Civil Liberties

How Members of Congress Are Advancing Anti-Muslim Hysteria to Push a Radical Legal Agenda

Islamophobes in Congress like Joe Lieberman are trying to set the U.S. on a path to establish a different set of legal standards for Muslims.

Roughly one month after the massacre at Fort Hood and a little over a week after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the "underwear bomber") tried to blow himself up over the city of Detroit, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Congress, South Carolina Representative Gresham Barrett, re-introduced a sweeping piece of legislation that he first rolled out in 2003 as a freshman on Capitol Hill.

The Stop Terrorists Entry Program (STEP) Act was originally introduced on September 11 (naturally), 2003 "to bar the admission of aliens from countries determined to be state sponsors of terrorism, and for other purposes." At the time, these countries included Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iraq and Cuba. The bill not only sought to bar presumed enemies of the state from entering the U.S., it also would have forced "nonimmigrant aliens" -- visitors with a temporary visa -- to leave the country, within 60 days of its passage.

In other words, they would be deported.

The STEP Act never got very far. But a few days into the new year, Rep. Barrett decided to try again. "Twice in the past two months, radical Islamic terrorists have attacked our nation and the administration has failed to adapt its national security and immigration policies to counter the renewed resolve of those who seek to harm our citizens," he announced. "In light of these unfortunate facts, the Step Act of 2010 bars the admission of aliens from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism and Yemen."

Iranian advocacy groups were especially vocal in their alarm over the re-introduced bill. In an open letter to Barrett on January 9, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), described his bill as an attempt to "make discrimination against Iranians into United States law."

"You have said you are reintroducing the STEP Act in response to the Fort Hood shooting and the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit," Parsi wrote. "We hope you recognize that no Iranian has been involved in any of these attacks, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks for that matter. The individuals who carried out the Fort Hood attack and the Christmas day attempt -- an American Army major and a Nigerian national -- would not have been affected in the slightest by the sweeping provisions offered in your bill."

This point was reiterated by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, who crowned Barrett one of his "Worst Persons" on his January 12 segment. Pointing out that Major Nidal Hasan was born in Arlington, VA and went to high school in Roanoke, Olbermann said, "I guess, congressman, you need to expand your STEP program to stop aliens from infiltrating our homeland from such nests of terror as Interstate 81 in Virginia."

The day before Barrett officially re-introduced the STEP Act, NIAC delivered thousands of letters to his office, urging him to reconsider. "Your bill punishes innocent Iranians and implies that 'stopping terrorists' means barring them from entering the U.S. to visit family or go to school," the letters read.

Surprisingly, hours after the letters were delivered, Rep. Barrett's office said he would get rid of the language that would lead to the deportation of immigrants from Iran and other countries. "Unfortunately, many have been misinformed on the true nature of this legislation," Barrett claimed in a statement released alongside the bill. "Contrary to some reports, the STEP Act does not contain any language that calls for deportation of citizens from countries identified as state sponsors of terrorism who have already obtained a United States visa and currently reside in the United States … Citizens from these countries who have already obtained a United States visa and currently reside in the United States will not be affected by this legislation."

NIAC declared this "a major victory," but warned that the fight is not over. The revised version of the bill still basically criminalizes Iranians and others, banning them from obtaining U.S. visas.

The STEP Act may be a uniquely bad -- not to mention far-fetched -- example of legislative efforts to install blatantly discriminatory policy into American law books in the name of national security. But the danger it represents, even in its softened version, is hard to overstate. "That people even consider dropping those pieces of legislation is pretty troubling," Corey Saylor, legislative director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told AlterNet. At a time when blatant and far-reaching anti-Muslim measures are being enacted in other parts of the world -- such as the Swiss ban on minarets or the campaign to ban the hijab in France -- new attempts to target Muslims in this country are cause for concern. "I think we're headed in a very disturbing direction, in which anti-Muslim hysteria is growing, and I think it's something that we all need to address," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told AlterNet.

