Why Conservatives are Turning on Beck

Adam Serwer asks a good question: why now? Why, after all the obvious agreement between conservatives and Beck — on Israel, on Islam, on big bad bogeymen like shari’ah water-carriers and socialists and Stalinists et al. — are conservatives suddenly, as Anthea put it yesterday, circling Beck like sharks?

As I discussed as the Egypt news was breaking and Beck was jumping on the opportunity to link the Muslim Brotherhood to the grand socialist conspiracy, American conservatives have a long-standing affection for conspiracy theories surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood and its supposed plot to take over America with a “caliphate.”

As Media Matters notes today, Beck shares a pundit with the “creeping shari’ah” industry: Zuhdi Jasser, a claimed “moderate” Muslim who seems to think that “radical Islamists” lurk in America. As I discussed last week, Jasser is the star of the Clarion Fund film The Third Jihad; “crazy bigot” Frank Gaffney serves on Clarion’s board; and despite the Conservative Political Action Conference’s decision to shut Gaffney out, there is still a screening of Clarion’s latest endeavor, Iranium, at this week’s conference. Jasser also will be a star witness at Republican Peter King’s “radical Islam” hearings.

Ali Gharib reports in AlterNet on an earlier screening of Iranium, which hypes Tehran’s nuclear threat, at the Heritage Foundation, and about how the film being promoted by a former colleague of World Net Daily’s Aaron Klein, who was one of the first conservative writers to jump on the conspiracy train: lest you forget, that line of thinking goes, Mohamed ElBaradei, while head of the IAEA, let Iran off the hook on its nuclear ambitions; ElBaradei’s OK with the Muslim Brotherhood; therefore he must be behind the plot to install a nuclear-armed-Islamic-caliphate-that-will-impose-shari’ah-on-us-all. I paraphrase, of course, but you get the drift.

That Jasser is both the right’s poster boy for “moderate Islam” and a Beck guest demonstrates that Beck is drinking from the same well as a wide swath of the American conservative movement. (On Hardball last night, Chris Matthews zeroed in on the John Birch Society, but it’s hardly been a pioneer of the shari’ah scare.) CPAC might have shunned Gaffney; he might have struck back with the comically desperate claim that CPAC itself has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood; but let’s face it, the right is happy, for instance, to let Peter King go ahead with his 21st century McCarthy hearings. But Beck has gone too far?

Three years ago, I wrote a story about the Clarion Fund, and talked to Jasser about his role in the making of The Third Jihad. The film, which also features political figures Sen. Joe Lieberman, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, posits — just like Beck does, although with a rather frightening if ill-conceived coherence that Beck can’t match — that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind every American Muslim group, and that every one of those groups shares its supposed goal of imposing shari’ah law in the west. “They want shari’ah law where they’re able to install it in America,” Jasser told me, “in enclaves and court systems.” These groups believe, he insisted, that “the construct of government isn’t based on natural law and reason, but the construct is that the Qu’ran is the constitution and the clerics rule through oligarchy and lay Muslims have to abide by the clerical injunction of shari’ah.”

Beck has never been shy about showcasing rapture-ready end-timers like Joel Rosenberg or John Hagee; his apocalyptic rantings about Islam of late are tinged with that sort of Ezekiel Gog-Magog prophecy — which, in the view of Christian Zionists like Hagee, foretell not only a grand confrontation between Christ and the Antichrist, but between Christianity and Islam. As Anthea observed last week, Beck is clearly trying to tap into those narratives to fuel his — and his viewers’ — paranoias about current events in Egypt.

That’s not to say these end-times prophecies aren’t criticized in right-wing circles — they are, but they are largely tolerated. And tolerated, for example, by pro-Israel neocons like Bill Kristol, now leading the charge against Beck, because they supposedly support Israel. This is exactly the sort of thinking that led Newt Gingrich and John McCain to suggest (quite inaccurately, in retrospect, right?) that the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah amounted to World War III, and Kristol to suggest that bombing Iran might not be a bad idea. McCain might have disavowed Hagee during the 2008 campaign, but his Christians United for Israel continues to flourish, and institutional Jewish tolerance for his professed “love” of Israel, while dampened somewhat, continues nonetheless.

So why is Beck getting the cold shoulder? I think he’s gone too far with the crazy talk. Conservatives want this sort of anti-Muslim stuff to be respectable — I’m not saying it is, I’m just saying they’re straining to present it that way. As far as the religious part of the conservative movement goes, the religious right has probably been cheered by having movement that is no longer seen as being led by a single person whose embarrassing moments have to be owned by the whole movement. The lack of a single leader is a sign of the religious right’s success, not its demise. Beck has long troubled many within it who don’t want him to be seen as their de facto leader. Don’t misjudge that, though — he still has his defenders. But no matter who prevails here, don’t be fooled by the conservative pile-on about Beck. It’s more about form than substance.