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Lieberman's Alarmist
Senate Terrorism Report,
Islamophobia, and
Civil Liberties

by Chip Berlet

Originally written for Huffington Post - Off the Bus

A bigoted bombshell was lobbed from Inside the Beltway on May 8, 2008 when the Senate Committee on Homeland Security under the leadership of Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman and ranking Republican Susan Collins. The report, "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorism Threat," (PDF) combines Muslim bashing with suggestions that would further undermine Constitutional rights in the United States. The report" is heralded as the first in a "series of reports by the Majority and Minority staff of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs...on the threat of homegrown terrorism inspired by violent Islamist extremism."

A broad civil liberties coalition of 20 groups signed a letter of protest that was actually issued the day before the report was made public. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, summarized the ACLU response:

Though the need to prevent criminal acts of violence is unquestionable, targeting communities based on religious beliefs is unacceptable and unproductive. We will only end up stigmatizing the Islamic community and creating a nation of Islamophobes. We should not be legislating against thought and we should certainly not be regulating religious or unpopular thought. A dynamic debate can only make this country stronger and safer.

The press release was titled: "ACLU Skeptical of Senate Report on 'Homegrown' Terrorism." (More from the ALCU press release here)

The report was drafted solely under the direction of Committee Chairmen Joseph Lieberman (DI-CT), a pro-war "Independent Democrat," and ranking Republican Susan Collins (R-ME). It appears that other members of the Committee, including Senator Barak Obama (D-IL), had no part in authoring the controversial document, titled: "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorism Threat."(PDF). "Neither Senator Obama or his staff had any input into the report," said the spokesperson in Obama's Washington, DC office Wednesday evening. The international news service Reuters carried a story identifying the report as coming from the Committee itself, and the confusion is understandable. However, Senator Collins' office in DC stressed that "It was never a full Committee report" and that the cover and inside text of the report itself made that clear. The spokesperson added that "There is a lot of cooperation on this Committee, it is very bipartisan."

Bipartisan perhaps is not the proper word to describe this report, as Lieberman, the chair, is campaigning against his former political party, the Democrats. It's not just an interesting anecdote that Democratic Senator Obama sits on the Committee, since the report (and threatened additional follow-up reports on "Violent Islamist Extremism") can easily be turned into a swift-boating dirty tricks theme song by Obama's political adversaries--both Republicans and Democrats--to suggest that Obama's policies are soft on terrorism and fail to appreciate the threat of "radical Islam." At least three other Democratic Senators--Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Thomas R. Carper (D-DE); and Carl Levin, (D-MI)--all of whom sit on the Committee with Obama--also had no role in the writing of the report, according to their DC Senate office spokespeople. I placed calls to the DC offices of all members of the Committee over several days, but most had yet to return phone calls or e-mails sent to their press secretaries when this article was published. "Minority staff reports" and "majority staff reports" are common, but the report--coming from the ostensibly bipartisan leaders of the committee--can leave the impression that it represents the views of the Committee itself, which it clearly does not.

Based on interviews with Capitol Hill junkies, it seems that reports from both the majority and minority staff of a committee are not unheard of, but they are uncommon. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security, however, appears to do this more often than other committees. Word on the Hill is that the report was primarily driven by Lieberman's staff. One Democratic Party operative grumbled that the Committee staff didn't even send Democratic members of the Committee courtesy copies of the report before it was issued. So is this report part of election year shenanigans? The Committee staff actually appear to just have been doing their job. Lieberman, on the other hand, is not a neophyte on the political scene. He surely should know that the report, with its timing, will be used to whiplash Barak Obama and push both Obama and Hillary Clinton toward more hard-line policy positions on the Middle East, and to soften any opposition to civil liberties abuses by the Bush Administration. This report acts as an attempt to reframe the election debate, and its outcome--no matter what its intent--is to function as a political dirty trick in an election campaign.

