Trump's advisors and Islamaphobia
Islamaphobic ideologues now hold some of the most powerful positions in American government. As a group, these figures understand the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims entirely through the lens of its most extreme outliers. In an oft cited and telling analogy, its akin to suggesting Christianity should be understood by taking the views of the Klu Klux Klan as the norm. Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller’s anti-immigration views, as I outlined in my previous blog, stem from a concentration of far-right views that have also viewed Muslims as a particular threat to the far-right’s peculiar understanding of Christian Western Civilization. In this blog I’ll be outlining some of the sources and implications of their views on Islam.
That Islam is a particular threat to American values has exercised Bannon for a long time. In 2007 he pitched a documentary-style movie in which radical Muslims take over the country and turn it into the “Islamic States of America.” The treatment was recently discussed by The Washington Post. The eight-page outline indicated that “fundamental clash of civilizations” was in the making. The treatment proposes “a three-part movie that would trace ‘the culture of intolerance’ behind sharia law, examine the ‘Fifth Column’ made up of ‘Islamic front groups’ and identify the American enablers paving ‘the road to this unique hell on earth.'” The opening to this ostensible warning about the future runs as follows:
The film treatment explains the major premise of the film:
“The road to the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the United States starts slowly and subtly with the loss of the will to win. The road to this unique hell on earth is paved with the best intentions from our major institutions. This political/accommodation/appeasement approach is not simply a function of any one individual’s actions but lies at the heart of our most important cultural and political institutions.”
The script goes on to suggest that it is not radical jihadists that America needs to be worried about, but Islam as a whole, and that the change agents looking to create an Iran-like Islamist state were hiding in plain sight, in community organizations and posing as civil rights activists. The film proposal includes as possible on-air experts two analysts who have also been advisors to Trump: Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born Maronite Christian who has warned that jihadists are posing as civil rights advocates, and the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation security expert James Jay Carafano, who has defended Trump’s executive order banning travel from majority-Muslim states.
Bannon’s film was never made and might be dismissed as an exercise in creative license, but there is plenty of other evidence available that suggests the anxieties and arguments expressed in the film reflect Bannon’s actual views about Islam. Indeed, Bannon’s views directly mirror the growing Islamaphobia in the United States (and found also in Canada).
As has been frequently pointed out, including by his own intelligence and national security community, Trump’s bans on travellers from Muslim-majority nations make little sense as a counterterrorism policy. But it does make sense if the real motivation was rooted in Islamaphobic logic, particularly that of the American rightwing counter-Jihadist movement. That movement, led by people like Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer and Brigitte Gabriel, and their organizations, the Center for Security Policy (CSP), JihadWatch, and ACT for America, sees Europe as already “lost” to Muslim migration, and it has for years advocated a ban on Muslim immigration. After the Second World War, numerous guest workers from the Middle East and North Africa were brought into Europe to help rebuild the continent. This resulted in a growing Muslim minority in Western Europe, from 2% of the population in 1950 to 4% by 1990, and 6% by 2010. This Muslim population growth, counter-jihadists argue, represents an existential threat to European Christian civilization.
Moreover, counter-jihadists believe that counterterrorism experts and Islam scholars do not understand the nature of this threat and are too ready to ascribe to Islam the same kind of features and internal differences of other religions. They argue, instead, that a “correct reading” of Islamic scripture shows that political violence is intrinsic to Islam; that in fact, Islam is a whole is a violent totalitarian ideology rather than a diverse religious tradition.
A pioneer of this kind of view is Robert Spencer who has run the blog Jihad Watch since 2003. Spencer has no formal training in Quranic scholarship: he received an MA in 1986 in religious studies from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and wrote his master’s thesis on Catholic history. He’s published more than a dozen polemical books with ultra-right wing presses. (He’s also been used as an expert by Canada’s Ezra Levant in the latter’s own Islamaphobia controversies). Spencer’s most significant book is probably Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam Is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs (2008), which developed one of the most important ideas of the counter-jihad: that Islamist terrorists aren’t America’s real Muslim problem. Distracted by the possibility of terror attacks, Americans have not noticed the “true agents of intolerance in their midst”. The stealth Jihad refers to the migration of millions of Muslims to America and secretly working to take-over the country and turn it into the Islamic Republic of Bannon’s unproduced screenplay.
