Michele Bachmann’s has stirred up a storm. Bachmann has been criticized on the floor of the Senate and denounced in the media, and inspired a petition calling for her resignation or removal from the House Intelligence Committee. Facts have never been her strong suit, but this time Bachmann stepped into a hornet’s nest. What is different about this firestorm and its outcome and why is it significant?
Bachmann and four other House Republicans wrote a letter asking the Department of Defense, the State Department, and other departments to investigate whether the U.S. government is being infiltrated by Muslim extremists. In particular they said that Huma Abedin, deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “has three family members—her late father, her mother, and her brother—connected to Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organizations. Her position provides her with routine access to the Secretary and to policy-making.”
As could be expected, Bachmann’s statements went viral on right wing (political and religious) and anti-Islam Web sites. However, in contrast to many instances in which Muslim Americans have been slandered by presidential candidates, members of Congress, hardline Christian Zionists and media, she has been accused of a witch hunt, reminiscent of the McCarthy era. In a rare show of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats and critics in the media, from CNN, MSNBC and Fox, were quick to characterize Bachmann’s insinuations as based on rumors and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
Prominent Republican leaders including war hero and former presidential candidateSen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and several of Bachmann’s colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee denounced her actions. McCain’s delivered a blistering criticism on the floor of the Senate:
“When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches vicious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are, in ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poor because of it. Our reputations, our character, are the only things we leave behind when we depart this earth. And unjust acts that malign the good name of a decent and honorable person, is not only wrong, it is contrary to everything we hold dear.”
Boehner commented: “I don’t know Huma, but from everything that I do know of her she has a sterling character. Accusations like this being thrown around are pretty dangerous.”
Perhaps most surprising and damaging was Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s former campaign chairman. In an op-ed posted on the Fox News Web site, Rollins wrote:
“I have to say that Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s outrageous and false charges against a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin reaches that threshold. ... I am fully aware that she sometimes has difficulty with her facts, but this is downright vicious and reaches the late Senator Joe McCarthy level. ... Shame on you, Michele! You should stand on the floor of the House and apologize to Huma Abedin and to Secretary Clinton and to the millions of hard working, loyal, Muslim Americans for your wild and unsubstantiated charges. As a devoted Christian, you need to ask forgiveness for this grievous lack of judgment and reckless behavior.
Bachmann’s is both a voice and victim of a growing xenophobic and Islamophobic sub-culture that indiscriminately blurs the distinction between the religion of Islam and the majority of mainstream Muslims with the actions and threats of a dangerous and deadly minority of terrorists. Bachmann has offered no hard evidence; her allegations are based on erroneous and unsubstantiated information primarily from notorious Islamophobes such as Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and a neoconservative with an obsession for conspiracy theories about Islam and Muslim “infiltration” in government. Gaffney has a track record of outrageous, and yes, flat-out wrong charges. On March 12, 2009, using “circumstantial evidence” which he admits was “not proven by any means,” he charged that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing. No such evidence has ever been shown to exist.
In 2010, Gaffney with former deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, who has been celebrated by The American Conservative as “God’s Warrior,” published “Shariah: The Threat to America.” The report warns of a “stealth jihad” that must be “thwarted before it’s too late,” and contends that “most mosques in the United States already have been radicalized, that most Muslim social organizations are fronts for violent jihadists [and] the Muslims who practice Sharia law seek to impose it in this country,” the Washinton Post reported in 2010. According to The Washington Post, “Government terrorism experts call the views expressed in the center’s book inaccurate and counterproductive.”
Bachmann and like-minded neo-McCarthyites look to this book and Gaffney’s 10-part educational “course,” The Muslim Brotherhood in America: The Enemy Within, offered by the Center for Security Policy.
As a substitute for evidence, Gaffney uses name calling and anti-Muslim rhetoric to discredit even prominent non-Muslim conservative Republicans and organizations that have distanced themselves from his xenophobic hysteria. He has even charged that the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is “under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is working to bring America under Saudi-style Shariah law.”
