The Rise of the Anti-Muslim Fringe
April 17, 2015
Apr 17, 2015
13 Min read time
An advertisement displayed in New York City's subway system connecting terrorism and Islam. Image: j-No.
Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream
Princeton University Press, $35 (Cloth)
On January 11, Steven Emerson, the executive director of a not-for-profit called The Investigative Project, broke some bad news on Fox News about the English town of Birmingham. “There are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in,” he explained. As for London, “there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn't dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.” Although Emerson apologized via Twitter for his Birmingham remark, he offered no apology for similar allegations made four days earlier on Fox News about “no go zones . . . in Belgium, in Sweden, in the Netherlands, in France . . . in Italy.”
Emerson is not the only one using mass media to stoke public alarm about Muslim communities in America and Europe. In the sociologist Christopher Bail’s catalogue of what he optimistically labels the Anti-Muslim fringe, Emerson, a former congressional staffer and journalist specializing in national security, figures alongside prominent public voices such as Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum (MEF), Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), David Yerushalmi, founder of the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE), and Brigitte Gabriel, founder of ACT! for America. Emerson’s insinuations are comparatively subtle. ACT!’s Brigitte Gabriel, by contrast, has announced that Arabs and Muslims “have no soul,” and that any “practicing Muslim who believes in the teaching of the Quran cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America.”
In the first quantitative study of this movement, Christopher Bail finds that Emerson, Gabriel, and other so-called fringe voices now command significant access to national press (not just Fox), substantial financial resources, and large networks of supporters. ACT!, for example, which was founded in 2004, had 100 local chapters by 2007, and by 2013 claimed 303 chapters in forty-five American states as well as twenty-four chapters in other countries. Today, such organizations are hardly fringe.
Bail’s ambition is to explain how SANE, ACT!, MEF, and their peers came to power in American discussions of Islam and terrorism. The central culprit, on his account, is the mass media. Rather than striving for accuracy or balance, Bail argues, media coverage tends to tilt persistently in favor of the most vitriolic, emotional, and agitated voices in the public sphere—a bias anti-Muslim groups have wittingly or unwittingly (Bail doesn’t say) exploited. Bail’s causal account is based on impressive quantitative research and the innovative application of algorithmic text-analysis tools to both mass media and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. But his account is only partly satisfying as an etiology of the anti-Muslim fringe’s rise. Nevertheless, as an indictment of prominent thinking about the role of free speech in a liberal society, it has real bite.
• • •
To understand Bail’s contribution, it is helpful to notice that a more obvious explanation for the anti-Muslim fringe’s rise doesn’t hold water: anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States cannot simply be traced back to September 2001. Certainly, the 9/11 attacks were followed by a sharp uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment. The time following the attacks was also characterized by what political scientists call a “rally effect”: many heads of government experienced a sharp increase in support as people sought comfort and certainty in the penumbra of decisive leadership. Yet neither the initial paroxysm of anti-Muslim sentiment nor the electoral rally effect endured very long. Polling by the Pew Research Center and other organizations shows that the animus waned after an initial post-2001 crescendo, only to wax again about four or five years later. They detect expanded post-9/11 support for President Bush as late as the 2002 and 2004 elections, but only weakly. Consistent with that evidence, several anti-Muslim groups, such as ACT! and SANE, emerged four or five years after 9/11, not in its immediate aftermath.
Bail uses sophisticated plagiarism software to measure the influence of different entities by testing for the adoption of language from their press releases in subsequent news articles and commentary about terrorism and Islam. He shows that MEF, CSP, and peer organizations dominated media treatment of Islam in the two years following the World Trade Center attacks. But organizations offering a sympathetic or nuanced view of Muslims rarely made it into the spotlight. Moreover, he shows that the most influential groups during this period, MEF and CSP, achieved resonant public voice with relatively meager budgets. In 2001, MEF reported a budget of $302,285, while CSP had $887,873.
Rather than financial backing, Bail suggests, it was competition among journalists and news outlets for sound bites that best explains the quick rise of the anti-Muslim fringe. And the most emotive sound bites win, kibble for pundits on both left and right. Whereas speakers favoring tolerance and coexistence make for bland and anodyne viewing, the prospect of a Florida pastor called Terry Jones setting the Quran on fire is fodder for the breathless “breaking news” culture of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. Similarly, Bail’s analysis predicts that Emerson’s scaremongering about Birmingham and London will be far more attractive to network news than nuanced accounts of the social alienation, economic stagnation, and geographic isolation of post-industrial northern England. Bail in effect shows how the proclivity of mass media to focus on the sensational, which is now familiar to most, can interact with existing social networks, lending some ideas more power while enervating others.
