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The Great Islamophobic Crusade

Inside the bizarre cabal of secretive donors, demagogic bloggers, pseudo-scholars, European neo-fascists, violent Israeli settlers, and Republican presidential hopefuls behind the crusade.

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 2:56 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Nine years after 9/11, hysteria about Muslims in American life has gripped the country. With it has gone an outburst of arson attacks on mosques, campaigns to stop their construction, and the branding of the Muslim-American community, overwhelmingly moderate, as a hotbed of potential terrorist recruits. The frenzy has raged from rural Tennessee to New York City, while in Oklahoma, voters even overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure banning the implementation of Sharia law in American courts (not that such a prospect existed). This campaign of Islamophobia wounded President Obama politically, as one out of five Americans have bought into a sustained chorus of false rumors about his secret Muslim faith. And it may have tainted views of Muslims in general; an August 2010 Pew Research Center poll revealed that, among Americans, the favorability rating of Muslims had dropped by 11 points since 2005.

Erupting so many years after the September 11th trauma, this spasm of anti-Muslim bigotry might seem oddly timed and unexpectedly spontaneous. But think again: it's the fruit of an organized, long-term campaign by a tight confederation of right-wing activists and operatives who first focused on Islamophobia soon after the September 11th attacks, but only attained critical mass during the Obama era. It was then that embittered conservative forces, voted out of power in 2008, sought with remarkable success to leverage cultural resentment into political and partisan gain.

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This network is obsessively fixated on the supposed spread of Muslim influence in America. Its apparatus spans continents, extending from Tea Party activists here to the European far right. It brings together in common cause right-wing ultra-Zionists, Christian evangelicals, and racist British soccer hooligans. It reflects an aggressively pro-Israel sensibility, with its key figures venerating the Jewish state as a Middle Eastern Fort Apache on the front lines of the Global War on Terror and urging the US and various European powers to emulate its heavy-handed methods.

Little of recent American Islamophobia (with a strong emphasis on the "phobia") is sheer happenstance. Years before Tea Party shock troops massed for angry protests outside the proposed site of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, representatives of the Israel lobby and the Jewish-American establishment launched a campaign against pro-Palestinian campus activism that would prove a seedbed for everything to come. That campaign quickly—and perhaps predictably—morphed into a series of crusades against mosques and Islamic schools which, in turn, attracted an assortment of shady but exceptionally energetic militants into the network's ranks.

Besides providing the initial energy for the Islamophobic crusade, conservative elements from within the pro-Israel lobby bankrolled the network's apparatus, enabling it to influence the national debate. One philanthropist in particular has provided the beneficence to propel the campaign ahead. He is a little-known Los Angeles-area software security entrepreneur named Aubrey Chernick, who operates out of a security consulting firm blandly named the National Center for Crisis and Continuity Coordination. A former trustee of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has served as a think tank for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a frontline lobbying group for Israel, Chernick is said to be worth $750 million.

Chernick's fortune is puny compared to that of the billionaire Koch Brothers, extraction industry titans who fund Tea Party-related groups like Americans for Prosperity, and it is dwarfed by the financial empire of Haim Saban, the Israeli-American media baron who is one of the largest private donors to the Democratic party and recently matched $9 million raised for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces in a single night. However, by injecting his money into a small but influential constellation of groups and individuals with a narrow agenda, Chernick has had a considerable impact.

Through the Fairbrook Foundation, a private entity he and his wife Joyce control, Chernick has provided funding to groups ranging from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and CAMERA, a right-wing, pro-Israel, media-watchdog outfit, to violent Israeli settlers living on Palestinian lands and figures like the pseudo-academic author Robert Spencer, who is largely responsible for popularizing conspiracy theories about the coming conquest of the West by Muslim fanatics seeking to establish a worldwide caliphate. Together, these groups spread hysteria about Muslims into Middle American communities where immigrants from the Middle East have recently settled, and they watched with glee as likely Republican presidential frontrunners from Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin promoted their cause and parroted their tropes. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the increasingly widespread appeal of Islamophobia is that, just a few years ago, the phenomenon was confined to a few college campuses and an inner city neighborhood, and that it seemed like a fleeting fad that would soon pass from the American political landscape.

