The rabble-rousers

A few weeks ago I wrote that the current crisis over Park51 (also known as Cordoba House, and to its detractors, the “Ground Zero Mosque”) is America’s Danish cartoon crisis. I meant that in the sense that a wide segment of public opinion had been roused against the project partly because of the manipulation of fear and prejudice by a few. I also noted that some of the ringleaders in that campaign were mostly known for being pro-Israel right-wingers. It turns out I may have understated that point.

Before getting to the crux of this, it’s worth putting in perspective how the actions of a few determined rabble-rousers can matter. In the Danish cartoon crisis, which only blew up several months after the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad were initially published, it was the actions of a few governments (notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference) that escalated the issue after the cartoons had been quickly condemned and then ignored. Other governments followed suit, like Syria and Iran, which allowed rare mass demonstrations against the cartoons outside of Western embassies. That resulted in the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus being set on fire, and the embarrassment of seeing a protest in the name of Islam turn to violence and arson. It was pure political manipulation, to which Middle Eastern governments routinely resort in order to pose as defenders of the faith or otherwise burnish their fading image.

The same thing is happening now in the United States, except it’s not the government that is doing the rabble-rousing. An investigative article on the financing of both sides of the Park51 debate published in Politico, a Washington newspaper, revealed that some of the project's major opponents are chiefly funded by a few individuals and foundations from the far-right fringe of the Israel lobby. Politico ’s report came after Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, called for the financing of these groups to be investigated, suspecting political motivations for the well-organized campaign against Park51 and its endorsement by much of the Republican party just before midterm elections.

No doubt Republicans have electoral as well as ideological reasons to oppose Park51, even if this sends a chilling message to many Muslim Americans, many of them recent immigrants who had expected to find tolerance and freedom or worship in America. But the big money comes from elsewhere, says Politico.

One key financier of the anti-Park51 campaign, including the recent New York rally, is Jihad Watch, an outfit in turn financed by the Freedom Center, run by David Horowitz, a neoconservative activist known for his dogged support for Israel and anti-Arab views. Nearly a million dollars have been provided to Jihad Watch by Joyce Chernik, the wife of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, over the last three years. Chernik is a big-ticket supporter of many other parts of the pro-Israel lobby in the US. She has financed the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the pre-eminent pro-Israel think tank in Washington, and Pajamas Media, an ultra-conservative, pro-Israel blogging network whose members have often written Islamophobic and anti-Arab articles. There are more ties between the Freedom Center and front groups that have paid for the ads against Park51, such as the Coalition to Preserve Ground Zero, which is run by blogger Pamela Geller–the core anti-Park51 activist–and Robert Spencer, the man behind Jihad Watch. Geller also runs outfits called Stop the Islamization of America and Freedom Defense Initiative, dedicated entirely to the Park51 issue. These are all connected to a constellation of mostly neoconservative think tanks that are financed to a large extent by right-wing American Jews, and exist in part to join the ranks of Israel’s American apologists.

It’s important to note this because the likes of Geller, Spencer and Horowitz present themselves as organic activists. Geller, for instance, describes herself as a mere blogger. It turns out she and the other organizers are more like professional activists, organizing the equivalent of what in American politics is called “astroturf”–manufactured grassroots–backed by powerful interest groups. Politico ’s story revealed that Horowitz has paid $460,000 a year and Spencer $140,000 a year for these “activist” groups. In other words, they are clearly full-time, dedicated rabble-rousers.

That something between a fringe and a sizable part of the Israel lobby has gone from defending Israel to instigating anti-Muslim sentiment is deeply troubling. We saw a preview of this in 2007, when another Likudnik fellow-traveler, Daniel Pipes (of the lavishly financed Middle East Forum), successfully campaigned against an Arabic-language school in New York–even before the school opened–because he felt Arabic tuition was a form of “soft jihad.”

But more worryingly, they are being echoed by some establishment, mainstream Jewish publications. Last week, the editor-owner of the pro-Israel magazine The New Republic, Martin Peretz, suggested that “Muslim life is cheap, especially to Muslims” and, again referring to Muslims, wrote “I wonder whether I need to honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” Though Peretz later apologized for the remarks, they are not surprising coming from a man who routinely denies the existence of a Palestinian people, but quite shocking from a magazine that is otherwise liberal.

There is a logic behind some Israel-backers encouraging Islamophobia: at a time when the world’s view of Israel’s wars and occupation is changing, when a part of the US Israel lobby is trying to distance itself from the noxious ideas that have become mainstream at AIPAC, it reinforces a negative image of Muslims and pits Israel as being on the vanguard of a struggle against Islam. This is familiar. Similar tactics have been used in the Arab world to fan anti-Semitism for far too long. The danger is that such tactics will not only perpetuate the conflict, but broaden and radicalize it. Those who fan the flames of Islamophobia for political purposes are not only racist, but also dangerous to both religious tolerance in America and wider Jewish-Muslim relations.

Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He blogs at www.arabist.net. His column appears every Tuesday.

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