A setback for Islamophobia


The Islamophobic movement in the United States has suffered a series of important setbacks in recent months. These developments promise to halt its slow, seemingly inexorable crawl over the past decade toward the mainstream of American cultural and political life, especially on the right. They may even signal the start of a process that pushes the worst forms of anti-Muslim bigotry back into the fringes whence it emanated and where it belongs.

The most noteworthy example of such a setback occurred last week when Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four other Republican House members sent a letter to various government inspectors general demanding the investigation of, among other people, Huma Abedin, a long-serving personal aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The letter alleged that Abedin was somehow part of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to “infiltrate” the US government.

The letter was not only widely perceived as vicious and groundless, but also as a prime example of McCarthyite guilt by insinuation and association and the most recent iteration of the “paranoid style” in American politics.

The letter essentially presents a conspiracy theory about Muslim Brotherhood plots to take over the American government or at least influence its policies in a nefarious manner. Its accusations against Abedin were worthy of old John Birch Society charges that various government officials were Communist “agents of influence.” The letter largely relied on the ravings of Frank Gaffney’s notorious Center for Security Policy, which specializes in trafficking paranoia and hatred against Muslims and rival conservatives.

But Bachmann and Gaffney chose the wrong target in Abedin, who is also married to former congressman Anthony Wiener. She wasn’t just a little-known figure with a foreign-sounding name and potentially dubious relatives. She is a well-known quantity in Washington, familiar to leaders in both parties and well-respected and liked. Washington in general was simply not going to suspect without any evidence whatsoever that Abedin was involved in any kind of insidious conspiracy.

The pushback was led by Republicans themselves. In particular, Senator John McCain launched a blistering attack on the letter on the Senate floor. House Speaker John Boehner also expressed dismay, as did Florida Senator and Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio. The Islamophobes’ miscalculation in this case was so severe, and the pushback so forceful, that this incident may well prove a turning point in the battle against anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States.

This wasn’t quite as dramatic as Joe McCarthy’s comeuppance at the hands of attorney Joseph Welch who asked him, “Have you left no sense of decency?” But it’s pretty close. The Abedin incident can and should be cited time and again when Muslim Americans find their loyalty questioned on the basis of their identity alone.

The most shrill, vituperative and overwrought professional Islamophobes in the United States had already been dealt a crippling blow by the right-wing Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who cited many of them as direct inspirations and heroes.

The massacre of young Norwegians he committed meant that the logical consequences of the hate inspired by the preachers of Islamophobia were suddenly no longer deniable. Perhaps even more importantly, Breivik’s mayhem wasn’t targeted primarily at Muslims, but at a large summer camp of Norwegian youth followers of a liberal party he detested.

Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, in particular, were badly damaged by Breivik’s barbaric rampage and the fact that he was discovered to have authored an endless, ranting manifesto citing them scores of times and suggesting Spencer would be a good candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.

And Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum has recently been inflicting enormous damage on itself by persisting in publishing the writings of Raymond Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been not only growing ever more strident but also falling victim to hoaxes including a so-called “sodomy fatwa,” and a supposed campaign by Muslim extremists to destroy the pyramids.

Are there fanatical Muslim clerics capable of such declarations? Of course there are. But did anyone actually say either of those things? It appears not, but Middle East Forum doesn’t want to admit that. Ibrahim’s mistakes are only increasing the already well-established impression that Pipes and his outfit are willing to embrace anything that makes Muslims look bad, even if they are preposterous misrecognitions.

American Islamophobia is largely a creature of the political right. In the 50s and early 60s, William F. Buckley led the campaign to drive anti-Semitism out of the conservative movement for its own good. The same process must be repeated now with regard to Islamophobia.

There isn’t anyone on the American right at the moment with the stature and influence Buckley had. It’s going to have to be a collective effort this time. But the American conservative movement desperately needs to cure itself of anti-Muslim bigotry, and it might finally be starting to do that.