Islamophobia and the Capitol insurrection

In such a world, even Muslim Americans active in peace centers become inherently suspicious, but heavily armed white nationalists in motels just outside Washington aren’t.

Image Credit: Jake Green/AP, FILE

Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson excused one of the leaders of the extremist Oath Keepers organization implicated in the January 6th insurrection by describing him as “a devout Christian.” It’s safe to surmise that he wouldn’t have offered a similar defense for a Muslim American. Since September 11th, and even before that ominous date, they have suffered bitterly from discrimination and hate crimes in this country, while their religion has been demonized. During the first year of the Trump administration, about half of Muslim Americans polled said that they had personally experienced some type of discrimination.

No matter that this group resides comfortably in the American mainstream, it remains under intensive, often unconstitutional, surveillance. In contrast, during the past two decades, the Department of Justice for the most part gave a pass to violent white supremacists. No matter that they generated more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil than any other group. The benign insouciance of the white American elite toward such dangerous fanatics also allowed them to organize freely for the January 6th assault on the Capitol and the potential violent overthrow of the government.

Donell Harvin was the chief of homeland security and intelligence for the government of the District of Columbia in the period leading up to January 6th. He assured NBC News’s Ken Dilanian that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security seemed completely oblivious about the plans of white supremacist hate groups to violently halt the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory, despite plentiful evidence on social media that they were preparing to bring weaponry to the Capitol.

Consider now the treatment that the very same agencies offered distinctly inoffensive Muslim Americans. Rutgers law professor Sahar Aziz has argued that many white Americans see Muslims not merely as a religious group but as a racial one and have placed them on the nethermost rung of this country’s ethnic hierarchy. Muslim Americans are regularly, for instance, profiled at airports and subjected to long interrogations. Over many years, the New York City Police Department gathered intelligence on more than 250 mosques and student groups. The FBI even put field officers in mosques not only to spy on, but also to entrap worshipers who, alarmed by their wild talk, sometimes reported them to… the FBI.

Aziz notes that Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 to register all Muslim Americans in a database, institute widespread surveillance of mosques, and possibly exclude Muslims from the country. Even non-governmental far-right groups like discredited ex-journalist Steve Emerson’s “Investigative Project on Terrorism” have spied on Muslim Americans. As with everything else in the contemporary U.S., a partisan divide has emerged regarding them, with 72% of Republicans holding the self-evidently false belief that Muslims are more likely to commit violence than adherents of other faiths, while only 32% of Democrats say this.

Apparently, though, our concern over the potential commission of violence in this country should actually focus on Republicans. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that 34% of Americans now believe that violence against the government is sometimes justified, a statistic that rises to an alarming 40% among Republicans. In other words, this country’s worries about violence should be focused most on the right-wing extremist fringe, exemplified by groups like the Oath Keepers, 11 of whose leaders were arrested by the FBI in mid-January for “seditious conspiracy” in their paramilitary invasion of the Capitol in 2021. More people have perished in political killings in the past 20 years here at the hands of far-right radicals than those of any other group, including extremists of Muslim heritage. Still, this country’s security agencies continue their laser focus on monitoring Muslim Americans, even as they grossly underestimate the threat from white supremacists.

Collectively punishing Muslim Americans

What most characterizes the American Muslim community, which at nearly four million strong makes up more than 1% of the population, is diversity. It includes white and Hispanic converts, African Americans, Arab Americans, and South-Asian Americans whose families hailed from the Indian subcontinent. Three American Muslims are serving in Congress and even President Trump appointed a Moroccan-born American immunologist, Moncef Slaoui, to head Operation Warp Speed that produced the Moderna vaccine for Covid-19. Last summer saw the confirmation of the first Muslim-American federal judge and President Biden has just nominated the first Muslim-American woman to the federal bench. There are also striking numbers of Muslim-American peace activists, either with their own organizations or involved at interfaith centers, as well as many environmentalists and community organizers, but the media and academics seldom focus on this dimension of the religion.

In my new book, Peace Movements in Islam, my colleagues and I did something remarkably rare in these years: we explored this peaceful dimension of the faith of a fifth of humankind. We focused, for instance, on the Muslims active alongside Mahatma Gandhi in nonviolent noncooperation to end British colonial domination of India. Closer to home, contributor Grace Yukich explores the Muslim-American reaction to the rise of the virulently Islamophobic Trump administration and finds that many responded by promoting the progressive dimensions of their faith, while working against racism and for the rights of immigrants and the poor.

Polling supports her findings, with 69% of Muslim-American respondents saying that working for justice forms an essential part of their identity, nearly the same as the 72% who say that loving the Prophet Muhammad is essential to being a Muslim. In addition, 62% see protecting the natural environment as a key to Muslim identity. The majority of them, in other words, are religiously open-minded. Some 56% of Muslim Americans, for instance, believe that other religions can be a path to salvation. In contrast, only a third of evangelical Christians take a similar position when it comes to religions outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.

And here’s a seldom-recognized reality in this country: Muslims form a longstanding and important thread in the American tapestry, having been in North America for centuries. Rabbinical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all arose on the fringes of the Roman Empire between the first and seventh centuries of the common era. All believe in the one God of Abraham, as well as in the biblical patriarchs and prophets. All forbid murder, robbery, and other violent crimes. There are no objective grounds for a United States that recognizes the first two to deny legitimacy to the third.

