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Racist Rage: Islamophobia, the Tea Party, and Endless War

Rami El-Amine
Date Published: 
December 1, 2010

We are witnessing an unprecedented surge in racism against Muslims in the US. There is a real fear among US Muslims that if there's a successful terrorist attack on Americans, particularly on US soil, we will surely face pogroms and detention centers. The growth of the Far Right and, more specifically, the Tea Party over the last two years has contributed immensely to this feeling. While it is the US's "war on terror" that has caused and continues to cause the most harm to Muslims worldwide, the Tea Party has been key to fanning the flames of Islamophobia over the past year.

This surge in Islamophobia didn't start with the effort to block the construction of a Muslim Community Center in downtown Manhattan, also known as Park 51, but with the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and air attacks on Pakistan in late summer of 2009. August 2009 saw the highest number of civilian Afghans killed since the war began, and a doubling of US and NATO troop casualties, a trend that has only grown dramatically since.

To bolster support for the escalation in the war and distract people from the massive bloodshed, people in the US were subjected to a string of high profile "domestic" or "homegrown" terrorism cases involving Muslims. Afghan-born Najiballah Zazi was arrested in September 2009 for planning an attack on the New York subway system. A week later, Jordanian Hosam Maher Husein Smadi was arrested in Dallas for attempting to set off a car bomb. That same week, Michael Finton (a.k.a. Talib Islam) was arrested for the same thing but in Springfield, IL. Then, at the beginning of November came the shooting of 13 soldiers by Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, the only incident in which an attack was actually carried out and Americans, albeit not civilians, were killed.

Domestic terror

Suddenly, we were told, the US was facing a "growing domestic terror threat." Every major news outlet had special coverage of this "new threat" and Congress held hearings on it. The right wing media, particularly Fox News, squeezed as much Islamophobia out of it as possible. In an article in Forbes magazine, a professor at NYU's Stern Business School, Tunku Varadarajan, wrote that the term "going postal" should be changed to "going Muslim."

Pat Robertson's comments were the most significant in that they have become a mantra of the Tea Party: "Islam is a violent-I was going to say religion-but it's not a religion. It's a political system. It's a violent political system bent on the overthrow of governments of the world and world domination...I think you should treat it as such and treat its adherents as such. As we would members of the Communist party and members of some Fascist group."

Salon's Glenn Greenwald explained that "The coordinated campaign to hype the alleged 'growing domestic Muslim threat' at exactly the time we are escalating our conventional war in Afghanistan and our covert Predator war in Pakistan" was part of a cycle behind the "war on terror": "1) Interfere in the Muslim world; 2) Provoke increased anti-American sentiment and fuel terrorism as a result of step 1; 3) Point to the increased anti-American sentiment and terrorism as a reason we need to escalate our interference and aggression in the Muslim world. Return to step 1."

The US's "war on terror" had clearly fueled the attack by Hasan, a military psychologist who still had strong ties to occupied Palestine. The US government justified its support for Israel's war on Gaza earlier that year-in which more than 1400 innocent Palestinians were killed-in terms of fighting terrorism. In addition, he was not only subjected to soldiers' harrowing war stories but to the racism within the US military towards Arabs and Muslims. One need not look further than the "kill team" they recently uncovered in one of the military units deployed in Afghanistan, which killed Afghanis for sport and collected their fingers for evidence of such entrenched racism.

However, most of the cases held up as examples of the spread of homegrown terror were nothing more than entrapment. They involved paid FBI informants who essentially pushed for and facilitated the crimes. Whether the government wins these cases or not, the important thing is creating enough of a climate of anti-Muslim hysteria and fear that Americans feel that the blood spilled and money spent in the "war on terror" will somehow make them safer. In that sense, the government has succeeded.

Tea Party

While there's no one Tea Party platform (and the various ones that have been drafted tend to avoid social issues), it's clear that Islamophobia has been an issue that unites and rallies the various tea parties as much as opposition to Obama does. Actually, their opposition to Obama and their Islamophobia are connected and are, in large part, the reason they've become more popular than other Far Right groups.