Spencer’s views certainly feature prominently in subsequent counter-Jihad propaganda. In 2010, Frank Gaffney’s CSP convened a panel to study the threat to America of radical Islam. The group called itself Team B II (the original CSP Team B had argued in the late 1970s that communism was an insatiably aggressive doctrine, one that could not be appeased — a conclusion that would influence Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in the 1980s). Team B II views radical Islamism in the same way. The Team B II report — titled “Shariah: The Threat to America” — is perhaps the most comprehensive summary of the counter-jihadist movement’s ideas.
As its title indicates, the report’s argument hinges on a particular view of “sharia.” This Arabic word translates as “law,” and refers to the vast body of rules and regulations that are supposed to guide daily life for believing Muslims. Yet since Islam, like other major religions, is actually a decentralized tradition, there is no agreed-upon single interpretation of sharia. The thousands of rules that make up sharia have been contested among Muslim scholars — and individual Muslims — throughout the history of Islam. But Team B II argues that sharia is different from similar moral codes in other religions. “There is ultimately but one sharia,” the report holds. “It is totalitarian in character, incompatible with our Constitution, and a threat to freedom here and around the world. Sharia’s adherents are making a determined, sustained, and well-financed effort to impose it on all Muslims and non-Muslims, alike.” In fact, the report claims, Muslims are obligated to install a worldwide Islamic theocracy.
But Team B II’s authors make this case by mischaracterizing Islamic legal theory, in particular a concept known as abrogation (treating the later verses of the Quran as more authoritative than the earlier ones), and by taking verses from the Quran out of historical context. No credible Islamic scholar interprets abrogation in the way that the counter-Jihadist movement does, since for Islamic legal scholars, abrogation is merely one tool used to interpret the Quran. And, like the Bible, the Quran contains scriptures that both endorse and reject violence. In the full context of Islamic law, the injunctions to kill and conquer are usually interpreted as being specific to their time and place in history, and do not necessarily overrule other, more peaceful verses in the Quran. (Cherry-picked ahistorical literal interpretations of the Quran like those advocated by the counter-Jihadists are comparable to the kind of fundamentalist readings of the bible used to justify opposition to social policies like LGBTQ rights).
Team B II dismisses any objections to its reading of Islamic scriptures as a symptom of sharia-sanctioned lying. They cite taqiyya, a medieval ruling that permitted Muslims traveling in areas where admitting to be Muslim was sure to result in persecution, to say they weren’t actually Muslim. It’s also a concept mostly associated with Shia Islam, as most Sunni Islamic legal scholars reject the concept outright. If Shia Muslims were to invoke the concept today it is to avoid persecution from the radical fundamentalist views of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda who take their views from the Sunni tradition and who have killed far more Shia Muslims for their “apostasy” than non-Muslims in the West. Such distinctions within Islam – comparable to the distinctions within Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious traditions, of all whom have distinct denominations and radical fundamentalist fringes – are denied to Muslims by the counter-jihadists.
Instead, all Muslims are defined by counter-jihadists by the views of the radical extremes, and any assertions to the contrary are simply examples of taqiyya that obscure the true nature of Islamic intentions to dupe Westerners. Their usually cited evidence of taqiyya being used like this rests on the 9/11 hijackers going to strip clubs and drinking alcohol while they prepared their attacks, which the 9/11 hijackers certainly did. That they felt the need to use the concept of taqiyya to justify doing so is pure speculation and presumes a conflation of all Islam with the peculiar views of the 9/11 hijackers and Al Qaeda.
