The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual three-day parade of GOP presidential hopefuls delivering paeans to God, country and capitalism, was this year embroiled in a full-scale, intra-party religious war. The conservative movement, according to a group of Islamophobic activists, has been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood, which they claim supports Sharia, "a supremacist program that justifies the destruction of Christian churches and parishioners" and "the replacement of our constitutional republic… with a theocratic Islamic caliphate governing according to shari'ah."
That charge came straight out of a flyer handed to me by Krista Hughes, an employee of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), whose president Frank Gaffney is one of the principal ringleaders in the right-wing propaganda campaign to strike fear in Americans' hearts that a fifth column of Muslim extremists seeks to subvert America from within.
At CPAC, Gaffney's chief target is Suhail Khan, a former Republican House staffer, Bush administration political appointee and current senior fellow at an evangelical think tank focused on religious freedom. Khan, a self-described devout Muslim who serves on the board of the American Conservative Union, CPAC's organizer, is a conservative through and through. Raised in the San Francisco Bay area, he told me the atmosphere at UC Berkeley, where he attended college, turned him off and led him to his current political persuasion. But Khan's conservative cred is of no moment to Gaffney, who has waged war against him as well as conservative movement icon Grover Norquist, also an ACU board member, because, Gaffney insists, they are both in league with anti-American Islamists.
Khan, who told me earlier this year that CPAC had shunned Gaffney because he is a "crazy bigot," has withstood a barrage of Gaffney's conspiratorial histrionics, which are reminiscent of the charge by John Birch Society founder Robert Welch that Dwight Eisenhower was a secret communist agent.
CPAC's other religious skirmish flamed over the inclusion, for the second year in a row, of gay conservative group GOProud. The very presence of GOProud led some religious right groups and Christian right hardliners like
Jim DeMint and Mike Huckabee to boycott the conference, laying bare a crack in the Republican party's three-legged stool, with fiscal and national-security conservatives who are generally more tolerant of gays and lesbians pitted against social conservatives who still see opposition to gay rights as a litmus test. The ruckus heated up when GOProud's president Chris Barron called ACU Foundation chair Cleta Mitchell a "nasty bigot" because of her opposition to GOProud. This prompted incoming ACU chair Al Cardenas to distance himself from Barron, potentially spelling the end of the ACU's partnership with GOProud.
While the gays might have been hung out to dry, the ACU board has stood behind Khan. It was Gaffney who wasn't fully welcome at CPAC. Gaffney did make an appearance in the audience at a Saturday afternoon panel called "The Sharia Challenge in the West," where moderator Cliff May of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies promoted a book published by Gaffney's CSP. While that was the only "official" CPAC event with an explicitly anti-Islam agenda, earlier that morning David Horowitz, who was supposed to introduce the panel "Defending Free Speech on Campus," took the opportunity to declare, "Suhail Khan used his offices in the Bush administration, with Grover's support, to carry water for the terrorist Sami al Arian."
Other "unofficial" events included the film The War With No Name, presented by Citizens United and featuring Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista. In the film, the Gingriches warn of the Islamic extremist threat to Western civilization and ask, "How do we win a war with an enemy the Obama administration refuses to identify?" (The film also features interviews with Gaffney.) Anti-Park51 agitators Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who Khan called "purveyors of outright hate," had their own "unofficial" panel where they maintained the building of the "Ground Zero Mosque" was the "second wave of the 9/11 attacks."
Khan, though, was also relegated to an "unofficial" room, where he moderated an interfaith panel of conservatives who argued for more robust advocacy for international religious freedom. There, Krista Hughes and other supporters of Gaffney's campaign came armed with talking points and camcorders, seeking to catch Khan and the other Muslim panelist, Muhamad Elibiary of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, in a gotcha moment of secret caliphate aspirations.
Norquist, too, was on hand, as was his wife, Samah, who is of Palestinian descent and has similarly been a target of accusations that she is a secret "Islamist," which probably explains Norquist's distaste for Gaffney. Norquist and other panelists finally cut off the questioning, which included detailed interrogations based on a dependable right-wing talking points used to try to prove the alleged theocratic ambitions of organizations like the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American Islamic Relations.
Still, the Gaffney-ites weren't satisfied. Hughes told me later, "I just believe there are some hidden agendas that they want to infiltrate our government and that might sound like a conspiracy, but I think it's possible." That radical Islamists are waging a nonviolent war on America, in which they seek to impose a harsh legal code, was the premise of May's panel, and judging from audience questions, CPAC attendees also consider that a possibility.
The divide, it seems, is not simply between Islamophobes and the more open-minded; it's a gaping rift between the right's anti-intellectuals and its elites. Gaffney, popular in religious right and Christian Zionist circles, appeals to Christian Nation absolutists and grassroots activists-constituencies that any Republican candidate needs in order to win the presidential nomination.
Khan, meanwhile, told me he was sought out by Doug Coe, head of The Family, the secretive fundamentalist group which, as Jeff Sharlet reported in his book The Family and C Street, facilitates prayer and meetings for the elite politicians and businessmen that group considers to be Jesus's "key men." Khan said he knew nothing of the group's scandals, and that Coe had sent him Bible verses from Isaiah and Peter I and prayed "that we would get through this." About Coe, Khan said, "he is a true man of faith, a true Christian. I say that as a devout Muslim, he's someone I have the highest amount of respect and love for." Coe, said Khan "is someone walking in the steps of Christ."
When I asked Norquist whether the feud represented a damaging rift between conservatives and the religious right, he twice changed the subject: once, with a disquisition on the history of religious bigotry in America-against Catholics, Mormons and Jews-which he said has faded, portending a similar resolution for Muslims. When I pressed Norquist a second time, he put on his political scientist hat and insisted that the proposed state bans on Sharia law was not a "vote-moving issue," suggesting that a candidate's lack of support for such bans wouldn't, in the end, alienate conservative voters.
Still, though, Ralph Reed, the movement's fallen golden boy whose Faith and Freedom Coalition has put him back on the conservative map, told me, "we certainly want to make sure that we don't have the phenomenon of a terrorist threat from abroad replaced with an indigenous threat from within," adding that his group opposes a Sharia "legal code." And May's Sharia panel, which featured former CIA director James Woolsey, National Review contributor Andrew McCarthy and American Enterprise Institute scholar-activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was far better attended than Khan's own event promoting religious freedom.
I asked Khan and Samah Norquist why their conservative friends, like Gingrich, are hopping on the Islamophobia bandwagon. Both chalked that up to Newt playing politics.
"He belly-danced at your wedding!" Khan reminded Norquist.
"He belly-danced with his wife," she nodded.
As the old Borscht Belt saying goes, with friends like that, who needs enemies?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
By Sarah Posner
Reprinted with permission from The Nation