Islamophobia and the Republican Party

Republican politicians’ attack on a Muslim State Department official echoes the Communist witch-hunts of an earlier era.

Michele Bachmann has accused Hillary Clinton's deputy chief of staff of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood [Reuters]

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

With those famous words, spoken on June 9, 1954, during a nationally televised hearing of the US Senate, an Army lawyer named Joseph Welch produced perhaps the first nationally galvanising moment ever achieved in the US through a medium seemingly created for such moments, and which has generated many dozens of them around the globe since. In an instant, the powerful Senator Joseph McCarthy, anti-Communist demagogue, was revealed in three dimensions before the world for what he was: A small, petty, conniving man, willing to casually destroy the reputation of an innocent person – in this case, a junior lawyer on Welch’s staff – in order to score a minor debating point. It was the beginning of a rapid descent, political and personal, for the once-feared Republican senator from Wisconsin.

This scene from an unedifying chapter in US history has been on the minds of many in the past week. On Wednesday, Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in the 2008 election, rose on the floor of the Senate to defend Huma Abedin, a Muslim-American woman and deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, from attack by members of his own party. Abedin had been cited in a letter to the Deputy Inspector General of the State Department signed by five Republican congressmen, including Michele Bachmann, a former candidate for this year’s Republican presidential nomination with a large following in the party. That letter darkly cited “…information [which] has recently come to light that raises serious questions about Department of State policies and actions that appear to be a result of influence operations conducted by … the Muslim Brotherhood”. Exhibit A in this apparent conspiracy to subvert US policy? Why, Abedin, whose late father, mother and brother, it is alleged, all have been “connected to Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organisations”.

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Character assassination

The letter-writers fear the conspiracy is enjoying considerable success. According to Bachmann et alia, “The State Department and, in several cases the specific direction of the Secretary of State have taken actions recently that have been enormously favourable to the Muslim Brotherhood and its interests.” Among these, it cites “… assorted efforts undertaken in the name of ‘engaging’ the Muslim Brotherhood both in Egypt and the United States. Lately, these have amounted to… assisting the realisation of the Brotherhood’s goals”.

And just in case there were any ambiguities on that count, the letter helpfully spells out the mission of the MB in the United States, which is nothing less than “destroying the Western civilisation from within” through “civilisation jihad”. Mercy: No wonder the preternaturally earnest Bachmann is upset. The Department of State is in the hands of persons so naïve, or so bamboozled by Muslim conspirators and sympathisers, that it is willing actually to talk to persons, presumably including the recently elected Egyptian president, allegedly bent on the sinister destruction of the American way of life.

Senator McCain was unstinting in his rebuke of this sort of character assassination through innuendo. It is well that he and many others, both inside and outside the Republican Party, have risen to Huma Abedin’s personal defence. But it should be noted that merely rising to Abedin’s defence actually misses the central point. This imbroglio, in fact, has little to do with Abedin, who happened to be the only individual directly cited in one letter; other letters, apparently not mentioning Abedin, were sent to the inspectors general of the Departments of Justice, Defence and Homeland Security, as well as to the Director of National Intelligence. Representative Thomas J Rooney, one of Bachmann’s co-signatories, said as much in response to the firestorm generated by Senator McCain: “I regret that Ms Abedin has become the media focus of this story,” he said in a statement, “because the intention of the letters was to bring greater attention to a legitimate national security risk.” Bachmann herself was similarly unrepentant: “I will not be silent as this administration appeases our enemies instead of telling the truth about the threats our country faces.”

The Republican proponents of these Islamophobic views appear to be quite serious, and should be taken at their word.” 

The sly innuendo employed against Huma Abedin may have been particularly outrageous. But Huma Abedin is not the main preoccupation of Bachmann’s congressional clique, or of the many others who share their views – any more than Joseph Welch’s young protégé was a particular concern of Joe McCarthy’s. Moral obtuseness about the human effect of blind prejudice and political opportunism may be one of the uglier aspects of what Bachmann and company are up to. But it is incidental to their aims, and arguably not the most harmful result of their bigoted and paranoid views. The central enemy in the mind of those who inspire, inform, and/or share the views espoused in the Bachmann letters is not any particular person or group, but Islam itself.

