by Matt Duss
In a recent article for National Review Online, David Horowitz and Robert Spencer criticized the Center for American Progress’s report “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” Following a familiar formula, the authors play the victim, accusing CAP of peddling “conspiracy theories” about anti-Muslim activists like themselves.
Even a cursory glance at our report, however, shows we have done no such thing. Quite the contrary, the dissemination of hateful anti-Muslim ideas by Horowitz, Spencer, and others is done right out in the open. CAP’s contribution was to document these efforts, to draw together the various strands in order to properly view them as part of a coherent whole — an organized campaign to spread misinformation about the religious faith of millions of Americans.
The authors first take issue with our use of the term “Islamophobia,” claiming “the purpose of the suffix — phobia — is to identify any concern about troubling Islamic institutions and actions as irrational, or worse as a dangerous bigotry that should itself be feared.” This is false. As my co-authors and I note in our report, we don’t use the term “Islamophobia” lightly. We define it as an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life.
We think that any fair-minded reader of Horowitz and Spencer’s work, which our report extensively documents, would conclude that it qualifies.
Engaging in exactly the sort of careless slander that our report examines, the authors then deride similar reports from what they refer to as “[Muslim] Brotherhood fronts like CAIR [the Council on American-Islamic Relations], and jihadist apologists like the Southern Poverty Law Center.” Interestingly, they spare the Anti-Defamation League, which released a backgrounder earlier this year declaring that Spencer’s group, Stop Islamization of America, “promotes a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam.”
Spencer’s group, the Anti-Defamation League wrote, “seeks to rouse public fears by consistently vilifying the Islamic faith and asserting the existence of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy ‘American’ values.” Should the Anti-Defamation League also be lumped with the “jihadist apologists”?
Rather than addressing such charges, however, the authors spend the majority of their response listing reasons why Islamic extremist terrorism represents a genuine threat to American security. But they are rebutting an argument we have not made. As evidenced by the considerable amount of work CAP has produced on the subject, we take the issue of national security extremely seriously — far more seriously than Horowitz and Spencer’s selective, inflammatory, and unscholarly rendering of the Islamic peril suggests that they themselves do.
It is enormously revealing that Horowitz and Spencer do not address the actual argument made in “Fear, Inc.,” which is that they, along with a small cadre of self-appointed experts and activists, promote the idea that religiously inspired terrorism represents true Islam. (“Traditional Islam itself is not moderate or peaceful,” wrote Spencer in 2006. “It is the only major world religion with a developed doctrine and tradition of warfare against unbelievers.”) They also promote the idea that Sharia law is incompatible with a modern society (“There is no form of Sharia that does not contain . . . [the] death penalty for apostasy,” wrote Spencer, obviously ignorant of the manner in which Islam is practiced by millions of Sharia-adherent Muslims in the United States).
The unmistakable implication of these claims is that all observant Muslims should be viewed with suspicion simply by virtue of being observant Muslims. That’s obviously Islamophobic. (It also flies in the face of the evidence. Earlier this year, the largest study of Muslim Americans ever done, the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey, found that “involvement with the mosque, and increased religiosity increases civic engagement and support for American democratic values.”)
It is worth noting here the irony of Horowitz and Spencer’s accusing CAP of promulgating a conspiracy theory, because, as the Anti-Defamation League’s backgrounder also notes, a conspiracy is precisely what those authors themselves allege in regard to American Muslims’ supposed efforts to infiltrate the American legal system with Islamic Sharia law. (For an examination and rebuttal of those claims, see CAP’s previous issue brief, “Understanding Sharia Law.”)
And finally, a word about the venue in which Horowitz and Spencer’s piece was published, National Review. While we don’t share many of this magazine’s positions, we recognize it as an institution of American conservatism and a key player in the American political debate. Its imprimatur matters, which is why we’re concerned that that imprimatur should be granted to characters like Horowitz and Spencer.
Back in the 1950’s, the stridently anti-Communist John Birch Society made very similar claims about the threat of Communism that Islamophobes now make about the threat of Islam. At one point, Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, wrote that Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”
National Review’s founder and editor, William F. Buckley Jr., responded to Welch’s allegation with condemnation. “How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense?” Buckley asked. “That dilemma weighs on conservatives across America.” Buckley’s condemnation helped marginalize the John Birch Society from the mainstream conservative movement for decades.
In Horowitz’s FrontPage magazine on Feb. 3, 2011, Spencer wrote, “[Muslim] Brotherhood operatives are in the American government and working closely with it, thanks to Barack Obama.” On Sept. 12, 2011, Spencer criticized President Obama’s choice of a Bibleverse read at the 9/11 commemorations as evidence of the president’s “remarkable, unqualified and obvious affinity for Islam.” The list of similar allegations from Spencer is not short.
This new dilemma should weigh on conservatives across America. David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, and the rest of the Islamophobes we name in our report are the modern version of the John Birch Society. Judging Robert Welch’s allegations of President Eisenhower’s supposed Communist sympathies to be beyond the pale, William F. Buckley denounced them in the pages of National Review. It’s unfortunate that, rather than do the same in response to Welch’s heirs, today’s National Review gives them a platform.
— Matt Duss is a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress and the director of the Center’s Middle East Progress project. He is a co-author of “Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.”