Talk at a recent meeting in Kernersville that presented a poisoned view of Islam isn’t far off from the position of key figures in the Trump administration.
Revelations that a group of hard-right activists met in Kernersville earlier this month to discuss a paranoid view of a global Islamic movement bent on conquering America — at which one participant expressed a desire to kill Muslims — sent shockwaves across the Triad and beyond.
Only three months earlier, the people who attended the meeting might have been dismissed as a fringe group, but the discussion echoes the views of key members of the Trump administration and the president himself that a violent confrontation between America and some form Islam is imminent and radical Islam needs to be rooted out domestically. At the Kernersville meeting, presenter Tom Jones raised concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, a social-conservative group founded in Egypt in 1928 that is widely considered the founding organization of political Islam. The Trump administration is reportedly contemplating a plan to designate the brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.
“The chief reason that the brotherhood continues in secrecy today is because of their mission to overturn our government, impose sharia law and revive the global caliphate,” Jones said in Kernersville on Feb. 16. “That’s why they operate in secret. That’s why they’ve been operating in secret. That’s why they will continue to operate in secret until people like us out them. We’ve got to shed the light on them.”
Frank del Valle, a Cuban immigrant and retired federal worker who lives in Winston-Salem, quipped in response: “Shed some blood, too.”
Jones and his fellow activists, including Robert Goodwill, a member of ACT for America — characterized as an “anti-Muslim hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center — cheered the election of Donald Trump.
“One of my sources recently informed me that part of ‘draining the swamp’ will include working this Islamist problem,” Jones said at the meeting. “We’re in better hands than we were. But don’t believe for a second that the Trump administration or our legislators or any of our leaders fully understand what’s being presented to you guys tonight. They’ve turned a blind eye to this. They don’t want to look at it. It’s unpopular. It will not gain them votes.”
A Feb. 15 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded a three-fold increase in anti-Muslim hate groups from 2015 to 2016 that coincided with the presidential campaign. The nonprofit research center attributed the leap to “radical Islamist attacks including the June mass murder of 49 people at an Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub, the unrelenting propaganda of a growing circle of well-paid ideologues, and the incendiary rhetoric of Trump — his threats to ban Muslim immigration, mandate a registry of Muslims in America, and more.”
In addition to the talk of violence at the Feb. 16 Kernersville meeting, the next five days saw two mosques in Alabama received emailed threats and the New York City police investigate social-media threats against Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour, while a Jewish cemetery in the St. Louis suburbs was desecrated and Jewish community centers received threats. President Trump denounced anti-Semitism on Feb. 21.
“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” he said.
The White House did not respond to an inquiry from Triad City Beat as to whether the president also denounces threats against Muslims.
In response to a reporter’s question on Feb. 21 about whether the president has been “forceful” in speaking out against Islamophobia, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave a nonresponsive answer: “I don’t — I think the president in terms of his desire to combat radical Islamic terrorism — he understands that people who want to express a peaceful position have every right under our Constitution, but if you come here and express views that seek to do our country, our people harm, he’s going to fight it aggressively whether it’s domestic acts that are going on here or attempts through people abroad to come to this country.”
ACT for America, which was represented at the Kernersville meeting and included in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of anti-Muslim hate groups, disclosed last summer that Michael Flynn was serving as an advisor. Flynn was appointed as Trump’s national security advisor, but resigned last month following revelations that he misinformed Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with the Russian ambassador before the inauguration.
Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News and now the White House’s chief strategist, has articulated views of Islam similar to those expressed by Tom Jones, the presenter at the Kernersville meeting. In a 2007 proposal for a film that was never completed, Bannon described an opening scene with an American flag with the stars and stripes replaced by the Islamic crescent and star fluttering atop the Capitol in which the country has been renamed the “Islamic States of America.”
“We’re now beginning the 21st Century, which I believe now is a crisis in our church, a crisis in our faith, a crisis in the West and a crisis of capitalism,” Bannon said in remarks via Skype to a conference at the Vatican in 2014. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room and the people in the church do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant to really just be able to not just to stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that we will literally eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,025 years.
“We are in an outright war with jihadist Islamic fascism,” Bannon went on to say. “And this war is I think metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.”
The idea of a shadowy plot by Muslims who appear to be integrated into society to infiltrate American institutions and subvert the Constitution to impose religious law — with the Muslim Brotherhood at the center — has been a relentless drumbeat of conservative media over the past five years. One of its popularizers is Erick Stakelbeck, a frequent Fox News commentator cited in Tom Jones’ presentation in Kernersville. Stakelbeck is the author of books with titles like The Terrorist Next Door: How the Government is Deceiving You About the Islamist Threat and The Brotherhood: America’s Next Great Enemy.
Conservative media proprietor Glenn Beck gave exposure to a thicket of conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood in a 2012 documentary called The Project. But no one has done more to promote the view of radical Islam as an insidious threat to the West equivalent to communism during the Cold War than Frank Gaffney, a former deputy assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration whose Center for Security Policy produced a 10-part video series called The Muslim Brotherhood in America. Gaffney has promoted the idea that the Obama administration was infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and even suggested that conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist was an agent of the group.