A spokesperson for the Senate Committee said, however, that there was "zero truth" to assertions that the report was politically motivated. "We held six hearings going back for over a year, there were multiple drafts, it was a long process, the staff worked hard on it, there was never any consideration of the political impact." In an election year season when "even the weather is being interpreted through a political lens," such speculation is common, but regrettable, she said. There was "absolutely no connection to Obama," or the campaign, but instead the report came out of a deep and sincere interest of Senator Lieberman in the topic, and the report was issued when it was finished.

The content of the report has also garnered criticism. The Lieberman report (let's call it what it is) has been condemned by critics as based on dangerously thin analysis and a threat to freedom of expression, civil liberties, and civil rights. The report echoes an equally flawed legislative bill stalled in Congress, titled "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007," which I criticized last November. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, summarized the ACLU response to the awful report: "Once we begin trying to regulate belief systems, we have veered perilously far from the Constitution." The Defending Dissent Foundation (on whose board I sit) coordinated an open letter to the Senate Committee even before the report was released. According to the letter, already signed by 20 civil liberties groups:

We must be clear; the need to prevent criminal acts of violence is unquestionable. Studying and understanding the origin of terrorism and what provokes violence is an important element of prevention. But one of the greatest challenges to countering such movements is drawing the line between advocacy of ideas, including violence, and taking concrete steps toward carrying out a violent act. It is also important to distinguish between violence that injures or kills people and minor acts of vandalism that are part of an act of civil disobedience. Properly viewed, dissent can be an antidote to terrorism, not a precursor to it.

More groups are signing onto the letter, already endorsed by civil liberties activists across the political spectrum from the Republican Liberty Coalition to United for Peace and Justice. The fear is that the report will fuel more Islamophobia. It is clear that some supporters of Republican Presidential candidate John McCain are willing to play the xenophobia card, even as McCain has so far avoided stooping to that level. Let's be clear. This is not about anything McCain has said or even implied. This is about Senator Lieberman pushing out a report that is full of superficial stereotyping of Muslims and grade school analysis of terrorism. Lieberman, the "Independent Democrat" is campaigning for Republican candidate McCain. Kate Phillips on the New York Times Politics Blog calls it the "The McCain-Lieberman Duet."

The Democratic Party is reluctant to criticize Lieberman because the Senate is home to 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats, with two independents (Lieberman and Bernie Sanders of Vermont) who line up with the Democrats in caucus, thus giving the Democrats a voting majority and senior status on Senate Committees. If Lieberman moves to caucus with the Republicans, it would mean the Senate was evenly divided, sending more tie votes to Vice President Dick Cheney who serves as the President of the Senate. In addition, Democrats would no longer unilaterally control the chairs of all Senate committees, and would have to negotiate a power sharing arrangement with Republicans. Lieberman should be aware that there is a flotilla of fear-mongering swift-boaters who will use the report to fire bigoted salvos on behalf of McCain, just as they used falsehoods and fabrications to sink the candidacy of John Kerry. And note that McCain called the charges against Kerry "dishonest and dishonorable." Yet McCain, who has a long track record as a militarist., is the clear beneficiary of election year fear-mongering about Islam and terrorism, and has reached out to leaders of the Christian Right who have a track record of Islamophobia.

McCain at the 2007 Values Voters Washington Briefing

When McCain stood before the audience of some 2000 Christian conservatives last year in Washington, DC at the FRC Action Values Voters "Washington Briefing" conference, it was already clear that he was seeking to mend fences with the Christian Right. Now McCain has cultivated support from apocalyptic preacher John Hagee, who has stated that "Jihad has come to America. If we lose the war to Islamic fascism, it will change the world as we know it." Hagee is not just talking about "radical Islam," he also believes that the Quran itself gives Muslims a mandate to kill Christians and Jews. According to Hagee, "Well, the Quran teaches that. Yes, it teaches that very clearly." American Muslims have launched a campaign to encourage more precise language when linking Islam and terrorism, just what the Lieberman report fails to do.

