnings about the supposed threat of radical Islam, also runs Campus Watch, which, along with David Horowitz’s “Freedom Center” and related groups, claim to monitor the supposedly anti-American sympathies of academics who don’t share their views. (Horowitz was also the organizer of “Islamofascism Awareness Week” events on college campuses, which were not about “freedom” but rather portraying those who don’t share Horowitz’s worldview as un-American.) Other players in this orbit include Martin Kramer, who at one time edited Pipes’ Middle East Quarterly and is now at the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Steven Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, a group founded in 2004 which describes itself as “a think tank that challenges the dominance of American Muslim life by militant Islamist groups.”
Stanford University historian and Middle East Studies expert Joel Beinin has lambasted the role of these “unsavory characters” in what he describes as a New McCarthyism targeting legitimate scholars in Middle East Studies. These efforts in turn work to elevate their work as the only truly accurate, pro-American, and pro-Israel take on Islam, terrorism, and foreign policy.
Beinin wrote in 2006 that
These views nonetheless have a hearing among Republican lawmakers and presidential aspirants. Despite being shunned at CPAC, Gaffney’s views are shared by Rep. Allen West (R-FL), chosen by CPAC to give its closing keynote address, an honor that in the past has been bestowed on Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Adding to his numerous inflammatory statements about Islam, West recently said that the values of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who is Muslim, are the “antithesis of the principles on which this country was established.”
West, whose position on the CPAC podium may have been motivated by the fact that he is one of just two black Republicans in Congress, has self-styled himself an expert on Islam, and insists “radical Islam” is the religion’s true nature. “This radical understanding of Islam has been around since 622 A.D. It is totalitarian, it is imperialistic in its designs,” he said shortly after he was elected to Congress last year.
In another example of the military-religious link in the anti-Islam crusade, West, who touts his belief in “Judeo-Christian values” and “American exceptionalism,” was fined by the US military in 2003 for his involvement in the use of “improper methods” to get information from an Iraqi detainee that military prosecutors said amounted to torture.
West appeared on Gaffney’s radio program and said that he hoped Congress would focus on the
In arguing for the necessity of his hearings, Rep. King has maintained without evidence that 80% of American mosques are run by radical imams, a claim also made by Emerson and others. By arguing that it’s the mosques that are radical, not most American Muslims, these conspiracy theorists use a sleight of hand that enables them to defend themselves against charges that they are wrongly smearing all American Muslims with a broad brush. It’s not the American Muslims themselves who are radical, they insist, it’s American Muslim organizations and mosques in America that are carrying out this secret plot in which ordinary American Muslims are either unwitting dupes or victims.
Yet they frequently slip from that defensive posture and make broad statements about Muslims. King told Gaffney on his radio program, for example, that American Muslims don’t “unite as Americans” in times of war.
Zuhdi Jasser, an Arizona physician whom conservatives frequently highlight as their example of a true “moderate” Muslim, and who will reportedly be a key witness for King, says in Gingrich’s movie, “if anyone wants to find a Muslim voice, you’re going to find that it appears monolithic.” He, like Gaffney, claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is enormously influential in the United States, and that its “common mission” is to “advance shari‘ah, to advance political Islam and the collectivism of a Muslim political movement in America that’s different from our Constitution and our Bill of Rights.”
In a video shown on the website of the Oak Initiative, a coalition of evangelical and charismatic clergy, Lt. General William G. “Jerry” Boykin (Ret.), declared:
We need to realize that Islam itself is not just a religion—it is a totalitarian way of life. It’s a legal system, shari'ah law; it’s a financial system; it’s a moral code; it’s a political system; it’s a military system. It should not be protected under the First Amendment, particularly given that those following the dictates of the Quran are under an obligation to destroy our Constitution and replace it with shari'ah law.
Boykin who, while serving in the Army was found by the Pentagon to have violated Department of Defense regulations for giving a speech in uniform in which he asserted that God placed then-President George W. Bush in office, that Muslims hate America, and that the military is recruiting a “spiritual army” to fight Islam, is a “Team Leader” for the Center for Security Policy’s “Sharia: The Threat To America.”
Gaffney’s deployment of his military man, Boykin, as “Team leader” is emblematic of how this crusade against Islam is religiously motivated for certain right-wing evangelical Christians. (Recent polling data indicates that white evangelicals are more likely than any other religious group to believe that shari‘ah is a threat to America.) Boykin, who worked during the Bush administration for the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, which authorized the use of torture against detainees, has been defended by Gaffney, who told the American Family Association’s news service in 2003 that Boykin “clearly put his finger on the truth when he said his God is bigger than the god of Islam. The Administration, he says, should not reprimand Boykin for telling the truth.” Never reprimanded, Boykin retired from the military in 2007. He recently told James Dobson on his radio program, “Islam is not a religion and does not deserve First Amendment protections.”
John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, which has featured Gaffney as a speaker at its conferences, has long agitated for US military intervention against what he insists is a nuclear-armed Iran bent on destroying Western civilization. Hagee wrote in a recent fundraising appeal,
After losing his Senate seat in 2006, Rick Santorum refashioned himself as an expert on terrorism and Islam as director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Program to Promote and Protect America’s Freedom. Santorum, who is considering a presidential run, depicts an American battle against radical Islam as a civilizational war against “Christendom.”
