The anti-Muslim scapegoaters

Gary Lapon documents the outrages of the right-wing forces behind the rising tide of Islamophobia--and points to the alternative that challenges the bigots.

Anti-Muslim bigots harass attendees of a charity fundraiser at a community center in Yorba Linda, Calif.Anti-Muslim bigots harass attendees of a charity fundraiser at a community center in Yorba Linda, Calif.

SOCIAL CRISES have the potential to lead to radicalization and political action to change society. This potential has been on display since the beginning of the year in the actions of ordinary people in North Africa and the Middle East--and in the American Midwest--who shed their fear and stood together for democracy and for social and economic justice.

But there are also those who seek to exploit economic and social uncertainty to spread a message of hate and fear, aimed at sowing division. This scapegoating was on full, hideous display last month at an anti-Muslim rally in Yorba Linda, Calif., outside a charity event sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America to raise money for women's and homeless shelters. The right-wing rally was captured on film by the California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The demonstration was organized by various Tea Party groups, a right-wing rabbi from the area and Pamela Geller, whose organization "Stop Islamization of America" (SIOA) is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. The event was an exhibition of bigotry reminiscent of the white Southern reaction to the civil rights movement. As liberal journalist Max Blumenthal wrote:

I could not help but think of Elizabeth Eckford, the African-American student who was forced to walk through a phalanx of violent white racists chanting "Lynch her! Lynch her!" during the federal government's first attempt to integrate Little Rock Central High School. This iconic image was immediately recalled by the video of Muslim-American children walking through a crowd of protesters calling them terrorists, threatening them and chanting "Go home!" as they proceeded toward a local community center for a charity event.

Eckford was badly scarred by her experience; the trauma affected her life for decades. I wonder how the children who had to be marched through the gauntlet of racists in Yorba Linda will remember their experience.

The anti-Muslim protesters were not simply from the far-right fringes of society--they included politicians such as Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Deborah Pauly, a Villa Park, Calif., councilwoman.

Pauly fired up the crowd with these words: "[W]hat's going on over there right now? Make no bones about it. That is pure, unadulterated evil. I don't even care, I don't even care if you think I'm crazy anymore. Because I have...a beautiful daughter. I have a wonderful 19-year-old son who is a United States Marine. As a matter of fact, I know quite a few Marines who will be willing to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise."

After these speeches worked the crowd into frenzy, protesters gathered near the entrance to the event, screaming, "Go home," "Terrorists" and "We don't want you here"--while families, including small children, walked past. Protesters hurled the vilest slurs, including one woman who yelled, "You beat your women and you rape your children."

As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote:

I think what was most striking about that video is that the presence of small children didn't give these anti-Muslim protesters even momentary pause; they just continued screeching their ugly invective while staring at 4-year-olds walking with their parents. People like that are so overflowing with hatred and resentments that the place where their humanity--their soul--is supposed to be has been drowned.

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LESS THAN a month after the Orange County hate rally, two Sikh men, 67-year-old Surinder Singh and 78-year-old Gurmej Atwal, were shot as they walked in their Sacramento, Calif., neighborhood. Singh died on the spot, and Atwal remains in critical condition. With no other known motive, the shooting has all of the markings of a hate crime, as both men wore traditional turbans and beards when they were fired on by a man driving a pickup truck.

"In the wake of September 11," Julianne Hing wrote in an article for Colorlines, "Sikhs, who are often mistaken for Muslims, have dealt with a rise in hate crimes and assaults, racial profiling and bullying...According to a Sikh Coalition report released last December, one out of every 10 Sikh-Americans in the Bay Area report being the victim of a hate crime."

Whether or not the shooter was directly inspired by the Orange County rally, hate crimes targeting Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim are the result of acceptance of Islamophobia in the mainstream of American discourse. The rhetoric and policies of political leaders--from both main parties--have prepared the ground for the hate.

Since 9/11, Muslims have endured racial profiling, harassment, indefinite detention and even torture at the hands of government agencies. Many of these policies, such as those outlined in the Patriot Act, received a bipartisan stamp of approval.

Since Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, he has continued most of the Bush-era policies in the realm of civil liberties, including indefinite detention and keeping the Guantánamo Bay prison camp open, in spite of his specific promise to close it. The Obama administration has refused point-blank to pursue prosecutions of Bush-era officials for sanctioning torture and other war crimes.

Sadly, this bipartisan complicity has silenced many former Democratic champions of civil liberties who criticized such policies when Bush was in charge, but who have remained quiet after Obama took ownership of Bush's wars and illegal prisons.

Last summer, when right-wingers like Geller whipped up a hysteria over the proposed Park51 Islamic community center in lower Manhattan--misnamed the "ground zero mosque"--Democrats like Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not only didn't challenge the hate, but added fuel to the fire. Reid called for the center to "be built someplace else." Obama initially offered verbal support, but the next day backtracked to say that while he supported the right to build the center, he wouldn't comment on "the wisdom" of doing so.

