The recent death of Irving Kristol prompted me to go back and read a probably inordinate pile of of material produced by the so-called New York intellectuals, including several of them who later became the original neoconservatives. Tracking the transformation over four or five decades of extremely intelligent people from the far left to the center and then, in some cases, to the extreme right, is extremely interesting, and I have to say engaging and entertaining, although not, it should be quickly added, in the least bit convincing. Most of these people seem to have confused being cutting edge with being extreme, meaning that they lurched from one madcap position to another like an 18-wheeler with four flats going at 85 down a lonely highway. I was just finishing Norman Podhoretz’s hilariously self-serving and disingenuous memoir "Breaking Ranks," which is a chronicle of his abandonment of all his previous principles for both ideological and pecuniary reasons, when what should arrive in the mail but the new book attacking the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), "Muslim Mafia." I was dragged therefore from one end of the right-wing spectrum — the insufferable but unquestionably brilliant New York intellectuals who became neoconservatives — to the militantly stupid and breathless hysterics of the Glenn Beck-paranoid right.
Holding the book gingerly between thumb and forefinger with one hand, and my nose with the other (turning the pages proved slightly awkward under the circumstances, and elbows aren’t well designed for this process — trust me) I made my way wearily but quickly (there is no other way to read this thing) through its turgid, overwrought and wretched prose. The bottom line is that for all of its self-congratulatory hyperbole, after months of ad hoc spying on CAIR, taking every piece of information it could gather in the worst possible light and apparently stealing a small mountain of documents (none of this probably illegal, mind you) the authors have come up with absolutely nothing new or interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a more prodigious waste of time, not so much for the reader who can traverse its pages in an hour or two without missing an all too predictable beat, but more for the people who actually put it together. Their ballyhooed "infiltration" of what they, with typical subtlety, call "the belly of the beast" resulted in absolutely nothing new for a well-informed reader to learn.
It’s not that CAIR doesn’t have problems. Anyone who follows the Washington scene will know that the government has been in fact refusing to deal with it long before the formal break in contacts that was announced to a congressional group about a year ago, and that it has been many years since most NGOs (the ACLU and some other Muslim groups being notable exceptions) would have much to do with it either. The authors of "Muslim Mafia" are entirely wrong, of course, when they suggest that the emergence of the Obama administration is heralding a reversal of this relationship; in fact, since the administration is trying to retool their relationship with the entire Muslim world and secure peace in the Middle East, the stakes for all Arab and Muslim Americans are actually higher than they were under the Bush administration, and subsequently the scrutiny even greater and existing problems intensified rather than ameliorated.
There is no need for me here to regurgitate what issues plague that organization. They know what they are, and so does anyone else who follows these issues even casually. And, of course, every single one of them is given enormous shrift in "Muslim Mafia," as if the authors had somehow discovered any of this themselves or were telling any of us who pay attention anything we haven’t heard before.
But really, it is extraordinary that six months of "infiltration and undercover work" in the "belly of the beast" involving the theft of a small mountain of documents would have uncovered precisely… nothing! Or at least nothing that wasn’t already common knowledge among those who follow these things to any extent whatsoever. It’s extremely interesting in that what this really suggests, in fact, is that there isn’t anything left to be discovered. If all of this effort produced nothing but a regurgitation of well-known complaints and issues regarding CAIR, whether any of them are well-founded or not, what this strongly implies that there isn’t anything more to be learned. Not only did these people waste their time, apparently they have demonstrated that the long-standing concerns about the organization, and especially its prehistory, that have been circulating in Washington for many, many years is about all there is to it.
This doesn’t exactly help CAIR resolve those issues, and until they do they really won’t be able to serve the Muslim American community in the manner the community desperately requires, but it does suggest that there isn’t anything deeper at work, which in a roundabout and counterintuitive manner may actually help them in the long run. As I have said many times in the past, if one must have enemies, is best that they be as unhinged as possible. In this case, CAIR has been blessed with the wackiest, most unhinged accusers imaginable with unimpeachably bigoted and overtly malicious motivations. In the end, CAIR is going to have to deal with the real problems and the genuine historical and political baggage that is, as a practical matter, presently crippling the organization’s efforts to represent the Muslim American community. But as long as those limited, specific and serious issues remain buried under a mountain of breathless, feverish nonsense, outlandish hyperbole and outrageous exaggeration and even fabrications from dyed in the wool bigots and Islamomophobes, the more they can brush all concerns aside as nothing but a shameless attack on an entire community.
