The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual three-day parade of GOP presidential hopefuls delivering paeans to God, country and capitalism, was this year embroiled in a full-scale, intra-party religious war. The conservative movement, according to a group of Islamophobic activists, has been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood, which they claim supports Sharia, “a supremacist program that justifies the destruction of Christian churches and parishioners” and “the replacement of our constitutional republic… with a theocratic Islamic caliphate governing according to shari’ah.”
That charge came straight out of a flyer handed to me by Krista Hughes, an employee of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), whose president Frank Gaffney is one of the principal ringleaders in the right-wing propaganda campaign to strike fear in Americans’ hearts that a fifth column of Muslim extremists seeks to subvert America from within.
At CPAC, Gaffney’s chief target is Suhail Khan, a former Republican House staffer, Bush administration political appointee and current senior fellow at an evangelical think tank focused on religious freedom. Khan, a self-described devout Muslim who serves on the board of the American Conservative Union, CPAC’s organizer, is a conservative through and through. Raised in the San Francisco Bay area, he told me the atmosphere at UC Berkeley, where he attended college, turned him off and led him to his current political persuasion. But Khan’s conservative cred is of no moment to Gaffney, who has waged war against him as well as conservative movement icon Grover Norquist, also an ACU board member, because, Gaffney insists, they are both in league with anti-American Islamists.
Khan, who told me earlier this year that CPAC had shunned Gaffney because he is a “crazy bigot,” has withstood a barrage of Gaffney’s conspiratorial histrionics, which are reminiscent of the charge by John Birch Society founder Robert Welch that Dwight Eisenhower was a secret communist agent.
CPAC’s other religious skirmish flamed over the inclusion, for the second year in a row, of gay conservative group GOProud. The very presence of GOProud led some religious right groups and Christian right hardliners like Jim DeMint and Mike Huckabee to boycott the conference, laying bare a crack in the Republican party’s three-legged stool, with fiscal and national-security conservatives who are generally more tolerant of gays and lesbians pitted against social conservatives who still see opposition to gay rights as a litmus test. The ruckus heated up when GOProud’s president Chris Barron called ACU Foundation chair Cleta Mitchell a “nasty bigot” because of her opposition to GOProud. This prompted incoming ACU chair Al Cardenas to distance himself from Barron, potentially spelling the end of the ACU’s partnership with GOProud.
While the gays might have been hung out to dry, the ACU board has stood behind Khan. It was Gaffney who wasn’t fully welcome at CPAC. Gaffney did make an appearance in the audience at a Saturday afternoon panel called “The Sharia Challenge in the West,” where moderator Cliff May of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies promoted a book published by Gaffney’s CSP. While that was the only “official” CPAC event with an explicitly anti-Islam agenda, earlier that morning David Horowitz, who was supposed to introduce the panel “Defending Free Speech on Campus,” took the opportunity to declare, “Suhail Khan used his offices in the Bush administration, with Grover’s support, to carry water for the terrorist Sami al Arian.”