The Denationalization of American Muslims
For years, Republican leaders treated Frank Gaffney as a pariah. But his dark warnings about Sharia law taking over America found an audience among grassroots conservatives—and now, in the White House.
By PETER BEINART
On March 6, the zoning board in Bayonne, New Jersey, turned down a request to convert an old warehouse into a mosque. Such denials are happening with increasing frequency in the United States. In the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, the Justice Department intervened seven times against local communities that prevented Muslims from building mosques or other religious institutions. In the six years between 2010 and 2016, that number jumped to 17.
At the zoning board meeting, one woman called Islam a “so-called religion.” Residents claimed the Muslim Brotherhood would control the mosque. The Facebook page of the group “Stop the Mosque in Bayonne” features a man holding a sign that says “Democracy or Sharia Law.”
This is the language of Frank Gaffney. For a decade and a half, Gaffney, a former Reagan administration Pentagon official who heads a small Washington think tank called the Center for Security Policy, has been making two interrelated arguments. First, that the Muslim Brotherhood—which he claims seeks to replace the United States Constitution with a Caliphate based upon Sharia law—secretly controls most American mosques and Muslim organizations. Second, that Islam is not actually a religion. It is a totalitarian political ideology. Thus, its adherents should be treated not like Christians or Jews, but like American Nazis during World War II.
For years, Washington conservatives ridiculed these arguments and stigmatized Gaffney for making them. In 2003, after Gaffney attacked two Muslim staffers in the Bush White House, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist banned him from his influential “Wednesday meeting” of conservative activists. In 2011, according to sources close to the organization, the American Conservative Union informally barred Gaffney from speaking at CPAC, the ACU’s signature event. In 2013, the Bradley Foundation, which had backed the Center for Security Policy since 1988, cut off funds. That same year, Gaffney lost the Washington Times column he had been writing since the late 1990s. As late as December 2015, The Daily Beast declared that, “Frank Gaffney has been shunned by pretty much everyone in conservative intellectual circles.”
Yet less than 18 months later, America is led by a president, Donald Trump, who has frequently cited the Center for Security Policy when justifying his policies towards Muslims. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called Gaffney “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.” Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions—who has said “Sharia law fundamentally conflicts with our magnificent constitutional order”—in 2015 won the Center for Security Policy’s “Keeper of the Flame” Award. Trump’s CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, has appeared on Gaffney’s radio program more than 24 times since 2013. Sebastian Gorka, who runs a kind of parallel National Security Council inside the White House called the Strategic Initiatives Group, has appeared on Gaffney’s radio program 18 times during that period. He’s called Sharia “antithetical to the values of this great nation” and recently refused to say whether he considered Islam a religion.
In truth, conservatives never actually marginalized Gaffney’s ideas. Even when shunned in Washington, they grew steadily on the grassroots right in response to conservative disillusionment with America’s post-9/11 wars. Gaffney’s theories represent an effort to “denationalize” American Muslims—to strip them of their national identity and legal protections—with chilling precedents in American and European history. And although these theories have opponents, as well as supporters, in the Trump administration, they are already changing the relationship between American Muslims and their government in frightening ways.
If you squint hard enough, you can see how Gaffney reaches his conclusions. The Muslim Brotherhood, which Hassan al-Banna created in Egypt in 1928, was indeed founded to spread Islam around the world and revive the Caliphate. Although scholars debate how much the movement has changed—and the variations between different Brotherhood-inspired parties in different countries—the Brotherhood has, during its history, endorsed or employed violence. Its leaders have suggested that non-Muslims do not deserve political equality. Its members have created terrorist groups, including Hamas. And the Brotherhood, like the American Communist Party, has a history of establishing front groups. In the 1960s, Muslim Brothers were reportedly among the founders of the Muslim Students Association, from which some of America’s contemporary Muslim organizations spring.
It’s also true that in the Holy Land Foundation trial, in which employees and officers of America’s largest Muslim charity were convicted in 2008 of aiding Hamas, some of America’s major Muslim organizations were listed as unindicted coconspirators. Those organizations included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which describes itself as a Muslim civil-rights organization akin to the Anti-Defamation League, but which critics often accuse of Islamist sympathies, and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a less political organization that offers services ranging from youth camps to a Muslim dating network.
