William J. Federer, already one of the religious right’s favorite self-styled experts on America’s “Christian heritage,” is now positioning himself in the same credential-free way as an expert on the supposed anti-Americanism of Islam. At last week’s First Coast Tea Party-sponsored event in Jacksonville, Florida—“What Every American Needs to Know About the Koran”—Federer came equipped not only with a flashy video presentation and slideshow, but also with a vast collection of distortions and misrepresentations about Islam.
Despite repeated assertions that the Tea Party is really about taxes, this was an out-and-out “God and country,” “Christian nation,” Islamophobia-promoting evening, with about 100 people in attendance.
After one member sang an original song, “God Save the USA,” accompanied by a video montage blending patriotism with images of Jesus and the Bible, Federer took the stage. Though he calls himself a historian, he has no training in that field nor does he have any education or expertise in Islam or the Qur’an. Federer, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting/business administration from Saint Louis University and an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from American Christian College, also calls himself a “best-selling author,” though the books available for sale consisted exclusively of self-published materials (indeed Federer’s own company, Amerisearch, published What Every American Needs To Know About the Qur’an, the book on which the lecture was based.)
Federer’s argument reflects the broader shari’ah conspiracy theory cottage industry (examined in detail earlier this month by Sarah Posner) that Americans need to be vigilant in the fight against a subversive plot to establish shari’ah and ultimately bring the whole world into submission to Allah.
While a one-sentence summary of this alleged conspiracy makes the absurdity of it seem obvious, Federer’s lecture was carefully crafted in a way that made it reinforcing, somewhat overwhelming, and rather convincing to those in the audience, who gasped, snorted, and laughed derisively at Islam and Muslims throughout.
While many contemporary Islamophobes assert that they are only talking about “radical Islam” before proceeding to demonize Muslims in general, Federer makes no such concession to what he considers political correctness. He claims that the difference is between “moderate Muslims who believe the world will submit to Allah later and fundamentalists who will do it now.” And he further claims that, in fact, American values of tolerance do nothing more than push the “moderates” into the “submit to Allah now” camp.
From a purely stylistic standpoint, Federer’s barrage of quotes and maps presented in breathless rapid-fire create what appears to be a slam-dunk case—for anyone not conversant in the realities of Islam or American politics, that is. Most of the presentation was pulled directly from his book on the Qur’an and read from Powerpoint slides so quickly that even he stumbled over his own words. The speed with which Federer delivered this “information” left no time to even begin to assimilate and reflect on anything he was saying in a lecture of over two hours. The impact on his audience can be considerable; as a woman said to me on the way out: “wow… he really knows a lot.”
For substance, Federer presented an entirely sanitized Christianity—a version that he and his political allies don’t actually embrace—in contrast to his ridiculous caricature of Islam and Muhammad.
He argued that the only way to characterize Christianity is to “look at Jesus.” From this directive, he presented only the “turn-the-other-cheek Jesus” and “Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus,” jettisoning all other history and context. I can see the appeal of this, and know many Christians who understand their faith in this way, but Federer and his allies are the folks who want to post the Ten Commandments on public property and teach a literal account of creation based on Genesis in public schools. Many even want a theocracy built on Old Testament “biblical law.” (The parallels between what Federer thinks Muslims are up to and what the Reconstructionists, among whom he travels, actually advocate are striking.)
Having presented a sanitized version of Christianity, Federer then slanted his presentation of Islam in exactly the opposite direction, beginning with several slides of verses from the Qur’an. He quickly read from the first few, which focused on the identification of Jews and Christians as infidels (ignoring the ones that acknowledge them as “the people of the book”), before moving on to verses that advocate killing and lying to those infidels.
Federer’s presentation failed to grasp that any religion, Islam included, is a complex system of interpretations (beliefs), practices, history, culture, and much more. Instead, he reduced a 1400-year-old religion with well over a billion adherents to a handful of verses cherry-picked from the Qur’an.
A central component of the systematic demonization is his caricature of Muslims and Muhammad as illiterate, perverted, sexist, and responsible for slavery. Federer repeatedly described Muhammad as illiterate, suggesting he was ignorant and making no mention of the fact that literacy at that time would have been rare. In fact, Federer changed the traditional story in which Muhammad is told by the angel to “recite!”, rewording it so that the angel instead tells him to “read,” to which he replies: “I cannot read.”