Then-candidate Trump cited an opinion poll published by Gaffney’s nonprofit that indicated that 25 percent of US Muslims “agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as part of the global jihad,” during a December 2015 campaign stop in South Carolina when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Politifact, the fact-checking website maintained by the Tampa Bay Times, rated the claim as “mostly false” while faulting the poll’s methodology. “It was an online, opt-in survey, which tend to produce less reliable samples because respondents choose to participate,” Politifact reported. “In traditional polling methods, everyone in a population has a chance of being selected for the survey, meaning the results generally reflect the country’s demographics.”
Kellyanne Conway, the owner of the polling firm that conducted the poll for the Center for Security Policy, was little known at the time, but would come to occupy a central place in American politics, first as Trump’s campaign manager and then as the new president’s senior counselor.
In anticipation of the administration’s potential plan to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization, 82 groups including Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Southern Poverty Law Center signed on to statement discouraging the move on Feb. 24.
[pullquote]Trump has pledged to establish a “Commission on Radical Islam” whose purpose is “to identify and explain to the American public the core convictions and beliefs of radical Islam, to identify the warning signs of radicalization, and to expose the networks in our society that support radicalization.”[/pullquote]The organizations warned that the designation “could lead to the stigmatization and targeting of American Muslim civil society, including nonprofits, charities, religious organizations and activists.”
Along with Sen. Tim Kaine, reps. Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, the Council on American-Islamic Relations — the nation’s most prominent Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization — is frequently mentioned as having links to the Muslim Brotherhood by anti-Muslim crusaders.
“[There are] no connections whatsoever,” Ibrahim Hooper, the council’s national communications director, told Triad City Beat. “Utter nonsense. They used to call us ‘the Wahhabi lobby.’ A number of years ago they flipped the switch and started saying ‘Muslim Brotherhood.’ In their eyes, if you’re Muslim and you’re active, you’re Muslim Brotherhood.”
Journalist Lawrence Pintak warned in a Feb. 22 article in Foreign Policy that designating the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization “could mean open season on American Muslims, cripple US policy in the Muslim world, and have implications for American domestic politics.
“The move threatens to introduce an Islamophobic parlor game into American culture, fueling speculation on the degrees of separation between any Muslim and proponents of jihad,” Pintak warned. “That’s because the Muslim Brotherhood is the granddaddy of most Islamist political movements around the world — both peaceful and violent. Many politically active Muslims who emigrated to the United States and helped to found Muslim civic associations here were either members of the Brotherhood, or had friends who were. As with the Kevin Bacon parlor game, look hard enough at almost any Muslim organization in the United States, and you are likely to find some glancing connection to the brotherhood.”
Pintak’s article quotes Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as saying: “It will absolutely fuel the line in the Middle East that we are inherently anti-Muslim. Because while Trump and his nearest and dearest may not have any clue of how the brothers are organized and how much autonomy each country’s organization has, this will just send a broad-brush message: All you need to be is Muslim to be blacklisted.”
Pintak also quotes Crocker as saying that the brotherhood was the United States’ main ally among the Sunni sect in Iraq during the occupation.
Among those most vociferously proclaiming that America’s chief enemy is “radical Islam” as opposed to violent extremism is Sebastian Gorka, the former Breitbart national security editor who was recently named as a deputy assistant on Trump’s national security advisory staff.
“If you really want to understand the direction of the White House and how much everything changed at 12:01 on January the 20th, you look at two things,” Gorka said on a Feb. 24 broadcast of Breitbart’s Sirius XM show from the Conservative Political Action Conference. “You look at a speech that really wasn’t carefully addressed or really paid enough attention to. That’s the Youngstown campaign speech, which was about the threat of jihad in general and what we’re going to do about ISIS.
“When [Trump] says our enemy is ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ that is a 180-degree change from the last eight years, when we weren’t allowed to even say who the enemy was,” Gorka continued.
Speaking in Youngstown, Ohio on Aug. 15, Trump announced a new policy of halting “the spread of radical Islam,” naming Egypt and Jordan as partners, along with “our greatest ally, Israel.” He promised that the new administration would “be a friend to all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East.”
The candidate pledged that once in office he would establish a “Commission on Radical Islam” whose purpose is “to identify and explain to the American public the core convictions and beliefs of radical Islam, to identify the warning signs of radicalization, and to expose the networks in our society that support radicalization.”
The commission would “develop new protocols for local police officers, federal investigators and immigration screeners,” Trump promised.
“Finally, we will pursue aggressive criminal and immigration charges against anyone who lends material support to terrorism,” he said. “Similar to the effort to take down the mafia, this will be the understood mission of every federal investigator and prosecutor in the country.
“To accomplish a goal, you must state a mission: The support networks for radical Islam in this country will be stripped out and removed one by one.”