In the Holy Land trial, the government introduced into evidence a document called the “Explanatory Memorandum,” written by a Muslim Brother in 1991, which declares that the Muslim Brotherhood’s goal “in America is a kind of grand Jihad” aimed at “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within.” The memorandum lists ISNA and other prominent American Muslim groups as among “our organizations and the organizations of our friends.” A 2013 Center for Security Policy paper calls the memorandum a “Rosetta stone” for understanding Muslim subversion in the United States.
But if you stop squinting, the conspiracy theory looks absurd. Although “some U.S. Muslim organizations were founded by or with the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood decades ago,” notes J.M. Berger, an expert on Islamic extremism at George Washington University, “for most of them, these links are ancient history.” The U.S. government did name American Muslim groups as unindicted coconspirators in the Holy Land terrorism financing trial in order to introduce hearsay evidence into court, but neither the Bush nor Obama administration Justice Departments ever alleged that those groups were guilty of aiding terrorism themselves. To the contrary, top Bush officials like Karen Hughes and top Obama officials like former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson spoke at Islamic Society of North America conferences. As for the secret “explanatory memorandum,” noted Nathan Brown, an expert on the Brotherhood at George Washington University, “Nobody has ever produced any evidence that the document was more than something produced by the daydream of one enthusiast.”
To grasp how outlandish Gaffney’s theory is, it’s important to remember that there’s a vast difference between considering the Muslim Brotherhood a sinister organization and believing that it controls most American Muslim organizations and mosques—just as there was a vast difference between considering the American communist party a sinister organization during the McCarthy era, and believing that it controlled much of Washington and Hollywood.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Eric Trager is a staunch Brotherhood critic. In his book, Arab Fall, he derides scholars who claim the movement’s willing to compete in elections means it has moderated its ultimate goals, which he calls “totalitarian” and “theocratic.” Yet even Trager told me that, “I have not seen evidence demonstrating that these [American Muslim] groups fall under a Brotherhood hierarchy.” The Brotherhood doesn’t threaten the United States, he argues, because a “group that couldn’t control Egypt for more than a year cannot possibly take control of America.”
If the Muslim Brotherhood is the organization that Gaffney—and key members of the Trump administration—consider a threat to the United States, Sharia law is the doctrine. Gaffney and his allies view Sharia not as a religious code but as “a totalitarian ideology cloaked in religious garb.” Muslims who adhere to it, therefore, should be treated not like Jews who adhere to Halacha, the body of Jewish law, or Catholics who adhere to Canon law, but like Americans who espoused “communism, fascism, National Socialism, or Japanese imperialism” during times of war. They should be treated, in other words, like people seeking to overthrow the United States government. “Far from being entitled to the protections of our Constitution under the principle of freedom of religion,” Gaffney has argued, Sharia “is actually a seditious assault on our Constitution which we are obliged to prosecute, not protect.” A January 2015 Center for Security Policy report declared that, “Over eighty percent of U.S. mosques have been shown to be shariah-adherent … They are incubators of, at best, subversion and, at worst, violence and should be treated accordingly.”
It’s no surprise that the opponents of the Bayonne mosque echoed Gaffney’s language. He’s testified against mosque construction in high-profile court cases. And a March 2015 Center for Security Policy report advised local activists about how to “Speak up against the opening of more mosques in your neighborhoods.”
In crucial ways, what Gaffney believes about American Muslims is not new. His theory resembles conspiracy theories about vulnerable minority groups in the past. “You take people who are your neighbors and you define them not primarily as your neighbors and fellow citizens but primarily with some larger world community, all of whose members hold the same views, which are expressed in some secret document,” explains the Yale Historian Timothy Snyder. “And there’s always some element of truth. Because everyone belong to groups that have transnational linkages.” Snyder has a word for this process: denationalization.
