One of the more effective ways that peddlers of anti-Muslim bigotry have found to appear objective and disinterested to the public is to present themselves as academics and part of think tanks. Perhaps there is no better example of this than Daniel Pipes and the Middle East Forum.
Recall that on July 22, 2011, the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik (who has since changed his name to Fjotolf Hansen) killed eight people by detonating a bomb in Oslo. He then shot 69 others dead. While many major newspapers were busy speculating about his potential “jihadist” motivation, Breivik’s actual motives were clearly outlined in a 1,500-page manifesto in which he expressed his hatred for Islam and called for all Muslims to be deported from Europe. His attacks were meant as a way of drawing attention to his extremist manifesto.
One of the sources cited for “information,” which helped shaped Breivik’s murderous worldview, as it was outlined in his manifesto, was the Middle East Forum (MEF). It was cited 18 times. The MEF is a self-styled think tank that was founded by Daniel Pipes in 1990, and has been registered as a tax-exempt non-profit organization in the US since 1994. Its stated mission is to promote American interests in the Middle East and protect Western values from “Middle Eastern threats.” The organization regularly publishes articles and reports providing commentary on developments in the Muslim East and on Muslim communities in the West. It also publishes an “academic” journal, the Middle East Quarterly.
The leader of the MEF’s Dream Team of Islamophobic heavyweights (such as Tarek Fatah) is, of course, Daniel Pipes. His parents separately fled Nazi-occupied Poland; his father reportedly saw Adolf Hitler in person and met his wife in the US, where Pipes was born and raised. He started off with studying mathematics at Harvard University, but in his own words, “I wasn’t smart enough,” so he switched his major to history. His interest in the Muslim world in particular was piqued during his travels in the Muslim East and West Africa in the late-1960s, and he studied in Egypt for several years before returning to the US to complete his PhD. It was during Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the late-1970s that Pipes switched his focus from medieval Islamic history to contemporary Middle Eastern politics.
While his trajectory as an academic up until this point seems fair enough, he himself later stated in an interview with Harvard Magazine that he has “the simple politics of a truck driver, not the complex ones of an academic.” In other words, he is neither interested in appreciating the complexity of the situations he is analyzing, nor in having nuanced discussions about them (please note this writer recognizes that truck drivers are not necessarily any less intelligent or diligent than academics).
Pipes began to discredit himself early on in his career. As early as 1983, Thomas Lippman, an otherwise supportive reviewer (in the Washington Post) of Pipes’ In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power nonetheless had to comment that Pipes displayed “a disturbing hostility to contemporary Muslims” and that his book “is marred by exaggerations, inconsistencies, and evidence of hostility to the subject.”
The deterioration continued and, in 1990, Pipes published an essay alarmingly titled “The Muslims are coming! The Muslims are coming!” in which he cautioned that “Western European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene.” In that same year, Pipes established the MEF and the Middle East Quarterly; notably, this journal was not academically peer-reviewed until 2009, and since then has been peer-reviewed by a carefully selected roster of academics.
Before discussing some of the MEF’s “achievements,” it is important to turn toward the question of who is funding this work. In 2011, the Center for American Progress published a widely-cited report titled Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America. The report identified some major donors to the MEF between 2001 and 2009, including the Donors Capital Fund ($2,300,000), the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation ($305,000), the Newton D. and Rochelle F. Becker foundations and charitable trust ($355,000), the Russell Berrie Foundation (approx. $273,000), the Anchorage Charitable Foundation and William Rosenwald Family Fund (approx. $2,320,000), and the Fairbrook Foundation ($410,000).
While all of these donors require further investigation, especially as they have all funded multiple Islamophobia initiatives in the US, here we can briefly focus on one in particular. The Donors Capital Fund (DCF) essentially distributes charity on behalf of wealthy donors — you have to open a minimum $1 million account to use this service — and based on their preferences. This makes it difficult to trace the identity of the donors, and in fact, the DCF itself clarifies that it was “formed to safeguard the charitable intent of donors” who would like to promote particular values and interests. Interestingly, in addition to funneling over $21 million into Islamophobic efforts in just two years (2007–2009), according to the Guardian the DCF is also known for distributing $120 million between 2002 and 2010 to more than 100 groups that are at various stages of denying climate change.
So what does MEF do with this money? Essentially, it spreads misinformation and highly-skewed analysis on Islam and Muslims. For example, in 2006, Pipes wrote an article on his blog (which is listed on MEF’s website as one of its projects) that in France there are over 750 “no-go zones” which are controlled by Muslims to the extent that French authorities are “no longer in control.” He continued to repeat and defend the lie for nearly a decade, also claiming that these “no-go zones” had spread to other parts of Europe. Another lie that the Harvard-trained academic peddled, in a 2008 article titled “Confirmed: Barack Obama Practiced Islam” was that Obama was a practicing Muslim at some point.
Another of the MEF’s pipe dreams (pun intended) has been to monitor, smear, and intimidate scholars and students who have certain views, particularly views critical of Israel or US foreign policy, through a project called Campus Watch. Launched in 2002, the project initially published dossiers profiling certain professors, but the plan backfired as academics openly requested that they, too, be added to the list of targets. The dossiers were quickly removed, but the project continues to collect information. The following quote from Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi is cited as an example of the types of sentiments Campus Watch monitors, “People near and dear to me, whether they live in downtown Manhattan, in Kandahar, in Ramallah, in Jerusalem, or in Baghdad, are at the mercy of US foreign policies.”
Daniel Pipes is an academic yet started a project to monitor scholars who disagree with his political views. He is the son of parents who narrowly escaped Nazi persecution and yet his own factory for the mass production of hatred, the Middle East Forum, was apparently a key source for the misguidance for Breivik — who, ironically, openly identifies as a neo-Nazi — leading him to commit mass murder. It is difficult to imagine that any sensible person, knowing all this, is left with any respect for Pipes or the MEF, especially when there are many qualified, even-keeled people working diligently to understand and explain the situation in the Muslim East.