By Frankie Martin
The dismissal of Juan Williams’ from NPR once again exposes the difficulty America is having discussing Islam in a cool or rational manner. Williams’ exchange with Bill O’Reilly featured much of the usual ignorance, with both agreeing that, although undefined “good Muslims” do exist, all Muslims must be considered potential soldiers in an Islamic war against America. This ludicrous belief is not only a distortion of reality, but also poses a serious threat to the well-being and security of the United States. In adopting this position, Williams and O’Reilly were reflecting the climate of hatred against Muslims that is fueled by prejudice and lack of knowledge.
The controversy comes in the context of the conflict around the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Pastor Terry Jones’ desire to burn the Quran, a growing belief that sharia law is being imposed on America by Muslims, and increasing attacks on mosques in the United States. The interminable wars in Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the upcoming midterm elections, in which campaigns have employed heavy doses of anti-Muslim bile, also contribute to the darkening storm.
Today’s high anti-Muslim antipathy is the latest wave of xenophobia in a nation that has seen many, especially when a threat was perceived to the country. While current anti-Islamic voices, like the hatemongers of previous eras, frequently attempt to co-opt the Founding Fathers’ ideals to support their agenda, there can be no reconciling the vision of a pluralistic nation with the spewing of hate against a particular ethnic or religious group, in this case Muslims. While the debate stirred by these hateful voices is on one level about Islam and how to depict and understand it, it is also about the very definition of American identity.
Much of this bigotry and misinformation can be traced directly to what I am calling the infrastructure of hate, an industry which connects venomous anti-Islamic blogs, wealthy donors, powerful think tanks, and influential media commentators, journalists, and politicians. The most visible component of the infrastructure is the hate blogs, which have recently grown exponentially in number, influence, and stature.
From my position as a research fellow working with American University’s Chair of Islamic Studies, Professor Akbar Ahmed, I have watched with horror as the hate blogs have begun to diffuse from their online cesspool to infect mainstream media, political rhetoric, and the larger discussion about Islam in America. There are hundreds, if not thousands of such blogs on the Internet.
To the hate bloggers, the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims represent an insidious, inherently violent force seeking to enslave the United States by overthrowing the government and jettisoning the Constitution in favor of sharia law. Frequently the bloggers include caveats such as claiming that they are only talking about “Islamists,” “Islamofascists,” or those supporting “sharia,” but by tying terrorism explicitly to the Prophet Muhammad and to the Quran, they equate it with Islam. Under this simplistic, warped logic, every Muslim is a potential, if not-fully formed, terrorist and every one of America’s seven million Muslims a potentially treasonous enemy. Such crass, demonizing generalizations constitute hate speech.
I will focus on one such blog post to illustrate how the infrastructure of hate works, and how easily lies and slander can spread rapidly to achieve influence.
Last month, Laura Rubenfeld, an analyst at the Investigative Project on Terrorism headed by Steven Emerson, published an article in Pajamas Media tiitled “No, Professor Ahmed, the Founders Were Not So Fond of Islam.” In it, Rubenfeld attacks Professor Akbar Ahmed, who has been speaking in the media about his new book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, for which he traveled to over 100 mosques in 75 U.S. cities. I participated in this study with Ahmed, traversing the country during fieldwork and spending weeks in the library researching the history of Islam in America. Since Ahmed’s media statements reflect the contents of the book, Rubenfeld not only impugns the scholarship of Ahmed, whom the BBC calls the “world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam,” but also myself and the other four researchers who spent several years working on this project, three of whom are continuing on to PhD programs.
Ahmed’s main argument in these media appearances was that Americans should welcome Muslims as full citizens as the Founding Fathers did, and quoted their views on Islam, which Rubenfeld found intolerable. As such, her article is a piece of pseudo-scholarship rife with distortion, slander, omission, and outright lies.
Rubenfeld endeavors to demonstrate that the Founding Fathers actually hated Islam, recognizing it for the threatening, destructive force she believes it to be. She begins by denying Ahmed’s assertion that John Adams called the Prophet Muhammad a great truth seeker, saying that he “said absolutely nothing of the kind.” This claim is false. To Adams, Prophet Muhammad was one of the world’s “sober inquirers after truth” alongside such figures as Confucius and Socrates. For Prophet Muhammad and other great sages of history, Adams wrote, the “happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.” Adams believed that Americans should consider the example of these sages to create a society based on virtue and happiness rather than “fear,” which he called the “foundation of most governments.”
