At this time last year, as the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approached, the country was gripped by a pernicious debate over a “mosque” (really, an Islamic cultural center) near Ground Zero in New York City.
Pushback against the project actually began months earlier and was led by a group called Stop Islamization of America, which launched “Campaign Offensive: Stop the 911 Mosque!” in May 2010. The group’s founder, Pamela Geller, charged that “this is Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident. Just as Al-Aqsa was built on top of the Temple in Jerusalem.” The group’s co-director, Robert Spencer, helped Geller organize rallies and protest campaigns aimed at a lower Manhattan community board, which reported getting “hundreds and hundreds” of calls and e-mails from around the world as a result of the well-funded and highly coordinated campaign.
Geller and Spencer’s cause was loudly trumpeted by large right-wing media outlets, notably the New York Post and Fox News Channel, both News Corp. properties. The religious right quickly joined; Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention called the project “unacceptable” because “the people who perpetrated the 9/11 attack were Muslims and proclaimed they were doing what they were doing in the name of Islam.” Soon, politicians were also on board: Newt Gingrich denounced the proposal and argued that although the cultural center was seemingly benign, “some radical Islamists use terrorism as a tactic to impose sharia, but others use nonviolent methods—a cultural, political, and legal jihad that seeks the same totalitarian goal even while claiming to repudiate violence.”
By late summer, as September 11 approached, the “debate” had gone completely mainstream—Geller was invited to appear on CNN, and President Obama was forced to take a position. (Actually, two positions: he voiced support for the project before walking it halfway back).
At one point in August, more than two-thirds of Americans opposed the project. It was a stunning victory for Geller, Spencer, and the xenophobic right, but also an excellent case study of how they operate. According to a comprehensive new report by the Center for American Progress, anti-Islam efforts like this are no vast right-wing conspiracy: rather, it’s a “rather small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts,” operating on $40 million in funding from just seven organizations.
The report, titled “Fear, Inc.,” names five “experts” who generate a huge amount of misinformation about Islam. They are:
• Frank Gaffney at the Center for Security Policy
• David Yerushalmi at the Society of Americans for National Existence
• Daniel Pipes at the Middle East Forum
• Spencer, of Jihad Watch and Stop Islamization of America
• Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project on Terrorism
Meanwhile, seven foundations have donated no less than $40 million to Islamophobic think tanks like these over the past ten years. They are:
• Donors Capital Fund
• Richard Mellon Scaife foundations
• Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
• Newton D. & Rochelle F. Becker foundations and charitable trust
• Russell Berrie Foundation
• Anchorage Charitable Fund and William Rosenwald Family Fund
• Fairbrook Foundation
In extensive detail, the report describes how this small group of donors fund a cluster of think tanks that promote rank Islamophobia, and how their misinformation is spread through a network of conservative media and grassroots organizers like Geller. The important context here is that anti-Islam sentiment is growing in the decade since the September 11 attacks: an ABC News taken last year in the wake of the Ground Zero mosque debate showed 49 percent of Americans had a negative view of Islam, compared with just 39 percent in October 2002.
The biggest contributor to these efforts, by far, is the Donors Capital Fund, which has given over $20.7 million to groups like Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism and the Clarion Fund—in fact, Donors Capital Fund fully funded the Clarion Fund’s distribution of the DVD “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” which went to over 28 million swing-state voters before the 2008 presidential election.
Donors Capital Fund is a philanthropic organization run by a number of conservative heavyweights. The board includes members of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal.
The report does unearth a few new facts about the Islamophobia network, but many other parts were already known—the New York Times, for example, has already detailed Yerushalmi’s efforts at getting “anti-Shariah” laws passed in statehouses across the country. But the report’s real strength is in demonstrating exactly how small—and effective—this network is.
“It’s not a lot of people, it’s not a lot of organizations, it’s not a lot of money. It is amazing what these people have accomplished,” Eli Clifton, one of the report’s authors, said in a press call Friday.
Faiz Shakir, a vice president at CAP and also a co-author, said the report is “trying to end Islamophobia. If we are to end it we have to identify who are they key motivators and drivers of this hate industry. We have to give a path for those who want to divorce themselves from the Islamophobia industry the opportunity to do so.”
When the report was released on Friday, the targets responded with charaterstic and near-cartoonish zeal; Horowitz said CAP “has joined the Muslim Brotherhood,” and Spencer accused the authors of belonging to the “Islamic supremacist propaganda machine.”
The full report can be viewed here. (Full discloure: I worked at the Center for American Progress from August 2010 to April 2011).