This book purports to be dealing in facts, and the real, verifiable facts in it are either well-established long ago or completely banal and almost entirely without interest. The recent flap by a tiny group of brain-dead Republican members of Congress about CAIR’s "nefarious plot" to secure congressional internships for young Muslims is a perfect case in point. If the authors of this book and their friends wanted to make themselves look completely ridiculous, they succeeded admirably. They variously complain about American Muslims voting, lobbying, serving in government, volunteering to assist law enforcement, and lots of other all-American activities which are not only the right but also the responsibility of all Americans. Again, whatever its intentions, in certain aspects, and largely because of the obvious paranoia and hysteria behind it, it discredits itself so thoroughly that it actually does CAIR a favor. I’m not saying the organization wouldn’t have been better off if this ridiculous book hadn’t been written, but I am saying that the whole thing is so idiotic that I’m not sure which of the two parties — the authors or the targets — is more badly damaged by it.
And what of the authors? Well, CAIR and many others have gone into some detail on the extreme Islamophobia of the co-author of the book and father of the "infiltrator," the hitherto unheard of David Gaubatz and his affiliated group SANE which wants to actually outlaw Islam in the United States and is about as openly racist and prejudiced as any collection of yahoos one is likely to come across in any part of our fruited plains. So, no need to retrace those accusations here.
They and others have also delved into the unsavory mindset of the book’s publisher, WorldNetDaily.com, run by the Arab-American evangelical charlatan Joe Farah, whose repulsive website and other publications are chockablock with "end-times" balderdash and is, among so many other outlandish things, the headquarters of the "birther" movement which bizarrely insists that Pres. Obama was not born in Hawaii but somewhere else, and is therefore not qualified to be president! Obviously, the pedigree of this tome couldn’t be less edifying or reassuring. It is what it at first glance appears to be: the product of a gang of bigots and hysterics, which isn’t to say that nothing in the book is true, but rather is to say that you can’t take their word for anything in it because they are wackos and fruitcakes. And they didn’t actually discover anything new, so the whole thing was a colossal waste of time.
One is, unfortunately, much better acquainted with the other co-author, Paul Sperry, a former staffer at one of the most shamelessly racist publications in the United States, the unrelentingly bigoted, mean-spirited and oddball rag, Investors Business Daily. He is best known for his earlier work, "Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives have Penetrated Washington" (Nelson Current, 2005). Of all of the Islamophobes outside of the blogosphere, I don’t think there’s any question that Sperry is the most reckless, mean-spirited and McCarthyite of the bunch. "Infiltration" accuses every single Arab and Muslim American who had any prominence in Washington at the time, including stalwart Republican Bush supporters in the administration, of being Islamists, "Islamofascists," and, as the title says, infiltrators. The man’s work is nothing less than a regurgitation of the most hysterical anti-Semitism, redirected towards Arabs and Muslim, seeing disloyalty and treason as an inherent characteristic of anyone from the Arab or Muslim communities.
Sperry claimed at the time to be writing a book that is not hostile to Islam and that he likes and respects many Muslims, however his unbridled hostility to the faith is fully evident from his reply to the question he poses, “is Islam really one of the fastest-growing religions in America?” his answer being: “afraid so.” In "Muslim Mafia," he seems to reverse this position in a strange and incoherent manner (consistent with his entire approach to reality). Early on in his first book, he warns against "those trying to mainstream Islam" in the United States. Sperry even objects to a efforts to protect basic religious accommodation for Muslims in workplaces and the like as provided by the Constitution, a position that makes him stand out even among the most virulent Islamophobes in his hostility to Muslim Americans as such, an opposition continued in "Muslim Mafia." He describes all requests for constitutionally-mandated religious accommodation as unreasonable “demands” from a “cultural fifth column.” Drawing largely upon inference, guilt by association and suggestive implications typically free of evidence, Sperry sought to indict virtually every Muslim American individual and organization active in Washington as “Muslim subversives and fellow travelers.”
Essentially Sperry offers a conspiracy theory that holds that:
Islamists with covert agendas have permeated every layer of American society — from classrooms and military bases to city councils and Congress and… they are slowly and assiduously manipulating an open an ever-tolerant society to try to transform the U.S. into an Islamic state.
Sperry relies not only on insinuation and guilt by association, but on classic Islamophobia of such as “the Muslim art of telling ‘white lies’ to defend the faith and further the cause of Allah, as instructed in the hadiths.” Sperry accuses “orthodox Muslims” of not considering Jewish and Christian civilians to be “necessarily innocent,” a calumny very similar to the notion that Muslims believe non-Muslims can be killed at random. He claims that “many Muslim-American leaders” hide the fact that in their Friday sermons “more often than not [they] advocate violence against Jews, Christians and the West.” To be sure there are some extremist mosques, but the idea that there are “many Muslim-American leaders” preaching violence against the United States in their sermons is absurd. Sperry is also one of those who feels the need to interpret Islam in the most radical manner possible, accusing the mainstream of “sugarcoating” concepts such as jihad by emphasizing a nonviolent interpretation of the doctrine. He argues that the Quran “not only condones violence, but commands it.” There is some truth in this, of course, but it’s not any more applicable to the Quran than the Bible (thus far I have resisted the temptation to get into the details of violence, some of the genocidal, mandated in the Bible, but suffice it to say the Quran simply cannot compete on that score), or to the main holy books of any of the world’s major religions for that matter, all of which include passages that can and have been used to justify both the very best and the absolute worst in human behavior.