Muslim-American numbers have increased dramatically since, in 1965, Congress changed formerly racist immigration laws to abolish country quotas that favored northern Europeans. Some 75% of the Muslim Americans here are now citizens. The 9/11 attacks, however, turbocharged hatred of this group, unfairly associating them in the minds of many Americans with violence and terrorism, even though all the hijackers were foreigners and differed starkly in their political and ethnic backgrounds from those of most Muslim Americans. Unlike whites, who suffer no reputational damage from being of the same race as violent white supremacists, Muslim Americans have been collectively punished for bad behavior by any of them or even by foreign coreligionists. While a small number of Muslim Americans have succumbed to the blandishments of radical Muslim ideologies, it has been vigorously rejected by all but a few.

The same cannot be said of white nationalists for whom radicalism stands at the core of their identity, while a disturbing strain of poisonous racism runs through their activities. The 11 leaders of the Oath Keepers arrested in mid-January for seditious conspiracy had stockpiled heavy weapons and coordinated with rapid-response teams pre-positioned outside Washington, D.C., whom they hoped to call on, apparently after they invaded the halls of Congress. According to the indictment, the leader of that 5,000-strong organization, Elmer “Stewart” Rhodes, wrote on its website on December 23, 2020, “Tens of thousands of patriot Americans, both veterans and non-veterans, will already be in Washington, D.C., and many of us will have our mission-critical gear stowed nearby, just outside D.C.”

Rhodes, who spent thousands of dollars on weaponry in December and January, said in an open letter that he and others may have to “take to arms in defense of our God given liberty.” Oath Keeper chapters around the country conducted military training exercises with rifles. Indicted Alabaman Oath Keeper Joshua James, 33, texted on the Signal messaging app, “We have a shitload of QRF [Quick Reaction Forces] on standby with an arsenal.” They were concerned, though, that during the planned civil disturbance, authorities could close the bridges from Virginia (where they had holed up in motels with their assault rifles) into D.C. A QRF team leader from North Carolina wrote, “My sources DC working on procuring Boat transportation as we speak.” Kelly Meggs of Florida, another Oath Keeper leader, sent messages worrying about running out of ammunition: “Ammo situation. I am checking on as far as what they will have for us if SHTF [the shit hits the fan]. I’m gonna have a few thousand just in case. If you’ve got it doesn’t hurt to have it. No one ever said shit I brought too much.”

On the morning of January 6th, one of the organization’s leaders, 63-year-old Edward Vallejo of Phoenix, Arizona, discussed the possibility of “armed conflict” and “guerrilla war” on a podcast. On the day itself, members of the Oath Keepers formed paramilitary “stacks” in front of the Capitol to invade it in formation. They were, however, foiled when some Capitol police delayed them by holding the line against thousands of angry, determined fanatics, while others whisked most members of Congress away to secure locations inaccessible to the mob. Before they were rescued, some representatives lay on the floor, weeping or praying. In other words, the American far right came much closer to overthrowing the U.S. government than al-Qaeda ever did and, at the same time, resembles al-Qaeda far more than Republican lawmakers are ever likely to admit.

Ignoring white nationalists

The Oath Keepers, like the Boogaloo Bois and other far-right groups central to the insurrection, do not so much have an ideology as a mental cesspool of conspiracy theories and imaginary grievances. Typically, in December 2018, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes spoke of asylum-seekers at the border with Mexico as a “military invasion” by “cartels” and part of a “political coup” by the domestic Marxist left. He also managed to blame Muslims and the late Senator John McCain for provoking crises that would leave this country’s borders “undefended.”

Extremists on the white nationalist right have been a known quantity to American law enforcement for decades and have committed horrific acts of violence like Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 truck-bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and wounded more than 800. Unlike Muslim Americans, however, they have been cut remarkable slack.

The Republican Party has had a longstanding and chillingly effective policy of downplaying the dangers of extremist white nationalists. No surprise there, since the GOP depends on the far-right vote in elections and on financial contributions from well-off white supremacists who hate the multiracial Democrats. In 2009, analyst Daryl Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security in the newly installed Obama administration produced a confidential report for law enforcement suggesting that right-wing extremism posed the biggest domestic threat of terrorism to this country. Republicans in Congress leaked it and then, along with right-wing media like Fox News, went ballistic.

House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) said at the time:

“[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why she has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al-Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”

According to Johnson, the Obama administration caved to this campaign:

“Work related to violent right-wing extremism was halted. Law enforcement training also stopped. My unit was disbanded. And, one-by-one, my team of analysts left for other employment. By 2010, there were no intelligence analysts at DHS working domestic terrorism threats.”

One can imagine that under Trump such groups received even less government scrutiny, since one of their fellow travelers had ascended to the White House.

The refusal of the Washington establishment to take the menace of far-right white nationalist movements seriously has been among the biggest security failures in this country’s history. The collusion of mainstream Republicans who have, in essence, run interference for such dangerous, well-armed conspiracy theorists has stained the party of Lincoln indelibly, while the participation of active-duty military and police personnel in these groups poses a dire threat to the Republic.

At the same time, this country’s security agencies failed epically in their treatment of Muslim Americans after the 9/11 attacks by infringing on their civil liberties, while abridging or disregarding constitutional protections for millions of innocent people. Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, points to congressional reports that question the value of all this monitoring of an American minority, not to speak of the absurdities it has entailed. As she put it, “Often, the reports singled out Muslims engaged in normal activities for suspicion: a [Department of Homeland Security] officer flagged as suspicious a seminar on marriage held at a mosque, while a north Texas fusion center advised keeping an eye out for Muslim civil liberties groups and sympathetic individuals and organizations.” In such a world, even Muslim Americans active in peace centers become inherently suspicious, but heavily armed white nationalists in motels just outside Washington aren’t.

Copyright 2022 Juan Cole.


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