Bail suggests competition among journalists and news outlets for sound bites led to the rise of the anti-Muslim fringe.
In addition to quantitative data, Bail also calls on compelling anecdotes to illustrate the power of anti-Muslim groups to set the media agenda. In the early 2000s, for example, CSP’s Gaffney attacked the Bush White House for meeting with American Muslim organizations and for employing a Muslim civil servant in the White House’s Office of Cabinet Affairs. Gaffney’s ad hominem and baseless attacks garnered respectful attention in the New York Times and an extended segment on 60 Minutes sedulously airing concerns about radical infiltration of the Bush White House and Fortune 500 companies.
Another prominent example of media influence came in 2010, when Pam Geller, former editorialist for the New York Observer turned blogger, used her Atlas Shrugged blog to stoke fears about a “monster mosque . . . in the shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction” in lower Manhattan. Park51, the challenging project, was not a mosque but a community center. Although Geller’s attempt to prevent Park51’s construction failed, her larger ambition of challenging the construction of Muslim sites of worship succeeded. From 2010 through 2012, vandalism of existing mosques and legal challenges to proposed Muslim sites of worship increased more than three fold.
Bail successfully shows that American media coverage of terrorism suffers from a “market for lemons” dynamic. By qualitatively coding his data by emotional content, and in particular displays of fear and anger, he is able to demonstrate that inaccurate and emotional coverage is preferred to—and even drives out, in many cases—more dispassionate but accurate reporting and analysis across a wide variety of different media platforms. Bail’s study focused on three newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Times, and USA Today), and three television news channels (CNN, CBS, and Fox News). By picking a heterogeneous range of media outlets, he hedged against the risk of simply identifying one venue’s idiosyncratic biases. Journalists compete for market share using the emotional content of news. They interview people ready to rage rather than to explain. The net result will often be a systematically distorted view of a topic, especially where one side, but not the other, can muster fulmination.
There is a nice irony here that Bail doesn’t quite bring out. A traditional defense of free speech, dating back to Mill’s On Liberty and famously endorsed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his 1919 dissent in United States v. Abrams, maintains that a free “marketplace” for ideas facilitates the identification of truths—via adversarial contestation and testing of factual and normative claims. Scholars and commentators have long criticized this idea. The marketplace for ideas, some have pointed out, lacks a mechanism for sorting between truth and falsity. By providing painstaking evidence of perverse selection effects in the media, Bail shows that the contemporary marketplace for ideas is not conducive to truth (however defined); in fact, it beckons pernicious falsehoods into the public sphere.
While he doesn’t explore the issue, Bail might have used his data on the media presence of the anti-Muslim fringe to examine overt expressions of animosity such as employment discrimination and hate crimes. Although we lack the firm evidence, it is plausible that the increasing presence and respectability of voices in the national media doubting the patriotism, and even humanity, of American Muslims have played a role in the recent wave of discrimination against Muslims. Since 2009, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reported rising levels of reported workplace discrimination against American Muslims. In that same period, Muslim civil rights groups document rising levels of violent attacks on Muslims, or those perceived to be Muslims (Sikhs are often victims because of their turbans), as well as on mosques. Even shy of criminality, anti-Sharia and anti-mosque campaigns shape the lived experiences of Muslim communities. In February 2011, in Yorba Linda, California, a local chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America held a fund-raiser for a homeless shelter. A video posted on YouTube captures the seething mob organized in part by ACT! that protested the benefit, jeering and gesticulating at entering adults and children with American flags and shrieks of “Take your Sharia and go home, you terrorist lovers.”
It is also plausible that Bail has uncovered a mechanism through which the unfettered exercise of free speech principles under conditions of market competition lead to infractions of equality. True, conflicts between liberty and equality have been identified in other free speech debates about pornography, campaign finance, and campus speech codes. And the ordinary operation of mass media, it is well known, can reify gender and race stratification. But to my knowledge no one has observed that the ordinary incentives of commercial media outlets may have the effect of fostering a pernicious, subordinating social dynamic so quickly. As a contribution to our understanding of the complex, institutionally contingent effects of free speech in our commercial society, therefore, Bail’s account is important and noteworthy.