According to Religion News Service:

While Muslim Americans have made this argument for years, U.S. government officials have only recently adopted it. In March, the National Counterterrorism Center drafted a memo for the State Department urging diplomats to drop words like "jihadists" or "mujahedeen" (those engaged in jihad) when describing terrorists because it "unintentionally legitimizes their actions."
In fact, in January the Department of Homeland Security suggested that "We should not concede the terrorists' claim that they are legitimate adherents of Islam," according to a memo obtained by the Associated Press. This fact has already attracted attention in the blogosphere, but mainstream media have yet to offer any meaningful coverage of this entire episode. My first report on this matter was posted on HuffPost Off the Bus last Monday The group Muslim Advocates notes that "The Senate report, issued by Senators Lieberman and Collins on May 8, 2008, with bold red letters on the title and provocative graphic photos of al Qaeda overseas, insinuated that American Muslims are ripe for radicalization and present a potential 'homegrown' security threat to the nation." A letter critical of the report and asking for a dialogue has been sent to the Committee by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and Muslim Advocates. The letter notes that "Given that only one of nineteen witnesses before the Committee represented the American Muslim community, we also urge you to include representative American Muslims at future hearings on Islam or the American Muslim community." The letter suggests that the report undermines its own stated goals, and points out:
As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified to the Committee, in response to a question from Senator Tester, "It is very important that ...we make clear that we are not racially profiling people. We are not imputing to people that they are dangerous or threatening because they are Muslim. ... We have to continually treat every American with the same respect that our Constitution requires, regardless of their heritage, regardless of what their religion is, and when that is not honored, that actually has a counterproductive effect." Unfortunately, the Committee's report undermines fundamental American values (as well as its own stated recommendations) by encouraging alienating suspicion of several million Americans on the basis of their faith. Contrary to Secretary Chertoff's recommendations, it thus exacerbates the current climate of fear, suspicion and hatemongering of Islam and American Muslims.

Fear-mongering by Republicans about terrorism, Islam, and the Middle East is ratcheting up in the campaign, and Islamophobia has consequences, as I outlined in my previous post about the firing of school principal Debbie Almontaser, Muslim bashing is the New Witch Hunt. Lieberman has a long track record of supporting an aggressive U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that is tilted in favor of a hard line stance by the government of Israel. This serves to mobilize that sector of the Christian Right known as "Christian Zionists," profiled by Max Blumenthal here on HuffPost in an article and video about Christians United for Israel. McCain endorser Hagee is the head of Christians United for Israel. While some critics of U.S. foreign policy slip into a stereotypical conflation of Israel, the Israeli government, Jews, Zionism, and Christian Zionism, the relationships among "Culture, Religion, Apocalypse, and Middle East Foreign Policy" are well studied. Christian Zionists help push U.S. foreign policy in a bellicose direction that undermines chances for a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis; a matter for reflection on this day, May 15, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. The peace process is not likely to be well served by President Bush's claim while speaking in Israel that Barak Obama is like the Nazi appeasers prior to World War II.

The upcoming 2008 Christian Right Values Voters Summit in September places "immigration" and "radical Islam" just after "marriage and the family" on its list of important "highlights" of the conference. For the past two years, the Values Voters conference and "Washington Briefing" has featured a range of Islamophobic speeches and publications. If McCain moves to the Political Right to shore up the Republican voter base in the Christian Right--which trial balloons about Gov. Mike Huckabee being considered for the VP slot make more plausible--then Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric will find an eager audience. Summit co-sponsor FRC Action is already bashing Obama.



Huckabee at the 2007 Values Voters Washington Briefing

Last year on HuffPost I wrote that "A McCain-Huckabee ticket, however, could pull voters to the polls across several core Republican constituencies mobilized around the economy and immigration." I should have added Islamophobia, because it clearly is going to play a role in election 2008, no matter who ends up as the final Presidential standard bearers for the Republicans and Democrats.

The New Witch Hunt

When a bipartisan Congressional committee issues a report on the threat of domestic terrorist violence during an election year, you can be sure that the centrist establishment is worried about the popular backlash against government repression and the threat to civil liberties.

That's nothing new.

