The following was originally published in Alternet.
The sudden rise of Islamophobia in the United States is alarming while the movement that advances anti-Muslim resentment seems bizarre and filled with eccentric, even dangerous characters. But when viewed in the context of a new, groundbreaking research document by the Center for American Progress and an obscure, decades-old political memorandum by a long-forgotten former Supreme Court Justice, the Islamophobic crusade raging across the country appears perfectly in line with longstanding goals and methods of conservative organizing, and is aimed at much more than demonizing Muslims.
In 1971, former US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell submitted a confidential memorandum to his friend, Eugene Sydnor, the chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce, an umbrella group representing American big business. Powell, who was serving on the boards of 11 corporations at the time, warned that America was suffering from a surplus of democratic freedom thanks to the legacy of the New Left and the countercultural revolt of the 1960’s. He declared, “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.” Powell warned that “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries” were joining forces with “perfectly respectable elements of society from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians” to bring down American capitalism.
To roll back the surge of democracy that supposedly threatened corporate predominance, Powell urged the Chamber of Commerce to finance the creation of a new political and cultural infrastructure — a “counter-establishment” capable of unraveling the liberal establishment. The infrastructure would consist of pseudo-scholarly journals, “experts” promoted through speakers bureaus, campus pressure groups, publishing houses, lobbyists and partisan idea factories masquerading as think tanks. He wrote that operatives of the network would have to affect a “more aggressive attitude,” leveling relentless personal attacks against the perceived enemies of big business. By the last days of the Nixon administration, Attorney General John Mitchell was boasting that his conservative friends were going to take the country “so far to the right we won’t recognize it.”
Though still obscure, the Powell’ memo is one of the most important documents in recent American history. It was a blueprint for the creation of the American conservative movement, a political contingent that now controls the Republican Party and influences mainstream American opinion in ways Powell could have never imagined. Powell’s vision came to life during the late 1970’s, when neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol and former Treasury Secretary William Simon gathered together a small group of business tycoons concerned willing to lay down millions in seed money necessary to raise up a network of conservative think tanks, talking heads, and magazines capable of flooding the media with right-wing opinions, capturing the courts and taking control of Congress. Chief among the right-wing sugardaddies was Richard Mellon Scaife, a reclusive billionaire from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who controlled much of the Mellon oil fortune.
Through his various foundations, Mellon Scaife helped finance the creation of the pillars of the conservative movement, from the Federalist Society, which spearheaded the right’s takeover of the federal court system, to the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that functions as the outsourced brain of the congressional Republicans, to the Media Research Center, a right-wing watchdog group that has helped manufacture the concept of “liberal media bias.” The Tea Party, a far-right constellation of pressure groups bankrolled by extraction industry barons like the Koch Brothers, is the latest incarnation of the corporate funded conservative counter-establishment.
Scaife’s name turned up again this month in connection with a familiar cabal of right-wing corporate moneymen financing a small and relatively new political network determined to promote Islamophobia throughout America. According to an authoritative 130-page report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington, Scaife and other conservative sugardaddies have pumped $42.6 million between 2001 and 2009 into the Islamophobic network. Most of the money has gone to five figures known for bigoted, extremist views on Muslims, Arabs, and people of color. They are: Daniel Pipes, a neoconservative academic who urged Israel to employ methods of terrorism against Palestinian civilians and “raze Palestinian villages;” Frank Gaffney, a rightist national security wonk who has called the practice of Shariah a form of “sedition;” Robert Spencer, a writer and activist who has said that “everyone knows” most or all terrorists are Muslims; Stephen Emerson, a self-styled terror “expert” who blamed Muslims for the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which turned out to have been conducted by a right-wing white nationalist terrorist; and David Yerushalmi, a far-right legal activist who has argued that whites are genetically superior to people of color. Behind these figures lies a cadre of equally vitriolic activists like Pamela Geller and Brigitte Gabriel who hype their work. (Read more about the Islamophobic network in my piece, “The Great Fear.”
The Islamophobic network has injected its paranoid vision of a Muslim plot to takeover the United States into the mainstream through the established conservative political apparatus, spreading anti-Muslim hysteria through right-wing radio and heavily trafficked websites like Andrew Breitbart’s Big Peace, which boasts Gaffney as a key contributor. This year’s Republican presidential primary campaign became a platform for Islamophobic conspiracy theories and attacks on Muslim-Americans in general, with candidates suggesting on national television that they might demand loyalty oaths for Muslims who want to serve in the federal government. But the Islamophobic crusade has had practical consequences as well. Mosque burnings are becoming a commonplace phenomenon and anti-Muslim attitudes have reached an all-time high among Americans; The most extreme byproduct of Islamophobic campaigning was, of course, the recent terrorist rampage by the Norwegian right-wing activist Anders Behring Breivik, who quoted Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes and other Islamophobic ideologues scores of times in his manifesto.
While the anti-Muslim crusaders are fairly new to most observers of American politics, they are no more than cogs in a well-honed conservative political operation that functions in the top-down style that Powell envisioned. And like Powell, behind their empty rhetoric of freedom lies a deep seated contempt for democracy. The words of Yerushalmi, the extremist legal activist, expose the real sensibility and goals of his movement: “While our constitutional republic was specifically designed to insulate our national leaders from the masses, democracy has seeped up through the cracks and corroded everything we once deemed sacred about our political order,” Yerushalmi wrote. “Prior to the Civil War, the electorate, essentially white Christian men, had access to local government. It was here, where men shared an intimacy born of family ties, shared religious beliefs, and common cultural signposts, that representative government was meant to touch our daily lives. With the social and cultural revolution which followed the emancipation, man’s relationship to political order was radically nationalized and democratized. Today, there is simply no basis to resist ‘democracy’ and the ‘open society.’”
The cadre of bigots bankrolled by corporate barons to stir fears of Islam may be focused on stigmatizing Muslims, but they are only a part of a much broader movement whose ultimate target is democracy itself.