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Shadowy Right-Wing Strategy Group Embraces Islamophobic Figures, Policies, Presents Challenge to Democracy

Islamophobia has a presence within the Council for National Policy, a secretive and influential right-wing coalition, according to leaked documents reviewed by Hatewatch.

A cache of documents obtained and published by the investigative research organization Documented appears to show anti-Muslim hate group leaders such as Brigitte Gabriel, Frank Gaffney and others who have stoked Islamophobia are involved with the Council for National Policy, or CNP. The documents also reveal that the coalition has promoted policies championed by the broader anti-Muslim network.

Founded in 1981, CNP is a coalition of influential right-wing leaders, political operatives, conservative media figures, members of the religious right, free-market fundamentalists and donors. The coalition operates on multiple fronts and focuses on political strategy, media and grassroots organizing. The goal of the coalition is to advocate for right-wing and anti-rights policies that favor conservatives and the religious right.

CNP has a habit of cozying up to extreme figures, the coalition’s rosters and associations appear to show. This includes figures known for engaging in anti-Muslim hate.

Journalist and author Anne Nelson researches CNP and is the author of “Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right,” which provides an in-depth look into the coalition and its history.

“The Council for National Policy and its affiliates would be revealed to associate with unsavory characters, and they would be shocked that such nice folk could harbor such nasty ideology,” Nelson writes in the book.

In 2016, Hatewatch published CNP’s 2014 membership directory, a 191-page compendium on its over 400 members, some of whom are deceased, and their interests. The directory shows CNP membership included extremists harboring anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ views. It also revealed so-called “Radical Islam” and “Islamic Fascism” to be among the interests identified by several CNP members. “Radical Islam,” a problematic term as detailed later, continues to be a topic among the group.

While the coalition’s existence and some of its officers are public knowledge, CNP works hard to keep its membership and activities shrouded in secrecy, including reportedly encouraging members to keep quiet about the group. The New York Times once described CNP as “a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” CNP is invitation-only, with new members being nominated by current ones.

Reports and investigations over the years have sought to expose the coalition’s tactics, membership and influence. The cache of materials obtained by Documented provides further insight into the right-wing coalition’s inner workings in recent years, including its strategies, goals and talking points.

The documents also reveal CNP has only expanded the hate and far-right figures in its ranks. The inclusion of these figures puts Islamophobia among other problematic measures pushed by CNP that pose a threat to inclusive democracy.

CNP did not return Hatewatch’s multiple requests for comment.

Islamophobic figures in the mix

Brigitte Gabriel
Brigitte Gabriel, founder and president of ACT for America, speaks at the 2017 Values Voter Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One of those listed in CNP’s September 2020 roster is Brigitte Gabriel, an anti-Muslim firebrand who has called Muslims a threat to the civilized world and claimed a practicing Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.” Gabriel is the founder and head of ACT for America, an anti-Muslim hate group that operates a network of chapters across the U.S. that disparage Islam and promote Islamophobic legislation at the state and national level.

Despite Gabriel’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, she operates freely within mainstream conservative circles and maintains allies in Congress such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn.

According to Documented’s cache, Gabriel first appears in the January 2018 CNP membership roster. The cache spans back to 2017. She is listed as a member in subsequent rosters up to September 2020, the last list obtained by Documented. Documented did not return requests for comment by time of publication.

Regular members pay an annual fee of $1,750, according to CNP nomination documents published by Political Research Associates, an organization that researches the far right. There are other membership levels, and the higher the level, the higher the fees, up to several thousands of dollars.

Gabriel appears to be actively involved with CNP. In February 2020, she gave an “Update on the Middle East” at CNP’s meeting in Dana Point, California, according to a leaked copy of the agenda. Details about the presentation are unknown, however, the many other speeches of hers available on the Internet are often tinged with anti-Islam bias. The presence of anti-Muslim figures within CNP does not surprise Nelson.

“Islamophobia has been a core value of the Council for National Policy for a long time, an outgrowth of the Christian fundamentalist roots of the organization,” Nelson told Hatewatch in an interview. She posits CNP’s hardline Christian theology holds other religions, such as Islam, as “invalid.”