While racism and, specifically, anti-black racism has been a cornerstone of the Far Right in this country, the Tea Party has been more tactful about it. While the Tea Party didn't coalesce into anything formal until after Obama came to office, you could see elements of it coming together in the lead up to the election around the idea that Obama was really a Muslim and that he was not born in the US. The pervasiveness of Islamophobia made this a much more effective argument against an Obama Presidency than using some of the veiled racism the Right has employed in past elections (like the Willie Horton ads in the 1988 election, the creator of which, Larry McCarthy, is behind a well funded anti-mosque themed ad campaign this election season).

The scary thing about those who identify with the Tea Party, and what distinguishes them from other Islamophobes, is not just their denial of Islam as a religion (and Muslims as humans), but the fact that they're ready, willing, and able to speak out and organize around such blatant racism. Unlike their more mainstream counterparts in the Republican Party, key leaders and candidates of the Tea Party movement have been very open and unapologetic about their Islamophobia. Mark Williams, the leader of the national Tea Party Express, said that Muslims "worship the terrorists' monkey-god." At a rally in October,one of the most prominent Tea Party candidates, Sharron Angle, who narrowly lost to Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said we're facing a "militant terrorist situation" where Muslims are trying to pass Sharia law in Dearborn, MI and Frankford, TX (the latter doesn't even exist).

Another rising star in the Tea Party is Allen West who won the congressional election for Florida's 22nd District. He's one of several black Tea Party candidates. He was discharged from the military for shooting near an Iraqi prisoner's head. He recently said, "Islam is a totalitarian, theocratic, political ideology. It is not a religion." Then there's their main propagandist, Bill O'Reilly, who recently said on The View that it was "Muslims who killed us on 9/11."

Tea Partiers have been the instigators and shock troops not only of the demonstrations against Park51 but a number of other anti-mosque protests around the country. It was a Tea Party leader and Republican candidate for Congress in Tennessee, Lou Ann Zelenik, who ignited protests at a planned Islamic center in Murfreesboro, TN. On July 30 the Southwest Riverside County (SWRC) Tea Party organized a demonstration against the construction of an Islamic Center in Temecula, CA in which they asked people to bring dogs (and they did). While none of the Tea Parties were behind the planned Quran burning by a Florida church, some came to the Pastor's defense on the basis of protecting the first amendment.

Neocons return

One of the key figures in spreading these and other insane lies about Obama and Islam is Pam Geller, whose blog, "Atlas Shrugs," is popular with the Tea Party and Far Right. She has gotten a lot of attention by the mainstream media lately because she has been credited with being the spark behind the opposition to Park51. An absolute lunatic who claims Obama was Malcolm X's son and that he once slept with "a crack whore," she not only has made the rightwing talk show circuit but appeared on all the more mainstream news channels like CNN and recently got a huge write-up in the New York Times. In that article, the writers make light of the fact that she calls herself a "racist-Islamophobic-anti-Muslim-bigot."

There's nothing funny or amusing about someone who calls for the destruction of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca, Medina, and the Dome of the Rock. On the latter she said, "The dome has got to go. It's time to push back and stop indulging evil." Her main partner in crime is Robert Spencer of the virulently anti-Muslim site, Jihad Watch, together with whom she formed the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI). AFDI is represented by attorney David Yerushalmi, who is trying to criminalize the practice of Islam in the US. In addition to believing that Islam is an "evil religion," he has said, "blacks are the most murderous of peoples (at least in New York City)" and "there is a reason the founding fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote."

The popularity of Geller and her close associates points to a growing relationship between the Tea Party and another group on the Right that some thought had exited stage right with Bush: the Neocons. Until her recent media-driven rise, Geller was a pretty marginal figure in a wider network of Neocons, who are more established and have access to plenty of money and power.

Spencer has gotten close to $1 million over the past three years from David Horowitz's Freedom Center, most of which came from a donation by Joyce Chernick, the wife of tech mogul Aubrey Chernick and major donor to groups and individuals that support Israeli apartheid. Another group of powerful people who have played a prominent role in opposing Park51 are Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard who, together with Debra Burlingame, the sister of the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, run the group Keep America Safe, which has played a central role in opposing the shutting down of Guantanamo.

