The New McCarthyites: The Right-wing Islamophobia Network and Their Liberal Enablers


An excerpt from Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire Twenty Years after 9/11 by Deepa Kumar.

For further reading, see US Empire 20 Years after 9/11. All books are 40% off until September 30, 23:59 EST as part of our Back to University/School sale.

The Trump presidency was the most Islamophobic in US history. During Trump’s time in office, anti-Muslim racism in its blatant and far right-wing form was legitimated, particularly among the tens of millions of his most ardent supporters. After the civil rights movement, Republicans had to resort to dog whistle tactics to appeal to racist voters, but Trump was able to overcome “political correctness” and to bring overt racism into the mainstream. His bigoted rhetoric and policies created a spike in hate crimes and bias incidents carried out by both state agencies and right-wing vigilantes. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported 10,015 anti-Muslim acts between 2014 and 2019, with a 94 percent jump in 2017 in the wake of the first iteration of the Muslim ban. Over that five-year period, CAIR documented 1,164 hate crimes, 506 attacks on mosques, and 2,783 acts of discrimination by state agencies including the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration, and the US Customs and Border Protection.

Trump was assisted by a number of Islamophobes who were appointed to positions of power such as Michael Pompeo, John Bolton, and Stephen Miller. A quote from Monica Crowley, who was made assistant secretary for public affairs in 2019, provides a flavor of the kinds of beliefs held by right-wing Trump appointees. Crowley is a contributor to Fox News, a columnist, and a syndicated radio host most known for spreading conspiracy theories that Obama was a secret Muslim who took orders from terrorist organizations. As she put it:    

Obama was born to a Muslim father, which under Islam automatically made him a Muslim. He says he converted to Christianity as an adult, which under Islam makes him an apostate . . . He grew up in Indonesia, which is the most populous Muslim nation on Earth. His stepfather was also a Muslim. He was steeped in Islam throughout his formative years, so it should come as no surprise that he has loyalties to Islam . . . The question is: can he be both loyal to Islam and loyal to the United States?

Such individuals were elevated under the Trump administration since he himself had advocated similar positions, from questioning Obama’s place of birth to his suggestion that Obama had a secret terrorist agenda.

Trump and his ilk belong to what religion specialist Nathan Lean has called the “Islamophobia industry.” The Center for American Progress (CAP) published a comprehensive report on this network of individuals and groups titled Fear, Inc: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America in 2011. This well-researched report documents the connections between various right-wing groups, political figures, think tanks, conservative foundations, and the mainstream and right-wing media. However, the thrust of the argument is that Islamophobia, which they understand as religious intolerance rather than as anti-Muslim racism, is propagated by a “small, tightly networked group” that exists outside the mainstream. In a follow-up publication in 2015, titled Fear, Inc. 2.0, the authors doubled down on their argument that Islamophobia is “not indicative of mainstream American views” and that only a small “fringe” that seeks to influence the mainstream is responsible for this ideology. As I argue in Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire: Twenty Years After 9/11, Islamophobia, better understood as anti-Muslim racism, emerges from the bowels of empire and goes far beyond fringe right-wing elements.

In his book The Great Fear, historian David Caute showed that McCarthyism wasn’t simply about one out-of-control senator, but a political system (including both Democrats and Republicans) that allowed a figure like Joseph McCarthy to set the political agenda. McCarthy was a useful tool in prosecuting the Cold War—particularly in creating a climate of fear where dissent could be punished and neutralized. The right-wing Islamophobic warriors play a similar role during the era of the war on terror. They are not “alien outsiders” but emerge from within the political establishment, the security apparatus, the academy, think tanks, and the mainstream media. Thus, far from “infiltrating” an otherwise sound democratic system, the “new McCarthyites,” as I call them, are a product of, and sit comfortably within, the structures of US empire; their role is to elevate and legitimize overt racism.

The new McCarthyites do not operate in isolation from other political and social actors. Rather, there is a dialectical relationship between far-right racism and liberal racism. All these racisms sit on a spectrum with each influencing the other. While the Far Right and sections of the neoconservative camp have forwarded conspiracy theories about Muslims that are obviously and blatantly racist (such as the claim that 80 percent of mosques in the United States promote or support violence), establishment liberals put forward arguments that are more subtle but nevertheless racist. The so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy in 2010 is a good case study of the way in which overt right-wing Islamophobia interacts with liberal Islamophobia to produce the “Muslim” as a racialized other.

While the new McCarthyites were responsible for the hysteria generated, their arguments were enabled by the liberal establishment. The year 2010 was an important turning point for these forces, and the mosque controversy positioned the Islamophobic network to grow its influence. But this was not the first project of Muslim-bashing that the new McCarthyites had initiated. In the post–Cold War era, the Islamophobia network has been involved in silencing dissent by targeting scholars in the field of Middle Eastern studies, attacking Palestinian rights supporters, and attempting to shut down and delegitimize symbols of the Muslim community such as Islamic schools, mosques, and community centers. Various groups have come together to form this coalition of the new McCarthyites. These include sections of the neocon elite, the Christian Right, Zionist groups, and various “ex-Muslims.”

Since 9/11, a wide range of people and groups have participated in constructing a diabolical “Islamic threat.” Together they are responsible for the most blatant and right-wing forms of anti-Muslim racism. The Islamophobia network includes a section of the neocons, Zionist organizations, Christian fundamentalists, and right-wing ex-Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia. A significant number of these new McCarthyites have connections with establishment figures or are themselves from the foreign policy establishment, the military, the CIA, the Department of Defense, or other branches of the security apparatus. They sit comfortably with one another at conferences and counterterrorism training sessions. Their arguments are made more palatable by the liberal Islamophobes who populate the academy, the mainstream media, and various think tanks. In short, the new McCarthyites aren’t aberrations in an otherwise fair and neutral system, despite their rabidly racist views, but an integral part of it.