ACT for America has an agenda for Congress

Labeling a Muslim

ACT for America, an activist group opposing “radical Islam,”1 is pushing a ten-point agenda for the 112th Congress.

Let’s take a look.

1. Banning shariah: “Reaffirm the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land, and oppose the application of or accomodations to shariah law, which conflicts with the U.S. Constitution.”

This item depends on two myths: first, that shariah is a barbarous medieval law code at odds with American law and values; and second, that Muslims are committed to forcing non-Muslims to submit to shariah, as part of their evil plan for world domination.

American Muslims are concerned, because a shariah ban would limit their freedom of religion. Specifically, Muslims have particular ways of getting married, borrowing money, making wills, and burying the dead. A shariah ban would make these practices invisible in a court of law, while the practices of other religious minorities remained protected.

This is why, after Oklahoma voters approved a shariah ban in November 2009, a federal court quickly annulled the ban as a violation of the First Amendment.

So there’s a rich irony to linking a shariah ban with “reaffirm[ing] the U.S. Constitution.” I suspect that ACT leaders know that a shariah ban can never be enacted by Congress, and if it did happen, the ban would not pass muster with the Supreme Court.

So why do they bother? Perhaps it’s because making noise about shariah serves to increase fear of a Muslim threat, along with alarm that the government might not be doing enough to protect us.

2. Defense spending: “Support a strong national defense, including a comprehensive missile defense, and the elimination of wasteful spending that weakens our defense.”

It’s hard to see how supporting a comprehensive missile defense is compatible with eliminating wasteful defense spending. Missile defense is arguably the most lavishly wasteful, least effective defense program in history.

Of course, in Washington it’s taboo to talk about cutting defense spending. But the tea party movement, in its drive to cut government waste, has sensibly turned its sights on the defense budget — our largest budget category, with a history of overspending, pork-barrel inefficiency, and revolving-door corruption between the Pentagon and defense contractors. So the next Congress must pay lip service, at least, to cutting waste in the defense budget.

As for what missile defense has to do with “radical Islam” — haven’t you heard? Iran is on the verge of having the capacity to generate material that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. It’s only a short step from there to having an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles! They’ll blow us all up if we don’t do something!

Or maybe that’s just a little overstated.

3. Immigration: “Support a secure border and the effective tracking of all non-U.S. citizens who enter the country legally through our various visa programs.”

“Effective” tracking of all non-U.S. citizens? Really? Effective tracking implies intrusiveness into the business of all foreign visitors. To me that sounds like a formula for prohibitive expense, expansion of bureaucracy, and a chill on international relations. Hard to sell during a period of concern about government spending, the deficit, and a weak economy.

In practice, I expect Royal Dutch Shell executives will continue to face considerably less scrutiny than, say, Muslim students. So again, the point seems to be, not to change policy, but to sound an alarm about Muslims.

4. Muslim Brotherhood: “Support the severing of official ties between all U.S. government entities and groups/organizations which have been identified by the Department of Justice as being connected to or affiliated with the international Muslim Brotherhood.”

This item targets mainstream Islamic organizations such as CAIR and ISNA, which denounce terrorism and teach tolerance, often in partnership with Christians, Jews, and non-Muslim government officials. ACT literature echoes rightist claims that these organizations — in fact, all American Muslim organizations that seem effective enough to influence policy makers — are actually Islamist front groups that support Mideast extremists and hate Western civilization.

The “international Muslim Brotherhood” would be the militant cabal that directs their every move. Probably from a secret fortress in the Arabian desert.

5. Terminology: “Support the reinstatement of terms such as ‘jihadist,’ ‘radical Islam,’ and ‘Islamist’ in our government’s national security lexicon, in order to accurately identify the enemy we are facing.”

This item assumes our national security would somehow be enhanced by insisting that our enemies have a kind of religious authority over other Muslims.

It reminds me of the way al-Qaeda statements rant about the “Jews and crusaders.” The men who write that language assume that it “accurately identif[ies] the enemy [they] are facing.” What they don’t realize (or don’t care about) is that Americans, for the most part, have positive associations with both Jews and the idea of a crusade. Using the words as insults only gives an impression of angry irrationality.

When we insist on linking al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists to the words “Islam” and “jihad,” we are making the same mistake: describing people we say we want to isolate from Muslims with terms that have positive associations for Muslims, if not for us. It’s especially confusing in light of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims think al-Qaeda makes a travesty of Islam. Don’t we agree with them? So why don’t we act like it?