In the 1930s, for instance, as Snyder details in Bloodlands, Josef Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture brought mass starvation to the USSR. He needed people to blame. He also looked anxiously across the border at the anti-communist government in Poland, whose army had embarrassed him a decade earlier in the Polish-Bolshevik war. During that war, an entity called the Polish Military Organization had committed espionage in territory Moscow claimed. By the 1930s, the Organization itself no longer existed. Still, Soviet leaders began describing it as the centerpiece of a conspiracy, which included many Polish citizens of the USSR that had infiltrated every aspect of Soviet government. In 1937, Stalin ordered his secret police to carry out the “total liquidation of the networks of spies of the Polish Military Organization.” Any evidence of an attachment to Polish culture—a rosary, Polish-language books—was deemed evidence of subversion. Between 1937 and 1938, Stalin’s government arrested 143,000 people on charges of spying for Poland. It executed most of them.
American history is filled with episodes of denationalization, too. In the early twentieth century, the influential Sacramento Bee publisher V.S. McClatchy warned that according to Japanese racial doctrine, blood trumped geography, and thus, Japanese Americans could never be loyal to the United States. That doctrine, he said, was being taught at the language schools to which Japanese sent their children across the United States. Japanese Americans, he argued, “plan to serve the ambition of Japan in world subjection as taught in her religion and in her schools.” When Japan struck Pearl Harbor, this long-running campaign of denationalization provided the intellectual foundation for internment.
The fear that a conspicuous minority, loyal to a foreign doctrine and a foreign power, was subverting the United States, was also a staple of anti-Catholic ideology. In the 1890s, notes David Bennett in his book, Party of Fear, the half-million member American Protective Association printed flyers alleging that the Pope had absolved American Catholics of their obligation to obey the United States government. The doctrine of Papal “sovereignty over the state in utter disregard of the Constitution and the laws of the land,” warned the APA’s head, William Traynor, was being propagated through the rapidly expanding network of Catholic schools and clubs. When the Democratic Party made New York’s Catholic governor, Al Smith, its presidential nominee in 1928, The Atlantic printed an open letter from an “Episcopalian lawyer” who asked “whether, as a Roman Catholic, you accept as authoritative the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that in case of contradiction” between “the jurisdiction of that Church and the jurisdiction of the State … the Jurisdiction of the Church shall prevail.” Smith’s political opponents were cruder. Across America, they distributed photos of the recently completed Holland Tunnel, which, they claimed, Smith had built to transport the Pope to the United States, where he would rule.
Ironically, the denationalization of American Muslims did not gain much currency in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. George W. Bush had won more Muslim votes in 2000 than Al Gore, and his personal affinity for all religions inclined him to see Islam in a positive light. Moreover, Republican leaders like Bush and John McCain saw respect for Islam as crucial to winning Muslim hearts and minds in America’s counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2001, Bush and Republican House Speaker Denny Hastert successfully urged the Postal Service to issue a stamp honoring the Muslim holidays of Eid ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. As late as 2012, when five Republican House members sent a letter to the State Department, based on research by Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin was a Muslim Brotherhood agent, John McCain called the attack “contrary to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
It was not September 11 that made conservatives receptive to Gaffney’s theories. It was America’s failed post-9/11 wars. Joseph McCarthy won a following in the early 1950s, when Americans were exhausted by the stalemated war in Korea, by arguing that the real communist threat could be vanquished cheaply and nonviolently by ferreting out traitors at home. Gaffney argues something similar. “We can kill as many semi-literate bad guys as possible in the world’s most hellish backwaters,” he declared in 2012, “but as long as we ignore, or worse yet, empower and submit, to the toxic ideology they share with highly educated and well spoken Islamists in this country and elsewhere, we are doomed to defeat.”
Over the last decade, conservatives disillusioned by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and alienated from their party’s interventionist elite, have found in Gaffney’s theories an appealing alternative. A key ally in that disseminating that alternative has been Breitbart. In March 2013, with Gaffney barred from speaking at CPAC, Breitbart hosted a series of panels called “The Uninvited” in the same hotel where the conference was being held. Steve Bannon moderated. The panels featured Gaffney and Pamela Geller, who had risen to prominence opposing New York’s “Ground Zero Mosque.” They offered a platform to conservatives who argued that the greatest threat to American security lay not in jihadist terrorism abroad but in Muslim subversion inside the United States.
