6 Right-Wing Zealots (or Groups of Zealots) That Would Blow Up the World for Political Gain
Step back from the news cycle a moment and what you see is a week in which toxic, wildly irresponsible right-wingers have been trying to set a series of fires around the world, stoking their mythical "clash of civilizations" out of religious bigotry or for political gain, or a little bit of both.
That's the context in which Mitt Romney has had a couple of very rocky days, although as we’ll soon see, he is far from alone.
The Romney-Ryan campaign achieved a new low on September 11. In the morning, Romney promised reporters that he has detailed foreign policy plans, but refused to offer any details. But before the day was out, his campaign was spreading a blatant falsehood about a series of riots in Egypt and Libya that had left four Americans dead, including ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Romney shamelessly claimed that Obama's “first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” He was referring to a statement issued by the embassy in Cairo before the deadly attacks, condemning a ridiculous anti-Islam film that was believed to have sparked the riots.
Then, on Wednesday morning, Romney scheduled a press conference a half-hour before Obama was scheduled to address the nation from the White House. Romney doubled-down on his claim, saying, “It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.” As if Terry Jones' overheated religious bigotry isn't in fact antithetical to our values. (Romney, ever the opportunist, had condemned Jones' Islamophobic provocation in 2010, and in typical form, he did in fact condemn the movie later on Wednesday, just as the Egyptian embassy had the previous night.)
Hours later, it got worse when the New York Times reported that there may not have been a direct connection between the film and the deadly attacks in Benghazi. While “initial accounts of the assault in Benghazi were attributed to popular anger over what was described as an American-made video that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad,” reported Peter Baker, David Kirkpatrick and Alan Cowell, “administration officials in Washington said the attack in Libya may have been plotted in advance.”
While the protesters in Cairo appeared to be genuinely outraged over the anti-Islam video, the attackers in Benghazi were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Officials said it was possible that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.
CNN reported that “the attack immediately followed a call from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for revenge for the death in June of a senior Libyan member of the terror group Abu Yahya al-Libi,” and was likely perpetrated by a pro-Al Qaeda group known as the “Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades.”
Romney had, as Obama later said, shot first and aimed later. This was the moment that Mitt Romney lost the mainstream media entirely, and quite possibly the campaign. The problem wasn't just Romney's utter lack of class in politicizing a deadly attack on Americans abroad while that attack was ongoing, it was his facial expression – he wore a smug, self-satisfied smirk as he left the podium, and that image is likely to dog him in the coming days.
But it's worth pausing and considering the larger narrative on which the Romney camp is basing its claim that Obama is ultimately at fault for the riots in Egypt and Libya. According to a set of talking-points the Romney campaign issued to its supporters and surrogates, the underlying issue is this: “We have seen a foreign policy of weakness, indecision, and a decline in American influence and respect – and yesterday we saw the consequences.”
Ordinary people will find this assertion to be nothing less than bizarre. Obama, after all, escalated the conflict in Afghanistan, turned drone strikes from a military capability into an administration policy and ordered the assault that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. But Romney has surrounded himself with neoconservative extremists like John Bolton, who are heavily invested in the idea that there is a "clash of civilizations" dividing East and West. Reading between the lines, the problem is not Obama's concrete policy choices so much as his refusal to condemn Islam as a death-cult or indulge Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's apocalyptic view that Iran poses an existential threat to the state of Israel.
They are not alone. Right-wing religionists – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – all have a vested interest in making their imagined global conflict a reality. It was Osama bin Laden's goal, just as it's the goal of Pam Geller or those on the fringes of the Israeli settler movement.
And there are more. Here are some other actors that have recently tried to blow up the world in service of their perverse ideologically and theologically informed hatreds, damn the consequences.
Conservative Islamists in Libya and Egypt; Egyptian Right-Wing Media
A 13-minute trailer for a wildly provocative film called either The Innocence of Muslims or Mohammed, Prophet of the Muslims (but which could have been called The Chronicles of the Elders of Islam) was uploaded to YouTube in July and received little notice. According to the Daily Mail, the trouble started when someone translated the trailer into Arabic and uploaded it to YouTube. It was “since featured on Egyptian media reports for several days with ultraconservative clerics going on air to denounce it.”
While Muslims across the political spectrum were offended, according to multiple reports those who rioted in Cairo and Benghazi were “conservative Islamists,” whose thin skin and lack of tolerance led to the chaos.
It wasn't “Muslims,” writ large, who perpetrated the outrageous attacks. It was the Islamic religious right, which sees itself under siege from modern, secular society in much the same way our own Christian right sees itself as under constant siege by perfidious secular humanists.
On Wednesday, hundreds of residents of Benghazi took to the streets to condemn the attacks on the Embassy. Their message:
Whomever's Behind That Stupid, Bigoted Film
As the New York Times notes, the origins of the film are “shrouded in mystery.” Early reports suggested that the film was produced by an Israeli-American real estate developer named Sam Basile, but no such person could be tracked down. Some have suggested that “Sam Basile” is a pseudonym. But someone claiming to be Basile offered several interviews with media outlets, during which he “called Islam 'a cancer,' and said he had raised $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors” to fund the film.
Rumors of who was behind the film – all unconfirmed – abound. Some have suggested the usual suspects: Pam Geller or Robert Spencer or their fellow travelers. The one person who has publicly admitted to being involved with the film is a man named Steve Klein, whom Max Blumenthal describes as “a Hemet, California-based insurance salesman who claims to have led a 'hunter-killer team' in Vietnam.”
Klein is a right-wing extremist who emerged from the same axis of Islamophobia that produced Anders Behring Breivik and which takes inspiration from the writings of Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Daniel Pipes.
