In a recent interview, retired US Army Lt. Colonel and U.S. Representative-elect Allen West made a statement that should be of concern to all free speech advocates. In the middle of a softball interview with a like-minded conservative about Obama’s purported policy of “appeasing” Islamism, he spoke of using aggressive strategy against terrorist propaganda (my emphasis):
We’ve got to start shutting them down. We can not allow them to come in to our country and proselytize in their mosques and talking about overthrowing our government, our constitutional democracy, saying they want to replace it with sharia, and then we say that’s okay, that’s freedom of speech, that’s freedom of religion; that’s not, that’s sedition. So we’ve got to understand that this battlefield is just not overseas, this battlefield is here.
While he tried to maintain a superficial appearance of nuance by repeatedly referring to “radical” or “extreme” Islam, he let the mask slip a bit when he claimed that “this radical understanding of Islam has been around since 622 AD.” 622 is historically significant to Islam since its founder, the prophet Muhammad, traveled with his followers to the city of Medina that year. The Islamic calendar also begins in 622. It is probably not a stretch to assume that he shares the view many other conservatives share of Islam as a whole. The general tendency of the American right these days is to view Islam not as a religion or a culture, but as a political movement bent on world domination. According to this view, moderate Muslims cannot exist because Islam is intrinsically barbaric and backwards.
It is becoming increasingly evident that anti-Islam campaigners are heading for a collision with First Amendment case law. A number of prominent Islamophobes are on the record as wanting a reinterpretation of the First Amendment for the purpose of fighting terrorism and allegedly widespread “subversion.” These figureheads often justify their proposals as free speech protections since Islam is itself said to be totalitarian and intolerant of free thought. This contradiction was apparent when Newt Gingrich spoke on the need for a reexamination of the First Amendment and a “different set of rules” for combating terrorist propaganda and recruitment. The speech was made during the 2006 “Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award Dinner,” an event that “fetes people and organizations that stand up for freedom of speech.” Similarly, Netherlands politician and anti-Muslim cause célèbre Geert Wilders said that “the right to religious freedom should not apply to this totalitarian ideology called Islam.” He said this while speaking at a 2009 event called the “Free Speech Summit” in Palm Beach, Florida. In their minds, there was no irony to any of this. In fact, their statements were perfectly consistent with their view of Islam as a threat to freedom of speech.
Increasingly, these same Islamophobes have been moving beyond counter-terror rhetoric and have asserted that endorsements of sharia–Islamic law–and relatively benign demands for accommodation are dangerous subversive activities. The controversy surrounding the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York City was an early example of this. Despite its secular character and the fact that it was named after a Christian Maronite, its emphasis on Arab language and culture was enough to provoke a visceral reaction from the Islamophobia movement. A ragtag coalition was formed, calling itself “Stop The Madrassa.” The movement succeeded in forcing the resignation of founding principal Debbie Almontaser through a despicable campaign of guilt by association and mangled quotations. It also revealed the irrational paranoia of Islamophobia’s proponents.
International Herald Tribune, 28 Apr. 2008 (emphasis mine):
The conflict tapped into a well of post-9/11 anxieties. But Almontaser’s downfall was not merely the result of a spontaneous outcry by concerned parents and neighborhood activists. It was also the work of a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life. The fight against the school, participants in the effort say, was only an early skirmish in a broader, national struggle. “It’s a battle that’s really just begun,” said Daniel Pipes, who directs a conservative research group, the Middle East Forum, and helped lead the charge against Almontaser and the school. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, critics of radical Islam focused largely on terrorism, scrutinizing Muslim-American charities or asserting links between Muslim organizations and violent groups like Hamas. But as the authorities have stepped up the war on terror, those critics have shifted their gaze to a new frontier, what they describe as law-abiding Muslim-Americans who are imposing their religious values in the public domain.[...] “It is hard to see how violence, how terrorism will lead to the implementation of sharia,” Pipes said. “It is much easier to see how, working through the system — the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like — you can promote radical Islam.” Pipes refers to this new enemy as the “lawful Islamists.” [...] He noted in an interview that monitors of radical Islam have increasingly trained their sights on nonviolent Muslim-Americans. “They don’t throw bombs, but they create political cover for ideological support of this jihadi movement,” he said. Pipes places Muslims in three categories, he said: those who are violent, those who are moderate and those in the middle. It is this middle group, he argued, that now poses the greatest threat to American values.“Are these people who are not using violence but who are not fully enthusiastic about this country and its mores, its culture — are they on our side or are they on the other side?” he asked.
Pipes’ ideas about non-violent Muslims posing a threat and his claims about sharia being imposed on the US are taken much more seriously now than they were back then. But is there really a chance that such fears could eventually result in legal restrictions on Islamic practices and activism? At least a few influential national figures certainly hope so. Just a couple months ago (as previously covered here) a group of ex-government officials gathered with Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy to release a report (large PDF) on the danger America faces from Sharia law. An IPS News story summarized the report’s recommendations:
Suggesting that sharia is “the preeminent totalitarian threat of our time”, the report offers far-reaching – and to critics, draconian – proposals for how to combat it. These include banning Muslims who “espouse or support” sharia “from holding positions of trust in federal, state, or local governments or the armed forces of the United States”. The report similarly recommends prosecuting those who espouse sharia for sedition, and banning immigration to the U.S. by those who adhere to sharia.
Unsurprisingly, the report takes a negative view of Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s that overturned many of the laws against sedition once used to prosecute accused communists and communist sympathizers (as previously noted here). It also suggests that the current fight may require more aggressive security measures than those used to combat communism.
Let us assume, again for argument’s sake, that there was some validity in the opinion elite’s critique that anti-communism went too far–and set aside the fact that such an assumption requires overlooking post-Soviet revelations that have confirmed communist infiltrations. The prior experience would not mean the security precautions that sufficed to protect our nation from communism are adequate to shield us from a totalitarian ideology cloaked in religious garb. (p. 9)
Curiously, at least one of the report’s proposals was put into a Congressional bill two years ago. In 2008, anti-immigrant demagogue Tom Tancredo introduced a House bill titled the “Jihad Prevention Act.” The bill would ban foreigners from entering the country if they fail to attest that they will not “advocate installing a Sharia law system in the United States.” It would also revoke the visas and even naturalization of immigrants who advocate sharia.
The US often prides itself on giving free speech rights to those who advocate bizarre or unusual political positions. For example, there are still Christian conservatives who want to re-criminalize homosexual relationships. Yet no one in America that I have seen has suggested we enact European-style hate speech laws or outlaw socially regressive political views. If one can openly support jailing gay people for being gay without legal penalty, then it would be inconsistent to declare a ban on “pro-sharia” views . Sharia is an ambiguous concept that we tend to unfairly associate with genuinely appalling practices such as stoning adulterers and amputating the hands of thieves. But that is beside the point. There is no reason we should legally treat sharia advocacy any differently than we treat the viewpoints of Christian conservatives.
Now that Tancredo is going to be joined by people like Allen West in Congress, it is time to be genuinely concerned that the widespread hysteria surrounding Muslims will be used to repress the freedoms of all Americans. The bills being proposed next year should serve as a good indicator of what strategy Islamophobes may pursue once in power.