There has recently been a flurry of activity aimed at shutting down right-wing extremists’ access to public spaces, where they spread hateful rhetoric and then cry “free speech.” In early March, the Canadian government announced a special fund that enabled UOIT, a prominent Canadian university, to research right-wing extremism in the country. In April, Facebook banned multiple popular pages on its platform that were used to spread hateful views, and on the same day the UK government announced a plan to fine or block websites promoting bigotry.
These are all helpful steps, but they are only scratching the surface. Right-wing extremists, who generally figure prominently in the Islamophobia industry, are not simply a hodgepodge of “lone wolf” actors but part of a complex, organized, and well-funded network crisscrossing Europe and North America and inspiring horrific violence around the world.
The hierarchy of the Islamophobia industry can be broken down into the following categories. First there are the funders, those who are eager to invest in spreading hatred and fear but are not capable or interested in doing the “dirty work” themselves. For this they fund the next category, the misinformation experts — people like Daniel Pipes or Robert Spencer who masquerade as “experts” on Islam and present their work as “research.”
Next come the activists, such as Pamela Geller, the poor souls who can’t even pretend to have any understanding of Islam or Muslims and simply amplify the nonsense produced by the misinformation experts. Then there are the validators, the “Muslims” like Tarek Fatah or Maajid Nawaz who lend credence to Islamophobic messages from “the inside.” And finally, there is the echo chamber, including the media, politicians, religious leaders, and grassroots organizations, which actively spread Islamophobia into mainstream society.
Understanding the dynamics of this industry are important for any person or movement making an effort to dismantle it. And the best place to start is in the first category: the funders. These are crucial because those doing the “dirty work” are often low-lives who have no respectable or even sustainable career and little to no means to support themselves. They rely on wealthy patrons to help them in everything from paying their bills to defending themselves in lawsuits and being bailed out of prison.
In recent years they have also begun to rely on crowdfunding and other means of support. This author recently came across one case of a loud and proud Islamophobe living in his girlfriend’s basement. However, large-scale funding continues to drive the industry.
According to a comprehensive report published in 2011 by the Center for American Progress (CAP), the top donors to the Islamophobia industry in the US specifically were the Donors Capital Fund, the Richard Mellon Scaife foundations, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Newton D. and Rochelle F. Becker foundations and charitable trust, the Russell Barrie Foundation, the Anchorage Charitable Foundation and William Rosenwald Family Foundation, and the Fairbrook Foundation. These names may not mean much to many Muslims and their non-Muslim allies, but considering that they collectively put more than $42.5 million into spreading Islamophobia in the first decade of the 21st century, these are names that cannot be ignored.
In his groundbreaking 2012 book The Islamophobia Industry, researcher Nathan Lean built on the findings of the CAP report to provide an example of how the Islamophobia industry can function, especially the flow of funding within it. In 2008, a 77-minute documentary titled Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West was released. Some of the “stars” of this production included Daniel Pipes, Alan Dershowitz, and Steven Emerson, and it was produced by an Israeli-Canadian rabbi, Raphael Shore. While these “dirty workers” may have been proud of their role in the film, the funders were clearly very reluctant to have their names attached to it; one wonders why. The executive producer of the film, Peter Mier, provided 80% of the film’s $400,000 budget. But that is an alias, not his actual name, just like the “name” of the production manager, Brett Halperin.
Distribution of the film was led by the Clarion Project (known at the time as the Clarion Fund), another sketchy organization, of which Raphael Shore just happens to be a founder. The Clarion Project’s “office” in Manhattan is empty; the building in which it is housed is designed to offer a “virtual” official space, complete with an address and phone number, for a mere $79 per month. Shore’s actual office is in Jerusalem, as he leads a number of Zionist initiatives, some of which are clearly right-wing to the extreme.
Using his connections, Shore promoted Obsession in various ways, including billboards, flying banners, and screenings at universities. His efforts were picked up by Christian Zionists, who distributed it among their congregations, and the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), which made it a mission to distribute the movie “to every single congressional office” — an effort that failed spectacularly.
All of this paled in comparison to the Clarion Project’s next move, which came in 2008, just two months before the presidential election. Some 28 million copies of the film were distributed in swing states through special supplements of 74 newspapers, including prominent ones such as the New York Times. This effort to spread Islamophobia (and try to illegally influence the US election), and the other promotions for Obsession before it, cost an estimated $17 million.
Where was all of this money coming from? The Clarion Project remained tight-lipped about giving away any names. Some years later, a Salon journalist came across a document submitted to the IRS by the Clarion Project, which showed that a donor named “Barry Seid” had donated nearly $17 million in 2008. “Barry Seid” did not exist (or match), but Barre Seid, a Chicago millionaire, certainly did. Seid’s assistant denied any donations or links to the Clarion Project, and he could conveniently do so because of the shroud of secrecy offered by the Donors Capital Fund (DCF).
The Donors Capital Fund, you will recall, was the top funder of Islamophobic “dirty work” listed in the CAP report. It is a “donor-advised fund,” meaning that donors can make an account (which requires a minimum investment of $1 million) and instruct the fund to donate a certain amount on their behalf, thus protecting their own identity. In 2009, the DCF disbursed nearly $60 million in funding to mainstream, non-Islamophobic conservative groups, creating an overall clean record in the midst of which, between 2007 and 2009, $21 million could be funneled to Islamophobic groups. This included the generous donation of $17 million from one anonymous donor — possibly Barre Seid, the owner of a business that produces surge protectors — that went to the Clarion Project, just when it was needed to promote Obsession.
This is just one example of an Islamophobic project, and the focus is only on funding. The purpose here is to remind the reader that while the “useful idiots” at the front lines of the Islamophobia industry (that is, on Twitter, at protests, in far-right rallies, etc.) are certainly harmful to the Muslim community and society at large, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Any serious effort to counteract Islamophobia will require us to understand every aspect of this industry, as we will continue to do in upcoming articles, insha’ Allah.