The following spring, Breitbart sponsored “The Uninvited II: The National Security Action Summit.” Bannon offered welcoming remarks; Gaffney moderated. That fall, Bannon and Gaffney co-hosted yet another set of panels, entitled National Security Action Summit II. Since then, Breitbart has become Gaffney’s largest media megaphone. When The Washington Times cancelled his column, Breitbart picked it up. And Bannon interviewed Gaffney on his Breitbart radio show 29 times. Bannon has also echoed Gaffney’s core thesis: calling Islam “a political ideology,” likening Sharia to “Nazism, fascism, and communism,” and describing the Muslim Brotherhood as part of “a fifth column in this country.” On Bannon’s radio show in November 2015, Geller declared that, “Any mosque that advances, promotes, jihad must be shut.” Bannon replied: “Sedition, absolutely.”
If Breitbart was the first key institution to propagate Gaffney’s theories, Act for America was the second. Led by a Lebanese-born Christian named Brigitte Gabriel, ACT didn’t have a single paid employee in 2004. By 2016, it claimed 300,000 members and budget of more than $1 million.
ACT’s agenda closely parallels Gaffney’s. It uses the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sharia law to depict American Muslim political participation, and even religious expression, as a security threat. ACT tries to ban the use of Sharia in American courts. It seeks to prevent the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) from lobbying state legislatures. It tries to remove from textbooks any references that equate Islam with Judaism and Christianity. It urges Jewish and Christian groups to eschew interfaith dialogue with Muslims. In the name of stopping Sharia, it even opposes the sale of Halal food. In 2007, a questioner asked Gabriel, “Should we resist Muslims who want to seek political office in this nation?” She replied, “Absolutely. If a Muslim who has—who is — a practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah … this practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America.”
Like Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, ACT has close ties to top Trump officials. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has claimed that by failing to proactively denounce terror, “the best-funded Islamic advocacy organizations and many mosques across America” are “potentially complicit” in “extremism,” last year won ACT’s National Security Eagle Award. Sebastian Gorka has also spoken to the organization. But ACT’s strongest ally in the administration was former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Last summer, Flynn joined ACT’s board. He has called Brigitte Gabriel a “national treasure,” and championed her and Gaffney’s core theories. “I argue this a lot,” Flynn told an ACT audience in San Antonio last summer, “I don’t see Islam as a religion. I see it as a political ideology … it will mask itself as a religion globally because, especially in the west, especially in the United States, because it can hide behind and protect itself behind what we call freedom of religion.” In an interview last September with Breitbart, Flynn warned about “the influence by organizations inside of our government … like a CAIR or the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Before 2016, only second-tier presidential candidates—Michelle Bachmann in 2008, Herman Cain and to some extent Newt Gingrich in 2012—embraced Gaffney and Gabriel’s conspiracy theories. That changed with Donald Trump.
Even before Trump officially launched his campaign, he traveled to Iowa in May 2015 to participate in a Center for Security Policy National Action Summit. According to Gaffney, Trump asked to meet privately with some of the Center’s experts before giving his speech. When Trump took the stage, he told the crowd that, “I was just sitting back with some experts.” He identified one of them as a woman named Ann who was “so good, she was telling things that you wouldn’t even believe.” Two months earlier, Ann Corcoran had published the CSP report that urged Americans to “speak up against the opening of more mosques in your neighborhoods,” to “say no” to requests for “special Halal food section[s]” and to oppose efforts to require “local government to pay for a Muslim cemetery.” Citing Corcoran, Trump expressed his outrage that “if you come from Europe, you’re European, you’ve done great in school, you want to come, you want to come to the United States you can’t get in, but if you’re Muslim, you can get in.” According to The Huffington Post, it was the first of “dozens of times in press releases and speeches during his presidential campaign” that Trump “cited research from the Center for Security Policy.”
Again and again, Trump’s statements about Muslims and Islam echoed the Center’s work. The report that Corcoran authored in March 2015 called for “a complete halt, with the goal of beginning to reverse, Muslim migration to the West.” Nine months later, after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Trump famously proposed his own ban on Muslim immigration. His announcement cited a dubious Center for Security Policy poll, conducted by Kellyanne Conway, which purportedly showed that 51 percent of American Muslims “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.” At a rally in South Carolina, Trump noted that the poll “was from the Center for Security Policy, [a] very highly respected group of people, who I know.”