Yet it is hard to believe that media bias alone could be a complete account of the anti-Muslim fringe’s peregrination to the American center. If passion were sufficient to attract media attention, many more conspiracy theories should be mainstream by now. Moreover, Bail’s account does not explain the timingof anti-Muslim fringe’s rise. Cable news was hardly a salon for refined debate in the 1990s. There was ample reason for concern about Islamist violence, from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and yet groups like CSP and the Investigative Project failed to find a significant toehold then. Further, while CSP and the like did gain prominence after 9/11, the sudden leap of ACT! and SANE into public favor in 2004–2005 remains puzzling.
The marketplace for ideas lacks a mechanism for sorting between truth and falsity.
We still don’t have a comprehensive causal account of the rise of anti-Muslim forces, but there are three important strands I would add to Bail’s narrative. First, moving beyond Bail’s focus on the media, we might observe that the uneven distribution of anti-Muslim ideas across the political spectrum provides suggests that something more than media bias is at work. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States finds the most receptive audiences on the political right. During the 2012 election, three contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, and no Democrat, signed a pledge by CSP and ACT! against the use of Islamic law by domestic courts. Explaining his decision to do so, Newt Gingrich described Sharia as “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States.” The Center for American Progress also documents close support for anti-Muslim ideas and organizations among some right-of-center Christian leaders and organizations, such as John Hagee, Pat Robertson and the American Center for Law and Justice, and the American Family Association. This mobilization on the political right is not easily explained in straightforward political or ideological terms. According to one poll cited on the MEF Web site, more than seventy percent of Muslim Americans voted for George W. Bush in 2000, compared to eight percent casting their lot with Al Gore. If mobilized, they might have even provided swing votes in states such as Florida. Politicians and certain evangelical groups, that is, have arrayed themselves against American Muslims despite their arguably contrary political interests.
Money also matters more than Bail lets on. Money is often enough to change agendas and opinions. Indeed, it is possible that the non-diegetic sources of anti-Muslim sentiment are as important as the more vocal semaphoring captured by Bail’s quantitative methods. Between 2001 and 2011, seven right-leaning foundations, including the Richard Mellon Scaife foundations, the Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Donors Capital Fund, channeled $42.6 million in donations to CSP, MEF, SANE, the Investigative Project and other anti-Muslim groups. Even in the cash-soaked precincts of American politics, this is not pocket change.
The money translated into diverse vectors of influence. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, for example, the Donors Capital paid for a DVD of “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” to be sent to 28 million voters in swing states. And between 2004 and 2009, ACT!’s budget also rose from around $5,000 to more than $1.5 million. In addition to a weekly television show on a Christian broadcasting channel, ACT! now offers to convene local “Citizen in Action training conferences” at which participants are taught how to identify “suspicious activity in your neighborhood” and to “expose political correctness in your local media.” Such a dense on-the-ground presence would be impossible without a solid financial firmament. Anti-Muslim sentiment has prospered not only because of journalists’ proclivity for the excitable or the rise of xenophobic Christian conservatism. Like many other ideas in American political life today, it is popular because people with truckloads of spare cash like it.
Finally, the rise of anti-Muslim voices in Europe such as the French National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party, and the Danish People’s Party over the past decade is often explained, at least in part, by economic dislocation and disillusionment with centrist parties. As in Europe, the United States has seen both economic crisis and a dwindling of the public legitimacy of mainstream political figures, parties, and institutions over the past decade. A full historical account would have to attend to the possibility that these larger socio-political forces have at least abetted the rise of the anti-Muslim fringe.
• • •
Accounts of xenophobic populism, like Bail’s, that name a single cause are inevitably incomplete. But that is not to say his project lacks important insights. Bail has identified a crucial component of the story. Without the asymmetrical focus of the national media, it is hard to see how Emerson, Gabriel, Gaffney, and their like could have forged their path. How much his etiology explains is hard to say. As is often the case, we simply can’t be certain how complex new social forces interact with extant institutions and political formations absent evidence not just from sociologists, but also political scientists, historians, and legal scholars.
Most importantly, Bail’s work gestures at skepticism that robust conceptions of free speech are socially beneficial. One lesson to draw from his qualitative work is this: The marketplace of ideas is unable, as a systematic matter, to sort through truth and falsity, and this handicap fosters an underappreciated cost to equality from free speech’s exercise. At the same time, the unfettered exercise of the commercial media market has not just enabled the numerical growth and deepening political power of the anti-Muslim networks that Bail documents, it has also rendered the pernicious effects of that speech increasingly beyond regulation, whether in the form of criminal prosecution, civil penalties, or simply public condemnation by high officials. The costs of a robust conception of free speech for minorities are more entrenched and more durable than may previously have been thought.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
April 17, 2015
13 Min read time