After calling Ahmed a liar for citing the above passage, Rubenfeld quotes a letter Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in which he calls the Prophet Muhammad “a military fanatic.” She again fails to put the statement in context. In the letter, Adams cited Prophet Muhammad in the context of a discussion on Napoleon, whom he called a “fanatic,” not in a religious sense but meaning that he relied on the military as a source of his might: “Napoleon is a military fanatic like Achilles, Alexander, Caesar, Mahomet, Zingis, Kouli, Charles XII. The maxim and principle of all of them was the same. ‘Jura negat sibi lata, nihil non arrogat armis (He denies that laws were made for him; he arrogates everything to himself by force of arms).’” Adams is not singling out the Prophet as some kind of religious militant, as Rubenfeld implies, but comparing the Prophet to Napoleon in including him in a list of the most famous and brilliant military geniuses in history. For Adams, Prophet Muhammad existed in two categories, that of great religious sage and also that of head of state and military commander, the only figure to feature in both. While Adams valued the example of the Prophet as religious sage in imagining the United States, he hoped that the era of the military general as head of state might give way to democracy and usher in a new age in world history. The letter is still loaded with nuance, such as when Adams wonders if Napoleon’s ascendency in France is not as “legitimate and authentic” in the context of that nation as “the election of Washington to the command of our army or to the chair of State?” We can agree or disagree with Adams’ analysis, but Rubenfeld insults him by so disingenuously distorting the meaning of what he has written.
Rubenfeld’s various other assertions are laughable, such as her attempt to prove Adams’ unfavorable view of Islam by quoting the Orientalist-style forward from his copy of the Quran. Yes, she cites a forward Adams did not author as exposing his true feelings about Islam. She also absurdly quotes at length his son John Quincy Adams’ critical views of Islam. John Quincy Adams is not a Founding Father and was a child when the nation was being created.
Ahmed’s correct contention that Thomas Jefferson hosted the first iftar at the White House is also too much for Rubenfeld, who writes that Jefferson was not holding an iftar but merely being “polite” to the Tunisian ambassador, in whose honor the dinner was given. I would only ask Rubenfeld if she is even aware what an iftar is, as the invitation Jefferson sent to the ambassador stated that the White House dinner was being moved from the customary “half after three” to “precisely at sunset” to accommodate the ambassador’s religious obligation. This means that Jefferson scheduled the dinner specially to ensure that the Ramadan fast would be broken at the proper time as mandated by the Quran, which apparently did not satisfy Rubenfeld’s iftar requirements.
The most loathsome claim in Rubenfeld’s article, however, comes in her discussion of Benjamin Franklin’s views of Islam. As with Adams, she completely dismisses Ahmed’s assertion that Franklin viewed the Prophet Muhammad as a model of compassion. Instead of quoting Franklin on the compassion of the Prophet, which I have written about here, or his desire to see the head cleric of Istanbul preach Islam to Americans from a Philadelphia pulpit Franklin had funded, she quotes Franklin saying that the Quran commands the “plundering of infidels.”
The problem is that this example is from a satirical newspaper article Franklin wrote in support of the abolition movement. Surely Rubenfeld would have known the difference. Or was she hoping that her audience would not? Franklin wrote the article, under an alias, in response to Congressman James Jackson of Georgia, who gave an angry speech in Congress denouncing Franklin for advocating abolition and arguing that the enslavement of blacks is a Christian commandment justified in the Bible. In Franklin’s satirical piece, he put Jackson’s arguments into the mouth of a fictional North African Muslim, who argues before his equivalent of Congress, the Divan of Algiers, that the Quran commands the enslavement of white Christians. Christians would be happier, safer, and better clothed and lodged as slaves, the fictional Muslim contends, and besides, the economy of Algiers would be devastated if the Christians were freed. Franklin was attempting to get pro-slavery Americans to see the hypocrisy of their position in using their fallacious logic to present an inverted situation in which they were the potential slaves. It is outrageous that Rubenfeld did not mention this context. If Rubenfeld had any intellectual capacity, she would also recognize how relevant this example is to the hate bloggers’ contention that Islam is inherently violent because nineteen Muslims attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Would Rubenfeld also argue that Congressman Jackson’s Biblical justification means that it is every authentic Christian’s duty to enslave blacks?
As abysmal as Rubenfeld’s reading of American history is, it would appear unwise for her to take on Islamic history. Yet at the end of the article she darkly and randomly notes that Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, mentions that Ahmed has “written” about Ibn Khaldun, and describes the fourteenth century scholar as a violent Islamic militant seeking to impose a worldwide caliphate. This is risible as Ibn Khaldun was a social scientist widely credited with establishing the discipline of anthropology and the theory of the rise and fall of civilizations, a process he believed had nothing to do with religion. The book Rubenfeld cites as a terrorist text, the Muqaddimah, was named by the famed British historian Arnold Toynbee as “the greatest work ever created by a man of intelligence at any time or anywhere.” Even if she is correct in the preposterous contention that Ibn Khaldun was a terrorist, would it make Ahmed one as well for holding an endowed university chair bearing the same name? An elementary school child would be unable to make sense of such an argument: If Tom likes to ride in a banana boat, does this mean that Tom is a banana?
