Just like the global economy, the media, and party politics, foreign policy is largely run by a cadre of wealthy and highly educated elites who attract the criticism of outsiders. Not all criticism is created equal however, with the foreign policy establishment attracting the ire of those running the gamut of worldly acumen. Since 9/11, a small group of vocal individuals have been raving about halal markets in the Midwest and calling for a holy war against Islam. Initially these outliers were ignored by the establishment, however, in recent years, the Islamophobia lobby has adopted an increasingly sophisticated propaganda campaign. By adopting well-established rhetorical techniques aimed at the public, these advocates have been able to ride a wave of nationalism in order to combat the establishment and steer U.S. foreign policy in their direction.
Under normal circumstances, American voter’s apathy toward foreign policy usually allows the establishment leeway to adopt the policies of their choice. Naturally they shied away from the radical and often ill-informed views of anti-Muslim activists. Spurned, the Islamophobia lobby organized and decided to challenge the prevailing modus operandi, hoping to spark a mass movement through a sophisticated public relations campaign that would force their policies through the halls of government.
The strategy adopted by the Islamophobia lobby follows the basic outline of a good rhetorical argument first dictated by Aristotle—ethos, pathos, and logos. To set up their argument the lobby’s spokespeople established their ethos as scholars of “radical Islam.” Some like the former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under President Ronald Reagan, Frank Gaffney, relied on their past experience in government, some like Deputy Assistant to the President Dr. Sebastian Gorka touted their academic credentials. Most interesting were those coming out of the Islamic world claiming to be reformed extremists like Walid Shoebat or ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Speaking from a place of rhetorical authority they then utilized an argument of pathos, appealing to the basest fears of the American public, that there existed a barbaric civilization across the ocean that was conducting terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland while slowly infiltrating the West by sending its fifth column of Muslim immigrants to lay in wait. They then topped off their arguments with logos by citing half-truths and facts out of context, such as the widespread presence of “Sharia courts” in the United Kingdom and the issues of honor killings and female genital mutilation (FGM) in Muslim communities.
To the average American, this message has resonated. Certainly, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Boston, Paris, Orlando and London, and new conflicts popping up even after two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed as though America’s leaders had allowed things to get out of hand. Local law enforcement agencies, the FBI, and the U.S. Special Operations Command are on record as impressed by descriptions of self-styled “reformed terrorists” and “scholars of radical Islam,” inviting Islamophobic activists to give lectures. Political outsiders brought to power through the 2010 Tea Party movement like former U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann and Senator Ted Cruz gave the lobby their first taste of power. Finally, when populism took control of America in the 2016 election, members of the Islamophobia lobby joined the Trump Administration and finally outmaneuvered the foreign policy establishment.
While successful thus far in winning powerful positions and allies, the lobby’s arguments are hollow and follow well established propaganda strategies. Groups like the Center for Security Policy and ACT for America mimic Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach of using snippets of truth to appeal to popular biases and sow discontent. They orbit general truths about the issues facing the nation’s security and the future of the Muslim world but then mix those truths with falsehoods and stretch them out in order to lead to bizarre conclusions.
However, the pedestal the lobby erected to propel their message is duplicitous, with the credentials of so-called experts on “radical Islam” falsified. Gorka for example, obtained his PhD from a Hungarian diploma mill and Ali was forced out of the Dutch Parliament after it was discovered she lied about the hardships she endured in Somalia. The fear which they appeal to is real, but facts don’t care about feelings. Likewise, the “facts” that anti-Muslim activists present are half-truths. British Sharia councils for example, are only authorized to conduct arbitration in civil cases under the supervision of experts in secular and religious law, and cannot have people executed as is commonly claimed.
While the basis of the Islamophobic arguments is at times laughable, their goals are terrifying. Revoking the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion, the creation of a new House Un-American Activities Committee, and a civilizational war against Islam, are all on their agenda. These con-artists swindled enough of the public that their toxic remedies were adopted by opportunistic demagogues. Not only does the United States now risk venturing into more foreign crises and internal struggles, it must contend with the fact that foreign policy is no longer a meritorious pastime where, in theory, the best and the brightest write the rules. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Islamophobia lobby is that they’ve shown that waging wars and forming alliances is now the domain of whoever can sell the most snake oil.