The following June, the Center issued a white paper that argued that the government should “allow statements by non-citizens supporting Sharia to be used as grounds for exclusion” from the United States. Two months later, in a foreign-policy speech in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump called for the United States to “screen out any [immigrants] who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles—or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law.” Trump’s speech also declared that, “the support networks for Radical Islam in this country will be stripped out and removed one by one” and that “we will pursue aggressive criminal or immigration charges against anyone who lends material support to terrorism.” The day after the speech, an article in Breitbart explained that Trump’s “promise of legal charges is a direct threat to the jihad-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has many material links to domestic and foreign groups that support Islamic war.”
Since Trump became president, his proposed ban on travel to the United States by six Muslim-majority nations has understandably grabbed media attention. But reducing Muslim immigration is only one part of the Trump administration’s effort to counter supposed Muslim subversion of the United States. Stigmatizing Muslims already in the country is the other.
Breitbart’s coverage of Trump’s travel ban makes that clear. The Monday after the initial executive order, Breitbart highlighted its warning against people who “do not support the Constitution” and “would place violent ideologies over American law.” And Breitbart approvingly quoted an article arguing that, “This is evidence of [the Trump administration’s] entire thinking on Islam and the defence of the west. They’re going to treat Islam as a hostile political ideology.”
Treating Islam as a hostile ideology means treating Muslim political participation the way the U.S. treated political activity by Nazis during World War II or communists during the cold war. That starts with designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, which Gaffney and Brigitte Gabriel have said should be at the top of Trump’s agenda. Legally, the designation can come from the State Department, in consultation with Treasury and Justice. Or Treasury, in consultation with the other two. And there’s reason to believe that at least State is inclined in that direction. In his confirmation testimony, in a sharp break with the Bush and Obama administrations, Rex Tillerson described “the Muslim Brotherhood” as among the “agents of radical Islam.”
And various news reports have suggested that Trump is considering signing an executive order to begin the review process that such a designation would require.
Declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organization would complicate American foreign policy. Although Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have outlawed the Brotherhood themselves, Morocco’s Prime Minister hails from a Brotherhood-associated party, a Brotherhood-spinoff serves in the coalition government in Tunisia, and Brotherhood-affiliated parties serve in parliament in Jordan, Kuwait, and Iraq.
But it is domestic, not foreign, policy that would truly motivate such a designation. Labeling the Brotherhood a terrorist organization would give the Trump administration greater authority to go after groups like CAIR, which Flynn and Bannon have both dubbed a Brotherhood front group. A series of legal changes implemented after September 11 gives the federal government extraordinary powers to target groups it accuses of being linked to terrorism. According to a 2009 ACLU report, a Bush administration executive order “effectively allows the government to shut down an organization without notice or hearing and on the basis of classified evidence, and without any judicial review,” if officials suspect it of being “associated with” a terrorist group. Muslim charities subjected to this procedure have successfully challenged it in court, but it’s unclear whether those rulings would deter the people working for President Trump.
The government’s vast post-9/11 counterterrorism powers have never resided in the hands of people who consider America’s Muslim organizations to be agents of treason. And the Trump administration could use those powers to cripple not only American Muslim civil-society groups, but also mosques.
Consider what could happen to the North American Islamist Trust (NAIT), a group explicitly mentioned as among the “United States-Muslim Brotherhood affiliates” in a 2015 Senate bill to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist group that Jeff Sessions cosponsored. Because lay people, not clergy or professional staff, manage most American mosques, they often transfer ownership of their property to NAIT. Local leaders manage the mosque and make decisions about religious practice. NAIT serves as a silent owner and trustee. Some mosques invest their money through NAIT as well. Under authority granted it after 9/11, the Treasury Department can freeze an institution’s assets merely by launching an investigation into whether it has an “association” with a designated terrorist group. Were Trump’s Treasury Department to do that to NAIT, it could put hundreds of American mosques in financial and legal jeopardy.