These government policies and the accompanying rhetoric from politicians send the message that Muslims are a threat to U.S. society. The mainstreaming of Islamophobia is the domestic front of the U.S. "war on terror," intended to justify and bolster support for the U.S. wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, military attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, and support for unsavory regimes in the Middle East such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the late Mubarak dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media, especially the 24-hour cable news networks such as Fox and CNN, have provided sensational coverage stoking fears of "homegrown terrorism," presenting Muslims as potential "enemies within our midst," a lie reminiscent of Nazi propaganda about Jews or Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt against Communists and gays during the 1950s.

There are some exceptions in the mainstream media, such as Chris Matthews Keith Olbermann, and the Daily Show's Jon Stewart has made outspoken criticisms of Islamophobia. Nevertheless, far-right Islamophobes like Pamela Geller have gotten access to the national media to spread their message.

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THE SCAPEGOATING of Muslims reached a new low with Republican Rep. Peter King's congressional hearing earlier this month.

Starting with its disgusting title "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response," King and his fellow Republicans used the hearing not only to stoke Islamophobia, but to attack those who oppose it. The Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group CAIR was targeted specifically. Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf declared, "I'm...concerned about its role attacking the reputation of any who dare to raise concerns about domestic radicalization."

Not only is Islamophobia increasingly acceptable in the mainstream, but simultaneously, it has become unacceptable to criticize groups like the Tea Partiers for their bigotry. The case of National Public Radio (NPR) executive Ron Schiller is a perfect illustration--both he and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) left the radio network after he called the Tea Party movement "Islamophobic" and "racist" in a private meeting caught on hidden camera by right-wingers posing as potential donors.

The incident was also a perfect illustration of the cowardice of liberals in the face of the right's attack--NPR immediately went into full-scale retreat mode, and prominent on-air personalities released a letter apologizing for what is a perfectly accurate description of the Tea Party--remember, the NPR "scandal" happened after the release of the video of the anti-Muslim rally in Yorba Linda.

Watchdog groups that monitor hate crimes say that violent attacks on Muslims have been on the rise over the past year, including several cases of attempted arson and bombings at mosques across the country. In this climate, the possibility for a more organized and violent Islamophobic right wing to emerge is very real.

Pamela Geller is a case in point. Her organization Stop Islamization of America has fostered ties between Tea Party groups and the English Defense League (EDL), a violent far-right group in Britain that specializes in anti-Muslim slander and violence.

The EDL, whose leadership includes members of the fascist British National Party, regularly mobilizes hundreds and sometimes thousands of angry, often drunken young men to rampage through Muslim neighborhoods. In an undercover report, the Guardian summarized, "The EDL claims it is a peaceful and non-racist organization only concerned with protesting against 'militant Islam.' However, over the last four months, the Guardian has attended its demonstrations and witnessed racism, violence and virulent Islamophobia."

This was the organization that Geller invited to participate in the rally last fall against the Park51 community center in lower Manhattan. She has since established further collaboration with the EDL, whom she defends against accusations of racism and Islamophobia.

As Devin Burghart of the Kansas-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights told the Guardian: "Geller is acting as the bridge between the EDL and the Tea Party. She plays an important role in bringing Islamophobia into the Tea Party. Her stature has increased substantially inside the Tea Party ranks after the Ground Zero mosque controversy."

Any attempt to bring the racist street-fighting tactics of the EDL to the U.S. and channel the bigotry behind the recent string of anti-Muslim hate crimes and rallies into a more organized force must be met with firm and organized resistance from the left in the U.S.

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FORTUNATELY, THE rising tide of Islamophobia in the U.S. has not gone unchallenged. Last summer, activists in Murfreesboro, Tenn., organized hundreds to defend a mosque from a right-wing campaign against it. And last fall, New York activists organized counter-mobilizations against the anti-Park51 rallies of the right--to the point that those in solidarity with Muslims outnumbered Geller and the Tea Party bigots. More recently, demonstrators in New York confronted Peter King over this anti-Muslim hearings.

Not only did these counter-protests challenge the prevailing Islamophobia in the media and U.S. politics, but the revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East have provided further evidence that most people don't accept the lies of the anti-Muslim bigots.

During the revolution in Egypt, a Gallup poll concluded that 82 percent of Americans were sympathetic with the mass protests, and more than two-thirds of people were following events in Egypt "very" or "somewhat closely." That sense of solidarity was evident on the streets of Madison, Wis., in the demonstrations against Gov. Scott Walker's assault on public-sector unions--demonstrators carried signs that read "Protest like an Egyptian" and celebrated the messages of solidarity sent from Cairo.

Not only do the pro-democracy uprisings in the majority-Muslim Arab world shatter the myth that Islam "isn't compatible with democracy," but the solidarity between Egyptians and protesters in Wisconsin highlights how struggle can break down divisions fostered by those in power--and reveal the common interests of working people across the world.

The U.S. government spends hundreds of billions of dollars per year to wage war in the Muslim world--a sum that could easily cover all the state government deficits being used as a pretext to attack union rights and wages and benefits for public-sector workers, not to mention be used to promote economic and political equality in the countries the U.S. bombs and occupies.

Islamophobia is a central component of justifying U.S. wars abroad and the vast sums spent to wage them. Challenging the lies and bigotry against Muslims is essential to any campaign to end America's wars and to meet the needs of working people at home.