Of course, the beauty of this very prejudiced understanding of taqiyva, is that citing an Islamic authority who takes a different view of the Quran is only proof, to the counter-jihadists, that you are taken in by sharia propaganda. The concept allows for an un-refutable conspiracy theory. The movement has consequently flourished, even though actual experts on Islam and of terrorism have been rightfully full of contempt for such theories. The reviews of books produced by the movement have been devastating, pointing to errors of fact, mischaracterization, lack of context and plain prejudice. Yale lecturer Daniel Luban wrote that as a genre the movement’s literature “can justly be called the new McCarthyism”. If you were to substitute the word “Jew” for “Muslim” in such works it becomes clear that much of the animus currently directed at Islam is very familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the hate propaganda of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Yet a grass roots movement pushing these ideas has developed through a group called ACT for America. Calling itself as the “the NRA of National Security,” it claims to have 1000 chapters and membership of 500,000 across the United States (Note: this movement has traction in Canada too). Its president, Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese Christian immigrant who calls herself “one of the leading terrorism experts in the world,” has no formal training in terrorism study nor any academic credentials or training at all. Her own views have been debunked for playing “loose and fast with very different eras, places and peoples”. Yet her activists have successfully brought forth motions to deny sharia as a valid source of law in nine US states: Alabama, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arizona, South Dakota, Arizona, and Tennessee. This, even though there was no real demand in any these states for sharia to be considered as a source of criminal or civil law.
Unsurprisingly, the right-wing media has readily taken up this anti-Islam narrative. UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center found that guests with extreme anti-Muslim views made up 11% of all guests on prominent conservative talk radio during a period they studied in 2010. Media Matters found prominent counter-jihadists appeared on Fox News 15 times between September 2015 and February 2016. Televangelists such as Pat Robertson, the host of the widely broadcast 700 Club, have also been active spreading counter-jihadist rhetoric, saying on air: “Islam is a political system that is bent on world domination.” And this brings us back to Bannon and Miller and their fellow travellers within the Trump administration.
According to a count by Josh Harkinson, Bannon hosted counter-jihadists on his Breitbart radio show 41 times. A particular favourite has been Spencer. “He’s author of so many books, and one of the top two or three experts in the world on this great war we’re fighting against fundamental Islam,” Bannon said, when hosting Spencer on Breitbart Daily News on August 9, 2016. “Trump is listening to people like you,” he told Spencer later in the interview.
On another show Bannon criticized “Sharia-compliant” as a far from innocuous phrase commonly used by Muslims to denote something in line with Islamic law (in actuality, sharia-compliant is usually used in areas like the home mortgage industry to indicate companies that cater primarily to Muslims, because Muslims are not supposed to collect or pay interest on loans – very much like usury laws in Christianity and other religions – which have mostly fallen into disuse). But Bannon, echoing the Team B II report, suggested that sharia-compliant financial institutions were an insidious threat to the US Constitution (without ever explaining how a home mortgage company that doesn’t charge interest threatens the Constitution). “Sharia-compliant” is really code to designate Muslims as dangerous, with anti-American and anti-constitutional beliefs. Bannon was clear: “If you're sharia-compliant … the United States is the wrong place for you.”
At the 2015 Values Voter Summit, the big annual gathering for right-wing evangelicals, Bannon sat down with ACT’s Gabriel to talk about the European refugee crisis. He referred to it as a Muslim “invasion,” and asked Gabriel if that was an overstatement. “It is not,” she replied. “Europe will no longer be Europe by 2050. Europe has already become Eurabia. Europe is Eurabia right now.” This is a reference to Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, a book published in 2005 by Gisèle Littman using the pen name Ye’or, which argues that Muslim immigration to Europe was a conspiracy, dating back to 1973, “superimposed on Europe by powerful governmental lobbies.” The aim was to Islamize Europe, to reduce European whites to “dhimmitude” — a term she uses for second-class citizenship granted to non-Muslims in an Islamic society. On Jihad Watch and in CSP publications, the notion that Muslim immigrants are imposing their rule on a hapless and clueless European majority is pushed as common sense.
