MotherJones: The GOP’s Anti-Muslim Wing Is In Retreat
Over the last four years, a die-hard cadre of activists and their allies in Congress have dragged the Republican Party into a fever swamp of Islamophobia and barely-concealed anti-Muslim bigotry. In their paranoid scenario, Islamic Shariah law is creeping into American courts; the Department of Justice has come under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood; and the president’s engagement ring includes secret writing that indicates Muslim loyalties.
But after a November election that saw three of the party’s loudest voices on “creeping Shariah” defeated—and the GOP presidential nominee ignore the issue entirely—the anti-Islam movement within the Republican party may have peaked. Wary of further alienating aonce-promising conservative constituency, mainstream Republican leaders have sought, publicly and behind closed doors, to distance themselves from the loudest of the Muslim-bashers in their midst.
“They have gotten a bit of bad odor,” says GOP powerbroker Grover Norquist, who has pushed to change his party’s tone on Islam.
Randa Fahmy Hudome, a former Bush administration official, Washington lobbyist, and prominent Muslim Republican, notes: “There is a self-policing factor in the Republican Party, when some members get a little off base on some of these issues. That’s the state of play right now.”
A turning point came in July, when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), along with four Republican colleagues, signed a letterdemanding an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood’s supposed infiltration of the State Department. The letter singled out a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin. Bachmann and her colleagues, deploying tenuous evidence and guilt-by-association, charged that Abedin should not have been given a security clearance because of alleged ties to Muslim radicals.
Days later, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had condemned Bachmann’s letter from the floor of the Senate, calling it “unwarranted and unfounded” and “scurrilous.” Speaker of the House John Boehner piled on, calling the letter “dangerous.” The chair of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), emphasized to USA Today that though she served on his committee, Bachmann’s allegations did not have the committee’s imprimatur. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and tea party favorite widely touted as a potential 2016 contender, publicly denounced the allegations promoted by Bachmann and her allies, like former Reagan official and longtime anti-Shariah activist Frank Gaffney.
Behind the scenes, GOPers worked to smooth over hurt feelings. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who in 2007 became the chamber’s first-ever Muslim member, says several Republican House members quietly approached him to apologize for the Abedin episode. Norquist, who runs the influential group Americans for Tax Reform, says that following the letter controversy, “We have heard back from a bunch of Hill staffers—’We are keeping our guy away from Gaffney and those guys, they’re crazy.’”
Gaffney has been blacklisted from the American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual CPAC confab, since 2011, after accusing Norquist and an associate, Suhail Khan, of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s also become persona non grata at the Weyrich lunches, the weekly consevative strategy sessions first initiated by the late social conservative guru Paul Weyrich. His insistence on accusing anyone who deviates from his anti-Shariah line of terrorist sympathies has put him on the outs with the Republican establishment. (Gaffney did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Abedin letter prompted the most public break the party leadership had made from the anti-Muslim fringe since George W. Bush was president. During the Bush years, a vocal anti-Islam movement on the right was kept in check by a Republican administration that went out of its way to note the distinction between the average Muslim and the extremist fringe who carried out the 9/11 attacks. (There was a political motivation, too: Bush backers credited Muslim voters with helping turn Florida red.)
But as Bush’s popularity waned during his second term and the administration grew desperate for allies wherever it could find them, the rebukes of anti-Muslim figures like Pat Robertson came to a stop. “Or if it happened,” Norquist says, “we stopped hearing about it.”
When Barack Obama took office, the dam broke. Anti-Muslim activists were on television and leading protests in the streets, spreading conspiracy theories about the president’s birth and his administration’s supposed stealth Islamist agenda. Since 2009, two-dozen statesintroduced legislation to prohibit the non-existent threat of Shariah law from state courts. Five of them passed. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House committee on homeland security, held four hearings on the alleged radicalization of the American Muslim community. Conspiracy theories about American Muslims seeking to impose Saudi-style Islamic law drove communities nationwide to attempt to block construction of mosques, and in New York, the proposed Islamic Community Center in lower Manhattan triggered anelection-year scandal in 2010.
By elevating fringe figures and their political allies into the public view, the anti-Islam movement’s success may have been its undoing. And even before the GOP establishment’s public criticism of Bachmann, there were signs that some Republicans had grown uncomfortable with the rhetoric of the Muslim-bashers.