Scholar William W. Keller argues that in times of wide-spread social unrest and tensions, some liberals retreat from their oversight function as protectors of civil liberties and allow authoritarian methods to be implemented in order to restore order and defend the state. Right now in Washington, DC, civil liberties activists have built a coalition that spans the political spectrum from left to right. This coalition recently managed to block legislation titled the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act." It was, as detailed here lousy legislation and deserved to be squashed.

Many voters do not support the war in Iraq and are suspicious of Bush administration demands for even more erosions of civil liberties and Constitutional rights.This scares the bipartisan status quo brigade, and centrist Republicans and Democrats now rally behind the power of the state. Dissidents on the left and right already are all potential suspects in the "War on Terrorism." Who better to pick as the main target for the New Witch Hunt than Muslims in America? Is there a more vulnerable community for a new campaign based on fear?

Is Islamophobia something to worry about? I think so. Islamophobia has been simmering of the back burner of Campaign 2008 for some time. Take the case of Debbie Almontaser in New York. There are lots of statistics and studies, but sometimes a personal story is the best illustration of a problem. Almontaser was removed as the principal of a new Arab language public school in New York City in 2007. She was thrown to the circling wolves by her own union and the NYC department of education. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Almontaser explains that she began to "help safeguard my Arab, Muslim, and South Asian neighbors in Brooklyn." Aha! Typical! After all, Almontaser is an Arab Muslim immigrant from Yemen. What do you expect? Well, expect more, because Almontaser had already spent years working with a:

group of Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and others who meet on a monthly basis to talk about world issues and give each other a sense of hope and support. Immediately after September 11, some members of the dialogue called to check up on how my family and I were doing. Based on the concerns and issues I raised, I was invited by these members to go to their churches and synagogues and to speak on behalf of the Arab-American and Muslim communities in Brooklyn.

What got Almontaser fired? She became the target of right-wing media fanatics who used her to whip up fears of terrorist Muslims teaching children to become suicide bombers. The New York Post and New York Sun led the attacks. Sun columnist Alicia Colon was especially nasty: "So whose insane idea was it to have an Arabic public school in Brooklyn open this September? Are they out of their minds? Have they learned nothing from the Netherlands about the danger of pandering to multiculturalism?"

When I first heard of this proposed school, I thought it was a joke. But then I read Daniel Pipes's column about this disguised 'madrassa' and discovered who the major principals were. Now I can't dispel this feeling of disbelief and outrage. This proposal is utter madness, considering that five years after September 11, ground zero is still a hole in the ground and we're bending over backwards to appease those sympathetic to individuals who would destroy us again. Smart, really smart.

In one online essay, Daniel Pipes, a scholar and anti-Islamic pundit, claimed that Almontaser said, "Arabs or Muslims...are innocent of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001." The actual quote? Almontaser said "I don't recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims.... Those people who did it have stolen my identity as an Arab and have stolen my religion." The bigoted media feeding frenzy was a disgrace. Months later the New York Times did the right thing and published a thoughtful article titled "Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream School" (online here).

The Bush administration policies in the Middle East have been a disaster, and part of the blowback has been a tragic escalation of both Islamophobic and antisemitic rhetoric in volitile political debates. Muslims are portrayed as a barbarous, tribal force prompting a "Clash of Civiliaztions" in the analysis by Samuel Huntington. Jews loyal to Israel are said to be controlling U.S. foreign policy through the U.S. neoconservative movement and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. The lurid and bigoted claims wash across the Internet. Such xenophobia and stereotyping has no place in a country that aspires to be a real democracy. Debbie Almontaser was engaged in working in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities to challenge stereotypes and build bridges across communites. There are several initiatives across the country twinning the issues of Islamophobia and antisemitism. Almontaser, an early leader in such efforts has been slapped down by fanatics. Almontaser is still fighting to clear her name and regain her position in the courts. (Read more about Almontaser and an earlier Witch Hunt here)

It is into this target rich political environment of fear and xenophobia that Lieberman tossed his bombshell report. And the Committee promises more to come. More than fifty years ago, a lawyer representing another target of a political witch hunt confronted the head of an earlier Senate committee: "You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?" History may be repeating itself. Time will tell, and history will judge our response.

 

 

 

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