In the National Security Strategy published in May 2010, the Obama administration decided to stop using the terms “jihad” and “Islam” in association with terrorists and extremists. The point they made is that these fringe fanatics have no claim to the authority of Islam, or of any other religion.

ACT for America wants to reverse that decision. It’s hard to understand why, unless their intent is to collaborate with al-Qaeda in trying to instigate a worldwide clash of civilizations.

6. Refugee oath: “Support amending our humanitarian refugee laws to require that any refugee from another country seeking entrance into America swear under oath they will not support any theological totalitarian political system to replace our constitutional system of government, and that any refugee who so swears and later is found to have violated this oath can be deported.”

This is just embarrassing.

In the 1800s the anti-American political religion was Roman Catholicism, the faith of all those despised Irish, Italian, and German immigrants. Then it was Mormonism. In the 1900s it was Judaism, until the Nazi genocide shocked us out of it.

Now, apparently, it’s Islam. This agenda item is just an attempt to smear Islam, and to make it possible to chuck Muslim immigrants out of the country for being Muslim. The next step will be to try the same trick on Muslim citizens.

7. Foreign agents: “Support the full enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, to ensure accurate and timely public disclosure of receipt of foreign funds by U.S. entities which attempt to influence public policy and the political process.”

The Foreign Agents Registration Act, passed in 1938 and signed into law by FDR, requires that all lobbyists or agents seeking to influence U.S. policy on behalf of a foreign government register with the Department of Justice, in order that their affiliation can be publicly known. Congress wrote the law out of concern about pro-German propagandists working for the Hitler regime.

Critics complain that the law is selectively enforced, and Justice officials admit that they often work with violators on the assumption that no harm was intended. A key reason for this approach is that the department’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit is underfunded, to the point of being unable to perform basic functions. To no one’s surprise, then, the Foreign Agents Registration Act tends to be invoked only against politically unpopular governments. The last “successful criminal prosecution” under this act was in 1966, according to the DOJ.

The law is the law, and it ought to be fully enforced. The public could benefit from having access to information about K Street influence on national politics and foreign affairs. The trouble, of course, will come in trying to persuade a spending-averse Congress to fully fund the anemic Foreign Agent Registration Unit.

There’s another roadblock: One of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has managed to avoid having to register its employees as foreign agents — even after AIPAC was found in 2004 to have been passing classified U.S. documents to Israel.

Charges against two AIPAC employees were dismissed. As long as AIPAC continues to hold Congress by the short hairs, good luck with getting this law enforced.

I suppose it might be possible to get it selectively enforced against Muslims.

8. Gitmo prison camp: “Oppose the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility and the transfer of enemy combatants detained there to the United States.”

Barack Obama pledged to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base as soon as he took office. As soon as President Obama ordered the prison closed and the detainees moved to the united States for trial, the Republican fear machine drummed up a massive freak-out that would have embarrassed a four-year-old. And the White House backed down.

The prison camp, which began receiving Afghani detainees in January 2002, represents an effort by the Bush administration to get around the Geneva Conventions that define how civilized nations treat prisoners of war. Federal judges placed limits on what the White House could get away with, and rightists have been whining ever since that the United States can only remain safe and free by denying freedoms to foreigners defined as “enemy combatants.”

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda propagandists adore Guantanamo Bay. It’s one of the chief exhibits in their case that America is the satanic enemy of all Muslims. The longer we leave it open, the more recruits we invite to enlist for the jihad against America.2

In December, Obama signed an order to close Gitmo and move all detainees to a federal prison in Thomson, Illinois.

That’s what ACT for America wants to reverse. Because while it’s unclear how detaining “enemy combatants” at a federal prison makes us any less safe, it’s perfectly clear how detaining them at Gitmo antagonizes Muslims throughout the world, making it more likely that they’ll go ahead and make our day.

Pardon my sarcasm. It’s about to get worse.

9. Military tribunals: “Support the trial of enemy combatants in military tribunals rather than federal civilian criminal courts.”

That’s right! Because Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is a supervillain with the power to destroy any American city he sets foot in, even if he’s in leg irons. He can use ESP to summon an army of flying suicide bombers who will all explode at the same time, reducing New York to a pile of ashes!

