Demonizing Muslims Unites the Right

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told CNN in 2016, "I think Islam Hates Us." (Image from CNN / YouTube)

In the aftermath of the murderous rampage at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, media are focused on 8chan and other creepy recesses of the internet where anti-Islam ideology is promoted heavily.  Dehumanizing rhetoric aimed at Muslims is a fixture of Religious Right rhetoric, a go-to strategy for right-wing candidates, a crowd-pleaser and book-seller for right-wing pundits, the bread-and-butter for professional anti-Islam activists who are routinely welcomed at conservative gatherings, and a base-inflaming strategy of prominent Republicans up to and including President Donald Trump.

The right wing’s promotion of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination pre-dates the Trump administration. In 2011, a Right Wing Watch report examined “The Right-Wing Playbook on Anti-Muslim Extremism.” Among the still-familiar strategies it identified: framing American Muslims as a threat to the U.S., inventing and promoting the danger of “creeping Sharia,” and claiming that Islam is not a religion.

In the era of President Donald “Islam Hates Us” Trump, much of the rhetoric is similar, but now the promoters of anti-Muslim bigotry have entered the inner circles of power.

Secretary of State and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo has had a long relationship with anti-Muslim groups. As a member of Congress, Pompeo appeared on anti-Islam activist Frank Gaffney’s “Secure Freedom Radio” more than 20 times from 2013 through 2016; during one of them he agreed with Gaffney’s suspicion that President Obama had an “affinity” for radical Islam.

Jay Sekulow is one of President Trump’s attorneys and a frequent Fox News guest. Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice published “Shari’a Law: Radical Islam’s Threat to the U.S. Constitution,” which asserted that “devout Muslims cannot truthfully swear the oath to become citizens of the United States of America.” That’s the same charge we recently heard from Fox host Jeanine Pirro, who suggested that freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab (headscarf) was reason enough to suspect she could not be loyal to the Constitution. (The outcry following Pirro’s remarks led Fox to criticize and apparently suspend her.)

And that wasn’t much different than the rhetoric seen at white nationalist site VDARE last year after Omar was elected to Congress. Contributor Lance Welton (a pen name) wrote that “we now have people in Congress whose loyalty to America is questionable”:

You cannot be a Somali-American, because to be an “American” involves rejecting pretty [much] everything that could possibly be associated with Somalia. Even being a Muslim-American, when the U.S. is under attack from Muslim terrorists and when Americans are overwhelmingly Christian, is pretty much impossible.

It turns out that almost nothing seems to stir up right-wing fears as much as the prospect of American Muslims getting elected to public office. In 2006, after Keith Ellison was elected the first Muslim member of Congress, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore argued that Muslims are not fit to serve in Congress because Islam “rejects our God” and is “incompatible with our law.” Pundit Dennis Prager—now known for his Prager U propaganda videos—argued back then that Ellison should not be allowed to use a Quran rather than a Bible for his ceremonial swearing-in. Prager wrote that anyone who is not willing to take an oath on the Bible should not serve in Congress. (When Prager got pushback, he portrayed himself as the victim of “hate-filled attacks,” denying that he was endorsing any kind of religious test for public office.)

Ellison was similarly targeted during his successful 2018 run to become Minnesota’s attorney general. He was smeared as a Sharia-promoting “face of Hamas” by anti-Muslim activist Philip Haney, who toured the state on “special assignment” from God.

Last year, Bradlee Dean, an anti-LGBTQ activist who speaks at high school assemblies, complained about the number of Muslim candidates running for office “while the American people sleep.” His column quoted from a blogger who goes by the name of Deplorable Kel, who wrote, “Muslims do not want to assimilate, they want to take over. They do not want to be your friend, they want to kill you. There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim and there never will be. If we do not speak out, educate people and vote against these people, this will no longer be America.”

The 2018 election victories of Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, which made them the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, were cited by the American Pastors Network’s Sam Rohrer as an example of the people choosing sin. Rohrer referred to the Democratic House members as “devout Muslim women who hold to a view of God and law and morality that is completely opposite to our Constitution.”

John Guandolo, the former FBI agent who Right Wing Watch’s Kyle Mantyla noted “trains law enforcement agencies around the country to identify seemingly anyone with dark skin and a beard as an Islamic terrorist,” said after the 2018 elections that Reps. Omar and Tlaib should be banned from serving in Congress because, he said falsely, the founders “were very clear that only Christians should hold public office.”

Intercessors for America, a Trump-promoting group of “prayer warriors,” published a flyer featuring photos of Omar and Tlaib and warning that “the Islamic faith of these leaders is a liability to our nation.” In February, IFA welcomed Gaffney and Haney to their monthly prayer call, on which IFA’s Dave Kubal said that by using a Quran rather than a Bible for their ceremonial swearing in, they were “putting their allegiance to the Quran over the Constitution.” Gaffney told the activists on the call that Omar and Tlaib, along with Rep. André Carson, are committed to achieving “the triumph of Sharia” in the U.S.

Gaffney was kicked out of the Conservative Political Action Conference a few years back after he charged that CPAC and the conservative movement had been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. But Gaffney and his Center for Security policy have been welcomed back with open arms, thanks in good measure to the efforts of John Bolton, now Trump’s National Security Adviser. Bolton has, in the words of The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, frequently “elevate[d] the anti-Muslim bigotry of others,” which helps explain why anti-Muslim activists were so excited about Trump hiring him last year. For example, he wrote the foreword to a book by professional anti-Muslim activists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. Bolton also served on the board of advisers of Secure America Now, which ran attack ads on Democratic candidates that included footage of ISIS about to behead journalist James Foley and ads that portrayed a future “Islamic States of America”—the group received millions from Trump ally and financial backer Robert Mercer.

