In the wake of revelations that the NYPD had been engaged in an unprecedented campaign of spying on the lives of average Muslim Americans in the New York and New Jersey areas, a campaign which was not based on any specific suspicion of wrongdoing. The campaign consisted of meticulously documenting every Muslim owned school and business in the NY-NJ area, and even went as far as infiltrating a whitewater rafting trip and recording the number of times each one of the rafters prayed.
A few lone voices from the Muslim community came out in support of the NYPD’s efforts. At a sparsely attended March rally, a little over a dozen purported “leaders” of the American Muslim community came out to make known their support for the NYPD’s violation of their community’s constitutional rights. Chief among these individuals was Zuhdi Jasser, head of an organization called the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) who said of the rally, “We are not here to criticize the NYPD” and “We just want the media reports to finally show balance, that there’s diversity, that some Muslims don’t have a problem with this.” The only problem with this proclamation is that the supposed diversity of opinion among Muslims on whether they are entitled to live without unconstitutional surveillance of their daily lives is nonexistent.
Jasser’s organization is a completely astroturf production which boasts no prominent members other than himself. He is also the lone figure leading another organization supposedly representative of American Muslims, the “American Islamic Leadership Coalition” (AILC), which according to its website boasts only 12 members several of whom are notably not American.
So sparse is the support for these organizations, all lead by Jasser, that he must actually import Muslim supporters from Canada to buttress the claim that he has any support at all. Among them is Canadian talk show host Tarek Fatah, whose claim to fame previously had been to accuse the Toronto Police Department of being “overrun by Islamists” for declining to press criminal charges against a 15-year old girl who had aggressively Tweeted him.
At the New York rally, Fatah, a Canadian, loudly and without irony proclaimed his fealty to the American “government and its police forces” embarrassingly forgetting that he is both a citizen and resident of a foreign country to whom his loyalty should legitimately be due. Fatah himself is the founder of a similarly marginal organization in Canada called the Muslim Canadian Congress whose scarcely updated website shows a little over a dozen members but which is nevertheless feted with attention by right-wing media and politicians looking for pliant Muslims to legitimize their beliefs and policies.
That Jasser, despite being the leader of not one but two American-Muslim “organizations” was so hard pressed to produce supporters at his barely-attended New York rally, that he felt compelled to import Canadians such as Fatah, is indicative of the deep insincerity of his claims to be a representative voice for Muslim-Americans.
Instead of legitimate grassroots support, what Mr. Jasser and his groups have is the backing of wealthy donors with ideological motives that are widely viewed as bigoted towards Muslims. Among his donors are the Center for Security Policy headed by Frank Gaffney (a Reagan-era military official who has gone on the record with his belief that American Muslims are plotting a “stealth jihad” to overthrow the U.S. constitution and replace it with Sharia law), the Aish Hatorah affiliated Clarion Fund (creator of the infamous bigoted anti-Muslim film “Obsession”), and conservative ideologue Foster Friess who was also the major financial force between Rick Santorum’s now defunct Republican presidential nomination campaign.
While Jasser refuses to divulge the exact figures that he has received from these sources he acknowledges they are his donors and it is known Friess along gave $70,000 for a single AIFD event in 2010. What is conspicuous among Jasser’s financial backers is that nearly none of them are Muslims themselves, they instead primarily constitute those who generally define themselves in opposition to the Muslim American community.
Jasser’s claim to be a representative of American Muslims comes across as comically absurd when the fact is noted that his funding and support is based almost entirely upon the backing of Islamophobic individuals and organizations
Despite the overt inauthenticity of Jasser’s claims to be a community leader, he has recently won the backing of Republicans Mitch McConnell & Dick Durbin to be appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a move which has continued despite the overwhelming outrage of American Muslims themselves who have vocally rejected the premise that Jasser and his organizations are a legitimate voice for their community. A petition denouncing the appointment has garnered over 3000 signatures from prominent members of the Muslim community but has not forestalled Jasser’s farcical appointment to the position.
Groups such as Jasser’s AIFD and AILC are a manifestation of the time-honoured political strategy of astroturf advocacy; giving the veneer of grassroots support to an agenda which in reality supports narrow political and ideological interests.
Extreme right-wing groups with an explicitly bigoted anti-Muslim agenda are using individuals such as Jasser to give the impression that there is legitimate debate among Muslims as to whether they themselves are entitled to the same constitutional rights as their fellow citizens.
The creation of hollow and disingenuous organizations such as the AIFD are simply a means to an end of achieving this goal, and in no way, are representative of the sentiment of the majority of Muslim-Americans. While he and his tiny cadre of Muslim “leaders” are a staple on right-wing cable talk shows as well as the darlings of openly anti-Muslim U.S. politicians such as Peter King (the chair of the infamous “King Hearings”, an inquisition into the American Muslim community) they are not in fact leaders in any sense of the term and are justifiably viewed as tools in the hands of those who wish to marginalize Muslim-Americans and deny them their equal rights as citizens under the constitution.
Jasser and his astroturf groups do not speak for Muslims and represent a dangerous attempt to circumvent democracy by giving the appearance of debate where there is none; utilizing a token Muslim spokesperson to act as the mouthpiece for some of the most extremely anti-Muslim views in the country.
Murtaza Hussain is a writer and a frequent commentator on issues related to politics and foreign policy. His writings appeared in Salon.com, al-Jazeera English and other online media outlets. He maintains a blog at mazhussain.wordpress.com