Local commentators have variously described reactions to the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured 183 others, as “restrained”, “refreshingly honest” and wholly different to what unfolded after September 11, 2001.
True, this time round we were spared the “with us or against us” clash of civilisations rhetoric from those in power. And thankfully, save for a hijab-clad woman punched while dropping her daughter at a Boston playgroup and a Bangladeshi man bashed for looking Arab in the Bronx, we have not seen the same wave of violent attacks on Muslims that gripped the US in the wake of 9/11.
Nevertheless, the US Islamophobia industry has seized on the bombing to bolster its campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering, and we would do well to pay careful attention.
Within hours of last Monday’s explosions, a number of media outlets, including the New York Post, named a young Saudi man as a suspect, when he was in fact a witness injured in the blasts. The story, unfortunately, refused to die.
By Thursday, US conservative commentator Glenn Beck was issuing ultimatums to the Obama administration: admit that the bombing was the work of a “bad, bad, bad” Saudi national who has since been deported back to the Kingdom, or Beck would expose the government’s complicity in the culprit’s escape from justice. Once one Tsarnaev brother was killed and the other taken into custody, Beck merely expanded this fanciful story to include them as co-conspirators, demanding Obama’s impeachment.
While it is unclear where Beck sourced his wild allegations, they bear a striking resemblance to the nonsense that former CNN reporter and self-styled terrorism expert Steven Emerson consistently spouted throughout the week. Emerson told C-Span that the irrefutable evidence of the Saudi student’s guilt was the fact that his burns bore traces of explosive residue which matched the compound used in the bombs. This was hardly surprising, given that the student was injured by one of those bombs.
Although officials emphatically stated that the Saudi student was not a suspect, within days Emerson was pushing the story that Obama had attended a hastily scheduled meeting with the Saudi government to arrange the student’s deportment: “This is the way things are done with Saudi Arabia,” Emerson told Fox News. “You don’t arrest their citizens, you deport them because they don’t want them to be embarrassed and that’s the way we appease them.”
Emerson has an impressive and well-documented record of spreading false information. The US media watchdog FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) has been drawing attention to Emerson’s consistently anti-Muslim and anti-Arab reporting since the early 1990s. In 1999, FAIR chronicled a raft of Emerson’s wrong assertions about Muslim involvement in acts of terrorism, including the bogus 1998 claim that Pakistan was planning a nuclear strike on India, which escalated tensions in the region to boiling point.
Most notorious was Emerson’s claim in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma bombing – which turned out to be the work of far-right extremist Timothy McVeigh – that it bore a “Middle Eastern trait” because it “was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible”. That same year he wrote in the Jewish Monthly that Islam “sanctions genocide, planned genocide, as its religious doctrine”.
Like many other self-appointed terrorism experts, Emerson’s career blossomed in the wake of 9/11. Lately he has come to focus on what he terms “legal insurgency”, claiming last month that Islamists are succeeding in a plot to “quietly” take over the US by means of:
Faustian deals with the media where the ultra-fascist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is totally consistent with the ultra-left-wing ideology of the media and it’s reflected on campuses in academia and student groups, it’s reflected in books and it’s also reflected in policies by the US government.
Emerson’s ideas are not only warmly received by the Christian Right and the pro-Israel lobby, they have also made inroads into Congress. After 9/11, Emerson testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee and distributed copies of his 1994 video Jihad in America to all 535 members of Congress. Republican congressman Chris Smith told the Washington Post that the film “played a real role” in the passing of the 2001 Patriot Act.
Emerson’s is but one voice in a well-resourced industry of Islamophobia in the US. This network includes Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Brigitte Gabriel and others, and a seemingly endless stream of funding ensures that its anti-Muslim diatribe is a steady feature of mainstream US political discourse.
A Centre for American Progress report found that between 2001 and 2009, Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism organisation, along with Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, the Clarion Fund, Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, the American Congress for Truth, and the Counterterrorism and Security Education and Research Foundation received over US$42 million from just seven major foundations.
The largest single donation, over US$17 million transferred from Donors Capital to the Clarion Fund in 2008, paid for a DVD titled Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West that was distributed to over 28 million swing-state voters in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential elections. The same fund’s large-scale backing of climate change denial groups has been blamed for creating a backlash against Obama’s environmental agenda and ruining the chances of Congress taking action on climate change.
In the wake of the gun lobby’s successful scuttling of any hope of even the most moderate gun law reform in the US by paying off senators, the threat that cashed-up conservatives pose to democracy cannot be ignored.
While Muslims may not have faced as many random attacks on the street this time round, they remain fixed in the crosshairs of a multi-million dollar industry dedicated to the sole purpose of hating them.