Conservative Jihad

Call it the theology of Grover Norquist.

"The other side isn't stupid; they're evil," Norquist, chair of Americans for Tax Reform and board member of the American Conservative Union, told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. Norquist's approach to conservatism is inclusive -- as long as you want to crush liberals, you're welcome to the party.

This particular party, CPAC, is the ACU's annual gathering of more than 10,000 conservative activists in Washington, D.C. A cross between a comic-book convention and a political conference, CPAC is a place where Ron Paul is treated like Jay-Z, where bow-tied college Republicans rub shoulders with their idols, and where prospective presidential candidates come to persuade the faithful of their Ronald Reagan-like bona fides.

Norquist is perhaps most famous for saying, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." The problem is that his fellow conservatives aren't satisfied with just drowning the government -- they want to throw gays, Muslims, and immigrants into the bathtub, too.

It was Norquist's willingness to welcome gays and Muslims into conservatism's big tent that got him in trouble at CPAC this year. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the Tea Party's man in the Senate, boycotted the conference over the inclusion of GOProud, a gay Republican group. Other religious-right Republicans followed suit, despite GOProud's relatively moderate approach to the seminal gay-rights issue of same-sex marriage -- all it asks is that states not ban the practice. (Members of the John Birch Society were there, too. No one seemed inclined to boycott because of their presence.)

But the gays were soon eclipsed as the most immediate threat when conservatives identified a different bogeyman: the Muslim Brotherhood. Most Americans recently heard of the Brotherhood in the context of Egypt's political upheaval. For years, though, conservatives have told intrigue-filled tales of the Brotherhood's secret "stealth jihad" to subvert the Constitution and implement Taliban-style Islamic law in the United States. The conspiracy theory derives largely from a single document written by a Muslim brother who wanted to enlist mainstream American Muslim organizations in a campaign to establish an Islamic state in the West. Those groups were listed as "unindicted co-conspirators" in a terrorism -- financing case, and despite the fact that they were never convicted of wrongdoing or proved complicit in the scheme outlined in the memo, the Islamophobic right now considers the organizations on the list to be "Muslim Brotherhood front groups."

George W. Bush's declarations that Islam is a "religion of peace" kept the right's Islamophobes in check in the years following September 11. But in the Obama era, Republicans have welcomed the fringe into their midst. Norquist's big-tent approach to conservatism implicated him in the conspiracy. Now, Brotherhood agents aren't just operating in the U.S. -- CPAC itself has been infiltrated.

Norquist, who is married to a Kuwaiti American woman and helped facilitate Bush's outreach to the American Muslim Community after 9/11, has long been a target of the right's Muslim-haters. He points out that their concerns about religious takeover aren't exactly original. "What's interesting is how little is changed. You read the books from the 1960s about how the Catholic Church is trying to take over the United States," Norquist says, pointing out that Jews were once associated with communist conspiracies. "Each of the immigrant groups has gone through it before; we'll go through it again."

Norquist wasn't the only target of conspiracy theorists. His fellow ACU board member Suhail Khan is a longtime conservative activist, a former adviser to George W. Bush, and a Muslim. His and Norquist's affiliation with CPAC prompted Frank Gaffney, a Reagan defense official who has made a career of warning that the U.S. government is controlled by stealth Islamists, to tell anyone who would listen that the conference had been "infiltrated." Muslim radicals taking over panel discussions -- why hasn't Michael Bay made this movie yet?

Khan's panel on religious liberty was held in a small room nestled in a far corner of the hotel. As the audience trickled in, one of the panelists remarked, "You gotta have a lot of energy to find this place." Despite the expertise of the panelists, all of whom had extensive experience in government, just 25 people were in the room. Several had joined the audience for only one reason: to confront Khan over his alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The panel was interrupted three times by bloggers and activists demanding to know about Khan's Islamist ties. One determined audience member stood and read a terse summary of the charges against Khan from a worn spiral notebook. "They proved in federal court that organizations that your parents helped found are fronts for the Muslim Brothers," he said. "The Brotherhood's goal is to 'destroy the United States from within by its own hands.'"

Khan replied angrily, "I'm not associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, or anything else. I can tell you about the Republican Party." He told the audience that the people making accusations, anti-Muslim conservative bloggers like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, "are not part of the conservative movement."

But the conservative grass roots voted with their feet. Following Khan's sparsely attended panel, nearly 500 people crammed into a small room in the same hotel, where Geller and Spencer held their own "unofficial CPAC" event, screening a trailer for their "documentary," The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks. Clearly, conservatives were more interested in hearing Geller and Spencer discuss why they should hate Muslims than in listening to establishment Republicans make the case for welcoming Muslims into the party.

Spencer, author of the blog "Jihad Watch," and Geller spun an elaborate tale about Muslims trying to destroy the country from within by building places of worship. "People will say America is weak, America is conquered, America is ripe for the plucking," Spencer told the crowd. "This mosque will be the single most encouraging development for the Islamic jihad since 9/11 itself, and this is why it's the second wave." On Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda killed more than 3,000 people. This time, according to Spencer, they'll settle for hurting our feelings.

Geller and Spencer insist that moderate Muslims don't exist. "We've been waiting for them to speak up," Spencer says. "They don't exist." Maybe he got lost trying to find Khan's panel.

In fairness, though, Khan would never identify as a moderate. "I'm not a moderate Muslim; I'm a mainstream Muslim," Khan says. In Spencer, Geller, and Gaffney's conservative movement, there might not even be room for those.

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