Politics

The Islamophobia Machine: Tracing Why South Carolina Is Pushing A Bill To Ban Sharia

As ThinkProgress has documented, a small, highly organized coalition of right-wing groups have sponsored legislation in over a dozen states to eradicate the non-existent threat of Islamic Sharia law. To gain an understanding of what is going on in these sharia-banning states, ThinkProgress chose to examine South Carolina’s efforts in detail. Although the state’s former attorney general and local legal experts said they have never heard of Sharia being used in state courts, the legislation still has a good chance of passing.

The South Carolina bill to ban Sharia has roots far removed from the Palmetto State, in places like Florida, New York City, and Arizona. And the political impetus for the legislation began a year prior to its introduction, with the sweeping anti-Muslim hysteria that began in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections:

— 2009-2010: ACT! For America, the Florida-based group formed by “radical Islamophobe” Brigitte Gabriel, began developing a presence in South Carolina. In January of 2010, ACT sponsored its first grassroots training session in South Carolina for local activists to learn how to mobilize against Muslim Americans. Brian Treacy — a local blogger who writes under the name “Us Or Them” and who has called for segregating Muslims to stop an Islamic “demographic conquest” — was recruited as a local ACT chapter leader for the Hilton Head area. Other chapters were formed in Charleston, Greenville, and Myrtle Beach.

— July 2010: Billboards popped up around South Carolina depicting a masked man next to the words: “Islam Rising Be Warned.” The ads are sponsored by the Christian Action Network, a radical-right group.

— September 2010: After the height of protests against the proposed Park 51 community center in Manhattan, ThinkProgress interviewed several anti-Muslim activists at the WorldNetDaily conference in Miami. One strategist behind the demonstrations against Park 51, William Murray, told us that he had met with Republican members of Congress (via the Values Action Team weekly meetings on Capitol Hill) to plan the next phase of his movement. Murray said the popularity of the Oklahoma ballot initiative had encourage him and his cohorts to push new anti-Sharia efforts on the state-level the following year.

— October 2010: An Islamic Center in Florence is defaced with strips of bacon forming the words “pig” and “chump.”

— January 2011: State Sen. Mike Fair (R-SC) and State Rep. Wendy Nanney (R-SC) introduced legislation to ban Sharia in South Carolina. The bills (House version, Senate version) are nearly identical to draft legislation produced by Arizona-based attorney David Yerushalmi. As Salon’s Justin Elliott has reported, Yerushalmi’s draft legislation is the basis for most of the anti-Sharia measures around the country. Yerushalmi has also gone on record calling Muslims “our enemies,” and is affiliated with a group that calls for arresting people who even sympathize with the religion.

— January-February 2011: The Alliance Defense Fund, Family Security Matters, and other neoconservative/Christian-right groups e-mailed action alerts promoting the South Carolina bill. ACT chapter leader Brian Treacy writes a letter to the editor defending the effort and organizes new meetings to mobilize activists around the bill.

— March 2011: ACT blasted its list with a request for activists to call South Carolina legislators and voice their support for the Sharia-banning bill.

— March-April 2011: The anti-Sharia bill moved through committee, while Politico reported that the issue may affect the Republican presidential primary given South Carolina’s position as an early primary state. Notably, candidates like Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain use increasingly bigoted language to demagogue Muslims, with Cain even refusing to consider a Muslim American in his administration. Meanwhile, experts tell state legislators that Sharia has never even been used in state courts. A DVD from the same group sponsoring anti-Muslim billboards in South Carolina was on Fair’s desk at the time we interviewed him.

— May 2011: State Sen. Mike Fair (R-SC) spoke with ThinkProgress, and explained to us that he was motivated by a fear of Muslim terrorists and American public facilities becoming too accommodating to Muslim Americans. He also explained that he had read information from Frank Gaffney, a leader in the anti-Muslim world, and attended conferences with ACT for America leader Brigitte Gabriel. Chris Slick, the ACT Director of Online Operations, had coordinated between Fair’s office and ACT, Fair told us.

This timeline does not factor in one of the most important cogs in the anti-Muslim hate machine — the media (from Fox News to hate bloggers to local radio). However, it provides some understanding of how well-funded Islamophobes like Gaffney and Gabriel have successfully orchestrated a national movement centered on demonizing and marginalizing Muslims. Anti-Muslim forces can manufacturer outrage by supplying lawmakers like Fair and Nanney with ready-made legislation, activists, and political support to, as one South Carolina blogger described it, “chase votes” using an “imaginary boogeyman.”