One of the main backers and funders of the anti Park51 effort, the Coalition to Honor Ground Zero, is Frank Gaffney, founder and President of the Neocon think tank Center for Security Policy (CSP). Gaffney and his center were key to spreading the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and pushing for the US to invade. He seems to be behind every major issue that has the potential of whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment, including the Dubai Ports World controversy and the racist hysteria around US dependence on Middle Eastern oil in 2006. CSP had a budget of $4 million in 2008, most of which appears to have come from its board. One of the board members, Charles Kupperman, is the former vice president of Boeing's missile defense division, and the head of the investment firm American Securities LP, which paid Gaffney $288,300 in 2008.

As is well known, the Neocons are the main architects and proponents of the "war on terror" or, as they refer to it, the "permanent" or "endless" war. They are driven by a Clash of Civilizations view of the world that says the enlightened US must use its power to prevent the backward Islam from dominating the world. They not only want to see an escalation of the war in Afghanistan but a widening of it to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and especially Iran. After being discredited and marginalized in Bush's last years in office they may have in the Tea Party what they've always lacked and would need to ensure an "endless war:" a mass base.

Scary atmosphere

All this has led to a significant shift to the right by politicians in both parties on issues related to war and racism. Republican leaders like Mike Pence and Newt Gingrich, already pretty far to the right, have begun to sound more and more like Geller. During the height of the anti-Park51 frenzy he warned that, "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization."

While a few Democrats have spoken out in support of Park51 and against the Islamophobia of those opposed to it, some like Senator Reid have spoken out against Park51. Most, however, have remained silent in the face of what could possibly be the most pernicious bigotry we've seen in this country since the Civil Rights era:

  • In October 2009 the FBI shot Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah 20 times in a raid on a warehouse in Dearborn, MI. The FBI said they were acting in self-defense, but the Medical Examiner said that Luqman was found handcuffed with his hands behind his back, and an independent coroner's report shows that he had been bitten by the police dog killed in the raid.
  • The number of job discrimination claims filed by Muslims are at an all time high. As the NYT put it in 2009: "Although Muslims make up less than two percent of the United States population, they accounted for about one-quarter of the 3,386 religious discrimination claims filed with the EEOC last year." One case which the EEOC has taken up involves 160 Somali workers at the meatpacking company JBS Swift who said that "supervisors and workers had cursed them for being Muslim; thrown blood, meat and bones at them; and interrupted their prayer breaks."
  • The most lethal attack and the one most clearly the direct result of the anti-Muslim hysteria surrounding the construction of Park51 was the one involving the stabbing multiple times of NYC taxi driver Ahmed Sharif after his attacker asked him about his religion.

The Left

In the fall of 2006 I wrote an article for Left Turn titled Islamophobia, Anti-Arab Racism, and the Antiwar Movement, which was essentially an appeal to the anti-war movement and The Left in general to confront Islamophobia, particularly in the context of opposing the "war on terror." It has taken some time but the recent organizing in NYC in support of Park51 and against Islamophobia is a positive sign.

The quick response by many in the antiwar movement in opposing Israel's war on Gaza in Dec 2008-Jan 2009 was actually the first good sign, because confronting Islamophobia doesn't just mean fighting the racists here but showing true solidarity with all Muslims being attacked, even if they're Islamists in Gaza. That war seems to have been a real view-changing experience for some on the Left, because a number of groups and individuals continued to organize against the criminal siege of Gaza after the war, something which would have been discouraged only a couple years ago, because it would've been seen as supporting Hamas.

The real test for the antiwar movement is Afghanistan. Despite wide opposition to the war, it's been difficult to translate that sentiment into visible action in large part because of Islamophobia. The view that Afghanistan and particularly Afghan women are better off under the US occupation is widespread and the result of the acceptance of Islamophobic ideas. The Obama administration has already started using this argument to justify attacks on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, further feeding the cycle of the "war on terror." If we're going to put an end to this cycle once and for all, we must continue to confront Islamophobia in the anti-war movement and in society at large.

Rami El-Amine is a member of Left Turn's editorial collective. He prefers to wear "muslim garb" except when traveling by plane.