In the early 1990s, The Gay Agenda, a 20-minute video which featured a series of clips of leather-clad sadomasochists and drag queens flaunting “perverse” sexuality in public appeared. In the video, a series of “experts”—psychotherapists, doctors, lawyers, even former members of the gay subculture —described homosexuality's dangerous public health consequences, including increased rates of syphilis.
The video, produced and distributed by the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council warned that gays cannot be trusted, and that the only good gay is an ex-gay. It conjured a dystopic vision of an American culture where homosexuality is normalized, and homosexuals (defined primarily as hypermasculine gay men) are bent upon aggressively destroying America. Christian conservative organizations such as Oregon Citizens Alliance, among other groups, distributed the video as part of their campaign for Ballot Measure 9, the antigay initiative which charged that a stealth movement was seeking “special rights” for gays and lesbians.
Fast-forward 20 years. As the culture wars of the 1980s and '90s gave way to the “war on terror,” right-wing pseudo-documentaries of the new millennium came to dramatize the belief that the principal threat facing Western democracies is radical Islam.
In 2008, 26 million copies of Obsession: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West were inserted in 70 different newspapers, including the New York Times, and dropped on doorsteps in swing states, timed to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the September 2001 attacks and the Republican National Convention. Obsession warned of the threat of a global Jihad arrayed against Western liberal values, and reported that Islam was the “most dangerous force since the rise of Nazism.”
The opening credits featured a Palestinian whose face was covered with a kefaya emblazoned with Arabic writing, pointing his Kalashnikov rifle at the viewer. As images of crescents, red stars, rifles, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah moved across the screen, a quote from philosopher Edmund Burke announced, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Two other videos, all made by the New York-based Clarion Fund, followed: Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America, and Iranium, which collectively painted a nightmare scenario of covert jihadis working to usurp the law of the land and replace it with Islamic rule. They warned that a caliphate would rise on the ashes of the Constitution, Americans would be forced to pray in mosques, and judges would mete out stonings and amputations. Muslims, they announced, had designs on our children, our values, indeed, our very civilization.
While the target has shifted, my colleague Zakia Salime and I found that Islamophobic videos have a great deal in common with the antigay videos that preceded them. For one thing, they identify a poorly understood minority group, amplifying its outsider nature, and suggest that its growing public visibility and power, and its very existence, pose a threat to core American values— exemplifying what historian Richard Hofstadter, writing in 1964, called the “paranoid style” of political discourse on the right: the qualities of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”
They also utilize many of the conventions of the documentary genre; the claim to “fairness and accuracy,” the use of “experts” and the incorporation of news footage, testimonies and “facts,” and are expressly made to persuade and mobilize through distortion. They’re even funded by many of the same sources, most notably the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
From Homofascism to Islamofascism
The Gay Agenda depicted gay men as hypermasculine, leather-clad sadomasochists who flaunt their aggressive sexuality in public, refusing to feel shame for their desires, and who represent undisciplined male sexuality, freed of the civilizing influence of women. Gay men are metaphoric vampires: immature individuals who must replenish their ranks by seducing (read: sucking the blood) of young men in order to win new converts. Interviews with ex-gay “experts” speak of being caught in an unhealthy lifestyle, of the “desperation” of the “gay lifestyle,” and the furtive, compulsive nature of their sexual desires.
That video established a number of tropes central to right-wing pseudo-documentaries during the 1990s: the idea that Americans are engaged in a culture war; that there is a clear division between “good” minorities and “bad” minorities (the former represented by reformed antagonists who serve as witnesses); and the belief that a Holocaust-apocalypse will ensue if bystanders do not take action. It warned “ordinary” Americans that a well-organized "homosexual agenda” poses a threat to Christian values.
But in the 1990s, we witnessed the growing normalization of homosexuality, and shift in American public opinion about homosexuality. Then came 9/11. The right began to retool itself, focusing on Islamophobic themes. Well-funded pressure groups like Jihad Watch, ACT for America and Stop Islamicization of America began to champion the so-called Muslim threat in America, bringing together neoconservatives, the evangelical right, state security concerns, and grassroots Islamophobes.