Could this really happen? It depends on the political climate. Today, the Trump administration would likely be deterred by the public outcry. But it’s worth remembering that, historically, the most egregious episodes of denationalization have often occurred in the wake of foreign attack. Stalin launched his Great Purge, which included the mass execution of Soviet Poles, after the assassination of the Communist Party’s top official in Leningrad in 1934. The assassination of a Nazi diplomat in Paris by a German-born Jew named Herschel Grynszpan provided the pretext for Kristallnacht. It took Pearl Harbor to bring about the Japanese internment. And Trump himself only proposed banning Muslim immigration to the United States after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Trump exploits fear. And were America to suffer a large terrorist attack on his watch, there’s little question that his base would welcome a legal assault on the institutions of American Muslim life.
But even if Trump never criminalizes an American Muslim organization or mosque, he could dramatically further the process of denationalization. Since 9/11, Gaffney, Act for America, and Breitbart have publicly accused many of the Muslims who served in the Bush and Obama administrations of being instruments of the Muslim Brotherhood. As in the McCarthy era, these attacks have taken a brutal toll on their targets, and they have dissuaded other American Muslims from entering public life. Suhail Khan, a Gaffney target who worked in Bush’s office of public liaison, and has a website devoted to his supposed Brotherhood ties, has received so many death threats that he now has an agent designated to handle them at the FBI. When Faisal Gill, another Gaffney target, left the Bush administration, he ran for Virginia’s House of Delegates. As a former naval reservist and Republican activist, he expected a positive response. Instead, “people who had come to my office, attended barbeques at my house, started saying I can’t support you, you’re a terrorist.” When Gill’s eldest son campaigned door to door, “People would say your dad’s a terrorist and you must be a terrorist too. My kids started to ask, ‘Is something wrong with us?’” A Muslim who worked in the Obama administration told me he has repeatedly seen Muslims refuse to serve in government, or even work in Muslim organizations, for fear of being publicly attacked.
Now the network that stigmatized American Muslims wields influence inside the U.S. government itself. The Obama administration tried to excise anti-Muslim material from the counter-terrorism training given to members of the military and the FBI. But Sebastian Gorka has declared that, “For Americans to properly understand the threat of global jihad, the politically motivated censorship of government analysis, training and education must end.” His wife, Katherine Gorka, who was named to the Department of Homeland Security’s transition team, has also denounced the Obama administration for “excising all reference to Islam and blacklisting many of the nation’s top experts on the Islamist threat” from government training. That means people with ideas similar to those of Frank Gaffney and Brigitte Gabriel will likely soon be training America’s military and law-enforcement personnel.
The Obama administration called its signature domestic anti-terrorism initiative Countering Violent Extremism, an acknowledgment that Muslims aren’t the only Americans who kill for political reasons. And while some American Muslim activists criticized the effort, Obama’s Homeland Security Department did focus intently on partnering with local Muslim communities. When I asked an official who worked on CVE how often he interacted with American Muslim organizations, he answered weekly, if not daily.
Now, according to reports, the Trump administration will replace CVE with an initiative focused on Islamic extremism alone. Some Muslim groups have already responded by severing their ties to the program. As part of CVE, the Obama administration awarded grants to non-governmental organizations, thus empowering them to combat radicalization. Since Trump’s victory, four winners who work in Muslim communities have rejected the money. In a March 3 conference call with Department of Homeland Security officials, a representative from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee warned that the refusal of top Trump administration officials to even call Islam a religion undermines cooperation between American Muslims and law enforcement.
Trump’s mere presence in the White House is emboldening Americans who see Muslims not as fellow citizens, but as agents of a foreign threat. According to the ACLU, reports of “anti-Mosque activity”—defined as either public opposition to mosque construction or actual violent attacks—which averaged six incidents per year between 2012 and 2014, rose to 31 incidents in 2015 and 83 in 2016. Opposition to granting Muslims land for cemeteries is growing too. And since last year, legislators in at least four states have introduced bills to ban all contacts between their state government and CAIR. At the Bayonne zoning board meeting, mosque opponents chanted Trump’s name.
