Barack Obama seems determined to strike out at the anti-Muslim bigotry coursing through the American right. The policies being pushed by Republicans—particularly by those campaigning to be president—have reached a new low, and the ugliness driving them is unmistakable. These aren’t dog whistles any more: many on the right now explicitly support a government policy of explicit discrimination on the basis of religion. And the silence from the rest of America’s conservatives is deafening.
How did it get this bad? For one, George W. Bush—as Hillary Clinton pointed out in Saturday’s Democratic primary debate—explicitly disavowed that his “global war on terror” was “against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people.” Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush went to a mosque—he was the second and last president to do so—and said:
The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.
Whatever you make of Bush’s Manichean worldview and the follies of the policies he pushed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, his active stance against anti-Muslim bigotry acted as a bulwark against hate that, in the absence of such leadership, has run rampant.
From there, the persistent campaign of bigoted right-wing activists was allowed to flourish, albeit with some pushback but obviously not enough. Jonathan Chait rightly points to the “Ground Zero Mosque” episode as a flashpoint in these activists’ struggle. Plenty of people fought back, but decidedly few conservatives. Now Republican elites seem to think that they have nothing to lose. Brian Beutler notes, again correctly, that they see in their rhetoric two types of gains. One is to fire up their base by appealing to its worst sentiments. The other is to use the hesitation of Democrats like Hillary Clinton to use the term “radical Islam” as “weak-on-terror agents of political correctness.”
So now we have arrived a point where the leading GOP contender for the party’s presidential nomination, Donald Trump, said he “would certainly implement” a program to track Muslims in a national database. Not refugees, mind you, and not immigrants, but Americans who’ll be designated by the state as adherents to a particular faith.
The Resurgence of Bigotry
It’s hard to pinpoint just when the rampart Bush had erected against widespread anti-Muslim bigotry among Republicans began to crumble. But if I had to pick a moment it would be during the 2008 presidential campaign. A Democratic candidate with the name Barack Hussein Obama was running, and some unsavory elements in American politics jumped at the opportunity to label him a Muslim. Most of the sane political classes rebuked or mocked this view. But just like conservatives during the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, too few came out and said, So what if he is a Muslim?
There was another strain of anti-Muslim bigotry in the 2008 campaign. According to Beutler’s dichotomy, this strain didn’t seek to attack Obama but rather to leverage and further Islamophobia as a means of support. I covered one instance of this at the time: the distribution of the anti-Muslim film “Obsession,” produced by the Clarion Fund, now known as the Clarion Project. Clarion, at a considerable cost, distributed its movie in newspaper inserts to millions of homes in swing states.
The Clarion Fund story gets at something else in the debate about growing Islamophobia in the US, which is not very frequently acknowledged: the jolts of Islamophobia running through the right have been carried by the copper wire of right-wing, pro-Israel thought. Clarion itself is an Israel-based, right-wing evangelist Orthodox Jewish group, with a strong presence in and history of support for Israeli settlements. Other groups involved in distributing the video, such as the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), also came from the right-wing pro-Israel milieu.
That some of the most vociferous anti-Muslim sentiment is centered around self-proclaimed pro-Israel advocates should not be interpreted as an indictment of the pro-Israel community at large. But it’s impossible not to notice that the community’s right wing is a hotbed for this hate. Steven Emerson was a well-known Islamophobe well before the American-Israel Public Action Committee (AIPAC), the country’s top Israel lobby group, invited him to its 2013 summit. In The Nation in 2012, Max Blumenthal laid out one of the nodes of the pro-Israel/Islamophobia axis: Nina Rosenwald, a board member of AIPAC and a major donor to right-wing causes. And there are many other links between the funders of Islamophobic and right-wing pro-Israel causes.
But Clarion and its films serve as a particularly strong example. One of the things censored from a post I wrote in 2012 with Eli Clifton about the group was that Clarion’s film, “The Third Jihad,” was being shown at the time of publication at a Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. A list of screenings showed that those before Jewish and pro-Israel groups dominated. Our post dealt with the wider rebuke of Clarion’s work. The film had gotten attention because it was screened at an NYPD screening, and then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then-police commissioner Ray Kelly, who was interviewed for the movie, denounced it. But there was little condemnation for the frequent screenings of the film among the pro-Israel crowd.
Adelson at the Nexus
There’s one important figure in the Clarion milieu who can help explain how Islamophobic rhetoric became so prevalent among the upper echelons of the Republican Party: Sheldon Adelson. Most of the casino magnate’s ire is reserved specifically for Palestinians, but he’s made troubling anti-Muslim comments, too. And he’s involved deeply in funding those organizations and figures at the nexus of pro-Israel and anti-Islam activism.
Adelson is involved in EMET, which helped to distribute “Obsession,” and he reportedly gave away some copies of the movie himself to young American Jews touring Israel in 2007. And he funds figures like Steven Emerson as well as the more inflammatory anti-Muslim Republicans (Newt Gingrich comes to mind). When a controversy erupted in 2012, The New York Times didn’t get into specifics, but noted that Clarion had garnered support from Adelson for the films.
Adelson brings with him an irresistible war chest for any GOP candidate. He’s got millions of dollars and isn’t afraid to spend it. He’s also not afraid to make sure candidates who want his support stick to his far-right script. Remember when Chris Christie had to apologize in 2012 for suggesting that the Occupied Palestinian Territories were… Occupied Territories? It’s no surprise, then, that Republicans are saying the kind of bigoted things that Adelson is happy to hear.
Of course, it’s not all about Adelson, but one would be doing a disservice to serious analysis to suggest that his positions play no role. As Adelson’s brand of right-wing pro-Israel politics are becoming the Republicans’ party line, we shouldn’t be surprised that his tendency toward anti-Muslim bigotry does, too.