His list of the “top 10 myths of Islam” reads like a primer of Islamophobic defamation:
• Islam is a religion of peace
• Jihad means inner struggle against sin
• Terrorism does not come from Islam
• Allah is the same God of the Bible
• The Quran teaches tolerance of other religions
• Osama bin Ladin has hijacked Islam and distorts its teachings
• Islam is compatible with Western-style democracy
• Those virgins? They are really raisins
• Poverty and oppression motivate the terrorists
• The Quran does not encourage self-immolation
Obviously, since he believes that Islam is not and cannot in any legitimate form be peaceful, promotes terrorism, is intolerant and incompatible with democracy, that bin Laden is, as he puts it, “a model Muslim,” and that Muslims are authorized by their religion to systematically lie to all nonbelievers, Sperry is terrified at the spectacle of any Muslim American whomsoever attaining any position of trust or influence in Washington. Even professions of unqualified support for Israel, which might mollify most pro-Israel and even some evangelical Islamophobes, would apparently not be sufficient for Paul Sperry. Given the model he constructs, there can be no such thing as a loyal or trustworthy Muslim American of any stripe, and his shamelessly bigoted arguments all proceed on the basis of that assumption.
Sperry frets in his 2005 book about the prospect of any Muslim-American being elected to Congress, anticipating perhaps the election of Keith Ellison and Andre Carson:
Muslim members would have unfettered access to top secret US intelligence without undergoing any FBI background checks. Unlike their staffs and other federal employees, members of Congress are elected and therefore exempt from such investigations (although they must file financial disclosure papers). And unlike the president, they would not have to be US-born. Hypothetically, a young Jihadist from Saudi Arabia who has been a citizen of the US to seven years could get elected to the house, get appointed to a committee responsible for homeland security, and feed critical counterterrorism intelligence back to Al Qaida. It is not far-fetched.
Not only is it far-fetched, it’s downright preposterous, and indeed laughable. But this attitude is inevitable given Sperry’s uncompromising suspicion of anyone and everyone with any sort of Muslim connection whatsoever. In fact, Sperry is not only suspicious but condemnatory of every Muslim in America, and approvingly quotes a former FBI agent as saying that “virtually every Muslim in America supports terrorism in one way or another."
Sperry not only denounced all prominent Washington Muslims, but also all non-Muslim Republicans and Democrats who have maintained a decent working relationship with the Muslim community. For example, along with upbraiding numerous members of Congress, Sperry viciously attacked famed conservative activist Grover Norquist for supposedly engaging in a “political jihad for Muslim rights.” In a particularly revolting and underhanded passage, observes that Norquist’s marriage to a Palestinian American woman, “gives literal meaning to the notion that Norquist is in bed with Islamists.” How clever. Typically, Sperry provides not a shred of evidence about her beliefs or activities (I can vouch for the fact that she is both a fine woman and a loyal American), but in Islamophobic discourse anyone from the Muslim American community can be simply labeled an “Islamist” no matter what they actually think or do (as I too have been, on countless occasions). Sperry’s agenda is all-too-obvious, and it embodies the fundamental essence of contemporary American Islamophobia: to keep any and all Muslim-Americans as far away from political empowerment, engagement, and serious contribution to the American political scene as possible.
I was delighted to see my friend Suhail Khan, a conservative Republican and former Bush administration official, who was the subject of vicious Islamophobic attacks while in office, including in Sperry’s first revolting book and again in his new hate speech manifesto, appearing on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC the other day calmly and with typical dignity explaining that these people are nothing but a bunch of racists and religious bigots and determined to attack the Muslim American community without restraint or the least regard for the truth.
"Muslim Mafia" is an embarrassment to its authors, its publishers and all who have praised it. It will be one of the many examples of contemporary Islamophobia that will be remembered with shame and national discomfort when our latest fad of prejudice and bigotry (this time aimed at Muslim Americans) becomes, as previous eruptions of irrational hatred against minority communities have, seen as simply another chapter in the story of our country overcoming the irrational fear and prejudice against a new immigrant community striving to find its place in the mainstream of American society and culture.