Perhaps most startling was Federer’s extensive focus on the prurient. Apart from predictable allusions to virgins in paradise, he also repeatedly referenced polygamy (he must have mentioned Muhammad’s wives ten times), sex slaves, castration, pedophilia, honor killings, and gang rape. He even alleged that the Qur’an contains “all these verses on how to rape women.” His concern for women’s safety and equality would have been heartwarming, had it only been real. Federer, of course, travels in the circles of religious right leaders who advocate so-called traditional family values and patriarchy (for example, Federer thanks biblical patriarchy advocate Doug Phillips of Vision Forum for his help with the book on Islam).
Seeking to challenge the Qur’an’s authenticity Federer connected it with various viewpoints present at the time of Muhammad, including Zoroastrianism and various Christian “heresies.” In an attempt to impress the audience Federer tossed out a jumble of complex ideas claiming that Muhammad was influenced by Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Modalism, and other competing -isms from early church attempts to understand the trinity and the relationship between Jesus’ human and divine natures. But in Federer’s mischaracterization, Muhammad was misled by these “heresies” while the church fathers immediately saw them for what they were, completely eliding the historical reality that the church fathers were involved in a long, politicized process of declaring them to be heresies. But the discussion served Federer’s purpose of portraying himself as a learned religious scholar.
He continued with a complicated discussion of the Trinity based on the prepositions used in the New Testament. As he wrote in one of his books: “A simple New Testament study of prepositions reveals that everything is ‘from’ and ‘to’ the Father; ‘by’ and ‘through’ Jesus; and ‘in’ and ‘with’ the Holy Spirit.” But if I remember anything from my New Testament Greek, the hardest part was the prepositions, because their meanings are notoriously ambiguous—but then, Federer probably hasn’t read the Greek.
But in my favorite segment, Federer suggested in a very condescending tone that he “just wish(ed) someone had taken the time to explain the Trinity to Muhammad,” followed by an unconventional interpretation of Trinity, comparing the relationship among the persons of the Trinity to people on a football team with Jesus as quarterback. This is itself heretical, of course, since the Trinity requires that God be understood as both three and one, unlike Federer’s construction in which the “persons” are only three and not one.
Alongside these comparisons between his versions of Christianity and Islam, Federer also developed a narrative of world history in which Muslims repeatedly and everywhere operate in three steps: “immigrate-increase-eliminate.” Muslims were initially chased out of Mecca because they were “pushy, argumentative, and threatening, just like today,” he argues, tweaking the language and the events to suit his purposes. According to Federer, everyone was getting along just fine until the Muslims showed up. In one the starkest examples of his twisted ahistoricism, he claims that before the Muslims, there were, across Europe, “communities of Jews called ghettos,” whitewashing the fact that it was largely Christian anti-Semitism, pogroms, and the Holocaust that decimated Europe’s Jewish population, not Muslims.
Federer pivots from this ahistoricism to blame contemporary tensions in Europe entirely on Muslim immigrants who are trying to eliminate everyone else, arguing that we have, “1400 years of history and countries all over the world as examples.” Even prosecuting Muslims for crimes is impossible to Federer because, “when there’s violence, no Muslims will testify against another Muslim on behalf of an infidel.” And then the bottom line: we have to stop them from doing that here.
The finishing touch is the rhetorical move to dismiss any non-Muslims offering contrary evidence as dupes, haters of America and freedom, socialists, leftists, or just “liberals.”
Muslims who attempt to offer contrary views, on the other hand, simply cannot be trusted. They’re not to be trusted in treaties because they’re taught, Federer maintains, that when “Muslim armies are weak, they should seek truces and when they are strong, they should fight without mercy.” Even personally, according to Federer, Muslims have a “sacred obligation to lie.” “It’s okay,” he said, “to say you’re not a Muslim to save your skin or to get elected,” to which the audience, getting Federer’s reference to President Obama, laughed and groaned. The result is a self-reinforcing narrative which includes a mechanism that, from the inside, precludes falsification.
The House Homeland Security Committee led by Pete King (R-NY) has commenced hearings on the “radicalization of Muslims” in a climate where one-third of Republicans believe Muslims want to impose shari’ah on America and a similar number believe the president is secretly a Muslim. Events like these across the country create the environment for those beliefs, and the support for efforts like King’s hearings. As a scholar of American religion, it’s easy to see the parallels between these efforts, and those directed at Jews, Mormons, Catholics, and other religions throughout history. Unfortunately it’s a lesson we don’t seem to be able to learn.