Islamophobia Inc.

November 15, 2010

Nicole Colson documents the big business of spreading anti-Muslim hate and lies.

"STEVEN EMERSON has 3,390,000 reasons to fear Muslims."

So begins a stunning investigative report from Tennessean newspaper journalist Bob Smietana on the business of Islamophobia--a multimillion-dollar industry that profits from promoting fear of Arabs and Muslims as part of the U.S. "war on terror."

As Smietana reports, Steve Emerson is the owner of SAE Productions--a company that took in $3,390,000 in 2008 alone "for researching alleged ties between American Muslims and overseas terrorism. The payment came from the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, a nonprofit charity Emerson also founded, which solicits money by telling donors they're in imminent danger from Muslims."

And Emerson isn't alone.

In the years since September 11, an entire Islamophobia industry has sprung up, similar in many ways to the anti-Communist politicians, "experts" and foundations which warned America about the creeping "Red menace" during the Cold War.

The Islamophobes are sounding the alarm about the "Muslim menace" that they claim is threatening the Western, "civilized" world. According to them, every new mosque built in the U.S. is an invitation to jihad and the imposition of sharia law in the U.S.--because Islam is, at heart, a violent, terrorist-producing religion.

Anti-Muslim protesters demonstrate against the proposed Islamic cultural center in New York City
Anti-Muslim protesters demonstrate against the proposed Islamic cultural center in New York City

And to get the message out, they've spawned a host of poorly researched and virulently racist--but apparently very profitable--books, Web sites and speaking tours.

Smietana cites people like Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan-era deputy assistant defense secretary and now head of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Security Policy, which paid him a $288,300 salary in 2008.

One project of Gaffney's "charity" is to warn about the supposed dangers of Islam.

Gaffney recently testified in a lawsuit brought by residents of Rutherford County, Tenn., against a proposed mosque in Murfreesboro. As Smietana describes, "On the stand...[Gaffney] accused local mosque leaders of having ties to terrorism, using ties to Middle Eastern universities and politics as evidence. His main source of information was his own report on sharia law as a threat to America, one he wrote with other self-proclaimed experts. But, under oath, he admitted he is not an expert in sharia law."

BUSINESS IS booming for the Islamophobia industry. Some examples, according to Smietana: "IRS filings from 2008 show that Robert Spencer, who runs the blog, earned $132,537 from the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative nonprofit. Brigitte Tudor, who runs the anti-Islam groups ACT! For America and the American Congress for Truth, earned $152,810, while her colleague Guy Rogers collected $154,900."

Smietana also cites another opponent of the proposed Murfreesboro mosque, a man named Bill French, who runs the Center for the Study of Political Islam.

The benign title, however, obscures the fact that French is a former Tennessee State University physics professor with no actual credentials in the study of religions, political science or anything else remotely related to Islam. But like many others looking to profit off of their bigotry, his personal ignorance about the subject hasn't stopped him from writing a book about Islam--which he penned under the name "Bill Warner" and sells at speaking events.

The book, Sharia Law for Non-Muslims, is a screed full of racist distortions and half-truths about Islam that warns ominously:

When you study Islam in Europe today, you are seeing America in 20 years. Why? The actions by Muslims in Europe are based on sharia law, the same sharia law that is beginning to be implemented in America today.

Traffic cannot move in London streets as Muslims commandeer the streets to pray--a political result based on sharia law.

Entire areas of Europe are no-go zones for non-Muslims, this includes the police. These are Islamic enclaves where only Muslims live. The Muslim-only policy is based on sharia.

In England, an Anglican bishop calls for the rule of Islamic law for Muslims. The bishop is obeying sharia law.

In the schools, only Islamic approved texts can be used. This is based on sharia law.

Christians may not speak to Muslims about Christianity, nor may they hand out literature. This is a political result based on sharia law enforced by British courts.

Rape by Muslims is so prevalent that Sweden has forbidden the police to collect any data in the investigation that would point to Islam. Rape is part of Islamic doctrine as applied to non-Muslim women.

In London, mass demonstrations by Muslims call for the end of British law and sharia law to rule all people. This political action is based on sharia.

