A barely legible 2009 FBI PowerPoint on “Islam” has come down the FOIA line at a very unfortunate time following the July 2011 right-wing terrorist attacks in Norway. But it is very much part of that tragedy. The 62-slide PowerPoint presentation, which the FBI states that it is no longer in use, is for training interrogators to interview Muslim suspects. A few slides in, and one shudders what to think it has been replaced by, though – an email sent to intelligence officials linking to the anti-Islamic blogs Jihad Watch, Atlas Shrugs and The Gates of Vienna (which asks if there is to be “Surrender, Genocide . . . or What?” regarding Islam in Europe)?
It wouldn’t be much of a leap, given the content of the “intelligence” in the presentation – and the way that such outlets, and other opportunistic “Islam” experts, have ingratiated themselves in the U.S. political establishment and our ostensibly objective intelligence agencies, from the FBI to the U.S. Army.
Intelligence is what this report lacks most. “Muslims,” the report notes midway through, after dispensing with a great deal of basic statistics, “are fundamentally and inalienably spiritual while the West is purely materialistic” (not that this stops politicians or right-wing terrorists from depicting an Islamic-Marxist alliance as a major threat to Western civilization).
Surely, when attempting to understand a real, but specific, threat, American officials should be trained to view over a billion people as inscrutable and medieval time bombs just waiting to overrun the West. (The Gates of Vienna, for instance, actively evokes this scenario – it proclaims that its struggle against “Islamization” is a continuation of an age-old war for civilization.)
But yet, it does just that. A slide titled “Islam 101” presents – as fact – that Islam “transforms country’s culture into 7th century Arabian ways.”
The same slide also acknowledges, without even a hint of irony, that Islam is “hard for Westerners to understand.”
Hard to understand, perhaps, but not hard to make money and fame from by bashing it. The Great Fear, Max Blumenthal notes, geared up during the lead-in to the 2003 Iraq War. The neoconservatives in the White House and Department of Defense had their grand hope of not only settling the score with Saddam and doing good by oil (“60% of the earth’s oil reserves [are] in or near [the] Arabian Peninsula,” notes the PowerPoint) but also bringing a Pax Americana to the Middle East. What better what to achieve consensus on such a controversial project than by demonizing the enemy’s civilization? We’re not at war with Islam, then-President George W. Bush noted, but Islamophobes seemed to either miss or ignore that message. And so the anti-Muslim machine – a very diverse machine – took the jitters and anti-Islamic sentiments resulting from 9/11 and turned them into politically potent forces.
In such a climate, nonprofit groups and former intelligence analysts – most of whom have zero to no training in Islamic matters – have been raking in millions of dollars from their work outlining the supposed “Islamic” threat to America. Other outlets have noted that these “experts” have even been hired by the federal government to do training and consultative work.
The Washington Monthly has outlined how “counterterrorism trainers for hire” have ingratiated themselves with state and local law enforcement across the U.S. – offering helpful advice to police on how to deal with Muslim suspects by employing “legal harassment, ” a profiling tactic that assumes Muslims are guilty until proven innocent – one trainer suggested that police raid convenience stores owned by Muslims (which, according to the trainer, invariably launder money for terrorists) under the cover of health code violations.
Even less “intelligence” is needed to be a politician with a similar opinion on the Islamic Question – though most are careful to present “the fight against Islam” in non-violent terms (“war” and “fight” are metaphors, they shouldn’t be taken literally – a clarification that, as in other debates, often only becomes clear following a literal bloodbath). “Anti-Islamization” Dutch MP Geert Wilders, for instance, affirms that “the global anti-Islamic movement” has always been a campaign to be won through “the power of the ballot box and the wisdom of the voter. Not bombs and guns.” In the U.S., the specter of “Sovietization” has been superseded (but not replaced) by the specter of “Sharia Law” replacing the Constitution. Bills have come up through multiple state legislatures to “preempt” the “Islamization of America.” Thankfully, America’s awakened bloggers and legislators won’t let that happen here. (There is still no consensus on what century the bill’s sponsors would like to return us to, though.)
It’s perfectly acceptable to draw broad conclusions like these in the mainstream media, too. The Washington Post ran an op-ed that immediately placed blame for the Oslo attacks on Islamists – and went on to reiterate the need to boost defense spending in light of the “jihadist” threat. When it became apparent that Muslims were not behind the attack, the Post did not apologize for the inaccuracies – and the editorialist in question, Jennifer Rubin, simply reiterated her original (neocon) argument by stating that while she was wrong on the particulars, “There is no shortage of threats. There is no shortage of evil. Democratic governments have many demands on tax dollars, but none is more important than defending the lives and security of our citizenry.” (She also distinguished Breivik as a “lone-wolf” in contrast to “organized jihadists,” implying that the latter is the greater, omnipresent threat).
