It is one of the least plausible conspiracy theories to ever take hold in the political mainstream: Muslim operatives, placed in sensitive positions throughout U.S. society, are engineering a complex plot to take over the United States, topple the Constitution, and force the country into a gigantic caliphate that will be ruled under brutal Shariah law that punishes religious transgressions with death.
But as silly as it is, this theory and variations of it have gained traction across the United States, driving new laws and new fears and providing fodder for politicians and others willing to ignore reality in order to boost their image as defenders of a beleaguered population. Leading the charge, Oklahoma last year passed a law to ban the use of Islamic religious law in state courts — even though that is not possible under the Constitution except in certain civil cases involving contracts. Tennessee and Louisiana followed suit, and a dozen other states are considering similar laws.
Now, the fury directed at Muslims is spreading further.
A wave of fury has been directed at Muslims since controversy erupted last year over a planned Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan.
CAROL GUZY/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES
In case after case, extremist groups with other primary targets — in particular, religious-right groups focused on the alleged evils of gay men and lesbians, and nativist groups who see immigrants as the chief threat facing our nation — have widened their focus in recent months to include the supposed Muslim menace. While some of this is doubtless due to these groups’ perceptions of a real threat, it may also be part of a cynical attempt to remain politically relevant and financially solvent.
The first wave of anti-Muslim rage that swept over this country came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, for reasons that are obvious. But that ended quickly, as hate crime statistics show, largely because then-President Bush repeatedly gave speeches emphasizing that Muslims were not our enemy — only Al Qaeda was.
The current wave of hysteria is different. It caught fire last year, propelled by professional rabble-rousers like Pamela Geller and opportunistic politicians like Newt Gingrich (right) who raised a storm over Park51, an Islamic center planned for lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. It has leaked into state politics around the country, showing a remarkable resilience even as expert after expert points out that while there is undoubtedly a real threat from radical Islamists, it is routinely and wildly exaggerated.
The nightmarish vision of an overarching Muslim threat has deep roots, most obviously in Al Qaeda’s mass murder of some 3,000 Americans in 2001. But it also connects powerfully to fears among many conservatives that the nation’s first black president — whose grandfather converted to Islam — is not really Christian at all, but a secret Muslim bent on subjugating this country and its citizens.
Expanding the Franchise
The Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), which improbably claims to represent 43,000 churches, has long been one of the nastier groups targeting LGBT people as threats to Christian morality and the family. It has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for most of the last decade because of its routine use of provably false propaganda in its efforts to defame gay men and lesbians.
But this April, TVC dipped into new waters, launching an anti-Shariah campaign tied to an appeal for donations. In a mass mailing entitled “Should Islamic Law (Shariah) Be Allowed in America?,” TVC President Andrea Lafferty (right) wrote that Shariah “is the biggest threat to our nation we’ve ever faced! I know first hand. For over five years I have studied, investigated and infiltrated the secretive world of Islam and the growing influence of Shariah law in America.” Lafferty did not explain how a blonde white woman “infiltrated the secretive world” she described.
The Christian Action Network (CAN) is a group also focused on bashing gay men and lesbians. In 2005, for example, after actress Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on her popular sitcom, CAN President Martin Mawyer warned, “If we allow the tidal wave of gay and lesbian smut to continue to pour into our homes, it will utterly consume us in no time at all!”
By 2009, however, CAN was showing interest in the issue of radical Islam, producing a “documentary” called “Homegrown Jihad: The Terrorist Camps Around the U.S.” that claimed there were three dozen such camps on American soil. And that interest has only expanded as Americans grew more receptive. CAN recently announced a “Counter-Jihad Summit” for this August, saying, “Our public schools are sneaking into their curricula pro-Islamic teachings that actually promote Sharia law. An entire generation of our children is being brainwashed!” (The similarity between this claim and anti-gay groups’ claims about gays is hard to miss.)
