An Islamophobic progressive?

December 8, 2016

Ashley Smith investigates the politics and record of one of Bernie Sanders' best-known supporters--and unmasks an anti-Muslim bigot and pro-war reactionary.

U.S. REP. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has again catapulted herself into the national spotlight by joining the mobilization of veterans to Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with the water protectors against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

This act of solidarity seems to go with other pieces of evidence that mark her as a progressive: her resignation as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee over the rigging of the Democratic primaries for Hillary Clinton; her endorsement of Bernie Sanders' left-wing primary campaign; her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic agreement.

Yet many liberals were befuddled by Gabbard's decision, just before going to Standing Rock, to interview with Donald Trump, apparently in the hopes of securing an appointment to his administration. CNN reported last month that the bigoted billionaire president-elect is considering her for positions in "the Defense Department, State Department and the United Nations."

Even more disturbing, The Hill reports that Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist and former head of the hard-right Breitbart News, set up Gabbard's job interview. The Hill quoted sources saying that Bannon "loves Tulsi Gabbard. Loves her. Wants to work with her on everything. She would fit perfectly too [inside the administration]. She gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff."

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard speaks at a union-sponsored lunch
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard speaks at a union-sponsored lunch (AFGE)

This isn't a bizarre exception, either. Gabbard's long association with right-wingers led the Washington Post to dub her the "Democrat that the Republicans love and the DNC can't control."

Realizing that a photo op with Trump might tarnish her progressive credentials, Gabbard issued a statement saying she was only meeting with the Trump administration to warn the president-elect following the last Republican administration's neoconservative policy of regime change in the Middle East. Gabbard said in a statement:

For years, the issue of ending interventionist, regime change warfare has been one of my top priorities. This was the major reason I ran for Congress--I saw firsthand the cost of war, and the lives lost due to the interventionist warmongering policies our country has pursued for far too long. Let me be clear, I will never allow partisanship to undermine our national security when the lives of countless people lay in the balance.

But this double talk doesn't resolve the glaring contradictions between Gabbard's liberal reputation and her actual record. Who is the real Tulsi Gabbard? Is she a progressive, an opportunist--or a wolf in sheep's clothing?

IT WOULD be easy to dismiss Gabbard's interview with Trump as just another example of the Democratic Party's appeasement of the president-elect.

From Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, to supposed liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren and down through the ranks, leading Democrats have gone out of their way to say they will give Trump a chance. Their behavior proves they are more concerned with the stability of the two-party system than with resisting Trump's reactionary agenda.

But Gabbard's political project is more disturbing than the usual opportunist behavior of a cynical and calculating politician. It flows from her commitment to Hindu fundamentalism. Gabbard is a devotee of the Hindu sect Gaudiya Vaishnavism and apparently a follower of a splinter group from the Hare Krishnas.

Like anyone else, Gabbard's religious affiliations, in and of themselves, should not be the subject of criticism. But in her case, they are connected to reactionary political positions. Thus, Gabbard has expressed deeply homophobic sentiments in common with the religious doctrine she embraces. Gabbard only recently disavowed her previous anti-LGBT bigotry when she decided to run for Congress in one of Hawaii's most liberal districts.

But while Gabbard may have ditched homophobia on the road to Washington, she has doubled down on Islamophobia.

Her prejudice against Islam directly flows from her Hindu fundamentalism. Gabbard has become one of the main U.S. political advocates of Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu sectarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the current prime minister of India.

While chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, Modi helped ignite a pogrom against Muslims that killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000 in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Since his national victory in the 2014 election, Modi has implemented a Hindu fundamentalist program to deflect blame for his neoliberal assault onto Muslim scapegoats.

At Modi's invitation, Gabbard toured India for three weeks, during which various Hindu fundamentalists welcomed her as their American champion. In perhaps the foulest episode of the tour, the India Foundation, a formation aligned with the Hindu fascist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), hosted Gabbard for a discussion on the future of India-American relations. After the reactionary lovefest, India's Telegraph newspaper dubbed her "Sangh's American Mascot"

Back in the U.S. Gabbard defended Modi against any and all criticism. She was one of the few Democrats who spoke against the federal government's decision to deny Modi a visa in 2014 because of his suppression of religious freedom.

