The nationwide “March Against Sharia” rallies on June 10, 2017, brought an unholy alliance of far-right actors into the streets. While normally many of them would not be seen in the same room with each other, these different factions were drawn together by their mutual hatred of Muslims. Nazis and right-wing Zionists, LGBTQ activists and right-wing paramilitaries, “alt-lite” teens and hardened racist skinheads all took to the streets.
While the left was quick to loudly oppose the march, it has been slower to try and understand the changing role that Islamophobia is playing on the US far right. Islamophobia is increasingly uniting formerly disparate factions. It is more socially acceptable than anti-Semitism while still demonizing a minority group. Plus, its ostensible emphasis on religion is a way to avoid specifically naming race.
The rally was sponsored by the Islamophobic group ACT for America. The rally’s description said it was “In memory and support of victims of FGM [female genital mutilation], honor killings, and violence toward the LGBT community in the name of religion, culture or foreign law.” However, this was no gathering of human rights activists. Instead, it was a call for a range of (frequently misogynistic) far-right actors to shamelessly rally under a pretext of defending human rights.
These included fascists from groups like Identity Evropa, Vanguard America and Keystone State Skinheads; Islamophobic vigilantes like Soldiers of Odin; the Proud Boys, an alt-right fight club; the neo-confederate League of the South; and a variety of Patriot movement paramilitaries, including the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and local militia groups. A handful of right-wing Zionists, as well as LGBTQ people, including the rally’s national organizer Scott Presler, participated. The spectacle of right-wing Zionists in the street with Holocaust deniers, and LGBTQ people with rightist paramilitaries, is not one often seen.
Although, since February 2017 many of the same actors had come out to supposed “free speech” events — really a cover for ultra-nationalist rallies — the March Against Sharia was an even broader coalition, with more mainstream reach. And it congealed around an issue with staying power which has made its way into the mainstream discourse.
Zainab Arain, coordinator of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told Truthout this march is part of a third wave of US Islamophobia. The first emerged after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the second with the 1991 Gulf War, and the third with 9/11 and continuing since. But Arain said the recent marches were “the most striking examples of Islamophobic and far-right groups working together” that she had seen. In the past, differences over questions of race, LGBTQ people, Jews and foreign policy split these groups. Now, they have a firm common ground. Partly this is because Islamophobia acts as a replacement for (or an addition to) anti-Semitic and anti-Communist conspiracy theories that have long been core beliefs on the right.
Like other conspiracy theories, Islamophobic ones often morph quickly as they adapt to fit new developments into their narrative. As Thomas Cincotta shows in Manufacturing the Muslim Menace, some of the most frequent themes of recent years are Islamophobes demonizing Muslims as a foreign “other” that exist both outside the US, and as an unassimilable group inside of it. Islam is said not to be a religion at all, but rather a political ideology that seeks to dominate all cultures, either by force or subversion. US Muslims are portrayed as a fifth column who have infiltrated major institutions — including academia and the military — in order to replace the Constitution with Sharia law. Sleeper cells exist in the federal government (this is related to why former president Barack Obama was constantly accused of being a secret Muslim). And all Muslims are seen as potential terrorists, and all mosques are suspected enemy bases.
As with any good conspiracy theory, a circular logic insulates Islamophobes from criticism. When Muslims try to resist oppression using legal means, Islamophobes claim this is “lawfare” — an attempt to subvert the judicial system. When Islamophobes are called out for their bigotry, they claim that the left, which they paint as “in” on the conspiracy, uses “political correctness” to silence them. Lindsay Schubiner at the Center for New Community told Truthout that US Islamophobes have imported apocalyptic fears of looming disaster from their European cousins, who “warn, outrageously, that Europe has already been lost to multiculturalism and advocate for closing the door to immigrants to preserve so-called Western civilization.”
Islamophobia is important to the far right because it can fill the same political role as the old anti-Semitic narratives, and draw on the same emotional power — but it is far more socially acceptable and appeals to a larger audience. For example, in some parts of the far right, Muslims have replaced Jews as a feared unassimilable religious minority that seeks to undermine the moral fabric of our society. Muslims are also perceived by many on the right to be lower on the socioeconomic ladder than US Jews, and therefore an easier target.
These Islamophobic narratives also update 1950s anti-Communist conspiracy theories — especially the notion that the major US institutions are controlled by a foreign fifth column — with a new enemy. The two get combined as well. While anti-Semites have long claimed a “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy was at work, today, Islamophobes see a “Marxist-Islamic” conspiracy.
Islamophobia crops up in parts of the far right that people frequently overlook. For example, there is intense and widespread Islamophobia among the heavily armed Patriot movement. As I documented in Up in Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement, well-known Islamophobic organizers were among the armed paramilitaries led by Ammon Bundy, who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in January 2016. They included John Ritzheimer, who just months before had organized a global rally targeting Muslims; and Blaine Cooper, who filmed himself wrapping pages of the Koran in bacon and setting them on fire. Additionally, the 3% of Idaho, a paramilitary group which came to Oregon to help protect the occupiers from being attacked by law enforcement, had previously organized anti-Syrian refugee rallies in Idaho.
Islamophobia is also a way to express white nationalist ideals while avoiding explicit appeals to race, since it is cloaked as a criticism of a religion — even though its targets are overwhelmingly people of color. It is similar to, and has a large crossover with, the anti-immigrant movement. For example, one conspiracy theory is that ISIS sleeper cells sneak into the US through border towns controlled by Mexican drug cartels. And panic over Syrian refugees being secret terrorists combines both anti-immigrant and Islamophobic narratives.
But Islamophobia is more than coded white nationalism — or, at least, there are other parts of the movement as well. These include the participation of people that white nationalist movements are usually allergic to — including people of color, immigrants, ex-Muslims, Jews and/or LGBTQ people. For example, in Toronto, Canada, Islamophobic groups include vigilante street patrol group Soldiers of Odin, which was started by Finnish neo-Nazis, who can be found next to the Jewish Defense League and Hindu nationalists.
In the heavily armed Patriot movement, Islamophobia looks like it has basically replaced the role that antisemitism played in the 1990s militias. But others, including neo-Nazis and the “alt-right,” espouse both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at the same time. And to make matters even more jumbled, a common Islamophobic position is to support Israel, which in their view is the frontline against the Muslim world, while also using thinly-veiled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, such as “cultural Marxism.”
Islamophobic conspiracy theories are not new in the US, and the left is aggressive about opposing them. But it needs to think about their changing function on the far right. Islamophobic rallies which include people of color, Jews and LGBTQ people are not as easy to dismiss as those solely made up of openly white supremacist groups — even if their racial politics end up the same in the wash. It is also necessary to cultivate subtlety and discernment in order to walk the line of supporting the struggles of LGBTQ people in Muslim-majority countries, while also opposing the US’s homegrown Islamophobes. The left has made a good start, but there is more work to be done. In order to confront the current wave of Islamophobia, it is crucial to understand how different far-right groups are deploying it as a unifying tool — and how this affects the growth of the far right as a whole.