The American Family Association (AFA), also listed by the SPLC as an anti-gay hate group, isknown chiefly for the unbelievably vituperative attacks on LGBT people by its chief spokesman, Bryan Fischer (right). But by last August, at the height of the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York, Fischer had enthusiastically joined in on the Muslim-bashing. “Muslims cannot claim religious freedom protections under the First Amendment,” he wrote then. “They are currently using First Amendment freedoms to make plans to destroy the First Amendment altogether. There is no such thing as freedom of religion in Islam, and it is sheer and utter folly for Americans to delude themselves into thinking otherwise.”
Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones was jailed briefly in Dearborn, Mich., before holding an anti-Muslim protest.
ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ/THE ARMARILLO GLOBE NEWS/AP IMAGES
Terry Jones, pastor of the tiny Gainesville, Fla., church known as Dove World Outreach Center, was another one who jumped on the anti-Muslim bandwagon as protests against the New York Islamic center heated up last summer. Up to that point, Jones had been known for his schoolyard-style attacks on “homos,” especially a particular candidate for mayor of his city. But as the New York situation began to get national publicity, Jones announced plans to burn a Koran on the anniversary of Sept. 11 — an idea he backed off from only after personal pleas from several leading officials of the Obama Administration. But this spring he decided to go ahead anyway, and burned a Koran. Mobs in Afghanistan reacted with fury, killing 20 people.
Anti-immigrant groups that previously said little or nothing about Muslims have also joined in. The best example of that came last December, when The Social Contract — a racist journal published by John Tanton, the country’s leading nativist ideologue — published a special issue entitled “The Menace of Islam.” K.C. McAlpin, who heads Tanton’s funding arm, U.S. Inc., argued separately that religious discrimination is an effective and laudable national security tool. “We contend that it is not ‘religious bigotry’ to defend oneself, or one’s family and community, from people who profess a particular religion, and whose adherents have repeatedly tried to attack and murder you in the name of their God,” he wrote. “A ban on immigration of the entire class of such people is a rational self-defense measure when it is impossible to distinguish between those members of the group who pose a threat and those who do not.”
Behind the Hate
It’s not clear just what has driven groups with one very specific enemy to jump into what often appears to be an entirely different battle. While their fears may be real, recent history suggests that there may be an element of raw self-interest.
For decades, organizations on the religious right focused their attacks on abortion, and for many years they drew much support, financial and otherwise, from the public. But the anti-abortion movement grew increasingly isolated as public opinion grew more favorable and as many of the remaining anti-abortion activists grew more extreme, resorting to clinic invasions and even arson and murder.
Many of those organizations refocused on the alleged threat of the “homosexual agenda,” warning shrilly that gays were infiltrating the schools as part of their sex-starved efforts to “recruit” children. But once again, these groups have grown more isolated as many Americans come to personally know LGBT people who bear little resemblance to the supposed predators they had been warned about. By last year, for the first time, a majority of Americans supported same-sex marriage. This June, New York became the largest state to allow gay couples to marry.
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Immigrants are still very much a target of right-wing vitriol. But in the last year or so, much of the steam seems to have gone out of the more extreme wing of the grassroots nativist movement as state legislatures have taken up anti-immigrant legislation. As a result, many of the nativist groups that popped up in recent years have weakened. “A few years ago, extremists like [Jim] Gilchrist [leader of the Minuteman Project], [Chris] Simcox [founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps] and even [William] Gheen [head of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC] were prominent in the press and in the debate,” said Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice. “Now, they’ve been marginalized as the debate has become more of a legislative fight at the state and federal level.” That may mean that the issue works less well than it did to energize groups and donations.
It now seems likely that more and more groups will take up the anti-Muslim banner, probably carrying the issue into the 2012 election. Certainly, many of the groups that have newly taken up Muslims as the next great threat facing Americans seem to hope so. As the Christian Action Network put it in an alert this August: “Fighting homegrown terrorism and the creeping infiltration of radical Sharia Law MUST be front and center as the big issue of the 2012 elections.”