This campaign to restrict Muslim political participation and religious expression is not only unjust. It threatens America’s efforts to protect itself against the very real threat of jihadist terrorism. Breitbart, the Center for Security Policy, and ACT for America aren’t the only institutions trying to denationalize American Muslims. So are al-Qaeda and ISIS. They, too, argue that American Muslims must choose between their country and their faith. And the more rejected American Muslims feel by their neighbors and their government, the more convincing ISIS’s argument becomes. “The American model of integration, of pluralism, is exactly the counter narrative to ISIS,” argues Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “But with Trump, there’s the risk of following the European model, of a psychological if not physical ghettoization of Muslims.” A former senior U.S. government official who has worked to counter terrorist recruitment warns that, “Being a young Muslim kid right now is really tough. I’ve heard awful accounts of bullying and taunting. And while there is never any excuse for violence or terrorism, this type [of] alienation is music to ISIS’s ears. You don’t want people to lose faith in the system. You want them engaged, whether by organizing, lobbying, or even suing. What I’m worried about are people in a basement somewhere, who are cut off from society and consuming radical propaganda online.” Academics are beginning to document this linkage between anti-Islamic rhetoric and Islamist extremism. A forthcoming study led by Christopher Bail and Friedolin Merhout at Duke finds evidence that the more people conduct anti-Muslim internet searches in a given county, the higher the number of pro-ISIS searches.
Last September, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson took the stage at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. “Your story,” he told the audience, “is the quintessential American story. Your story is an American story, told over and over again, generation after generation, of waves of people who struggle for, seek, and will eventually win your share of the American dream. Know the history of this country and you will know that—whether it’s Catholic Americans, Jewish Americans, Mormon Americans, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Japanese Americas, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, or Muslim Americans—this will be true. The arc of the American story is long, it is bumpy and uncertain, but it always bends toward a more perfect union.”
Those words sound different today than they did last fall. Maybe, in the long run, the arc of American history does bend toward justice. But for Japanese Americans, 1903 was a lot better than 1943, when war empowered the advocates of denationalization. That’s the danger for American Muslims today. The more frustrated Americans have grown by the “war on terror,” the more they have taken out those frustrations on American Muslims. In the Trump era, that war will be waged as much domestically as overseas. And it has no end in sight.
What Johnson didn’t say is that while there’s a venerable American tradition of immigrant groups overcoming persecution, there’s an equally venerable American tradition of formerly persecuted groups visiting that persecution on their successors. Take the family story of Frank Gaffney.
Gaffney’s grandfather, Joseph Gaffney, served as city solicitor in Philadelphia in the 1920s. At the time, notes West Chester University historian Charles Hardy, Philadelphia boasted the largest Irish Catholic population of any city besides New York, a fact that many local Protestants found unnerving. Prohibition divided the city along religious lines. And the Ku Klux Klan, which in the ‘20s was as anti-Catholic as it was anti-black, drew its strength in Western Pennsylvania in part from the fears that heavily Catholic Philadelphia aroused.
As Bruce Evenson details in his book, When Dempsey Fought Tunney, anti-Catholic sentiment peaked in 1926 when Philadelphia announced plans to host a grand, weeklong, sesquicentennial celebration of America’s birth. To recoup the large financial investment they had made in the event, city leaders decided to open on July 4th, a Sunday. Conservative Protestants howled in protest. For decades, Pennsylvania’s blue laws had outlawed playing professional sports on the Christian Sabbath. Opening the sesquicentennial on God’s day of rest symbolized America’s transformation into something sinister and unrecognizable. When Philadelphia’s mayor allowed the Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus, but not the Klan, to march at the commemoration, it confirmed Protestant fears that “European forces”—a euphemism for Catholics—were “gaining control of America’s institutions.”
Those fears centered on Joseph Gaffney, a Catholic, who as the city’s top lawyer defeated a lawsuit brought by Philadelphia’s Methodist Men’s Committee to keep the sesquicentennial closed on Sunday. Gaffney, nativists argued, stood at the heart of a network of Catholic power that had infiltrated the city and was contributing to “the breakdown and passing of American civilization.” When a Presbyterian minister told a nativist crowd that Philadelphia’s Protestant mayor was “under the control” of Gaffney, his audience applauded for two minutes straight.
When I asked Frank Gaffney about the anti-Catholic conspiracy theories that once roiled American politics, he called them “ridiculous” because the Catholic Church never “had anything remotely like the code of sharia.” Perhaps one day, the grandchildren of Suhail Khan, Faisal Gill, and Huma Abedin will mock today’s charges against American Muslims while rallying the country against a new minority group that supposedly threatens to subvert America from within.