The Great Islamophobic Crusade

When the controversy over Massad's views intensified, Congressman Anthony Weiner, a liberal New York Democrat who once described himself as a representative of "the ZOA [Zionist Organization of America] wing of the Democratic Party," demanded that Columbia President Lee Bollinger, a renowned First Amendment scholar, fire the professor. Bollinger responded by issuing uncharacteristically defensive statements about the "limited" nature of academic freedom.

In the end, however, none of the charges stuck. Indeed, the testimonies in the David Project film were eventually either discredited or never corroborated. In 2009, Massad earned tenure after winning Columbia's prestigious Lionel Trilling Award for excellence in scholarship.

Having demonstrated its ability to intimidate faculty members and even powerful university administrators, however, Kramer claimed a moral victory in the name of his project, boasting to the press that "this is a turning point." While the David Project subsequently fostered chapters on campuses nationwide, its director set out on a different path—initially, into the streets of Boston in 2004 to oppose the construction of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.

For nearly 15 years, the Islamic Society of Boston had sought to build the center in the heart of Roxbury, the city's largest black neighborhood, to serve its sizable Muslim population. With endorsements from Mayor Thomas Menino and leading Massachusetts lawmakers, the mosque's construction seemed like a fait accompli—until, that is, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Boston Herald and his local Fox News affiliate snapped into action.  Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby also chimed in with a series of reports claiming the center's plans were evidence of a Saudi Arabian plot to bolster the influence of radical Islam in the United States, and possibly even to train underground terror cells.

It was at this point that the David Project entered the fray, convening elements of the local pro-Israel community in the Boston area to seek strategies to torpedo the project. According to emails obtained by the Islamic Society's lawyers in a lawsuit against the David Project, the organizers settled on a campaign of years of nuisance lawsuits, along with accusations that the center had received foreign funding from "the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia or… the Moslem Brotherhood."

In response, a grassroots coalition of liberal Jews initiated inter-faith efforts aimed at ending a controversy that had essentially been manufactured out of thin air and was corroding relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the city. Jacobs would not, however, relent. "We are more concerned now than we have ever been about a Saudi influence of local mosques," he announced [20] at a suburban Boston synagogue in 2007.

After paying out millions of dollars in legal bills and enduring countless smears, the Islamic Society of Boston completed the construction of its community center in 2008. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, nothing came of the David Project's dark warnings. As Boston-area National Public Radio reporter Philip Martin reflected [21] in September 2010, "The horror stories that preceded [the center's] development seem shrill and histrionic in retrospect."

This second failed campaign was, in the end, more about movement building than success, no less national security. The local crusade established an effective blueprint for generating hysteria against the establishment of Islamic centers and mosques across the country, while galvanizing a cast of characters who would form an anti-Muslim network which would gain attention and success in the years to come.

In 2007, these figures coalesced into a proto-movement that launched a new crusade, this time targeting the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a secular Arabic-English elementary school in Brooklyn, New York. Calling their ad hoc pressure group, Stop the Madrassah —madrassahbeing simply the Arab word for "school"—the coalition's activists included an array of previously unknown zealots who made no attempt to disguise their extreme views when it came to Islam as a religion, as well as Muslims in America. Their stated goal was to challenge the school's establishment on the basis of its violation of the church-state separation in the US Constitution.  The true aim of the coalition, however, was transparent: to pressure the city's leadership to adopt an antagonistic posture towards the local Muslim community.

The activists zeroed in on the school's principal, Debbie Almontaser, a veteran educator of Yemeni descent, and baselessly branded her "a jihadist" as well as a 9/11 denier.  They also accused her of—as Pamela Geller, a far-right blogger just then gaining prominence put it —"whitewash[ing] the genocide against the Jews."  Daniel Pipes, a neoconservative academic previously active in the campaigns against Joseph Massad and the Boston Islamic center (and whose pro-Likud think tank, Middle East Forum, has received $150,000 from Chernick) claimed the school should not go ahead because "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with Pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage." As the campaign reached a fever pitch, Almontaser reported that members of the coalition were actually stalking her wherever she went.

Given what Columbia Journalism School professor and former New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman called "her clear, public record of interfaith activism and outreach," including work with the New York Police Department and the Anti-Defamation League after the September 11th attacks, the assault on Almontaser seemed little short of bizarre—until her assailants discovered a photograph of a T-shirt produced by AWAAM, a local Arab feminist organization, that read "Intifada NYC." As it turned out, AWAAM sometimes shared office space with a Yemeni-American association on which Almontaser served as a board member. Though the connection seemed like a stretch, it promoted the line of attack the Stop the Madrassah coalition had been seeking. 

Having found a way to wedge the emotional issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict into a previously New York-centered campaign, the school's opponents next gained a platform at the Murdoch-owned New York Post, where reporters Chuck Bennett and Jana Winter claimed her T-shirt was "apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple." While Almontaser attempted to explain to the Post's reporters that she rejected terrorism, the Anti-Defamation League chimed in on cue. ADL spokesman Oren Segal told the Post: "The T-shirt is a reflection of a movement that increasingly lauds violence against Israelis instead of rejecting it. That is disturbing."

Before any Qassam rockets could be launched from Almontaser's school, her former ally New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg caved to the growing pressure and threatened to shut down the school, prompting her to resign. A Jewish principal who spoke no Arabic replaced Almontaser, who later filed a lawsuit against the city for breaching her free speech rights. In 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that New York's Department of Education had "succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel" by firing Almontaser and urged it pay her $300,000 in damages. The commission also concluded that the Post had quoted her misleadingly.

Tags: 9/11, anti-muslim bigotry, daniel pipes, islam, islamophobia, israel, israel lobby, muslims, pro-israel, racism, tea party

    • Max Blumenthal
    • Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The NationThe Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post, Salon.com, Al Jazeera Eng...

    • Max Blumenthal's full bio »