Birth of a Network

The Islamophobic crusade was launched in earnest at the peak of George W. Bush's prestige when the neoconservatives and their allies were riding high. In 2003, three years after the collapse of President Bill Clinton's attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue and in the immediate wake of the invasion of Iraq, a network of Jewish groups, ranging from ADL and the American Jewish Committee to AIPAC, gathered to address what they saw as a sudden rise in pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses nationwide. That meeting gave birth to the David Project, a campus advocacy group led by Charles Peters, who had co-founded CAMERA, one of the many outfits bankrolled by Chernick. With the help of public relations professionals, Peters conceived a plan to "take back the campus by influencing public opinion through lectures, the Internet, and coalitions," as a memo produced at the time by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company stated.

In 2004, after conferring with Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the pro-Israel think tank where Chernoff had served as a trustee, Peters produced a documentary film that he called Columbia Unbecoming. It was filled with claims from Jewish students at Columbia University claiming they had endured intimidation and insults from Arab professors. The film portrayed that New York City school's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures as a hothouse of anti-Semitism.

In their complaints, the students focused on one figure in particular: Joseph Massad, a Palestinian professor of Middle East studies. He was known for his passionate advocacy of the formation of a binational state between Israel and Palestine, as well as for his strident criticism of what he termed "the racist character of Israel." The film identified him as "one of the most dangerous intellectuals on campus," while he was featured as a crucial villain in The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, a book by the (Chernick-funded) neoconservative activist David Horowitz. As Massad was seeking tenure at the time, he was especially vulnerable to this sort of wholesale assault.

When the controversy over Massad's views intensified, Congressman Anthony Weiner, a liberal New York Democrat who once described himself as a representative of "the ZOA [Zionist Organization of America] wing of the Democratic Party," demanded that Columbia President Lee Bollinger, a renowned First Amendment scholar, fire the professor. Bollinger responded by issuing uncharacteristically defensive statements about the "limited" nature of academic freedom.

In the end, however, none of the charges stuck. Indeed, the testimonies in the David Project film were eventually either discredited or never corroborated. In 2009, Massad earned tenure after winning Columbia's prestigious Lionel Trilling Award for excellence in scholarship.

Having demonstrated its ability to intimidate faculty members and even powerful university administrators, however, Kramer claimed a moral victory in the name of his project, boasting to the press that "this is a turning point." While the David Project subsequently fostered chapters on campuses nationwide, its director set out on a different path—initially, into the streets of Boston in 2004 to oppose the construction of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.

For nearly 15 years, the Islamic Society of Boston had sought to build the center in the heart of Roxbury, the city's largest black neighborhood, to serve its sizable Muslim population. With endorsements from Mayor Thomas Menino and leading Massachusetts lawmakers, the mosque's construction seemed like a fait accompli—until, that is, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Boston Herald and his local Fox News affiliate snapped into action. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby also chimed in with a series of reports claiming the center's plans were evidence of a Saudi Arabian plot to bolster the influence of radical Islam in the United States, and possibly even to train underground terror cells.

It was at this point that the David Project entered the fray, convening elements of the local pro-Israel community in the Boston area to seek strategies to torpedo the project. According to emails obtained by the Islamic Society's lawyers in a lawsuit against the David Project, the organizers settled on a campaign of years of nuisance lawsuits, along with accusations that the center had received foreign funding from "the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia or… the Moslem Brotherhood."

In response, a grassroots coalition of liberal Jews initiated inter-faith efforts aimed at ending a controversy that had essentially been manufactured out of thin air and was corroding relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the city. Peters would not, however, relent. "We are more concerned now than we have ever been about a Saudi influence of local mosques," he announced at a suburban Boston synagogue in 2007.