Reflexively and ridiculously slandering any Muslim who conflicts with their worldview as a terrorist is typical of the anti-Islamic hate blogs. In this case, Rubenfeld implies that Ahmed, by identifying him with Ibn Khaldun, is a threat to the security of the U.S. in his presumed desire to wage “violence against non-Muslims as a religious duty, in order to achieve the larger goal of dismantling non-Muslim civilization and imposing an Islamic caliphate.” Rubenfeld also raises the possibility that General David Petreaus, whom Ahmed has advised, will be “influenced” by Ahmed’s “false teachings,” thereby warning Americans that a terrorist may have access to the highest levels of the U.S. military.
Rubenfeld ignores much in her sinister efforts at character assassination. It is doubtful that a terrorist would be honored with an evensong service at the Washington National Cathedral, likened by senior Christian clergymen to figures including Gandhi and Desmond Tutu, or praised by Elie Wiesel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of the U.K.–who called Ahmed a “role model” and “one of the great contemporary exponents of Islam, a man I admire as a scholar and cherish as a friend”–or Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, who thanked Ahmed on behalf of a “deeply appreciative” State of Israel for doing “more than any single individual I know building bridges between Muslims, Jews, [and] Christians.” It is also unlikely that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching would honor such a threat to America as Washington D.C. professor of the year for his work with American students, one of many educational accolades Ahmed has received. Yet none of this matters to Rubenfeld, as it conflicts with the agenda of the hate blogosphere. Ahmed is a Muslim in the media who is saying that Islam is not inherently violent and that Islam and America are compatible. The bigoted bloggers could not permit this. If this kind of defamatory attack could be leveled at such a distinguished, world-renowned scholar, imagine what can be done to Muslims who do not have this background.
Like so many posts, Rubenfeld’s article was circulated incestuously amongst the hate bloggers and caught fire online. In addition to its prominent placement on Pajamas Media, Rubenfeld’s article was featured on the Jawa Report, Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch, Blazing Cat Fur (the blog which hosted an “Everybody Draw Muhammad” contest), the influential political site Free Republic, Tea Party websites, and other blogs including The West, Islam, and Sharia, Project Shining City, Infidel Blogger’s Alliance, Socialism is Not the Answer, the website for America’s Independent Party, and too many others to name. It was also featured on the popular Fark.com, which called the article “interesting.” Fark is one of the top-100 visited English language websites in the world.
There are numerous comments on many of these websites that hail Rubenfeld as a brilliant scholar and thank her for exposing Ahmed’s “lies.” “If this lying professor really does teach at an American university,” read one comment, “I would hope they reconsider renewing his contract before he pollutes more of our students with his lies.” Another further argued that Ahmed “was just following the Koran that instructs Muslims to deceive their enemies (Al-Taqiyya.) [...] If you are not a Muslim (Kuffar) the Koran details how to kill, capture, oppress, etc. the unbeliever.” Perhaps the most depressing was from a teacher: “This has now made it into my PUBLIC high school curricula. Long live TRUTH!” The post was widely shared on social networking sites and even featured in a YouTube video.
Some of the blogs that breathlessly featured Rubenfeld’s article do not even attempt to conceal their racism. The Jawa Report, for example, proudly describes itself as a “weblog comparing Muslims to Jawas,” the “typically short rodent-like” sand-dwellers of Star Wars who are described in the film as “disgusting.” A section on the website is entitled “my pet Jawa” implying, (but only satirically, of course!) that Muslims are sub-human creatures suitable to be kept as pets. The Jawa Report also includes pictures of Qurans in toilets, likens Muslim opponents to real-life animals like monkeys and features numerous photos of what its editors call “hot babes” because they are seen as offending the sensibilities of Muslims.
These hate sites are increasingly influencing mainstream media. Virulently anti-Muslim blogger Debbie Schlussel, who openly argues that “we are fighting the war of our lives against Islam,” this summer accused the newly crowned Miss USA, an American Muslim of Lebanese descent, of being a Hezbollah agent because her surname was said to be shared by people linked to the organization. The slanderous claim resulted in the CNN.com headline “Miss USA: Muslim Trailblazer or Hezbollah Spy?” The New York Islamic center controversy brought characters like lead opponents Robert Spencer and recent New York Times profile subject Pamela Geller–who has argued that President Barack Obama is the son of Malcolm X–into the living rooms of millions of Americans. Fox News often relies on such bloggers to comment on Islamic issues.