The theological warriors include Jewish groups as well.
CUFI has helped distribute Clarion Fund films, which include many of the central players in the sharia scare industry as “experts,” demonstrating how the symbiotic relationship between these mostly nonprofit organizations has helped fuel a climate of anti-Muslim hysteria. Tom Trento, a conservative Christian activist who founded the Florida Security Council, helped distribute Obsession in 2008. He likened the effort to “multi-level marketing.”
Clarion’s films have been exposed as anti-Muslim propaganda funded by conservative interests, though that has done little to interfere with their distribution and effect. Obsession, which was distributed to 28 million households in swing states just ahead of the 2008 election, was called “the protocols of the learned elders of Saudi Arabia” by Rabbi Jack Moline, the prominent Conservative leader of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. Obsession asserts that “radical Islam” is tied to Nazism, and that it is locked in a clash of civilizations with the West. The film, said Moline, “draws broad conclusions about a billion people without having a consultant with credentials in that community.”
The Third Jihad expanded on Obsession by making the claim that radical Islamists had infiltrated the United States with the aim of instituting shari‘ah law. On its website, the Clarion Fund claims, among other things, that “Sharia is an intolerant system that threatens the western ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” “prescribes cruel and unusual punishments,” and “promotes a restrictive business environment that strangles the freedoms of capitalism.”
ACT! (American Congress for Truth) launched the website Stop Shariah Now. Its founder, Brigitte Gabriel, has claimed that al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations supported Obama for president because, she insisted, he is Muslim. Gabriel, a frequent guest on Fox News and at Christian Zionist gatherings, has said, “every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim.” The Stop Shariah website maintains that examples of sharia law include beating of “disobedient” women and girls, execution of homosexuals, polygamy, forced child marriages, stoning and lashing of adulterers, and execution of apostates.
But Muslims, including the American Conservative Union board member Suhail Khan—who Gaffney insists is a secret Muslim Brotherhood agent—describe these practices as “pre-Islamic.” Salaymeh also described them as medieval, adding, “if you pick up a medieval text from any community, whether Roman, a Byzantine legal text, a Jewish legal text, or a Christian legal text, you are going to find similar punishments.”
One of the principal claims of the Islamophobic conspiracy theorists is that the Muslim Brotherhood, bent on establishing a worldwide theocracy governed by shari‘ah law, is the ideological and organizational godfather of all American Muslim groups. Dorrie O’Brien, a chapter head of ACT!, described a controversial speech she gave on the Brotherhood[T]he Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan, in Arabic) is active in the United States and their stated goal is to subvert the U.S., replace our Constitution with Sharia law, and establish a North American Caliphate here.
That was the entire point of the presentation, to make people aware of the Muslim Brotherhood’s (and all the little ikhwans, CAIR, MSA, ISNA, ICNA, etc.) activities and objectives. Anyone who wanted to turn my information into a broad-brush indictment of all American Muslims in the U.S. have their own agenda.
O’Brien is a Texas Republican Party delegate who was instrumental in getting a sponsor in the state Senate for an anti-shari’ah bill, as well as a plank in the party’s 2010 platform urging Congress and the Texas legislature to ban shari‘ah law,
This claim that the Muslim Brotherhood’s aim is a worldwide theocracy, and that all American Muslim organizations fall into lock-step with it, stems solely from a single 20-year-old document written by a single Brotherhood member in 1991. In the controversial terrorism financing trial of the Holy Land Foundation, which first resulted in a mistrial in 2007, and convictions in a 2008 re-trial, federal prosecutors introduced a document,
Gaffney and others have seized upon this document developing theories that the goal of “radical Islamists” is a global theocracy and that the Muslim Brotherhood lurks in every corner of America. GWU’s Brown, who testified in the first Holy Land Foundation trial, said, “Nobody has ever produced any evidence that the document was more than something produced by the daydream of one enthusiast.” Noting that he has been studying Palestinian, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, and Jordanian Brotherhood movements since 2005, Brown added, “Nothing in anything that I have heard has ever struck me as similar in tone or content to the ‘master plan.’”
Yet this single document has been used to create a mythology around a supposedly global plot. Brown, addressing the document, notes that
Based on the “explanatory memorandum” document identifying a number of American Muslim organizations as allies in its author’s aspirations, prosecutors in the Holy Land Foundation trial publicly labeled over 200 American Muslim organizations “unindicted co-conspirators,” a highly controversial move derided at the time by legal experts as contrary to Justice Department policy and in violation of the groups’ constitutional rights. Eventually, the court ruled, on the motion of three of the groups, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), that publicly identifying them as “unindicted co-conspirators” did violate their Fifth Amendment rights. That didn’t stop the National Review’s Andrew McCarthy—a former federal prosecutor himself—from falsely claiming at CPAC, “those people were all convicted” in the Holy Land Foundation trial.