Not on the fringe

It is tempting to some to dismiss as some sort of lunatic fringe those who believe, as Bachmann and company apparently do, that “civilisation jihad” poses a clear, present and insidiously critical danger to American values and the American way of life itself. Their ideas may well seem ludicrous to some, but they are decidedly not on the fringe. As someone who speaks frequently on counter-terrorism and national security issues, this writer frequently encounters the champions of these views.

They style themselves as counter-terrorism or national security experts, or as academic scholars. They are given a prominent platform at national conferences, where they brand people like this writer and groups devoted to the defence of Muslims in America – organisations such as the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee – as dupes or apologists for radical Islamists bent on the destruction of the United States, the West and Israel. They get a strong echo for their views. And they command particularly serious attention within the Republican Party. It may well be difficult in any given instance to judge precisely where ignorance and paranoia leave off and simple partisan political opportunism begins, but the Republican proponents of these Islamophobic views appear to be quite serious, and should be taken at their word.

Some years ago, this writer was invited, along with the founder of the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), to testify in open session before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concerning the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Tellingly, I was invited by the Democrats on the Committee (though a Republican myself); the IPT representative was invited by the Republicans. My take on the views espoused that day, and consistently espoused by IPT and other organisations of its ilk, such as the Centre for Security Policy, which was prominently cited in the Bachmann letter, is that it is useless to make fine distinctions among Islamists, whether one is speaking of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or al-Qaeda itself. All share the same aggressive world-view and the same aims; the only distinction among them is the relative degree to which they are willing to employ violence to achieve their ends.

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As a Republican, I am all the more inclined to deplore the Know-Nothings who seem to have traditionally and consistently found a welcome home in the right-wing of my party, whether they be the old anti-Communist extremists of the John Birch Society, former opponents of civil rights for blacks, those who demagogue popular prejudices against gay people and undocumented immigrants today, or those who exploit fear of terrorism and popular ignorance of Islam to tar those, such as some in the Obama administration, who are willing to take a thoughtful and nuanced approach to the national security challenges posed by Islamic extremism.

Propagation of ignorant fears

No less a conservative Republican stalwart than the late William F Buckley, Jr was known to excoriate the excesses of what he referred to as “the fever-swamps of the American Right”. What is most troubling about the Islamophobia that has gained such traction in the Republican Party, however, is precisely that it is not confined to the fever-swamps – or, perhaps, the swamps are simply spreading.

Whether you love him or hate him, it would be hard to characterise Newt Gingrich as a fringe element in the Republican Party. A former Speaker of the House of Representatives, he mounted a credible campaign this year for the Republican presidential nomination, running for a time as a strong second to Mitt Romney. He is a very talented generator of ideas, whose greatest weakness is a bewildering inability to distinguish the good ones from the daft ones. But he is highly influential. Here is what he has to say about Islam: “I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it. I think it is that straightforward and that real.” The former Speaker takes little comfort in the fact that violent extremists have not been able to successfully target the US since 9/11, for he is alive to the threat from “stealth jihad”. “Stealth jihadis use political, cultural, societal, religious, intellectual tools; violent jihadis use violence,” he has said. “But in fact they’re both engaged in jihad, and they’re both seeking to impose the same end state, which is to replace Western civilisation with a radical imposition of Sharia.”

Fortunately, most in the US, and indeed the vast majority of Republicans, are far more concerned with the state of the US economy than they are with fear of the Talibanisation of the United States. But there is no end of harm that can come to the United States’ reputation and to US interests in the Islamic world, to say nothing of the personal and social harm being done to loyal Muslim Americans, when propagation of such ignorant fears is not contested. It is good that Senator McCain has risen to the defence of a Muslim-American public servant. But his work, and that of other right-thinking Republicans, is hardly done.

Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.