Part of this emerging reliance of mainstream media on the hate bloggers comes from a genuine desire to understand Islam and the threat of terrorism, as often these blogs and commentators discuss material that the mainstream media has not looked into with as much attention or detail. It is hard for me to think of another reason why the New York Times leaned on the Jawa Report, which it described as “anti-jihadi Internet activists,” for its investigative coverage of the “Jihad Jane” homegrown terrorism case, or why Esquire, while noting its “unsettling anti-Muslim invective,” nevertheless glamorized the website as “laptop James Bonds,” “thrill-seeking,” and “all-American.” Yet it is possible to analyze and understand the threat of terrorism without relying on the bigots. Just as a Ku Klux Klan member would not be asked to advise on issues facing the African American community, responsible people in media and government must keep the bile-spewing anti-Muslim racists away from anything to do with Islam-related subjects.
Government, however, is where such bloggers and commentators have focused a considerable amount of attention in their desire to shape U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Recently, an increasing number of prominent politicians, including members of Congress Michele Bachmann and Pete Hoekstra–the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee–have come out publicly and enthusiastically in support of Frank Gaffney, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and head of a prominent Washington D.C. think tank. Gaffney, who blogs at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Peace, recently told CNN viewers he is leading an effort to block the construction of American mosques because they are “seditious” and a “cancer” seeking to “destroy Western civilization from within.” With bone-chilling conviction, he asserted that the numbers of American Muslims today are “very small, blessedly. This is the time to stop them.” The influence of the anti-Islamic beltway fearmongers could be seen in Newt Gingrich’s comparison of American Muslims to Nazis, Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey’s assertion that he did not believe American Muslims were entitled to religious freedom, and incendiary, terror-inducing ads and rhetoric in political campaigns nationwide, such as Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s recent warning that Muslims have seized control of two American cities.
I have attempted here to connect some of the dots in the anti-Muslim infrastructure of hate and demonstrate how a blatantly fallacious post like Laura Rubenfeld’s can achieve such prominence and influence. Rubenfeld’s article has all the hallmarks of the anti-Islamic hate blogs: a breathtaking illiteracy of the discussed subject, ad hominem attacks on a prominent Muslim, a crude insinuation of guilt by association, and a substitution of ideology for scholarship. The exact same process of argument, challenge, and refutation utilized above can be applied to nearly every one of the tidal wave of anti-Islamic hate posts.
Much more investigation needs to be done on how various sections of the infrastructure of hate are funded, but one basic link is discernable in the case study presented here. It is no accident that the think tank which employs Rubenfeld, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, is funded by the Los Angeles-based Fairbrook Foundation, the same group–granted IRS 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit charity–that funds Pajamas Media, the website which ran Rubenfeld’s scurrilous hate post. This clearly indicates that there is another level of connection and coordination not apparent to the public.
In their depiction of Islam, the despicable infrastructure of bloggers, think tanks, murky financial backers, and media outlets use the ignorance of the American public about the religion to their advantage, as it can be difficult for well-meaning Americans to distinguish hate speech from critical views of Muslim governments or organizations. That no mainstream American media commentator picked up the larger, more dangerous implications of Juan Williams and Bill O’Reilly’s discussion, for example, is indicative of this reality. The more anti-Islamic hate seeps into the American consciousness, the more likely violence will result from Americans believing it to be their patriotic duty to lash out at Muslim invaders. History shows us that venomous campaigns to demonize a particular religious or ethnic group can have catastrophic consequences.
The vitriolic anti-Islamic voices also help ensure that the actual causes for the problems plaguing the Muslim world–including political, historical, economic, and cultural factors like the turmoil wrought by globalization on traditional societies–are largely ignored by a public still befuddled by Islam nearly a decade after 9/11. Furthermore, the infrastructure’s dissemination of hate does no favors for the U.S. troops, diplomats, and aid workers attempting to win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as the toxic blogs are read and circulated widely in the Muslim world. This hate literature endangers American national security by validating and strengthening Al Qaeda’s contention that the United States is engaged in a war against Islam which Muslims must resist and avenge.
Even more seriously, bloggers like Rubenfeld represent a grave threat to the United States in their distortions of the ideals of the Founding Fathers, which form the bedrock of American identity. In pumping their poison into the public discourse, the bloggers are attacking the entire foundation of the United States as a pluralistic nation that unambiguously mandates religious freedom.
As someone who believes in the Founding Fathers’ vision, I feel a moral compulsion to challenge the forces of hate that are spreading so rapidly. The bloggers’ detrimental, bigoted views represent a dangerous rot that needs to be confronted by all of us. This is not an academic or personal exercise, but a debate about the future of the nation. If the bloggers and the infrastructure of hate they are a part of are not challenged, the pluralist America envisioned by the Founding Fathers will be in ever increasing peril.
Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service.