The issue should be addressed sooner rather than later. Within days of Abdulmutallab's foiled bomb attempt, the White House announced that citizens of 14 predominantly Muslim countries -- Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Cuba -- would now be subject to additional screenings at airport security, a policy that will remain in place "indefinitely." As with the STEP Act, this effectively criminalizes whole global populations, feeding into the "clash of civilizations" narrative that has fueled so many destructive post-9/11 misadventures. Nawar Shora, the legal director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, called the 14-country directive "extreme and very dangerous."

"All of a sudden people are labeled as being related to terrorism just because of the nation they are from," he told the New York Times.

In a statement released by CAIR, executive director Nihad Awad argued that the policy amounts to racial profiling (a practice candidate Obama vowed to abolish as president). "Under these new guidelines, almost every American Muslim who travels to see family or friends or goes on pilgrimage to Mecca will automatically be singled out for special security checks -- that's profiling."

Is 'Homegrown Terrorism' on the Rise?

Soon after the shooting at Fort Hood, Sen. Joseph Lieberman's Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing titled "The Fort Hood Attack: A Preliminary Assessment." Lieberman has been one of the most vocal members of Congress stressing the threat of "homegrown terrorism," which, by his definition, takes the form of radicalized Muslims within the U.S.

Lieberman was one of the first to call the shooting at Fort Hood an act of terrorism. "We don't know enough to say now, but there are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act," Lieberman said in an interview on Fox News on November 11.

Whether to label Hasan a "terrorist" versus a violent criminal may sound like a semantic debate, but the policy implications are very real. As with the recent heated debate over the fate of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- conservative commentators insist he deserves no right to due process, and a group of U.S. Senators are peddling a bill that would require civilian officials to consult with intelligence authorities when taking an alleged terrorist into custody -- what is at stake is the question of whether, ultimately, we could see a different, undemocratic set of legal standards for Muslims who commit violent crimes. By the logic of today's right-wingers, the Beltway snipers could potentially have been labeled terrorists and tried before a military commission rather than the ordinary criminal justice system. (Although, given that John Allen Muhammad was executed late last year, it's hard to imagine that a military trial would have led to a tougher sentence.)

Of course, there is some truth to the "homegrown terrorist" meme. Lieberman's hearing took place just before news broke that five young men from Northern Virginia, ages 18 to 24, had been arrested as part of a terrorist probe in Pakistan, allegedly attempting to help plan jihadist attacks against their own country. Earlier last year came the news that young Muslim American men from Minnesota have been radicalized into traveling to Somalia to join the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group Al Shabab. These stories have led to numerous media reports with headlines like "Homegrown Terror on the Rise."

Meanwhile, on the home front, the case of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a convert to Islam who shot and killed two military recruiters in Little Rock, Arkansas last year, took a turn for the bizarre when the 24-year-old changed his plea from "not guilty"to "guilty" in a letter to his presiding judge in which he claimed to have connections to al-Qaeda. According to MSNBC, "Muhammad also called himself in the letter a member of Abu Basir's Army," a reference to the alias of Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, the Yemeni group's leader.

"This was a jihad: attack on infidel forces," Muhammed wrote. His lawyer was skeptical. "He's said lots of things. None of them seem to be real consistent with each other."

Nonetheless, these cases have lent themselves to an easily woven narrative, in which terror cells are being planted all over the country, with dastardly plots in the works.

"There's definitely a rise in jihad recruits and volunteers in the United States, whether they're concerning plots here in the U.S. or whether they involve material support to terror plots overseas," Steve Emerson, author of American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, told Fox News in December.

At least one recent study suggests that the homegrown Islamic terrorist narrative is overblown. In a report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and published this month, North Carolina-based researchers David Schanzer, Charles Kurzman and Ebrahim Moosa write: "In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, and subsequent terrorist attacks elsewhere around the world, a key counterterrorism concern is the possible radicalization of Muslims living in the United States. Yet, the record over the past eight years contains relatively few examples of Muslim-Americans that have radicalized and turned toward violent extremism."