Grover Norquist, a prominent Republican strategist, who like others, has been attacked by Gaffney for alleged ties to radical Islamist groups during President George W. Bush’s administration, dismissing Gaffney as a “sick, little bigot.”
So what can we learn from the Bachmann’s witch hunt and why it backfired this time? The first lesson is that in America today a culture of ignorance and anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry can target Muslims and non-Muslims alike, whatever their credentials, however visible or invisible they are, from Huma Abedin to President Obama. Fortunately this time the target was an American Muslim, born in a distinguished family and and educated in America, respected in Washington circles due to her long working relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And who are Huma Abedin’s family members accused by Bachman and others?
Hassan Abedin, Huma’s brother, earned his PhD at the University of London and was a fellow at Oxford University’s Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, which received a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth. He is associate editor of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.
Both of Huma’s parents earned doctorates at the University of Pennsylvania and both taught in the United States. Huma’s mother, Dr. Saleha Abedin, is currently academic vice dean at Dar al-Hekma College, the first private women’s university established in Saudi Arabia. The college now has academic affiliations with major American universities and foundations, including Harvard and Columbia University as well as University of California, Berkeley, Wellesley College, Babson College and many others. She was part of the team that designed the college with its American liberal arts curriculum, training young women for career opportunities, financial independence and social mobility. Karen Hughes, under secretary of state for public diplomacy of the Bush administration, and more recently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken at Dar al-Hekma College.
Huma’s father, Dr. Syed Abedin was the founder of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs and the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, which focuses on the challenges for minority Muslims living in non-Muslim societies and for non-Muslims living in Muslim societies.
Dr. Syed Abedin also was active internationally in addressing issues of religion and violence and in interfaith dialogue. His philosophy of life and religious outlook is summed up in a published piece written while the war in Bosnian was raging and the peace process was stalling, a year before he died on June 5, 1993:
“For wherever there is a slaughter of innocent men, women and children for the mere reason that they belong to another race, color or nationality, or were born into a faith which the majority of them could never quite comprehend, and hardly ever practice in its true spirit; wherever the fair name of religion is used as a veneer, to hide overweening political ambition and bottomless greed; wherever the glory of God is sought to be proclaimed through the barrel of a gun; wherever piety becomes synonymous with rapacity; and morality cowers under the blight of expediency and compromise; wherever it be - in Yugoslavia or Algeria, in Liberia, Chad … in Los Angeles or Abuja, in Kashmir… there God is banished and Satan is triumphant; there the angels weep and the soul of man cringes; there in the name of God humans are dehumanized; and there the grace and beauty of life lies ravished and undone. When would men ever realize: in this game there are no winners.”
Islamophobia has gone mainstream in communities from New York to California. Preachers of hate (politicians, preachers and pundits) and biased Internet sites have exploited legitimate concerns about domestic security with fear-mongering, conflating the religion of Islam with terrorism.
In the 2008 presidential elections, 2010 Congressional elections and recent Republican presidential candidates’ debate, Muslims have been used as convenient scapegoats, their mosques called monuments to terrorism, their laws, sharia and political parties in other countries such as the Muslim Brotherhood are said to want to take over America. Despite major polls showing American Muslims to be economically, educationally and politically integrated, powerful forces work hard to deny them their place as part of America’s social tapestry.
Despite all the paranoia, what objectively do we know about Muslim Americans? What does empirical evidence tell us? In contrast to the charges that Muslims cannot integrate and cannot be loyal citizens, major polls by the Pew Research Center and Gallup among others have found that the overwhelming number of Muslims are decidedly American in income, education and attitudes, rejecting extremism by large margins.
The “Bachmann Affair” is a wake-up call. Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, will not go away anytime soon, but it is also a shining example of the way forward: an insistence on American principles and values and the rule of law rather that innuendo.
John L. Esposito is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin TalalCenter for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.