In some English hospitals, during Ramadan fast (an Islamic religious event) non-Muslims cannot eat where a Muslim can see them. The submission of non-Muslims is based on sharia law.

Of course, each of these supposed facts is an unhinged lie. But taken together French/Warner's rhetoric is disturbingly reminiscent of that used by Ku Klux Klan or Nazi groups to demonize other races and religions.

In contrast to the bigoted descriptions of people like French/Warner, "sharia" is not a uniform concept--it varies based on the type of Islam practiced, as well as the country and culture in which it is practiced. As Akbar Muhammad, an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University in New York, explained to NewsHour,

The word "sharia" is the term given to define the collectivity of laws that Muslims govern themselves by. And there is a presumption that these laws recognize all of the specific laws mentioned in the Koran and in the practice of the prophet, and do not conflict with that...

Islam is a very flexible system, and it has been very flexible for centuries. What I mean by that is that differences of opinion have been accepted within Islam and given legitimacy by some of the highest authorities in Islam. Thus in certain areas of the sharia, one country may differ from another country. One community may differ from another community, even in the same country...

Islamic law is not one thing. It's not monolithic, as American law is not monolithic, as Western law is not monolithic.

But French didn't let such facts get in the way during a speech to opponents of the proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, where he told an assembled crowd of 80 that sharia law is a threat to their way of life, including their American flags (which, he claimed "offend Allah").

FRENCH CERTAINLY isn't the only self-described "experts" on Islam who spouts nothing but distortions and lies.

There's Pamela Geller, a leading opponent of the Park51 Islamic community center project in lower Manhattan (misnamed the "Ground Zero mosque") and founder of "Stop Islamization of America," who has stated her approval for fascists like the English Defense League and dead South African white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche. Another is anti-Muslim blogger Debbie Schlussel, who in May accused the Miss USA contestant Rima Fakih--an American Muslim of Lebanese descent--of supporting terrorism because she shares her last name with some Hezbollah officials.

As Frankie Martin, a research fellow at American University's School of International Service, recently wrote in the Washington Post, there is now an "infrastructure" of anti-Muslim hate in the U.S.:

Much of this bigotry and misinformation can be traced directly to what I am calling the infrastructure of hate, an industry which connects venomous anti-Islamic blogs, wealthy donors, powerful think tanks, and influential media commentators, journalists and politicians. The most visible component of the infrastructure is the hate blogs, which have recently grown exponentially in number, influence and stature...

To the hate bloggers, the world's 1.5 billion Muslims represent an insidious, inherently violent force seeking to enslave the United States by overthrowing the government and jettisoning the Constitution in favor of sharia law.

Frequently the bloggers include caveats, such as claiming that they are only talking about "Islamists," "Islamofascists," or those supporting "sharia," but by tying terrorism explicitly to the Prophet Muhammad and to the Koran, they equate it with Islam. Under this simplistic, warped logic, every Muslim is a potential, if not-fully formed, terrorist and every one of America's 7 million Muslims a potentially treasonous enemy. Such crass, demonizing generalizations constitute hate speech.

What is especially disturbing, however, is that these fringe voices have been given an increasingly wide hearing by politicians and the media, especially in connection with the Tea Party phenomenon, which has frequently embraced Islamophobia alongside its conservative "small government" mantra.

Some examples: Sarah Palin and other prominent Republicans were some of the loudest voices speaking out against the Park51 project. And in September, for example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned conservatives at the Values Voter Summit in Washington about the supposed growing threat of sharia law, saying, "We should have a federal law that says under no circumstances in any jurisdiction in the United States will Sharia [law] be used in any court to apply to any judgment made about American law."

Not surprisingly, media commentators--particularly those from the Fox News stable--have let loose with anti-Islam racism on the air as well, often with zero consequences. Fox and Friends host Brian Kilmeade, for example, recently stated on air, "It wasn't just one person [that attacked the U.S. on 9/11], it was one religion. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims."

That, of course, would be news to the families of the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by right-winger Timothy McVeigh, or family members of slain abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, assassinated at his church by anti-abortion maniac Scott Roeder; or the victims in bombings of abortion clinics, a gay bar and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, all carried out by Eric Robert Rudolph of the "Christian Identity" movement.