Gabriel’s relationship with CNP seems to be reciprocal, with the coalition promoting her brand and products.

“Brigitte Gabriel has been somebody who has been promoting and disseminating hate speech against Muslims,” Nelson said. “She’s a very fiery speaker and recently joined the roster of the Council for National Policy, whose member organizations also promote her books and her speaking engagements. It is a tragic decision because Muslims in the United States already face a great deal of prejudice and these figures just make their lives that much harder.”

Gabriel held a book signing at the CNP event she spoke at in February 2020. ACT for America and Gabriel did not return requests for comment.

According to a leaked 2016 copy of CNP’s media and confidentiality policy, “CNP members should not answer media inquiries about CNP. Only the CNP president or his or her designee is authorized to speak to the media about CNP.” Violation of this, according to the policy, “could result in sanctions, up to and including removal from CNP membership.”

Gabriel’s listed interests within CNP include “Radical Islam,” “Terrorism” and “Immigration,” among others, as revealed by Documented. CNP members’ interests are often listed with their names and affiliations and range from a variety of issues from “Judeo-Christian Values” to “Tax Reform” to “Regulatory Reform” to “Homosexual Issues.”

The term “radical Islam” is itself problematic because the descriptor “radical” is not used to describe any other religion and is often deployed to soften anti-Muslim bigotry. Gabriel herself has claimed that there is no such thing as radical Islam and that terrorism is associated with the “purest form” of the religion. Other CNP members view Islam in a similar way.

Gabriel and her group were some of former President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. CNP also threw its support behind Trump in 2016 after candidates more aligned with its members’ values, such as Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, dropped out. As Nelson details in “Shadow Network,” Trump’s willingness to adopt retrograde policies aligned with CNP and appoint conservative judges earned the backing of the coalition and its networks.

Gabriel – like several other CNP members – enjoyed unprecedented access to the White House under Trump, meeting with his staff on numerous occasions. The Trump administration implemented policies long promoted by the anti-Muslim network, such as the Muslim ban and a low cap on refugees. Tony Perkins, an influential figure among the religious right, is also president of the anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Council, which also traffics in anti-Muslim ideology and is currently avidly supporting voter suppression bills. He also enjoyed extensive access to the Trump administration.

As Nelson notes in “Shadow Network,” “Perkins – the man who declared ‘Islam is not a religion … it is a comprehensive system which is incompatible with the Constitution’ – was named to the U.S. Commission on International Freedom [under Trump].” Perkins is a longtime CNP member, having been with the coalition for 25 to 30 years, according to the September 2020 roster. He also served as the CNP’s president from 2012 to 2019, except for 2013 and 2014 where he was listed as vice president.

In 2017, Gabriel met with then-White House staffer and CNP member Paul S. Teller to hand-deliver a petition in support of Trump’s Muslim ban. Teller previously served as Ted Cruz’s chief of staff. He is also active within CNP. In 2020 , The Washington Post reported he held weekly meetings of the CNP-affiliated Conservative Action Project. According to the Post, the Conservative Action Project helped “choose loyalists to run federal agencies and coordinate outside messages with nonprofit organizations to support [Trump] administration policies and leaders.” Pages from Documented reveal Teller’s interests at CNP include “Immigration,” “Foreign policy” and “Religious freedom.” Teller now serves as the executive director of Advancing American Freedom, a group founded by former Vice President Mike Pence.

Another anti-Muslim figurehead involved with CNP is Frank Gaffney. A former Ronald Reagan administration staffer, Gaffney has since become one of the most prolific anti-Muslim propagandists in the country. He is gripped by paranoid fantasies of foreign entities such as the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating and supplanting the U.S. from within. Gaffney founded the anti-Muslim hate group Center for Security Policy and now serves in an executive chairmanship role at the group.

Frank Gaffney
Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, testifies during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Hatewatch first reported on Gaffney’s CNP membership in the publication of the group’s 2014 roster. He is listed as a “Gold Circle Member” in CNP’s September 2020 membership roster. Gold Circle Members pay a yearly fee of $10,000, as shown by nomination documents. Like Gabriel, Gaffney’s listed interests at CNP include “Radical Islam.”