Not surprisingly, Muslim Americans don’t fare too well with the Christian-nation crowd and the conservative evangelicals who are the most loyal element of Trump’s base. Plenty of self-proclaimed champions of religious liberty have no trouble promoting discrimination against American Muslims, even to the point of declaring that the First Amendment doesn’t protect Muslims because Islam is not really a religion, but a totalitarian ideology.

These sentiments come not from the fringes, but from groups and leaders at the forefront of the Religious Right political movement, many of whom rallied around Rep. Steve King when his House colleagues belatedly took action against him after years of bigoted comments.

Take for example, the Family Research Council. FRC’s Values Voter Summit is the Religious Right’s CPAC—the movement’s largest annual political gathering. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are repeat attendees. FRC’s President Tony Perkins argued after Trump’s election that banning Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. would not violate the Constitution because “only 16 percent of Islam is a religion” and “Sharia is not a religion in the context of the First Amendment.”

Like Perkins, FRC Executive Vice President Jerry Boykin has repeatedly promoted the idea that American Muslims do not deserve the protection of the First Amendment because Islam “is not just a religion, it is a totalitarian way of life.” Boykin has also been involved with the Oak Initiative, whose founder Rick Joyner has warned parents that textbooks are eliminating the Founding Fathers and replacing them with Muslims.

Other influential Religious Right figures traffic in the same kind of rhetoric. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer argues that the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections apply only to Christians. In 2015, Franklin Graham said the U.S. is at war with Islam and should end immigration of Muslims to the U.S. And Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, in a speech to the secretive and influential Council for National Policy, warned that Sharia law had already “infiltrated” America. “We are infiltrated, our schools are infiltrated, our communities are infiltrated and our government is infiltrated,” said Dobson, who added that the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as the conservative movement, had been “infiltrated.”

At a March 2017 gathering of POTUS Shield, a group of Trump-supporting “prophets” and “apostles” led by former Trump campaign adviser Frank Amedia, one of the speakers declared that Islam “has to be completely broken down” in order to bring about the return of Christ.

Matt Barber, an anti-LGBTQ activist and website operator who once helped lead the Religious Right legal group Liberty Counsel, denounced last week’s mass murder of “innocents” at mosques in New Zealand, which is commendable. But Barber has also spent years equating faithful Muslims with violent extremists. “Faithful Muslims want to kill you, and faithless progressives seem all too happy to help them along,” Barber wrote in 2016. “To be sure,” he added, “’moderate Muslim’ is a contradiction in terms.” Islam, he wrote “is inherently at odds with freedom, democracy and the United States Constitution.” And this past weekend, just a day after tweeting his prayers for the families of the “innocents” in New Zealand, Barber was back in form, tweeting, “True followers of Christ wish to SAVE Muslims. True followers of Muhammad wish to ______ Christians.”

Similar sentiments were shared on right-wing celebrity Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire last October, when it published a video in which contributor Andrew Klavan called “killing and raping” a spiritual tenet of Islam.

Brigitte Gabriel is one example of the ways that all these anti-Muslim circles overlap. Gabriel heads an anti-Muslim activist group called ACT! For America, which once called for UCLA to ban the campus chapter of the Muslim Student Association. (So much for free speech on campus!) She has said that over 90 percent of mosques in America teach a radical ideology aimed at overturning the U.S. government. After the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Gabriel lashed out at Gold Star father Khizr Khan, saying it is impossible for a faithful Muslim to follow the Constitution.

After the 2016 election, Gabriel bragged that her group’s close relationship with Pompeo gave them a direct line to Trump, whose first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was also on Gabriel’s board of directors. Her group organized events to support Trump’s travel bans targeting Muslims.

Last year, Gabriel’s book “Rise: In Defense of Judeo-Christian Values and Freedom” was published by Charisma, the Trump-boosting Pentecostal media operation. Among the book’s endorsers were Sean Hannity, Dinesh D’Souza, Michelle Malkin and, to bring things full circle, Jeannine Pirro. And just weeks after the book came out, Gabriel was on stage at the Values Voter Summit, telling Religious Right activists, “We are at war” against radical leftists, and warning that public school students are being indoctrinated with “Islamic propaganda.”

There are many more anti-Islam voices in right-wing media (Ann Coulter, anyone?), online activism (Laura Loomer, take a bow), and politics than we could possibly write about in a single piece. But it seems worth circling back to the most powerful person in the midst of all this, President Trump, who took to Twitter to rage against Fox News for taking action against Pirro for her recent comments, and to urge Fox to stand by her and Tucker Carlson, whose show some online activists have come to refer to as the “White Power Hour.”

White nationalists Peter Brimelow and Richard Spencer were among the attendees at a Gays for Trump party held in Cleveland during the 2016 Republican convention. The party featured an anti-Muslim theme and speakers, including Geller and Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who believes Islam has “no place in a free society.” The party was organized by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who has praised Trump for knowing “above all else that making America great and welcoming in Islam are mutually exclusive futures.”

Researcher Bruce Wilson has written about Trump’s connections to William Lind, a conspiracy theorist whose book “The Next Conservatism” reportedly circulated within Trump’s campaign staff. The book suggests that anti-government militias and county sheriffs could be deployed against domestic terrorism. Trump, who has been backed by right-wing sheriffs and militia groups, recently suggested that Bikers for Trump and his allies in the military and law enforcement might get violent toward Trump’s opponents. Wilson noted that Lind is also the author of a 2014 novel that “portrays a victorious white insurgency toppling the federal government then vanquishing – one by one – competing mini-states and movements led by African-Americans, environmentalists, feminists, and other multiculturalist factions that stand in the way of the restoration of white male Christian dominance, then launching a new Christian crusade against Islam.”