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The Daily Need

‘Counter-jihad’ movement may be small, but its rhetoric has seeped into public discourse

Herman Cain at the state capitol in Des Moines, Iowa in March, 2011. Photo: Gage Skidmore

This week, Herman Cain finally apologized.

The businessman turned Republican presidential candidate had made opposition to Islamic extremism a key plank in his platform, suggesting that he would be “uncomfortable” appointing a Muslim to his cabinet. He later clarified, helpfully, that he was referring only to “violent” Muslims, and would specifically bar “the ones that are trying to kill us” from serving in his administration.

Then, earlier this month, Cain traveled to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to oppose the construction of an Islamic center there, characterizing it as a disguised attempt to subvert the Constitution and implement Shariah law. “I think it is an infringement and abuse of our freedom of religion, and I don’t agree with what’s happening here because this isn’t an innocent mosque,” Cain told reporters, according to The Tennessean. “This is another way to sneak Shariah law into our laws, and I absolutely object to that.”

After meeting with the leaders of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Washington, D.C. this week, Cain issued a statement apologizing for “any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends.” He reiterated, though, that he stands by his “opposition to the interference of Shariah law into the American legal system.”

Cain’s contrition is certainly admirable, and an acknowledgment that his strident rhetoric may have unfairly targeted patriotic, law-abiding Muslim-Americans. But Cain is not alone in characterizing Shariah law as a creeping threat to the U.S. Constitution and American laws. A small group of right-wing activists and bloggers — the same bloggers who were cited in the rambling manifesto of Norway bomber Anders Behring Breivik last week — have been laying the intellectual groundwork for such a claim for years, and their rhetoric has now begun to influence our political discourse more broadly.

The loose network of bloggers and right-wing activists form what is known as the “anti-Jihad” or “counter-Jihad” movement. It’s stated goal is to stop the “Islamization” of Western nations and prevent Islamic extremists from enforcing their religion on the rest of the world. A prescient report by the Southern Poverty Law Center earlier this summer described the “counter-Jihad” movement as a “closely knit cadre of activists” whose influence exceeds its numbers with the help of right-wing media personalities and politicians:

In the span of the two years since the start of Barack Obama’s presidency in early 2009, an astonishing number of people have turned into a kind of political wolf pack, convinced that 0.6 percent of the U.S. population is on the verge of trampling the Constitution and imposing an Islamic, Shariah-guided caliphate in its place. Like the communists that an earlier generation believed to be hiding behind every rock, infiltrated “Islamist” operatives today are said to be diabolically preparing for a forcible takeover.

Two of the most notable and prominent activists are Robert Spencer, who runs a website called “Jihad Watch,” and Pamela Geller, who blogs at the website Atlas Shrugged and co-founded the organization Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) with Spencer. The two were instrumental in stoking grassroots opposition to the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center near the site of the 9/11 attacks last year. They debuted a film at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year that called the building of the mosque “the second wave of the 9/11 attacks.”

To be fair, Geller wasn’t the only — or even, really, the most influential — activist in the movement against the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” That distinction goes to Tim Brown, a former firefighter and Republican activist who in many ways became the face of the opposition, or to Allen Roth, a conservative political operative in New York who worked behind the scenes to whip up a media frenzy. But as Justin Elliott of Salon has noted, Geller clearly inspired much of the fury among grassroots activists with shrill, sensationalistic claims about the mosque, and about other aspects of Islam.

Most of the anti-Islamic movement’s views are unfounded (Geller, for example, genuinely believed that President Obama’s real father was Malcolm X). But they have nonetheless resonated with an emerging strain of right-wing activists, some affiliated with the Tea Party, who are suspicious of Muslim influence. To be clear, most of the people who identify with the Tea Party are not anti-Islam. But Republican politicians, sensing renewed antipathy toward Islam among some in the movement, have co-opted the rhetoric of Geller, Spencer and others and taken a much harsher stance toward Islam than, for example, former President George W. Bush, who consistently defended Islam and referred to it as “a religion of peace.”

Nearly the entire field of Republican presidential candidates, for example, has warned against the encroachment of Shariah law in the American legal system. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who compared building a mosque near Ground Zero to erecting a Nazi monument near the U.S. Holocaust museum — has called for a national ban on Shariah. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has disavowed a program established in his state that helped devout Muslims buy homes without taking out interest-bearing loans, a violation of Shariah. He has since touted that decision as evidence of his opposition to Shariah law. And former Sen. Rick Santorum has called Shariah “evil,” telling a group of voters in New Hampshire earlier this year, “We need to define it and say what it is. And it is evil. Shariah law is incompatible with American jurisprudence and our Constitution.”

And it’s not just presidential candidates. Voters in Oklahoma voted overwhelmingly in favor of a state constitutional amendment banning the consideration of Shariah in court cases (critics say the measure is superfluous because judges are prohibited from ignoring or overriding U.S. laws). Lawmakers in Tennessee, meanwhile, have introduced a measure that would make it a crime to practice Shariah. This bill, in particular, bears the hallmarks of the “counter-jihad” movement’s rhetoric:

Sharia in particular includes a war doctrine known as Jihad … The unchanging and ultimate aim of jihad is the imposition of sharia on all states and nations, including the United States and this state; further, pursuant to its own dictates, sharia requires the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions and the imposition of sharia through violence and criminal activity.

This interpretation of Sharia, of course, is disputed by Islamic scholars and community leaders, who say it is merely a code of moral and religious conduct. Moreover, it would seem odd and unfounded to fear the imposition of Shariah law in a country where Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the population. Nonetheless, the anti-Shariah movement has caught on.

“Perhaps the most bewildering ‘success’ story of the anti-Muslim campaign has been the public panic over the feared imposition of Shariah law in America,” the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote in its report. “Legislators across the country are scrambling to be the first in their state to file anti-Shariah legislation — purposeless but propagandistic laws that inevitably will be challenged as unconstitutional and almost certainly thrown out.”

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