It appears Klein (or someone who shares his name and views) is an enthusiastic commenter on Geller’s website, Atlas Shrugged, where he recently complained about Mitt Romney’s “support for a Muslim state in Israel’s Heartland.” In July 2011, Spencer’s website, Jihad Watch, promoted a rally Klein organized alongside the anti-Muslim Coptic extremist Joseph Nasrallah to demand the firing of LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, whom they painted as a dupe for Hamas.
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Stein, who said of the 15 or so people behind the film, “They're from Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, they're some that are from Egypt. Some are Copts but the vast majority are Evangelical." Copts are an Egyptian Christian sect that has long faced persecution in its own long-standing conflict with the country's Muslim majority.
The film was designed to provoke a reaction, to push their right-wing religionist counterparts to acts of hatred and stupidity. On Wednesday, a lot of confused people suggested that the embassy's statement condemning this trash somehow conflicts with our First Amendment right to free speech, which might make some sense if anyone, anywhere, had suggested the filmmakers weren't within their constitutional rights in producing the film. Or if the First Amendment was a guarantee that you could say whatever you wanted and not be criticized. Of course, just because you have the right to do awful things that you know are likely to lead to bloodshed doesn't mean you should do awful things that are likely to lead to bloodshed. Make no mistake: they got what they wanted in sparking those riots.
American Islamophobes Terry Jones, Morris Sadik
The New York Times reports that another “ultraconservative cleric,” Terry Jones, “began promoting the video along with his own proclamation of Sept. 11 as ‘International Judge Muhammad Day.’” Jones sparked deadly riots in 2010 when he threatened to burn a stack of Korans in a high-profile quest for attention (Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly talked him out of the stunt).
According to the Guardian, “The film clip was also spotted and promoted last week by Morris Sadik, an Egyptian Coptic Christian based in California who runs a small virulently Islamophobic group called the National American Coptic Assembly. It was later denounced by mainstream Copts in Egypt, but it was too late to stop it going viral.”
Extremists everywhere you look.
All of this happened just days after another far-right ideologue tried to use the high stakes of the presidential race to blackmail the United States into supporting a disastrous war in the Middle East.
Bibi Netanyahu is a secularist, but his administration is heavily influenced by Israel's religious right, and he has cast the conflict over Iran's nuclear enrichment as part of the clash of civilizations, saying again and again that it's an existential threat to Israel's existence.
In the past weeks, Netanyahu has insisted that the United States lay out specific “red lines” that Iran couldn't cross without inviting American military action, and added the implied threat that if no such statement was forthcoming, Israel might embroil the whole region in chaos with a unilateral strike.
Netanyahu was playing a weak hand because he sensed he had to play it now. He knows that his leverage decreases dramatically after the election – especially if Obama wins – and was trying to push for an “end-game” in the standoff over Iranian enrichment.
Time magazine's Joe Klein said of the blackmail attempt, “I don’t think I’ve ever, in the forty years I’ve been doing this – and I’m trying to search my mind through history – have heard of another example of an American ally trying to push us into war as blatantly, and trying to influence an American election as blatantly as Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud party in Israel is doing right now. I think it’s absolutely outrageous and disgusting. It’s not a way that friends treat each other. And it is cynical and it is brazen.”
Then, earlier this week, Likud officials tried to ratchet up the sense that it's in “conflict” with Washington by leaking a story that Netanyahu, who will be in New York for a United Nations conference, had requested a meeting with Obama and been turned down. National security reporter Laura Rozen first reported that a number of countries had been informed that Obama would not be available to meet on the sidelines of the UN confab, and that Israel was “the only one to raise [an] outcry.” She later noted that a National Security Council spokesperson denied that such a meeting had been requested in the first place.
...and the Iranians
But let's not give the Iranian regime a pass. There's no evidence to suggest Iran is seeking nuclear weapons -- and it does have a right to enrich nuclear materials for non-military purposes under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – but its stubborn refusal to definitively settle the question by giving international inspectors everything they've requested has led to crippling sanctions that have done an enormous amount of harm to the Iranian economy, and in turn to ordinary Iranians. In part, Iran is “standing on principle” so it can blame the West for its domestic problems, but in part it's because Iran too genuinely sees itself engaged in a clash of civilizations.
The Good News
These extremists are playing a very dangerous game. As Al-Monitor notes, “Pro-Western, secular forces in the Middle East are already in peril, and fragile new democratic governments cannot adequately police their frustrated and angry young constituents.”
But the good news is that these craven attempts to capitalize on people's fear of the "other” won't work. The Obama administration has pushed back forcefully on Netanyahu's strong-arm tactics, essentially calling his ill-advised bluff. Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. is “not setting deadlines,” and insisted that sanctions were the administration's tool of choice for pressuring Iran. Seventy percent of Americans agree with that approach, and Bibi only weakened himself with the gambit.
As for the religious fundamentalists -- here and abroad, Christian, Muslim and Jewish -- they've been trying to stoke a clash of civilizations for over a decade, and have only succeeded in persuading a small minority of mentally challenged people to follow their lead. They remain a danger – as we've seen time and time again – but they will continue to reside at the margins. Most people just want to rasie their kids in peace.
As for Romney, his antics on Tuesday and Wednesday may well be the end of his campaign. With even many of his Republican supporters running away from him as if he were on fire, the media establishment judged that the candidate had inserted his foot directly into his mouth in a very serious way. It was a desperate attempt to shift the dynamics of the race – a Hail-Mary pass by a candidate looking at a 7-point deficit in Gallup's tracking poll – and it didn't work.