There’s a gazillion-dollar high-tech Marine force field around Guantanamo Bay that makes it impossible for the 9/11 mastermind to use his powers there. But if we ever let him off the island — look out, America!

That’s why we have to break our own laws, shun the Geneva Conventions, and deny legal protections that we even extended to captured Nazis. It’s because the Nazis may have been evil men, but they weren’t super-evil supervillains. With superpowers.

10. Finance: “Support congressional hearings to determine whether or not Shariah-Compliant Finance instruments violate federal securities, banking, and/or anti-terrorism statutes.”

“Shariah-compliant finance”? Sounds scary! Is that where they stone you to death if you miss a mortgage payment?

Well, no, it isn’t. In the real world, finance is “shariah-compliant” when it abides by Islamic ethical guidelines.

For example, lenders cannot receive interest on a loan. The lender can profit, but he must share risk and rewards with the borrower, as in a business partnership. Trades can only be of real assets, never of debt. You’re not allowed to profit by cornering the supply of a public good, like water.

Some of these rules can also be found in the Bible, but they no longer guide Western financial practice. Even in majority-Muslim countries, the financial sector operates mostly by Western secular rules. The Economist recently estimated that Islamic finance accounts for about 0.5 percent of the global financial industry. But that share is growing.

Because shariah forbids trading in so-called toxic assets, international shariah-compliant banks weathered the financial crisis with little or no damage. Deutsche Bank is now one of the world’s top issuers of a kind of shariah-compliant bond called a sukuk. Western corporations are beginning to issue their own sukuks (as well as conventional bonds) to raise capital. They perform well. You can trade sukuks on the London Stock Exchange.

Although Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, there’s a small market for shariah-compliant finance here, and U.S. corporations have acted to supply it. You might think Republicans would be in favor of letting that market grow without government interference, but in this case you’d be wrong.

If it’s Muslim, it must be dangerous, right? Peter King, the new chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, already promises hearings on what he calls the “radicalization of the American Muslim community,” which he believes is crawling with “homegrown terrorists.”

So it should be easy as pie to get shariah-compliant finance hearings onto Chairman King’s calendar. It’s less likely that any of the self-styled experts who testify will be Muslims who actually provide or use sharia-compliant financial instruments. It’s much more fun to listen to courageous reform-minded ex-Muslims talking about the many things that are wrong with Islam.

Scorecard: For a national security agenda, the ACT for America list is strangely short on proposals that would actually enhance our security. Several proposals appear to be designed to humiliate American Muslims, alienate them from other Americans, and encourage all Americans to believe there is an “irrepressible conflict” between Islam and the West that can only be resolved through violence.

This is stupid, vicious, treacherous doctrine that is grounded in fantasy. That’s why I believe that voters and their representatives in Congress will reject it.

The only reason it gets any traction at all is that many Americans have never knowingly met a Muslim. All they know about them is what they gather over cable news and the Internet.3

Demagoguery is lucrative, and hatred can be addictive, so ACT for America is not going to just disappear. But it just may be that the 2010 elections were the high point for this particular brand of neighbor-hating sanctimony.

We can hope.


Notes
1 In their own words: “ACT for America is an issues advocacy organization dedicated to effectively organizing and mobilizing the most powerful grassroots citizen action network in America, a grassroots network committed to informed and coordinated civic action that will lead to public policies that promote America’s national security and the defense of American democratic values against the assault of radical Islam.” 
2 Books, documentaries, and movies about the camp have also tarnished America’s image throughout the world. Detainees included noncombatants, citizens of Western nations, and a journalist. The Bush administration failed to even keep complete files on detainees, a peculiar omission no matter how you look at it. History will not be kind to the Gitmo camp or the people involved with it. Some innocent detainees have, since their release, written about their confinement and mistreatment. American critics have scorched the government’s “habeas shmabeas” approach to fundamental human rights. In case the documented abuses were not enough, moviemakers in Iran and India have sensationalized the plight of Gitmo prisoners captured by American villains. 
3 I’ll even generalize that anxiety about Muslims is much greater among white Americans than among blacks, as the latter group includes many more people who are either Muslim themselves or have Muslim relatives — often second- or third-generation Muslims. It’s much more difficult to believe that Muslims are conspiring to overthrow our way of life if you have an Aunt Amina and Uncle Abdullah at your family reunion. 

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