While the report found relatively low numbers of radicalized Muslim-Americans, it discovered an "increased Anti-Muslim bias."

"Muslim-Americans perceive a stronger anti-Muslim bias from both their day-to-day interactions and the media, a bias that is confirmed in public opinion polling. While Muslim-Americans understand and support the need for enhanced security and counterterrorism initiatives, they believe that some of these efforts are discriminatory, and they are angered that innocent Muslim-Americans bear the brunt of the impact of these policies."

"Muslim-American communities and law enforcement agencies,” the authors concluded, "must make efforts to cooperate more closely to overcome mutual suspicions and achieve common goals.”

Unfortunately, law enforcement's ties to Muslim communities remain strained. Last year the FBI officially severed ties with CAIR over allegations that the group had ties to Hamas, an ironic decision given the fact that, most recently, it was CAIR who brought the recent case of the five would-be terrorists from Northern Virginia to the attention of the FBI.

Writing about Lieberman's November hearing, author Chip Berlet called it "an example of flawed, biased, or discredited scholarship being used in a zealous propaganda campaign that will do little to enhance public safety and much to expand bigotry against Muslims in the United States." Berlet continued:

The main thesis of Lieberman's renegade Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is that there is a looming threat of "homegrown terrorism" by domestic "Jihadists." To use the tragic shootings at Fort Hood to further promote this biased propaganda as part of an ongoing political campaign is grotesque.

At issue is the validity of the concept of "Leaderless Jihad" and the idea that "extremist ideology" somehow has created squads of anti-American terrorists lurking in domestic Muslim communities where "Leaderless Resistance" cells and "lone wolfs" are even now plotting acts of "Jihadist" violence -- just like the right-wing domestic terrorists in the 1980s and 1990's which culminated in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in April 1995.

Sounds scary.

The Oklahoma City bombing, however, was not the act of a "lone wolf," and while it involved a clandestine terror cell, it was not an example of "Leaderless Resistance." In fact, there is no evidence that "Leaderless Resistance" was adopted as a successful terror strategy by the ultra-right in the 1980s and 1990's, which undermines the whole concept of "Leaderless Jihad" being peddled by Lieberman.

Nevertheless, Lieberman and committee ranking minority leader Susan Collins have long been pushing this theme. In May 2008 they released a controversial report titled "Violent Islamist Extremism, The Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat" warning that "the threat of homegrown terrorism is on the rise, aided by the Internet's capacity to spread the core recruitment and training message of violent Islamist terrorist groups." Lieberman subsequently went after YouTube in an attempt to get videos taken down that he considered to be spreading a dangerous message. Some 80 videos were removed from the site.

Among the critics of Lieberman's targeting of YouTube was the New York Times editorial page:

While it is fortunate that Mr. Lieberman does not have the power to tell YouTube that it must remove videos, it is profoundly disturbing that an influential senator would even consider telling a media company to shut down constitutionally protected speech. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the "Homegrown Terrorism" bill and related efforts "could be a precursor to proposals to censor and regulate speech on the Internet."

Bigots On Capitol Hill

Beyond Congressional hearings that push the "homegrown Islamic terrorist" narrative -- or even repressive pieces of legislation like the STEP Act -- CAIR's Corey Saylor says the alliances formed by members of Congress like Barrett with members of the anti-Muslim right are far more dangerous.

"It's less the legislation and more the legitimacy that's offered to some of the anti-Muslim bigots by members of Congress," he says.

One example Saylor cites is Rep. Paul Broun, a Republican member of the House from Georgia. Broun recently invited a man named David Yerushalmi to testify at a hearing on Capitol Hill. "Yerushalmi belongs to an organization that once called for adherence to Islam to be punishable by 20 years in prison," says Saylor.

