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How a handful of anti-Muslim crusaders hijacked segments of the GOP

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's Republican governor and a possible 2016 presidential candidate, is worried. Specifically, he's worried about Muslim immigrants conquering America.

Citing the (fictional) specter of Muslim-dominated "no-go zones" in Europe, Jindal has warned of an Islamic "invasion" and "colonization" of the United States designed to impose Sharia law on unsuspecting Americans. "If they want to come here and they want to set up their own culture and values, that's not immigration. That's really invasion, if you're honest about it," Jindal said in a radio appearance.

Jindal isn't the only possible 2016 candidate who's flirted with anti-Muslim sentiment, which is sadly common on the fringes of the Republican Party. But that wasn't always the case. Since September 2001, there's been a surge in right-wing Islamophobia, driven by a small, well-funded group of activists. And their angry message is currently dividing the 2016 field.

How Islamophobia infected the GOP

pamela geller ad dc bus

Ad that ran on Washington, DC buses. Sponsored by Pamela Geller, a notorious and prominent anti-Muslim writer in the United States. (Pamela Geller)

Before 2001, the Republican party had been a fairly comfortable place for Muslims. Large majorities of Muslims voted for George H.W. Bush in 1992, as well as George W. Bush in 2000 (Clinton won Muslims' vote in 1996).

But immediately after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, things started to change. A small cadre of hawkish conservative activists began warning that sharia, or Islamic law, was going to imposed on Americans by local Muslims.

"It is now public knowledge that nearly every major Muslim organization in the United States is actually controlled by the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] or a derivative organization," a Center for Security Policy report declaims. "Consequently, most of the Muslim American groups of any prominence in America are now known to be, as a matter of fact, hostile to the United States and its Constitution."

CSP and its president, Reagan administration Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Frank Gaffney, are key parts of the anti-Islam movement. As detailed in a blockbuster 2011 report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), Gaffney and his allies received $42.6 million in funding from various charitable groups and right-wing activists from 2001 to 2009. (Full disclosure: I used to work at CAP, though this report was published before I began there.)

This funding gave Gaffney and like-minded folks, such as Steve Emerson and David Horowitz, a solid base. Because they tended to be foreign policy hawks, they drifted towards Republican legislators and right-wing media. They developed and solidified relationships with Republicans on Capitol Hill, with Fox News, and with major right-wing media personalities like Glenn Beck.

frank gaffney

Frank Gaffney testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2013. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

"These people, including Gaffney and his organization, are very good at exploiting fear about Islam and Muslims," says Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and one of the report's authors. "It's not just lobbying. It's maintaining relationships with bookers and being allowed on Fox. They can spout all of this ridiculous stuff about sharia and that threat it poses that will be continually refuted, and yet they continue to be allowed on."

During the Bush administration, Gaffney-style conspiracy theories about "creeping sharia" stayed on the fringes. You can thank President Bush for that: he repeatedly and forcefully condemned anti-Muslim bigotry during his time in office. "The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends," Bush said in an address to Congress on September 20, 2001.

"George W. Bush deserves a lot of credit, as president and a Republican conservative leader, in making it clear immediately after 9/11 and all the way through his presidency that we were not at war with Muslims, and the Muslims were part of the American family," Duss says. But "there's really no one in the Republican party anymore as there was when Bush was president... to send that message."

After Bush left office and President Obama came in, anti-Islam sentiment began to go mainstream. In 2010, leading conservative figures opposed the construction of a small Islamic prayer center near Ground Zero in New York. During her successful 2010 campaign, North Carolina House candidate (and currently Rep.) Renee Ellmers called it a "victory mosque" celebrating the supposed Islamic conquest of Americans on 9/11.

Eight US states have passed legislation prohibiting the use of "foreign law" or "sharia law" in American courts in the past five years. David Yerushalmi, a Gaffney ally and the key proponent of these laws, once wrote that "the Muslim peoples, those committed to Islam as we know it today, are our enemies." In 2010, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called for a federal ban on sharia law.

In 2009, Gaffney wrote that "there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself." By 2012, a Pew poll found that 30 percent of Republicans believed that Obama was a Muslim — roughly double the share who believed that in 2008. Separately, only 47 percent of Republicans say they'd be willing to vote for a Muslim for president (the figure is 69 percent for Democrats).

Since the Obama presidency began, then, this Islamophobia network has successfully mainstreamed their message. They don't speak for the Republican party, but represent a real constituency on its fringes, one that is exerting influence. This creates an incentive for even leading Republicans to play with dangerous rhetoric about Muslims: there's a real part of the base that finds it appealing.

Why Jindal is leading the Islamophobic charge

The big names in the Republican party have not been unified on this issue; some are bravely challenging Islamophobia, while others indulge it.

In the past few years, some in the Republican mainstream have begun pushing back on the Islamophobic fringe — including several leading 2016 presidential candidates. When Governor Chris Christie appointed Muslim-American attorney Sohail Muhammed to be a New Jersey Superior Judge in 2011, he faced a backlash from anti-Muslim quarters of the conservative coalition. Christie stood his ground. "It's just crazy, and I'm tired of dealing with the crazies," the governor said.

During a presidential debate in the same year, Mitt Romney was asked about the threat of sharia law creeping into American courts. "That's never going to happen," Romney said. "I think we recognize that the people of all faiths are welcome in this country."

But other leading 2016 candidates have taken more troubling positions. During his 2012 campaign, Sen. Ted Cruz said that "sharia law is an enormous problem" in the Untied States. After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Sen. Rand Paul called for restricting Muslim immigration to France and the US. "You've got to secure your country," Paul said. "And that means maybe that every Muslim immigrant that wishes to come to France shouldn't have an open door to come. ... It's also my concern here."

But no one — no one — has been more aggressive than Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Though both Fox News and CNN have apologized for reporting on made-up Muslim "no-go zones" in Europe, Jindal has doubled down on the false claim. Recently, he was confronted on this by a British CNN reporter; Jindal was unable to name a single such "no-go zone."

In a January 19 speech to the London-based Henry Jackson Society, Jindal warned of "dangerous" Muslims "who want to come to our country but not adopt our values." He went on, "Sharia law is not just different than our law, it's not just a cultural difference, it is oppression and it is wrong."

Jindal's stance has made him some friends. A letter signed by Gaffney, Yerushalmi, and other leading lights of the anti-Muslim movement in the Untied States praised Jindal's position and offered him support.

Governor, we salute you for your understanding of the threat posed by shariah and for your leadership in countering its adherents. By so doing, you have showed the path for our country and its people to follow. We stand ready to help you in ensuring they do.

Why is Jindal so much more assertive on this issue than any of his competitors? The most plausible explanation seems to be positioning. Jindal is trying to position himself as the candidate of the religious right, a constituency that's more likely to buy into fears about sharia law.

"Jindal has been looking for a way to set himself apart from a large pack," Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and the author of a Politico Magazine piece on Jindal and Islam, wrote via email. "So he's focused on evangelical Christians, hoping they will give him the grassroots base to drive him deep into the primaries."

Islamophobia, Duss says, "has its strongest base among a subset of conservative evangelicals." But beyond the appeal to a key constituency, Duss also sees an attempt by Jindal, whose parents are Indian immigrants, to help sell the broader universe of primary voters on his Americanness.

"As the son of immigrants myself," he says, "I find it particularly gross that a son of immigrants would seek to demonstrate his bona fides by exploiting Islamophobia."

"One of the challenges of being a state governor, and getting your name out there and being a contender, is introducing yourself," Duss continues. "And this is the way [Jindal] has chosen to introduce himself: as this kind of ultra-Christian crusader against the Muslim hordes."

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