Skip to main content Accessibility

Islamophobia After 9/11: How a fearmongering fringe movement exploited the terror attacks to gain political power

The recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and last week’s 20th anniversary of 9/11 reminded us all of how the terrorist attacks changed our country in fundamental ways.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Ann Beeson wrote last week of how the anti-Muslim backlash that followed 9/11 ushered in an era of executive overreach and a broad range of government abuses – such as racial profiling, warrantless wiretappings, illegal detentions and secret deportations – perpetrated in the name of keeping our country safe from terrorism.

But also arising from the ashes of 9/11 was a far-right anti-Muslim movement fueled by bigotry and the supercharged nativist rhetoric that followed the attacks. This movement was led by activists who portrayed Muslims in general as potential terrorists and trafficked in dark conspiracy theories about Islamist extremists secretly infiltrating the government and the U.S. legal system under assault by Sharia law.

Ironically, a number of those anti-Muslim leaders were the ones who later infiltrated the government as President Donald Trump welcomed movement leaders into his orbit, appointed its staunchest allies to high-level national security and advisory positions and issued executive orders to implement a Muslim travel ban.

Today, this movement – a well-funded, tight-knit network of grassroots groups and policy-oriented organizations – has lost its access to the White House. But even though it is diminished in stature and sheer numbers, it remains a political force, particularly in right-wing media and politics.  

In fact, echoes of its fearmongering can be heard through the voices of right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson, who recently warned his Fox News audience about the supposed dangers of Afghan refugees evacuated to the United States.

“We just learned … that at least 100 of the refugees U.S. military has flown out of Kabul – people we’re told are heroes – are in fact on terror watchlists,” Carlson said. “One man we evacuated apparently works for ISIS. Today, an Afghan interpreter told Fox News that this kind of thing is happening constantly.”

Disinformation peddlers

 Anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia are nothing new in the United States.

But prior to 9/11, there was never much of an organized movement, certainly not as compared to other types of hate groups, such as neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

That all changed in the years after 9/11, when a cottage industry of disinformation peddlers was built virtually from the ground up. Led by activists such as Robert Spencer, its goal was to poison any debate about the religion of Islam and depict Muslims as fundamentally dangerous to Americans.

Spencer, who has spent much of his life writing books and articles demonizing Muslims and their faith, directs Jihad Watch, a Muslim-bashing website launched by the David Horowitz Freedom Center just two years after 9/11. He insists, despite his lack of academic training in Islam, that the religion is inherently violent and that extremists who commit acts of terror are simply following its most authentic version.

As Spencer pushed out his diatribes, other anti-Muslim activists began to arise.

In 2006, Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese Christian who became a U.S. citizen, launched ACT for America, which operates a network of chapters across the country. Named a hate group by the SPLC, it disparages Islam and promotes Islamophobic legislation at the state and national levels.

“Islam has created and unleashed an uncontrollable wave of hatred and rage on the world, and we must brace ourselves for the consequences,” she wrote in 2008. “Going forward we must realize that the portent behind the terrorist attacks is the purest form of what the Prophet Mohammed created. It’s not radical Islam. It’s what Islam is at its core.”

Gabriel, who once worked for the evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian TV network, chose Robertson’s former field director as her group’s first executive director, helping to cement ties to the Christian right. The group developed strong ties with politicians and grew rapidly, becoming today the country’s largest anti-Muslim group, claiming to have 1 million members (though it’s unclear how the group counts its membership). The SPLC identified 31 active ACT groups, including the national organization in Washington, D.C., in 2020. 

Though Spencer, Gabriel and others like them spent years maligning Muslims, it wasn’t until the Obama era that the movement began to crystallize as a sophisticated network of groups and activists. Perhaps its most important catalyst came in 2010, the year Spencer teamed up with a wealthy Long Island woman named Pamela Geller, who had worked in advertising, marketing and the newspaper business prior to receiving a multimillion-dollar divorce settlement and launching an anti-Muslim blog called Atlas Shrugs.

At the time, negative narratives about Muslims, aided by media outlets like Fox, were reinforced by the government’s “War on Terror,” including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as domestic surveillance programs, biased Countering Violent Extremism programs and efforts to criminalize Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim due to their faith and appearance.

As author and scholar Khaled Beydoun wrote in American Islamophobia: “This war is dramatically distinct from its predecessors and unlike conventional wars in general. Its target is not a nation-state or empire, but rather the vague and amorphous concept of terrorism, conflated with Islam and the billions of its believers presumed to be sympathetic to or in cahoots with terror. The state has linked Muslims, whether immigrants or citizens, living in the United States or abroad, to the suspicion of terrorism, and has formally enacted a two-front war: the foreign war, and the surveillance, policing, and cultural wars deployed within the country.”

‘Ground zero mosque’

With anti-Muslim sentiment rising, Geller dipped her toes into grassroots activism in 2007 when she joined an effort to block the opening of a secular Arabic-English school in Brooklyn. That campaign failed. But in 2010, she found her ticket to radical-right stardom – a proposal by a New York City imam to turn an abandoned building in lower Manhattan into a 13-story mosque and community center, to be called the Park51 Islamic Center.

That’s when Geller joined forces with Spencer to form an organization called Stop Islamization of America. They gained national attention as they embarked on a smear campaign against the developers, accusing them of having ties to foreign extremists and calling the proposal the “ground zero mosque.” The flamboyant Geller, who has appeared on video wearing a bikini that she derisively called her “burka,” claimed Muslims worldwide would view Park51 as a “triumphal monument” built on “conquered land.”

