Who Gets Paid to Make America Hate? The Roots of the Islamophobia Network

We were told, at least on some news channels, that last summer’s Manhattan mosque controversy expressed an organic fear of Islam. Just as we’re often pushed to think that the Tea Party is a grassroots reaction to American debt, genuine fiscal concern suddenly capturing American attention and driving us to near legislative paralysis.  It’s about time someone followed the money. 

Today, the Center for American Progress (CAP) releases a groundbreaking report: Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.  Its authors include Faiz Shakir, Eli Clifton, Matt Duss, Lee Fang and Scott Keyes; lead researcher and writer, Wajahat Ali, has shifted gears for this contribution.  Previously well known for his extremely well received play, “Domestic Crusaders,” Ali is now working with the Center to better understand “the Islamophobia Network.” 

The Well-Oiled Anti-Muslim Machine

You might wonder if this industry has any relevance to you. Fair enough: I’m not just concerned about the misrepresentations of Islam, though as a Muslim that concerns me quite a bit.  Beyond Islam, we should all be worried by how such small cliques of mediocre thinkers can attract huge amounts of money and with both cash and access to power, then create, malignantly mutate, and inflate our anxieties.  They articulate these in the most negative way possible and then mainstream them, pushing out more reasonable and urgent concerns.

We at Religion Dispatches have been covering this religious-political industrial complex, and its overlap with other elements of the far right agenda, for some time now.  (You must read Sarah Posner’s invaluable exploration, “Welcome to the Shari’ah Conspiracy Industry”.) But Fear, Inc. gives us a still-more exhaustive insight into the Islamophobia network’s leaders, strategies, and intentions.  With good timing.  We’re coming up on an election-year, in which major questions about the United States must be answered, or at least recognized.

We need national conversations that represent people’s interests and concerns, not partisan policies supersized by imbalances of wealth.  Say, $40 million worth, which is what’s been channeled to the “misinformation experts”– five self-anointed specialists who travel the country, speak to state legislatures, address incestuous conferences and self-congratulatory networks, and through their media appearances, access and acolytes, generate a snowball effect.  They have amplified questions on Islam and kept them in the public eye.

These five have pushed many of the questions and debates that occupy much of our national conversation on Islam and Muslims, as well as similar conversations in Europe—Fear, Inc. opens by sharing just how often Breivik quoted and cited America’s Islam haters. Breivik may have claimed to reflect what Europe feels, but in truth, he adopted the narrative of an organized minority phenomenon.  This isn’t everyday folk worrying about their backyards, but money and strategy targeting everyday folk–including American Muslims who often didn’t know what was coming their way.

Unfortunately, we have more reasons to worry.

First, Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik repeatedly cited many of these misinformation experts.  His literal targets?  Liberals, socialists, young leaders—everyday Norwegian folk he claimed to be defending.

Second, these misinformation experts have pushed suspicion and fear of Islam to ever-higher levels.  Since 2002, more and more Americans express their concerns about Islam, despite most of them not knowing Muslims personally.

Third, the heartland of the Muslim world is gripped by vigorous democratic movements, which constitute a singularly sufficient refutation of the concocted rhetoric about a supposed Islamic allergy to freedom. 

As the United States faces shifting economic and geopolitical patterns, the Muslim-majority world will become increasingly important to the direction the world takes.  That also includes the global relevance of democratic institutions, which is good for us, since right now the Western world is economically troubled, and challenged by rising authoritarian powers.  

Arab and Muslim countries worlds are pushing strongly for democracy, democratic inclusion, and fair participation—we could find ourselves new allies in a crucial time.  But how exactly could this happen, if our politics isn’t merely contextually irrelevant, but factually wrong and rhetorically aggressive?  We cannot capture these opportunities if well-funded persons who are actively distorting the discourse monopolize our politics. The more the misinformation experts can find platforms, the more they hurt America. 

 And so the final, most crucial lesson from this report.  For all the rhetoric of Islam’s threat to civilization, and the Enlightenment, the report details a phenomenon far more dangerous: A monied and sophisticated indifference to reality.  Islam today, science tomorrow. (No, wait; make that misrepresenting Islam and science today.)  We must keep in mind the effect this will have on our constitutional rights and freedoms.  Those who want to target the rituals and practices of a misunderstood religious community can very easily expand their target to other populations.  

We’ve come too far as a country, in terms of the rights we recognize and cherish, to simply back down now.  In the coming days, we at this magazine hope to take a closer look at this report, its most important findings, and where we can go from here. For in all these concerns, there is this most damning element: They’re not telling the truth. 

And they don’t care, either.  Their aggressive proselytizing is indifferent to accuracy and honesty, a moral deficiency whose larger consequence has been to sap our democratic conversations of all strength and our politics of all conviction.  You could say, then, that they are the real moral relativists.