Not very subtle, but Islamophobia and neoconservativism rarely are.
In the blogosphere, sites like Atlas Shrugs, Jihad Watch and The Gates of Vienna (which is an EU site; the first two are U.S.-based) are just some of the better-known outlets pandering Islamophobia as breaking news and informed commentary. The U.S. commentators are increasingly linking up with their European counterparts (who for years have been encroaching on the margins of respectability – electorally and rhetorically – in the EU over Muslim immigration).
Speaking of imagined conspiracies (like Hezbollah laundering money through the local 7-11) and polemicists, Robert Spencer, now infamous because of Anders Breivik’s liberal citations of Jihad Watch posts in his manifesto, gets 2 nods in the “Recommended Reading” slide of the FBI presentation – 2 of his books, out of only 8 books in total, the FBI thought necessary to include here on this list are his.
Given the focus these sites give to culture in the Muslim world, it is not surprising that so much of the “jihadist” discussion in the PowerPoint is juxtaposed with (unrelated) aspects of Islamic culture. A photo of a Muslim circumcision ceremony is presented following a slide that reads “Things to use/consider for successful interviews/interrogations with individuals from the M.E.” [Middle East] Presumably, knowing that Muslims practice circumcision is a crucial component of U.S. security. Also: that they have prayer beads.
One can only guess at how many terror plots have been foiled now that we are armed with this knowledge.
It also helps to portray entire nations – millions of people – as targets who are as much front-line combatants in “the struggle” as soldiers are. But, of course, this kind of total war-mass civilian casualty conceptualization is only a metaphor when Westerners use it.
This PowerPoint offers much insight into the sort of thinking that has made Islamophobia an acceptable aspect of Western political “discourse.” Throughout history, Americans have castigated particular groups as subhuman. Blacks = apes, Japanese = spies, Jews = swindlers, Latinos = illegals. Now, the boogeyman is “the Muslim” (and/or “the Arab”). The “Arabic mind,” reads one slide, is “swayed more by words than ideas and more by ideas than facts.” Of course, the “Arabic mind” is presumably exceptional in this regard. As we all know, Westerners only believe in facts, unimpeachable facts such as those presented in these slides.
For instance, that the Muslim inclination to terrorism can be determined by a sliding scale. Phrenologists rejoice. There is a helpful scale of tolerance on one slide to help determine whether one’s interrogation subject is a mild-mannered “Shaffii” (rated as most tolerant) or a sinister, suicide-bombing “Salafi Jihadi” (rated as least tolerant, with a helpful snapshot of a bearded man wearing a skullcap for profiling purposes!).
The irony is that in casting hundreds of millions of people as potential oppressors and villains, the Islamophobes are aping the “Islamists” they claim to be the vanguard against. Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Anders Breivik have much in common, as the American right is arguing, though for very different reasons than they suggest – they make an operational link; I’m making a philosophical one.
Actual advocates of Islamist terrorism and the Islamophobic commentators that Breivik latched on to also have a lot in common. Bigotry, incitement to violence and fear mongering are nonsectarian.
On the “Recommended Reading” slide, the Quran is also included, as is Islamist godfather Sayyid Qutb’s seminal anti-Western screed, Milestones – which is basically like saying an FBI agent could get a good understanding of Christianity just from reading the Bible and former KKK leader David Duke’s Jewish Supremacisim (or that Judaism can be boiled down to a reading of the Torah and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).
Of course, that is the general formula one sees by the detractors of any ideology: pick a main text, and then take an extreme “derivative” of it and paint that extremism as the norm. It’s very effective – for one thing, it’s not mentally taxing – and it makes someone who is appreciably (or not appreciably) different easier to hate. Islamophobia plays on conformation biases and self-pity – as Antiwar Radio’s Justin Raimondo suggests, just go look at the Book of “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” from the neoconservative bible Project for a New American Century, for a relevant example – one especially relevant because of the imagining of the West against the rest (but specifically the Muslim rest). Blending together a visibly outsider (Muslims) with a populist fervor (anti-elitism) into a political package is a surefire way to win at the polls – or at least make a statement people won’t soon forget.
One can only hope that the FBI is getting better intelligence these days from its PowerPoints. But hope (or fact) is often sadly overrated in the face of fear.
Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.