In 2010, Geller and Spencer staged a protest in lower Manhattan, drawing large crowds both in favor of and against the Islamic center. The following year, they co-produced a film entitled, The Ground Zero Mosque: Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks.

The movement began to soar, as activists across the country began to target Muslims in their communities.

In Tennessee, protesters in 2010 coalesced to oppose construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, and the lawsuit dragged on for four years, costing local taxpayers more than $340,000. The event became a national flashpoint for anti-Muslim groups. Brought in as a witness was a man named Frank Gaffney, who had served as a deputy secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and later founded a hawkish think tank called the Center for Security Policy (CSP).

By this time, Gaffney and the CSP had evolved into rabidly anti-Muslim propagators of scurrilous conspiracy theories generally revolving around Islamist plots to take over the Western world – “civilization Jihad,” he called it. He claimed President Barack Obama was a practicing Muslim. He claimed that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had connections to foreign extremists and that several of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers were associated with a shadowy “Iran Lobby,” an entity that didn’t exist.

None of Gaffney’s claims were based in fact. But right-wing politicians jumped on board the Muslim-bashing train.

In 2011, former U.S. Rep. Peter King, an ally of anti-Muslim groups, held controversial congressional hearings on so-called radical mosques in the United States. In 2012, former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, relying on materials from Gaffney, led a congressional witch hunt akin to the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1960s to root out alleged Muslim Brotherhood operatives embedded in the U.S. government. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz appeared at CSP events and on Gaffney’s radio program, and Cruz tapped Gaffney to serve on his foreign policy advisory team during his 2016 presidential campaign. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, known for coining the derogatory term “terror babies,” attended events put on by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the group that houses Spencer’s blog. 

Meanwhile, the number of anti-Muslim hate groups operating across the country soared. The SPLC documented a rise from just six groups in 2010, the year of the Park51 protests, to 114 in 2017, the year Obama left office. Since then, the number has declined to 74.

And there were many other anti-Muslim extremists who became leaders in the movement, people like David Horowitz and David Yerushalmi, the original author of the anti-Sharia legislation proposed in numerous state legislatures.

Not surprisingly, given the megaphone provided to these extremists by right-wing media figures, hate crimes and bias incidents targeting Muslims and those perceived as Muslims also rose. In 2012, for example, a neo-Nazi who had served in the U.S. Army walked into a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and started shooting worshippers with a 9mm handgun, killing six people and wounding four, apparently believing they were Muslims.

It turned out that peddling hate and bigotry against Muslims was quite lucrative. A 2013 report from the Center for American Progress identified $42.6 million donated to Islamophobia think tanks between 2001 and 2009. And a 2019 report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations found $125 million funneled to Islamophobic groups through foundations and donor-advised funds between 2014 and 2016.

Along comes Trump

Although the movement already had plenty of friends in politics and had succeeded in persuading legislatures in some states to enact meaningless anti-Sharia law bills, the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017 brought it a whole new level of influence.

During his campaign, Trump had used data from a shoddy, online survey commissioned by Gaffney’s CSP to justify his call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Trump claimed that Muslims had a “great hatred” of America and that “our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

As president, Trump immediately installed close allies of the movement in high-level positions. As his national security adviser, he named retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, an adviser to the board of directors of Gabriel’s Act for America and a profligate spreader of far-right conspiracy theories. Flynn had been a keynote speaker at the group’s national conference and given a book tour, much of which was organized by local chapters, during which he characterized Islam as a “malignant cancer.”

Trump chose as CIA director U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, also a close friend of the movement who had spoken at a conference organized by the CSP. He was joined there by anti-Muslim extremists including the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who was once banned from the United Kingdom because of fears his anti-Muslim rhetoric would trigger violence, and retired Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, who has said Islam should not be protected by the First Amendment.

And there were others who joined the administration, including Sebastian Gorka, named as a top White House adviser on foreign policy. Gorka, a former Breitbart News editor and frequent commentator on Fox, had a long history of vilifying Muslims and had often appeared at events and a radio show hosted by Gaffney’s CSP.

The movement’s leaders also boasted of ready access to Trump and a “direct line” to the White House via Pompeo and Flynn.

Gabriel bragged at an ACT for America event in 2018 that she had a “weekly standing meeting” at the White House, though such meetings have not been confirmed. In 2019, ACT planned to have a fundraiser at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, but the event was canceled after widespread media attention. Another fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, for CSP, however, was able to go on as planned.

Within the first week of entering office, Trump issued an executive order banning entry to the United States by travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, along with all refugees. After multiple legal challenges, he issued two more versions. Though the final version was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, it was rescinded by President Joe Biden on his first day in office.

Gabriel and her fellow travelers may be out of power for the moment. But they’re still fearmongering to their choir, even if some have turned their attention to the southern border.

In March, Gabriel warned in a blog about terrorists “try[ing] to exploit Biden’s border weakness to inflict untold harm on the American people,” adding, “It’s a repeat of the last time he was in the White House when cartels helped ISIS terrorists enter Mexico and set up training bases.”

Clearly, extremists like Gabriel will continue to spread anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry and conspiracy theories in the months and years ahead – and the SPLC will continue to expose their hate.

Photo at top: Muslim and non-Muslim women gather at New York City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, to celebrate World Hijab Day. The annual event calls for a day of solidarity with Muslim women to fight bigotry and discrimination. It encourages non-Muslim women to wear a hijab in solidarity. (Credit: Richard Levine/Alamy Live News)