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Islam “Expert” Axed

Neoconservative hawks recently suffered another loss in the Bush administration when Stephen Coughlin, a controversial government expert on jihad, lost his post...

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Neoconservative hawks recently suffered another loss in the Bush administration when Stephen Coughlin, a controversial government expert on jihad, lost his post in the Defense Department. Citing budget cuts, in mid-January the Pentagon announced it had decided not to renew the contract of its "foremost" specialist on Islamic law and Islamic extremism when it ends in March.

Coughlin’s supporters contend he was unjustly fired because his message was too politically hot and far too inconvenient for government bureaucrats eager to make nice with Muslim groups that—so decry right-wing hawks—serve as front organizations for nefarious "Islamofascists." And it appears they are waging a campaign in the conservative press to combat what they believe amounts to a double standard within the warm and fuzzy "politically correct" Washington bureaucracy. While most policy-makers and experts acknowledge that Washington has a serious public diplomacy problem on its hands, especially in regard to Arabs and Muslims, Coughlin’s dismissal and its aftermath reflect the latest salvo by neocons to retain the dubious language of the war on terror.

"If allowed to stand, the effect of Major Coughlin’s dismissal would be a surgical strike on a man who is arguably one of the most knowledgeable opponents of Sharia—not only in the Defense Department, but inside the entire U.S. government," wrote right-wing polemicist Frank Gaffney, who also heads the Center for Security Policy, in the Washington Times. As a casualty in the war of ideas, he sarcastically wrote, Coughlin may perhaps "receive its first Purple Heart."

Gaffney and others continue their efforts to wrest the "battle of ideas" from the jaws of what they presume to be "political correctness," arguing for an aggressive and unapologetic doctrine that dares to confront "radical Islam"—to clarify a choice between two fundamentally inconsistent strategies. Either we protect the nation, or we choose to be politically correct. Either we confront the threat of "radical Islam" head on, or we perform ill-advised outreach to Muslim groups.

Coughlin was presumably the model soldier in the battle of ideas, delivering tough and blunt analysis, and he didn’t mince words. From the laudatory statements of his supporters, it appears he was a powerful bulwark against the Islamofascist threat currently facing the U.S. mainland. And for his service to the cause of battling Islamic extremism, he became a victim of the type of misguided sensitivity that fears to lift the veil from radical Islamist front groups.

Wrote Washington Times editorial columnist Diana West about Coughlin and a brief he wrote: "’Islamist’ and ‘extremism’—like ‘Islam fascism’ and other euphemisms—are words that draw a PC curtain over mainstream Islam. They effectively shield the religion and its tenets from the scrutiny necessary to assess the ideology driving our jihadist enemies. Of course, lifting that PC curtain on Islam and its jihadist tenets is precisely the effect of Stephen Coughlin’s Pentagon brief. It goes against what political correctness tells us; it also goes against what Islamic advocacy groups tell us."

But for all his motivation and zeal, Coughlin may not be the Islam "expert" he and his supporters claim. In fact, he has no academic background in Islamic law or extremism. A reservist in the U.S. Army, Coughlin holds a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from the National Defense Intelligence College, with a focus on global terrorism and Jihadist movements, as well as a law degree from the William Mitchell School of Law.

Said former CIA agent Larry Johnson, who has helped script exercises for the U.S. military forces that conduct counterterrorism missions: "Does [Coughlin] speak Arabic? No. How about Urdu? Nope. He studied Islam where? No clue. But he graduated from an ABA-sanctioned second-tier law school. A good school, but it is not known as a center of Islamic study. Unfortunately, Coughlin’s broad brush approach to Islam is more polemics that scholarship."

As reported by Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, Coughlin’s recent misfortunes transpired after a confrontation with Hasham Islam, a high-level aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who reportedly asked Coughlin to "soften his views on Islam" after the "specialist" emphasized the relationship between Islamic law and Islamist jihad doctrine, a belief that runs contrary to the White House view of Islam as a religion of peace hijacked by extremists.

The Fox News Channel spun the centrifuges of Islamo-hysteria faster, featuring an interview with self-declared terrorism expert Steve Emerson, who alleged that radical Islamists had infiltrated the U.S. government and had gained enough clout to manipulate who gets hired and fired. Emerson called Islam, Gordon’s aide, "an Islamist with a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bent who has brought in groups to the Pentagon who have been indicated as co-conspirators."

Emerson said that Coughlin had analyzed "hundreds of thousands of documents" released during the trial of the Muslim charity Holy Land Foundation in Dallas, Texas. He said that the documents showed that there was a secret Muslim Brotherhood plan to acquire influence in the United States in order to undermine democracy and establish a caliphate.

"Mr. Coughlin wrote a memo spelling out the implications of these documents and the profound nature of what would happen if the U.S. government decided to start doing dialogue and embracing the very organizations that were intent on undermining U.S. national security," said Emerson.

The Holy Land case, which ended with no convictions in late October 2007, was widely viewed as the Bush administration’s flagship terror-financing case. President Bush announced he was freezing the charity’s assets in 2001 because he said the radical Islamist group Hamas had "obtained much of the money it pays for murder abroad right here in the U.S."

Prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to convince jurors that the foundation and five of its backers had supported terrorism by sending more than $12 million to charitable zakatcommittees, social services organizations that build hospitals and feed the poor. Prosecutors claimed that the committees were controlled by Hamas and contributed to terrorism by helping the group spread ideology and recruit supporters.

The most pointed criticism of Coughlin’s approach to analyzing extremist doctrine has come from terrorism experts who believe that by directly linking the Koran to Islamic extremism, Coughlin unwittingly bolsters the message of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

After being falsely accused by Coughlin of being sympathetic to the presumably criminal aspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jim Guirard—a longtime chief of staff to U.S. senators Allen Ellender (D-LA) and Russell Long (D-LA) and current antiterrorism strategist—wrote in the blog SmallWarsJournal.com: "The truth of the matter is that while I am trying to undermine bin Ladenism’s self-canonizing language of ‘jihad by mujahedeen and martyrs destined for Paradise as a glorious reward for killing all of us infidels and for destroying the Great Satan,’ it is Mr. Coughlin and others of his persuasion in the Government, the media, the universities and elsewhere who are busy parroting and promoting this perverse [al Qaeda] and Muslim Brotherhood narrative as the true face of Islam—rather than as a satanic deviancy and an apostasy toward that religion."

Khody Akhavi writes for the Inter Press Service.


Khody Akhavi , "Islam “Expert” Axed," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, February 7, 2008).

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