In the shari‘ah scare industry, organizations like ISNA are depicted as having secret agendas and the ability to dupe their unwitting supporters. As an example, Stephen Schwartz, in a piece republished at Pipes’ Middle East Forum, maintained that ISNA’s recent past president Ingrid Mattson, has had a “career as a promoter of radical Islam.” Schwartz’s proof that Mattson is not a moderate Muslim: an interview with the Tulsa World, in which Schwartz claims “Mattson defined Sharia according to the sweeping definition put forward by Islamists: ‘Shariah means the sacred law, a whole set of approaches to living your life in a way that brings you closer to God.’”
The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, which, like many religious organizations including the Union for Reform Judaism, has worked with ISNA, said,
“Sharia is about power, not about faith,” Gaffney told an audience of mostly Congressional staffers at the Capitol Visitors’ Center last year, “If you actually can break the code that way, far from being entitled to the protections of our Constitution under the principle of freedom of religion, it is actually a seditious assault on our Constitution which we are obliged to prosecute, not protect.”
That Gaffney believes there is some sort of “code” that needs breaking to get at the imagined evil intent of a theological construct is illustrative of his conspiratorial mind; as though there’s a KGB for shari‘ah transmitting secret messages to the mosques of America.
The conspiracy theorists themselves draw parallels between the red scare of the Cold War era and the current shari’ah scare. Former CIA head Woolsey, who served on the same CPAC panel as McCarthy and is also a contributor to the CSP’s “Team B” report, said at CPAC that the goals of radical Islamists are “roughly parallel to communists in the ’50s and ’60s... We’re in a war with terrorists but that’s not the end. We’re at war with those who want to impose shari'ah, this is our toughest fight.”
It’s surely no accident, then, that President Obama (depicted on the right as a crypto-socialist and crypto-Muslim) is seen as being in league with this imaginary threat. At the Capitol Visitors Center event, David Yerushalmi, general counsel for the CSP—who has called for banning Muslims from America and written that whites are genetically superior to blacks—portrayed President Obama as an emissary to this world of secret codes and seditious intent, and his much-lauded religious freedom speech in Cairo as evidence of that. He said,
McCarthy, author of the books The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America and How Obama Embraces Islam’s Sharia Agenda, links both President Obama and the American left to this supposed plot, claiming that they share collectivist goals. He told Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism in 2010 that “Islamists” and “leftists” share totalitarian goals, “totalitarian in the sense that they want to control every aspect of the individual’s life, and [are] virulently opposed to capitalism and individual liberty,” adding that “even though they [Obama and Saudi King Abdullah] part company on the details of what they would transform it into, they both need to topple American constitutional republicanism in order to install their utopias.”
ACT!, along with several conservative websites, has promoted the conspiracy theory that Obama has “quietly” appointed people with Brotherhood ties to top positions in his administration in order to orchestrate uprisings in the Muslim world. According to this theory, American leftists are in cahoots with the Brotherhood through a “consortium of left-wing organizations, Islamic groups, labor unions, and Obama-friendly corporations which would organize and fund a ‘youth movement’ in certain areas around the Middle East which would then take to the streets in protest against current governments.”
McCarthy, who endeavors to portray every relationship as insidious, referred to ISNA as “the most important Islamist organization in the United States” at CPAC, adding: “in 2009, ISNA had its annual convention. Do you know who the keynote speaker was? [White House advisor] Valerie Jarrett.” The crowd sniggered knowingly.
Shortly after getting elected, West added his voice to this choir, saying:
“The threat of Sharia has even begun to strike in the United States,” reads a dire warning on the website RadicalIslam.org, maintained by the Clarion Fund. “Today you can find closed communities of Radical Muslims across the United States promoting Radical Islamic ideology and living under localized versions of Sharia.”
This view that shari'ah is a threat to the constitution, to capitalism, and to American liberty helps explain the rash of attempts to “ban” shari'ah in the states. Rep. Gerald Gay, the Wyoming legislator sponsoring a shari'ah law ban there, said, “I don’t want our laws having origins in other places, foreign religions or foreign countries.”
Members of Congress believe they need to “dig deeper” into this supposed phenomenon. “Our U.S. courts are increasingly facing cases where the defense invokes the adherence to Shari'ah law,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), a Colorado Springs-area congressman considered to be one of the most conservative in Congress, speaking at Gaffney’s Capitol Visitors’ Center event last November.
Lamborn and others conveniently ignore the fact that parties can choose what law applies to contractual disputes, and even choose alternative ways of resolving those disputes, such as mediation and arbitration, without running afoul of the Constitution. And in family law, other examples exist of religious law applying, such as the Orthodox Jewish requirement that a divorce be obtained only through a get. But when it comes to Islam, Lamborn sees a threat, and calls for Congress to “start digging deeper into understanding Shari'ah law.”
King’s opening hearing on Thursday will likely the beginning of that effort, not the end. Although King, under pressure, may not feature the most incendiary of the shari'ah scare rhetoric, as the recent anti-Muslim diatribe caught on tape in Orange County demonstrates, it has already become part of the conservative political culture.