This is a key part of the context for the opposition to Syrian refugees by the Islamaphobic Right. As reported in the Washington Post Republican representative Ryan Zinke voiced opposition to President Obama’s plan to resettle some Syrian refugees in the United States on Bannon’s Breitbart show.
“We need to put a stop on refugees until we can vet,” Zinke said.
Bannon cut him off.
“Why even let ’em in?” he asked.
Bannon said that vetting refugees from Muslim-majority countries would cost money and time. “Can’t that money be used in the United States?” he said. “Should we just take a pause and a hiatus for a number of years on any influx from that area of the world?”
And the transcript for a 2014 conference via Skype at the Vatican first published by Buzzfeed includes Bannon talking about the Christian-Judeo-West being in an “outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it…. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is — and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it — will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”
Its not just Bannon and Miller, of course. Now former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is an adviser to the board of Gabriel’s ACT for America. Attorney General Jeff Sessions received CSP’s Keeper of the Flame award, in honor of “his leadership on issues of great importance to the national security.” Sebastian Gorka – who is likely to be soon unmasked as a neo-Nazi – and his wife Katherine, are staples of the counter-jihadist movement, and as I detailed in a former blog, have been given high-level positions on Trump’s staff: Sebastian is now his deputy assistant in the White House – effectively Trump’s chief of counterterrorism, while Katharine was on Trump’s Department of Homeland Security transition team and now works in that department.
So when we look at Bannon and Miller’s implementation of Trump’s “Muslim ban” I think we should not see it as something Trump dreamed up to patronize his base, but as a direct product of the counter-jihad’s influence on the chief advisors to the President of the United States. You can see the counter-jihadist influence in the text of the original executive order itself.
“In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.”
And in the revised ban the list of six countries is meant to “temporarily reduce investigative burdens” that a larger overhaul will involve. This suggests that what is intended to follow this temporary ban will be greater restrictions, not lesser ones. The order calls for the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.), in consultation with the State Department and other agencies, to begin “a worldwide review to identify whether, and if so what, additional information will be needed from each foreign country” to determine the degree to which each country is a national security threat. The ultimate goal is for the D.H.S. to “submit to the President a list of countries recommended for inclusion in a Presidential proclamation” – that is a new list of places to ban visitors from.
There is also a definition of “Foreign Terrorist Entry” – the title of the executive order – that includes the entry of people who have not been involved with or even contemplated committing terrorist acts. As reported in the New Yorker:
“In the new order, in a paragraph listing the potential dangers that Trump seeks to avoid, he gives the example of “a native of Somalia who had been brought to the United States as a child refugee and later became a naturalized United States citizen” and was convicted of planning an attack on a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland. (The person Trump was referring to, Mohamed Mohamud, came to the United States as a toddler; it was more than a decade and a half later, as a nineteen-year-old, that he was caught up in a sting operation.) The threat he sees, in other words, is a demographic one: not who these people already are but who Trump imagines they are bound to become.”
When Trump speaks of the order, he talks about the need to keep out immigrants who don’t “love” us – a word he used in last week’s address to Congress – or whose values differ from ours. To me, all this clearly echoes the propaganda of the counter-Jihadist movement.
Trump may not have any coherent or consistent ideology, but his closest advisors certainly think they have one. And they have the ear of the man who can enact policies to address their fears. So far, it has mostly been Trump and his team’s incompetence and inexperience in actual government (plus Trump’s twitter habit), and the pushback by the protestors and the judiciary that has limited the impact of these views.
Unfortunately, Bannon (and dark boy wonder Miller) also have other ideological arrows in their quiver and those positions – economic nationalism and the destruction of the “administrative state” – are also being moved on aggressively and will be the subject of future blogs.