Gaffney and the Center for Security Policy did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2016, candidate Trump used data from a shoddy survey commissioned by the Center for Security Policy to justify his call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The survey was done by The Polling Company, Kellyanne Conway’s company. Conway served as Trump’s senior counselor and was a member of CNP’s executive committee from 2014 to 2015, tax records show.

Like other anti-Muslim and far-right actors, CNP has begun to frame China as a new Cold War-style adversary. Gaffney and his group are active in stoking alarmism about the supposed threat from China. At a CNP conference in August 2020 in Arlington, Virginia, the coalition’s sister lobbying arm CNP Action, Inc., hosted a panel titled “Reckoning with China: Action Steps,” according to a leaked copy of the agenda obtained by the watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy. The panel featured Gaffney as a participant.

Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a right-wing activist who is married to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is also a CNP member and counts “Radical Islam” among her interests. In 2013, Mother Jones reported Ginni Thomas and Gaffney were part of another right-wing strategy group known as Groundswell.

CNP has also included Islamophobic figures in its orbit and network. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Adviser who was later pardoned by the former president after lying to the FBI, has ties to CNP, though he is not listed as a member. Flynn spoke at a CNP Policy Counsel event in July 2016. His name is also associated with a CNP Zoominfo account, as uncovered by investigative researcher Brent Allpress, suggesting Flynn might be involved more formally with the coalition. Flynn has a history of expressing anti-Islam sentiment, once calling the religion “a cancer.” In 2016, ACT for America advertised Flynn serving on its board of advisers. He was also a keynote speaker at ACT’s 2016 conference in Washington, D.C.

In September 2017, longtime anti-Muslim figurehead David Horowitz (who is not listed as a member) spoke at a CNP conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The theme of the event and Horowitz’s presentation was “Mapping the Left.” Horowitz heads the eponymously named David Horowitz Freedom Center, a hate group known for spreading anti-Muslim sentiment and helping fund other Islamophobic projects such as Jihad Watch and FrontPage Magazine. Once a leftist in the 1960s, Horowitz now tries to smear his former political affiliation as being totalitarian.

Dr. Mark Christian is listed as a member of CNP’s Board of Governors, which carries an annual fee of $6,000. Christian runs the anti-Muslim hate group Global Faith Institute, a group that peddles Islamophobic conspiracy theories while claiming to advocate for “the victims of Islam.” Christian is a former Muslim who converted to Christianity. He joins a cottage industry of former Muslims now disparaging their former faith. Christian is willing to associate with extreme figures in the anti-Muslim network, such as the former FBI agent turned anti-Muslim hate figure John Guandolo. Christian subscribes to the conspiracy theory that Islamic Sharia law is slowly “creeping” into American society.

“Islam has infiltrated all aspects of our life: our schools, churches, media, courts, military and our government,” reads a 2017 Global Faith Institute email to supporters. “Every day we are losing more of our freedom because of creeping sharia law.”

Christian did not answer a request for comment.

CNP’s rosters reveal the membership of other figures known for spreading Islamophobic rhetoric. One is far-right historian William “Bill” Federer, who treads in Islamophobic and anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories. According to the watchdog and research group Right Wing Watch, Federer once claimed that an “atheist homosexual gay agenda movement” will “open up” the U.S. “to move into an Islamic future.” Federer has been featured at events such as the Values Voter Summit, an annual conference put on by the Family Research Council. Brigitte Gabriel has also spoken at the Values Voter Summit in recent years, including 2018 and 2019. Family Research Council’s executive vice president Jerry G. Boykin is also a member of CNP.

Boykin has a track record of making anti-Muslim remarks, once claiming Islam should not be protected by the First Amendment. Boykin used similar rhetoric in a 2014 news briefing for Policy Counsel, a CNP publication and speaker series to inform the public on a “wide range of topics” and “variety of opinions.” Boykin goes heavy on the anti-Islam rhetoric in the article, which touches on the rise and activities of the terrorist group ISIS at the time. Boykin took issue with former President Barack Obama’s attempts to not conflate the terrorist group with a religion of around 1.8 billion people.