Yerushalmi is the president and founder of the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE), which, in addition to seeking to criminalize Islam, has statements on its Web site such as: "There is a reason the founding fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote."

"This man has the right to free speech, he has the right to believe what he believes," says Saylor. "But he gets legitimized because someone like Paul Broun invites him to Capitol Hill and gives him a platform … That allows him to go out and push his hate speech."

Two days before Christmas, CAIR sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to address what it described as a "rise in Anti-Islam hate, Islamophobic incidents, and rhetoric targeting ordinary American Muslims." Among these incidents was "an attack on a Sikh youth in Texas who was mistaken for a Muslim," "a Colorado sheriff who called the U.S. Marines 'Travel agents to Allah,'" and "a spate of vandalism incidents at mosques nationwide." It also listed a disturbing number of anti-Muslim incidents among supporters of and aspiring elected officials, as well as elected officials themselves.

Most memorable, perhaps, was the attempt last year by right-wing members of Congress to convince the public that CAIR itself was engaged in a sinister conspiracy to infiltrate and take over Congress, by dispatching interns to Capitol Hill. Last October, U.S. Representatives Sue Myrick, R-South Carolina, was joined by Rep. Broun as well as Arizona Republicans John Shadegg and Trent Franks in issuing a call for a federal investigation into CAIR's attempts to place interns in the Committees on the Judiciary, Intelligence and Homeland Security. The accusation was inspired by a book titled Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld that's Conspiring to Islamize America, written by Dave Gaubatz, an anti-Islamic activist who posed as an intern for CAIR in an attempt to prove that the group is trying to infiltrate Congress. (Rep. Myrick wrote the introduction to the book.)

The backlash against Myrick and her co-conspirators was swift. "These charges smack of an America of sixty years ago where lists of 'un-American' agitators were identified,"wrote Reps. Michael Honda, D-CA, Barbara Lee, D-CA and Nydia Velazquez, D-NY in a letter on behalf of the Congressional Tri-Caucus, and signed by 87 members of Congress.

"The idea that we should investigate Muslim interns as spies is a blow to the very principle of religious freedom that our founding fathers cherished so dearly. If anything, we should be encouraging all Americans to engage in the U.S. political process; to take part in, and to contribute to, the great democratic experiment that is America."

The Obama administration didn't have much to say about the Muslim-intern conspiracy theory, perhaps making the strategic decision to simply let the rumor die. But the White House did not respond, either, to CAIR's December letter asking Obama to address the trend toward anti-Muslim sentiment.

"I don't know why they don't respond," CAIR executive director Ibrahim Hooper told AlterNet, "but all we can do is ask."

While Myrick and her supporters -- whom Hooper refers to as "the usual suspects" peddling anti-Muslim bigotry -- have not really been taken seriously outside the right-wing blogosphere, they have had some effect. "I think they've made the whole administration rather skittish about associating in any way with Muslims or Islam," Hooper says. (Certainly, the ugly fear-mongering and lies that sought to portray Obama as a "secret Muslim" were on full display even before his election.)

Corey Saylor says that although the Muslim-intern conspiracy theory pushed by Myrick has mostly gone away, it's not dead. "They've been working on sort of retooling their message and it's slowly starting to crop back up again," he says. In Myrick's case, this means repositioning herself as an ally of moderate Muslims.

"We're trying to work with mainstream Muslims and help give them a voice and hear where people stand and help them think about the issues," she recently told the Charlotte Observer.

Saylor says Myrick is simply trying to insulate herself from further accusations that she is prejudiced against Muslims. "Keep in mind," he says, "she's the one whose on the record as saying [after 9/11] that we need to take a look at who's running our convenience stores."

According to the Observer, "Myrick met with Jibril Hough, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, shortly after the Fort Hood shooting to address what Hough said were inflammatory remarks by Myrick to local media about Islam."

"A part of me thinks that she means well, but that doesn't mean her message is well-meaning," Hough told the Observer, noting that she has softened her rhetoric. "She's being more careful."

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.