A year earlier, she waged a successful campaign to scuttle legislation calling on India to improve its treatment of religious minorities. Gabbard denounced the bill as an attempt "to influence the outcome of India's national elections."

Once Modi was elected, Gabbard threw herself into advocating for him to visit the U.S. When Obama capitulated and granted his Modi's request, Gabbard helped organize his tour, culminating in his address before Congress.

Overjoyed at Gabbard's loyal service, the Overseas Friends of BJP invited her as a featured speaker at their conference in Atlanta. She proudly wore a sash emblazoned with the BJP logo. In turn, BJP supporters showered her with campaign contributions.

GABBARD'S SERVICE to the most right-wing forces in Indian politics notwithstanding, there can be no doubt about her vile Islamophobia.

Breaking ranks with the Obama administration and most Democrats, Gabbard endorsed Donald Trump's claim that Islam itself is the source of terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS. She ranted that Obama "is completely missing the point of this radical Islamic ideology that's fueling these people."

Gabbard has tried to obstruct Muslim immigrants and refugees from coming to the U.S. She backed a Republican bill, opposed by the White House, which would have made it all but impossible Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. In 2014, she called for restrictions on visa waivers for people from European countries with "Islamic extremist" populations.

Unsurprisingly, like other leading liberal Democrats, Gabbard's supposed progressive values don't extend to the Palestinian freedom struggle. While she may support the Native American resistance in Standing Rock, she won't back the indigenous population of Palestine and its struggle for self-determination against Israeli colonialism.

Gabbard went so far as to co-sponsor a congressional resolution criticizing Amnesty International for exposing Israeli atrocities against civilians in its 2014 blitzkrieg in Gaza. In a flight of counter-factual fantasy, the resolution claimed that Israel "focused on terrorist targets" and "goes to extraordinary lengths to target only terrorist actors."

Gabbard's Zionism and Islamophobia have won her acclaim and support from all sorts of unsavory characters--like right-wing billionaire and Zionist Sheldon Adelson, who infamously declared that "all Muslims are terrorists."

In addition to loyally defending Israel, Gabbard has also proved a reliable servant of Adelson's business interests. She introduced legislation against online gambling to protect his casino empire against Internet competition. Adelson thanked her by giving her the Champion of Freedom award at a celebration he sponsored in New York last May.

Soon after being toasted by Adelson, Gabbard, in an act of head-spinning hypocrisy, flew off to California to rail against the rich at a campaign rally for Bernie Sanders' left-wing campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

GABBARD'S UNRELENTING Islamophobia compromises any claim she makes to be an antiwar politician. She does oppose the neoconservative strategy of regime change put forward by the Bush administration hawks, but so do a lot of liberals and conservatives alike--because it failed to achieve much regime change and succeeded mostly in curbing the reach of the American empire.

In reality, Gabbard doesn't oppose American warmongering, let alone American imperialism. She supports the "war on terror," even if that means backing reactionary dictatorships that oppress their populations.

In Syria, for example, Gabbard supports the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, despite its manifest crimes against the Syrian people. She was the only Democrat and just one of three members of Congress to vote against a resolution criticizing Assad for his crimes against the civilian population. Gabbard made it clear that democracy comes second when she declared, "If Assad is removed and overthrown, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Al Nusra, these Islamic extremist groups will walk straight in and take over all of Syria...they will be even stronger."

As an alternative, Gabbard supports Trump's policy of forging an alliance, however unsavory, with Russia and Assad to impose order in the country. After her meeting with Trump, she wrote that the U.S. should focus on "defeating al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups who pose a threat to the American people."

No wonder Syrian revolutionaries and humanitarians have condemned Gabbard. Riad Alarian rightly declared that "those who support the Syrian people's right for dignity and freedom have every right to call Gabbard exactly what she once called Trump: ignorant, bigoted, and arrogant."

Gabbard doesn't deserve her reputation as a progressive--though, frankly, that term is so vague and therefore meaningless that even Hillary Clinton could lay claim to it. She isn't just an opportunist, either, pleasing everyone from Adelson to Sanders on her self-promoting road to higher and higher political office.

Gabbard ought to be regarded on the left as a bigoted wolf in sheep's clothing.

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