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Islamophobia and the Tea Party

For most Tea Party leaders and supporters, Islam embodies the numerous threats that challenge the permanence of this tradition, and Muslims, whether ‘moderate’ or ‘radical’, are all seen as enemies of the American people.

Mark Williams, the first chairman of the Tea Party Express, argued that ‘the story involves lots of bisexual men who are oddly homophobic and a psychotic paedophile, who coughed up this twisted and violent ideology during seizures in the desert, augmented by an inbred paranoia and an imposed ignorance acquired and reinforced over the centuries’.

Anti-Islamic rhetoric is not specific to the TP, and is popular among gatherings and activists who do not always explicitly identify themselves as TP members or supporters. It is very difficult to determine with precision the extent of the Tea Party’s responsibility for each event or declaration that celebrates a rejection of Islam.

However, a number of studies have shown that, while anti-Islamic arguments became increasingly common in the public debate in the years following the attacks of 11 September 2001, the year 2010 marked a clear increase in the numbers of controversies around mosque constructions, of court trials concerning Muslims’ religious freedom and of hate crimes against Muslims.

This suggests that while Islamophobic speech and acts existed long before the birth of the various Tea Parties, the TP’s success has undoubtedly played an important role in the spreading and normalisation of Islamophobic statements and acts.

In places where some of the population had already mobilised against Islam, TP activists tended to rally to their cause. For example, in Murfreesboro, a small town in Tennessee, a heated controversy began in June 2010 when some inhabitants rejected the zoning commission’s decision to authorise the construction of a mosque.

Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tea Party candidate in the midterm elections of November 2010, immediately joined the anti-mosque camp in order to take advantage of the local population’s frustration and fear.

In Florida, the Fort Lauderdale Tea Party played a central role in organising a protest that aimed to shut down a mosque, even though the city commissioner, Lesa Peerman, defended the rights of the community who used the mosque.

O’Neal Dozier, the leader of the protest, is a member of the board of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, and the editor of a journal entitled Judeo-Christian View.

More specifically, the TP’s Islam-bashing takes two main forms: the denunciation of ‘stealth jihad’, and warnings against the Muslim Brotherhood-Obama ‘syndicate’. TP supporters consider all the symbols and rituals of American Muslims to constitute evidence of a secret plan to subvert American society.

Mosques are defined as breeding camps for terrorism, headscarves as symbols of conquest and halal food as an attempt to infect the citizenry.

Controversies have broken out in Texas and Florida about textbooks that supposedly grant too much space to Islamic history. In the summer of 2013, a group of parents protested against the use of a world history textbook that included a thirty-six page chapter on Islam. Representative Ritch Workman criticised the one-sidedness of the textbook and viewed the lack of interest in Christianity as personally ‘offensive’.

Pamela Geller, one of the fiercest opponents of the construction of the Islamic Community Center in New York and co-founder, with Robert Spencer, of the Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) platform, participated in numerous demonstrations organised by Tea Parties.

SIOA, her blog (called Atlas Shrugs) and her third organisation, the Freedom Defense Initiative, are all listed as official ‘partner’ organisations of the ResistNet Tea Party faction. In June 2011, she spoke at a rally organised by the Tea Party Patriots in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she declared: ‘The stealth jihad is very real. […] It is a covert operation, although increasingly more brazen under Obama.’

Geller also played an important role in spreading the idea that Obama is not an American-born citizen and went so far as to suggest that he was the illegitimate child of Malcolm X. According to the NewsCorpsWatch website, Geller’s blog contains 267 posts on the theme ‘Muslim in the White House?’

The battle against Islam is also closely associated with criticism of Barack Obama. The election of the first African-American president gave TP discourse a specific direction. Islam-bashing has become a necessary ingredient in a project that aims to question the loyalty, the nationality and the background of the American president.

For many TP activists who question whether Obama is actually American and contend that he is a Muslim, Islamophobia and ‘birtherism’ go hand-in-hand. Somewhat ironically, Obama is at once described as an Islamist, with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, and as a socialist, influenced by a European, secular-liberal worldview.

TP activists have seized upon any opportunity to express their anti-Islamic and anti-Obama views in a single message.

In April 2013, the Tea Party Nation, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group, blamed Obama’s kindness towards Muslims for the Boston marathon attacks.

A Texas Republican, Louie Gohmert, declared on a conservative radio show that the investigations into the Boston bombings had been hindered by Obama’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Gohmert alleged that ‘this administration has so many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America’.

In the summer of 2012, Gohmert supported Representative Michele Bachman, a notorious TP figure, in her witch-hunt against members of the administration who were supposedly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. Bachman accused Huma Abedin, an advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of helping the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the administration.

Leading Republican figures, such as John McCain, Marco Rubio and John Boehner, firmly condemned these allegations and warned against a return to McCarthyism. However, a number of politicians, lawyers and media personalities close to the TP helped to spread Bachman’s alarmist theories.

Excess and buffoonery are key ingredients of the TP’s rhetoric, and form part of its strategy concerning most topics in general, and in relation to Islam in particular.

The ‘X-ray plot’ is one illustration (among many) of the level of absurdity that the Islamophobic actions of some TP activists can attain.

In June 2013, two men from upstate New York were arrested and charged for building an X-ray device that was supposed to serve as a weapon with which to kill Muslims. The initiator of the plan, Glendon Scott Crawford, a mechanic working for General Electric, was a member of the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a member of a local chapter of the Tea Party Patriots called Americans Demanding Liberty and Freedom, and a member of FreedomWorks.

Although this type of enterprise clearly diverges from the liberal ideal of a civil public debate where everyone ‘agrees to disagree’, the paranoid rationality upon which it rests is far from a new phenomenon in American political history.

The rejection of Islam draws upon a long discursive tradition of scapegoating religious and cultural minorities. Freemasons, Jews, Catholics and Mormons have all successively been perceived as groups plotting against American culture or the American Constitution.

Self-righteous indignation and prophetic alarmism represent key ingredients of this paranoid style: unveiling the conspiracy and revealing the true face of the plotters is of the utmost importance to the survival of the nation. Concern for nuance or ambiguity would be unacceptable; it would be a sign of weakness, and would denote assent to the deceptive reasoning of the wicked elite in power.

More specifically, the TP’s anti-Islamic discourse recalls anti-Catholic arguments that have been prominent in American history since the nineteenth century.

In the same way as American Muslims’ loyalty to America is often called into question, Catholic Americans used to be considered foreign agents, whose allegiance to the pope was essentially incompatible with their integration into the American nation.

Edited excerpts taken from Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell and Olivier Roy, with permission from Hurst and Co.

Nadia Marzouki is a research fellow at the CNRS and a consultant for ReligioWest at the European University Institute.

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