“I think most Americans have figured this out,” Boykin said. “When you say Isis [sic] is not Islam the rest doesn’t really matter because if you are laying out a strategy that doesn’t start with an understanding of your enemy and who you are up against and what motivates him to do what he does the rest doesn’t matter.”

Boykin adds elsewhere: “One of the mistakes that we make about Islam is that only 16% of Islam is actually a religion.” He claims the rest is a legal, geopolitical and military system. Claiming Islam is not a religion – or only part one – is a well-tread trope deployed by Islamophobic figures. “But only 16% is an actual religion,” he said. “And we make the mistake of thinking that it’s exactly like Christianity. It is not.”

CNP’s Policy Counsel includes a disclaimer that views expressed in the articles are not always representative of the coalition. “These views should not be construed as the views of the Council for National Policy, as an attempt to aid or hinder the enactment of any legislation, or as an intervention in any political campaign for public office,” the disclaimer reads.

However, as CNP papers brought to light by Documented reveal, the coalition has advocated for policies steeped in Islamophobia.

Turning interest into action

It appears stoking fear of Islam goes beyond merely the interests of CNP members and has manifested into policy recommendations. Documented produced a cache of documents attributed to CNP Action, Inc.

According to Documented:

CNP members meet together in-person three times a year and strategize about their collective goals. A number of the sessions at each meeting are action focussed [sic], and the participants collectively agree on a set of ‘action-steps’ that the members and their organizations (including the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, and the American Legislative Exchange Council) will carry out before the next meeting.

An action step from a May 2018 session called to “declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.” The session was facilitated by Jerry Boykin and featured Frank Gaffney as a participant. Designating the Muslim Brotherhood has been a longtime goal of Gaffney and the anti-Muslim network. The designation fits into greater paranoia of Muslims being a fifth-column threat in the U.S., or a group that attempts to undermine the country from within.

Prominent Muslim civil rights and advocacy organizations are often accused by Islamophobia peddlers of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Arjun Sethi, a civil rights lawyer and author, noted in a 2017 column for The Washington Post that such a designation could have knock-on effects. “The result is likely to be intimidation, harassment and smears of Muslim and Arab groups here in the United States,” Sethi wrote.

Trump regularly threatened to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group while in office, but never did. Foreign relations experts and government officials have advised against such a designation. But there are still attempts to do so legislatively.

Bills attempting to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist group have been introduced in Congress multiple times in recent years. Sponsors of such bills include Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz. Both members of Congress have ties to Gaffney and the Center for Security Policy. Diaz-Balart joined Gaffney on his radio program “Secure Freedom Radio” in 2016 to promote the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation bill. Cruz has longstanding ties to the Center for Security Policy and tapped Gaffney to serve as an adviser during his 2016 presidential run. Cruz also has ties to CNP, having given speeches to the coalition.

Brigitte Gabriel’s ACT for America also lobbies for bills to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, lobbying disclosure forms show. The group also supported Trump to do so. ACT tweeted in 2019: “President Trump should 100% designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. Past administrations have promised but failed. MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!”

CNP supports the effort to halt refugees from Muslim majority countries being resettled in the U.S. Leaked copies of the coalition’s newsletters from 2015 and 2016 reveal this support. Halting refugee resettlement has been a tactic pushed by the anti-Muslim network, since many of those displaced are from Muslim majority countries, with many being ones the U.S. has a presence in. In 2015, ACT for America launched a working group to push back against the resettlement program and “ensure that this broken system is fixed, and that potential terrorists are kept on the outside looking in.”

Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy also launched an anti-refugee project for activists interested in “building resistance” to resettlement programs. The group also published two monographs in 2015 about the program steeped in demographic anxieties about Muslim refugees moving and relocating to the United States.

Anti-refugee sentiment features in a December 2015 newsletter of “Heard Around the Hill,” a publication of CNP Action, Inc. The newsletter promotes legislation aimed at curbing refugee resettlement.

