The manifesto written by Breivik revealed many references and citations from the blogs and websites of Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes, two of the most prominent of the anti-Islamist writers. Spencer, Pipes and other writers focus on the threat of Islamists planning to create a worldwide caliphate (or leadership structure) and introduce Sharia law into Western societies. After the Norway incident, such writers have faced harsh criticisms for stirring anti-Islamic feelings, although they responded that they could not be held responsible for Brevik’s disturbed and violent thoughts and actions.
But these writer-activists’ greatest impact has been felt in the U.S. The current issue of the libertarian magazine Reason reports that the recent spate of campaigns against the building of mosques and efforts to enact legislation against the establishment of Islamic Sharia law reveals a marked change in the U.S. conservative political climate.
After 9/11 anti-Islamic views were generally muted in conservative political circles, largely due to the leadership of President George W. Bush and his effort to rally Muslims in support of the war on terrorism. Yet even then, Spencer and Pipes were actively promoting their views that Islamism, a form of political Islam, and extremism were unrecognized dangers in American society. Spencer, a Catholic writer, is the director of JihadWatch, which monitors Islamic extremism or “supremacism.” Pipes heads the Philadelphia-based, pro-Israeli Middle East Forum and is editor of Middle East Quarterly. On the JihadWatch website, frequent links and support are given to European groups and figures critical of Islam, such as Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
These writings inspired a new wave of activism that had emerged after the controversy over plans to open a mosque near the World Trade Center. Conservative blogger/activist Pamela Geller, who is connected with JihadWatch, launched the “Stop the 911 Mosque” campaign in 2010, which was circulated and publicized through such media outlets as Fox News. While opposition to building the mosque was found among a wide spectrum of New Yorkers and Americans, similar campaigns against mosques have grown throughout the U.S. Concerns about neighborhood zoning restrictions and new religious groups being established in residential neighborhoods mark some of these protests, but it is not difficult to find the anti-Islamist sentiments of the kind promoted by Spencer and Geller also at work. There is often the claim that the mosque in question is receiving foreign funds from terrorists or is different from other congregations since “Islam is a political movement,” as California Tea Party activist Diana Serafin told reporters.
The opposition to the alleged political designs of Islam is more clearly seen in the drive to pass bills banning the use of Islamic religious laws or Sharia in state courts. Supported by some politicians and activists associated with the populist Republican Tea Party movement, such as candidates Michelle Bachman and Newt Gingrich, these bills and efforts to pass them have taken place in Oklahoma, Missouri, Alaska and other states with small Muslim populations. While other religious groups have been accommodated by the government, such as Jewish religious courts, Catholic marriage tribunals, or within-community conflict resolutions among Mormons or the Amish, Anti-Islamist activists argue that such accommodation is different for Muslims since it plays into the hands of radicals who want to Islamize the U.S.
The Jewish online newspaper Forward.com (July 12) and the New York Times (July 31) reported that David Yerushalmi, a Brooklyn lawyer affiliated with Lubavitch Hasidic Judaism, has been the architect behind the anti-Sharia bills. He originally focused on a government probe into Islamic finance, such as American banks offering funds that invest in companies that are considered permissible by Islamic law. Not finding a welcome reception to his ideas at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Yerushalmi turned his attention to state-level activism. He worked closely with Frank Gafffney, head of the Center for Security Policy, who connected him to a network of neoconservative policy makers and activist groups, most notably ACT for America. Yerushalmi offered state legislators a template that targeted foreign laws operating in the US, which sidestepped constitutional objections to singling out Islam by avoiding explicit mention of the religion. However, several of the bills in the various states make explicit mention of Islamic terms such as “Sharia.”
In Yerushalmi’s writings, he portrays Islam as an inherent threat to the West because of its goal of world rule via a caliphate that will impose Sharia law on all its subjects. More recently, Yerushalmi has attempted to provide proof that there is a connection between adherence to Sharia and support for “violent Jihad” among American Muslim mosques. With Israeli political scientist Mordechai Kedar, he studied 100 mosques in the U.S., and claimed there is a correlation between adherence to Sharia law, as well as strict practices (including traditional long beards and Islamic dress ) and high mosque attendance, and support for “violent jihad.” The study, which is published in the current issue of the Middle East Quarterly, is intended to help researchers and law enforcement officials “monitor or potentially predict where violent jihad may take root.”
As with so much associated with the rise of anti-Islamist activism, the study is seen as another weapon in a highly politicized environment; it has been strongly criticized by liberal and Islamic organizations but embraced by conservative publications, such as National Review. The Norway killings and the debate about the relationship between violence and anti-Islamist activism and rhetoric is one more contentious issue that will likely enter America’s political bloodstream in the months ahead.
Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com.