Between 2005 and 2011, the Clarion Fund, a New York-based non-profit, produced and distributed three documentaries on the threat posed by radical Islam designed to foment cultural polarization by blurring the distinction between everyday Muslims and extremists.
If The Gay Agenda made the threat of “homo-fascism” implicit, Obsession articulated the threat of Islamofascism very explicitly, juxtaposing images from Nazi mobs and Islamic groups of all stripes, including Palestinian intifada and Hamas. We must stave off the Islamic threat. The costs of inaction, it proclaims, are death, destruction and even apocalypse.
Children are particularly vulnerable to such a threat. The Gay Agenda had earlier contrasted images of homosexual predators and innocent children. Obsession followed suit, juxtaposing the image of the suicide bomber/martyr with helpless children. The loss of childhood innocence, it suggested, is the harbinger of a looming civilizational collapse.
Obsession features footage taken from the Israeli-based non-governmental organization Palestinian Media Watch, and includes fragments of speeches by Imams, Palestinian activists and radicalized individuals who speak of the legitimacy of Jihad. The footage is edited to draw parallels between the Holocaust and Islamic terror, juxtaposing interviews with former Hitler Youth members and reputed Islamic terrorists. It portrays the Palestinian struggle as the work of religious fanatics who share little other than a hatred of Jews.
Images of horror from the Holocaust alternate with images of Hamas and Hezbollah training camps, media appearances by Osama Bin Laden, and speeches by Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian clergy. Footage of jihadist groups making anti-American and anti-Israeli statements are juxtaposed with images of Hitler and Nazi Germany, the 9/11 attack, and attacks on European cities, in India, and elsewhere. We see Arabic scripts and sound, images of violence, calls to prayer, crowds in Mecca and individual calls for Jihad, along with statements by known or unknown Imams and “religious leaders” celebrating death and destruction.
Mobilizing Fear in an Age of Securitized Citizenship
Islamophobic pseudo-documentaries, much like the homophobic videos that preceded them, use fear for purposes of political polarization. They evoke fear in order to consolidate a sense of us and them, mobilizing and consolidating new publics and strategic alliances. While using some of the conventions of the documentary genre--claims to fairness and accuracy, the use of experts, and the incorporation of news footage, testimonies and facts-- they are expressly made to persuade through techniques of distortion.
Conservative groups use Islamophobia to cement alliances between conservative Jews and Christians and buttress support for Israel. The image of a prophecied holocaust resonates with Christian fundamentalist beliefs in apocalyptic “end times,” in which a final showdown leads to mass death, and later to a process of purification, in which saved Christians will enjoy an everlasting life. The holocaust-apocalypse trope fuses memories of Jewish trauma with resonant Christian conservative themes, evoking the biblical prophecy that Jesus will appear, followed by Armageddon, a battle between good and evil, and by his one thousand year reign on Earth.
At times, Islamophobia has even been used to drive a wedge into traditional liberal constituencies, forging alliances between the right and some sectors of the feminist and LGBTQ movements.
During the neoliberal era, the “security state” also manufactures Islamophobia in order to consolidate itself, according to historian Greg Grandin. Publicly funded counter-terror trainings for public servants, orchestrated by private firms, have at times made use of Islamophobic videos. The Third Jihad, for example, received endorsements from former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, U.S. Senator John Kyl, U.S. Representatives Trent Franks and Sue Myrick, among others. The video includes an interview with Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, and was shown, according to internal police reports, “on a continuous loop” for between three months and one year of training. During that time, at least 1,489 police officers, from lieutenants to detectives to patrol officers, saw the video.
At the same time, these videos shift the focus from the state to the individual. Calling upon ordinary citizens to be on the alert, they offer viewers a map for identifying threats, extending the security state via the individual sovereign actor. They play to their resentments and fears, offering them a way to connect their grievances to a series of targets that are both amorphous and recognizable.
By offering ordinary citizens a way of identifying the Others in their midst, these videos make identifying, categorizing and denouncing “the other” a test of citizenship. By seeking to regulate the presence of those who may be unfamiliar, much like antigay videos did in an earlier period, they represent the latest version of a long-running paranoid style.