Rights & Liberties

Fear, Inc: Anatomy of an Anti-Islam Epidemic

Fear sells, and it is a solid business. Institutions, movements, and careers have been built around addressing that fear, too. But there are more subtle political lessons to be drawn fromFear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, a new report by the Center for American Progress.

The report explores how a handful of like-minded individuals have worked to focus American fears on Islam, tracking who has provided the funding, and how that message has been spread. What it describes is not a “vast right-wing conspiracy” but a small, well-funded group with an outsized footprint.

The first point Fear, Inc. hits home is how little it takes in our digitally linked, media-saturated world to give fear a target. Seven foundations donated $42.6 million between 2001 and 2009 to individuals who published, gave talks, and appeared on radio and television discussing the dangers of Islam. Despite the utter falsity of the content circulated by these individuals, Fear, Inc. demonstrates that as sound bites are repeated and amplified, they are reified into social fact.

What is the anti-Islam lobby's message? In the words of Robert Spencer, one of the self-appointed “experts” the report profiles, Americans needs to wake up to “the attempts of radical Islam to subvert Western culture.” The assertion might sound reasonable if it didn't come hand-in-hand with the belief that there is no non-radical Islam. It's Spencer's contention that real Muslims — those who are faithfully following the precepts of their religion — must take subversive and, if necessary, violent action to spread Islam. Spencer's site, Jihad Watch, explains that Islam is “the only major world religion with a developed doctrine and tradition of warfare against unbelievers.” Similarly, Steven Emerson, once a respectedreporter, claims that Islam “sanctions genocide, planned genocide, as part of its religious doctrine.” David Yerushalmi, who, among other activities, serves as legal counsel for several of those profiled, has said, “Muslim civilization is at war with Judeo-Christian civilization... the Muslim peoples, those committed to Islam as we know it today, are our enemies.”

Violence is not the only way to wage war, we are told. Fear of Islam's conquest takes specific, if bizarre, form in the idea that sharia, religious law and its interpretations, poses an existential threat to the United States. As Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House who is currently campaigning for the Republican candidacy for president, has said, “Some radical Islamists use terrorism as a tactic to impose sharia, but others use nonviolent methods — a cultural, political, and legal jihad that seeks the same totalitarian goal even while claiming to repudiate violence.”

Legal jihad, as Gingrich and others have called it, is an attempt to subvert US law. The ACLU has a helpful analysis of why this is wrong. For example, if one party in an Islamic prenuptial agreement accuses the other of not holding up its end of the bargain, this can quite reasonably be taken to a US court, which will establish if there really was an agreement. The facts can be established according to neutral principals of law.

One might as well say that “spit and a handshake” are subverting the US legal system as sharia law in this kind of case. Yet for those who buy into the sharia threat, Islam doesn't merit the protection of freedom of religion.

The second political lesson to be drawn from Fear, Inc. — and this one may be harder to believe — is that these views are no longer fringe. Twenty-three states have introduced (and four have a court ban on) anti-sharia/international legislation based on a model provided by the lawyer Yerushalmi. On Fox News, Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, agreed with host Sean Hannity that 80 percent of mosques in America were “ruled by the extremists.” Franklin Graham, son of TV evangelical Billy Graham, called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” Frank Gaffney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear forces and arms control policy, claimed to have found submission to sharia in the change of a missile defense logo, but further denounced “ominous and far more clear-cut acts of submission to Shariah by President Obama and his team.” Gaffney is an unofficial advisor to presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who developed a marriage vow pledge which contained a provision to oppose sharia law.

These are not just anecdotes. When anti-sharia legislation has been introduced in almost half of US states, and anti-Islam statements are being circulated by candidates for the United States presidency, and are found everywhere from the Christian Broadcast Network totrainings for law enforcement, Islamophobic rhetoric is no longer on the fringe. Islamophobia will not be far behind.

To say these beliefs have moved closer to the center is not to say that they have already been normalized. This is the third political lesson in Fear, Inc, and why even those who already know Islamophobia is misguided should be paying attention and speaking out. Anti-Islam sentiment is on its way to becoming a mainstream conservative tenet, a hot-button social issue bundled together with abortion and same-sex marriage.

There is no reason per se that conservative organizations such as the American Family Association, which has famously mobilized against gays, should have also jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon. The same goes for religious denominations. Many Catholics and Evangelicals, after all, joined together in the effort to prohibit women from having abortions and embryonic stem cell research. It seems unlikely that they would oppose freedom of religion, simply because that religion happens to be Islam, if false assertions about Islam as a threat to the American way of life were being prominently countered and opposed.

It's not clear that you can directly trace the statements of those profiled in Fear, Inc. to a poll which showed that 49 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam, up from 39 percent in October of 2002. However, the poll does suggest that general attitudes towards Islam are getting more negative. Further, if the NYPD-CIA connection, with mosque crawlers and networks of informers, shows anything, it is that a lower standard of civil rights and liberties for Muslims has in fact already been normalized in some parts of America.

Finally, Fear, Inc. holds up Norwegian Anders Breivik as one outcome of the anti-Muslim rhetoric. Breivik, who set off a bomb in Oslo this past July that killed eight and then shot and killed 68 more, mostly teenagers at a political summer camp, read and quoted extensively from the anti-Islam writers profiled in Fear, Inc. The report is quick to state that these bloggers and pundits were not responsible for Breivik's acts, but cites the well-regarded terrorism authority Marc Sageman to argue that just as religious extremism “is the infrastructure from which Al Qaeda emerged,” the writings of these anti-Muslim misinformation experts are “the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.” Pamela Geller, also profiled in Fear, Inc., repudiated Breivik's acts while simultaneously pointing out what she saw as “a communist/Socialist campground” with a “pro-Islamic agenda.”

Yet, emphasizing the connection between Breivik and anti-Muslim rhetoric, or between those massacred in Norway and what people such as Geller view as an Islamic threat, obscures a point of significance. Breivik paid attention to American Islamophobes, but he didn't target Muslims. He had a new enemy: wanting to inspire a “European resistance movement” to multiculturalism, he attacked not Muslims, but the people he thought were letting his country be destroyed.

Names Named in Fear, Inc.

The five most influential self-proclaimed experts are Frank Gaffney at the Center for Security Policy; David Yerushalmi at the Society of Americans for National Existence; Daniel Pipes at the Middle East Forum; Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch and Stop Islamization of America; and Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

The top funders are Donors Capital Fund; Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation; Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; Newton and Rochelle Becker Foundation and Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust; Russell Berrie Foundation, Anchorage Charitable Fund and William Rosenwald Family Fund; and the Fairbrook Foundation.

The politicians listed in the report are Rep. Peter King Rep. Sue Myrick, Rep. Allen West, Rep. Renee Elmers, Rep. Paul Broun, and Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Meg Stalcup is co-author of “How We Train Our Cops to Fear Islam,” an Investigative Fundarticle that appeared in March/April 2011 issue of Washington Monthly.

About the reporter

Meg Stalcup

Meg Stalcup

Meg Stalcup is an anthropologist based in Seattle whose work explores health, science, security, and politics.

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