One of the most recent waves of anti-Islam bigotry came in defense of journalist Juan Williams, who was fired by National Public Radio after an appearance on Fox's The O'Reilly Factor, during which he said, "[W]hen I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried."

Unfortunately, many people who aren't right-wingers also defended Williams, claiming that his comments were "misconstrued" or that that he was a victim of "political correctness run amok."

But Williams made his statements in his role as a "liberal" counterpoint to right-wing blowhard Bill O'Reilly, who earlier in the week had claimed on national television that "Muslims killed us on 9/11." In that context, Williams' talking about his "fear" of people dressed in Islamic garb at airports played to a slightly more "acceptable" form of racism--but it was racism nonetheless.

Imagine if Williams' target had been different--if he had said, for example, that being around Orthodox Jews made him "uncomfortable." He would labeled an anti-Semite, even if he admitted to his racism with a slightly apologetic tone.

IF LEFT unchallenged, Islamophobia has real consequences.

Days after Williams' remarks, for example, a Muslim family was removed from a plane at Memphis International Airport, in a case of what's become known as "flying while Muslim." "My understanding is they were dressed in attire that would indicate some Muslim-type religion," airport vice president Scott Brockman explained to a reporter. The family was subjected to interrogation by the FBI before being placed on a later flight.

Such stories are brushed aside by those in the Islamophobia business, with conservatives claiming that "America has a right to protect itself" and that racial profiling of Muslims is warranted because "they attacked us" and "want to destroy our way of life."

From the planned "Burn a Koran Day" by Christian conservatives in Florida earlier this year, to protests against the misnamed "Ground Zero mosque," to the recent ballot measure to "ban" sharia law passed by Oklahoma voters, such actions pave the way for real violence against Arabs and Muslims. Recent months have seen the stabbing of a taxi driver in New York City after he was asked if he was Muslim; a drunk man walking into a New York City mosque and urinating on the prayer rugs; and the vandalizing of a mosque in California--first with signs expressing Islamophobic bigotry; and second time with a rock was thrown through a window.

Bob Smietana's Tennessean report was sparked in part by the furor over the proposed mosque in Murfreesboro and a series of disturbing racist attacks against Muslim residents of the area.

The proposed Islamic center site in Murfreesboro has had at least one arson attack on construction equipment, and the Al-Farooq Islamic Center in nearby Nashville was vandalized with red spray paint reading: "Muslims go home" and images of crosses. In Columbia, Tenn., an Islamic center was burned to the ground two years ago by men who also spray-painted swastikas on the site, along with the phrases "White Power" and "We run the world."

As Smietana notes, the economic crisis has intensified anti-Islam sentiment in Tennessee. Unemployment in Rutherford County, which contains Murfreesboro, has doubled in the past four years. It now stands at 8.6 percent, more than twice what it was in 2006. As Smietana writes:

When revenue for state and local budgets shrinks, immigrants become a target--especially their perceived toll on education and health-care systems. And non-Christian immigrants often bear the brunt, said Katharine Donato, chair of the sociology department at Vanderbilt.

Chinese immigrants were considered un-American because they were not Christians, while Catholics were ostracized for being the wrong kind of Christians. Today, Muslims are seen as part of the problem.

But most people who dislike Muslims don't describe their reasons so eloquently, or maybe don't even understand the reasons. Retired Murfreesboro resident Jerry Paschal does it in one sentence: "They don't want to be us."

Despite this, there are encouraging signs of people rallying to the defense of Muslims in the area. According to a poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University, 76 percent of Tennesseans said U.S. Muslims deserve the same rights as other Americans, and about the same proportion either support or would not oppose construction of an Islamic facility in Murfreesboro or near where they live.

In other words, the anti-Islam bigots represent a small but vocal and well-funded minority--a minority whose reactionary views can be pushed back.

According to the Associated Press, "Other faiths have risen to the defense of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. The newly formed Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, which is composed of prominent Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Southern Baptists and other Protestants, has filed a brief in the [court] case."

As Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical megachurch pastor and coalition member, explained, "Every minority--and Islam is very much a minority in this country right now--has had to struggle for equal rights. Islam is facing that now, and we will not rest until they have equal rights with other religions."

Further Reading

From the archives