After paying out millions of dollars in legal bills and enduring countless smears, the Islamic Society of Boston completed the construction of its community center in 2008. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, nothing came of the David Project's dark warnings. As Boston-area National Public Radio reporter Philip Martin reflected in September 2010, "The horror stories that preceded [the center's] development seem shrill and histrionic in retrospect."

The Network Expands

This second failed campaign was, in the end, more about movement building than success, no less national security. The local crusade established an effective blueprint for generating hysteria against the establishment of Islamic centers and mosques across the country, while galvanizing a cast of characters who would form an anti-Muslim network which would gain attention and success in the years to come.

In 2007, these figures coalesced into a proto-movement that launched a new crusade, this time targeting the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a secular Arabic-English elementary school in Brooklyn, New York. Calling their ad hoc pressure group, Stop the Madrassahmadrassah being simply the Arab word for "school"—the coalition's activists included an array of previously unknown zealots who made no attempt to disguise their extreme views when it came to Islam as a religion, as well as Muslims in America. Their stated goal was to challenge the school's establishment on the basis of its violation of the church-state separation in the US Constitution. The true aim of the coalition, however, was transparent: to pressure the city's leadership to adopt an antagonistic posture towards the local Muslim community.

The activists zeroed in on the school's principal, Debbie Almontaser, a veteran educator of Yemeni descent, and baselessly branded her "a jihadist" as well as a 9/11 denier. They also accused her of—as Pamela Geller, a far-right blogger just then gaining prominence put it, "whitewash[ing] the genocide against the Jews." Daniel Pipes, a neoconservative academic previously active in the campaigns against Joseph Massad and the Boston Islamic center (and whose pro-Likud think tank, Middle East Forum, has received $150,000 from Chernick) claimed the school should not go ahead because "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with Pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage." As the campaign reached a fever pitch, Almontaser reported that members of the coalition were actually stalking her wherever she went.

Given what Columbia Journalism School professor and former New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman called "her clear, public record of interfaith activism and outreach," including work with the New York Police Department and the Anti-Defamation League after the September 11th attacks, the assault on Almontaser seemed little short of bizarre—until her assailants discovered a photograph of a T-shirt produced by AWAAM, a local Arab feminist organization, that read "Intifada NYC." As it turned out, AWAAM sometimes shared office space with a Yemeni-American association on which Almontaser served as a board member. Though the connection seemed like a stretch, it promoted the line of attack the Stop the Madrassah coalition had been seeking.

Having found a way to wedge the emotional issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict into a previously New York-centered campaign, the school's opponents next gained a platform at the Murdoch-owned New York Post, where reporters Chuck Bennett and Jana Winter claimed her T-shirt was "apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple." While Almontaser attempted to explain to the Post's reporters that she rejected terrorism, the Anti-Defamation League chimed in on cue. ADL spokesman Oren Segal told the Post: "The T-shirt is a reflection of a movement that increasingly lauds violence against Israelis instead of rejecting it. That is disturbing."

Before any Qassam rockets could be launched from Almontaser's school, her former ally New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg caved to the growing pressure and threatened to shut down the school, prompting her to resign. A Jewish principal who spoke no Arabic replaced Almontaser, who later filed a lawsuit against the city for breaching her free speech rights. In 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that New York's Department of Education had "succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel" by firing Almontaser and urged it pay her $300,000 in damages. The commission also concluded that the Post had quoted her misleadingly.

Though it failed to stop the establishment of the Khalil Gibran Academy, the burgeoning anti-Muslim movement succeeded in forcing city leaders to bend to its will, and having learned just how to do that, then moved on in search of more high-profile targets. As the New York Times reported at the time, "The fight against the school... was only an early skirmish in a broader, national struggle."

"It's a battle that has really just begun," Pipes told the Times.

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