“Intelligence officials have determined that Islamic extremists have explored using the refugee resettlement program to enter the United States,” the newsletter reads. This claim was pushed back on by U.S. officials and refugee advocates at the time.

The newsletter adds that House Republicans introduced H.R. 4218, which would suspend refugees from entering the U.S. The bill was introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and did not make it out of committee. Now serving in the U.S. Senate, Blackburn has connections to such anti-Muslim hate groups as ACT for America and Center for Security Policy, having attended ACT’s annual conference and been a guest on Gaffney’s radio program.

The newsletter notes that the anti-LGTBQ hate group Liberty Counsel produced a petition in support of the bill. “If you would like to sign the petition, click here,” it reads with a hyperlink. The newsletter notes, “Mat Staver serves as Chairman of Liberty Counsel Action.” Staver is on CNP’s board of governors and counts “Radical Islam” among his interests.

Another “Heard Around the Hill” newsletter from April 2016 touched on CNP’s opposition to refugees, with the effort being led by Paul Teller.

“At the most recent CNP meeting … CNP member Paul Teller, Chief of Staff for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), referenced three pieces of immigration-related legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress that conservatives nationwide may want to examine and support,” the newsletter states. “One would suspend the entrance of refugees from terrorist-dominated countries, a second would give states the power to deny the resettling of refugees within their borders, and a third would focus key resources to better enable ICE agents to implement border security.”

The newsletter adds: “Please feel free to contact Paul Teller if you have questions or want to offer support for any or all of these efforts.”

While Islamophobia is at the coalition’s core, its activism and messaging on the issue may ebb and flow with what is politically relevant at the time.

“The political operatives of the Council for National Policy are very strategic,” Nelson said. “They do a great deal of polling, conduct focus groups, and promote inflammatory rhetoric when serves their political purposes. You are likely to see an uptick in their Islamophobic content at moments where the national news environment would favor it, such as periods of tension with Muslim countries or international incidents ascribed to terrorist organizations.”

Nelson says CNP and its network “were instrumental in convincing Trump to institute his infamous Muslim travel ban, which was opposed by foreign policy experts as being counterproductive to our national interests.”

She adds, “But again, this kind of dog whistle is signaling to their base. By lashing out at innocent populations, they are promoting a dangerous form of nationalism.

‘We could expect a whole raft of measures’

The cache of documents reveals CNP’s willingness to embrace Islamophobic figures, their messaging and policies in its efforts to influence politics in the country. But Islamophobia is only one cog in the CNP machine.

The defeat of Donald Trump and Mike Pence has been a setback for CNP, having lost major allies at the federal level. The coalition continues to operate and reassess its strategy for the future. Nelson notes CNP and its networks will be eyeing the 2022 midterm elections. While the Democrats – who generally lean toward the left ­– narrowly hold both houses of Congress, Nelson notes trends show the party in White House generally does poorly in the midterms. She says the CNP has been active at the state level helping to promote voter suppression measures aiming to suppress “populations that favor the Democrats starting, but not ending with, African Americans.”

A CNP Action, Inc. action step from February 2020 advocated for “government-issued voter ID, including mail-in ballots and verification for residency and citizenship.” Voter ID measures have been criticized by voting rights advocates for disproportionately affecting black voters and other voters of color.

Nelson says that voter suppression efforts can help tip the midterms in favor of Republicans, some of whom have been known to support CNP affiliates’ access to power. A Republican takeover of Congress would derail the Biden administration’s policies and possibly set up a win for another Republican presidency in 2024.

“If the Radical Right of the Republican Party takes Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024, there will be very little standing in their [CNP] way from reshaping the United States from the country as we know it,” Nelson says. “We could expect a whole raft of measures that would include not just depriving Muslims of basic rights, but rollbacks of voting rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights – and the list goes on and on.

“They have made no secret of the vision that they have for the United States, which is reminiscent of a 19th-century religious patriarchy. American voters will have to decide what kind of country they want for their children to inherit, and respond accordingly.”

Photo illustration by SPLC

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