Legalizing Othering: Interview with Stephen Piggott

Interview

September 08, 2017

Stephen Piggott: Anti-Muslim Legislation and Anti-Refugee Efforts

Stephen Piggott is a Senior Research Analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is an expert on various forms of right-wing extremism, including the organized anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements, as well as white nationalism. Before joining the SPLC, Piggott worked as an analyst for the Anti-Defamation League in New York, and as a research analyst for the Center for New Community, a national civil rights organization based in Chicago.
 
Q1: Historically, have there been any laws or legislative campaigns in the United States that sought to single out a specific religion or group of people based on their religious beliefs?
I think the answer to that is yes. Though we have freedom of religion in the United States some minority religions have been targeted. The first is Native American religions, and there’s been a couple of laws that have attempted to outlaw rituals such as sweat lodges, and sun dances, as well as possessions by tribal members—items that under certain laws were deemed illegal—such as peyote, and eagle feathers, and other animal items that are protected. There was also a law that targeted Mormons known as the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which passed in 1862 and essentially outlawed the practice of having more than one wife, which [at the time] was permissible in Mormonism. Later, the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 had several different provisions that focused on restricting some practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That Act was repealed much later, close to 100 years later, in 1978. Legislative campaigns that single out a minority religion are not particularly widespread, but there certainly have been examples throughout history of legislative campaigns in the US against groups who practice these religions.
 
Q2: Has the xenophobic rhetoric of the candidates in the 2016 presidential election cycle contributed to a climate of fear and hate toward Muslims? Or generally speaking, contributed to a climate of fear and hate in the United States?
I think there’s no question that the 2016 presidential election has contributed to a climate of fear and hate toward Muslims. I think traditionally we’ve seen anti-Muslim sentiment from hate groups and others, but in this election cycle it’s been really front and center, and it’s mainly coming from the GOP, but even comments that Bill Clinton made at the DNC—although not specifically anti-Muslim—are certainly problematic. Clinton’s quote was, “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win, and make a future together. We want you.” Essentially, you can read that as saying the only thing that Muslims are good for in America is spying on other Muslims and helping us weed out terrorists, which gets into Countering Violent Extremism programs and really problematic spying culture. Most of the statements that have been made have come from one side of the aisle, but it would be remiss to ignore what Bill Clinton said. If you look at the statements made by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, they made incredibly xenophobic comments, calling for a ban on Muslim immigration, calling for the police to be patrolling Muslim neighborhoods in the US, and again, these were public statements made by individuals running for the highest office in our county.
 
If you just look at Trump’s statements, within his call for a ban on Muslim immigration, he cited a poll that was commissioned by a group called the Center for Security Policy (CSP), which is an anti-Muslim think tank. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists Center for Security Policy as a hate group for their conspiracy theories concerning Muslims infiltrating the US government, and their anti-refugee policies and statements, essentially blatant hate speech against Muslims. Another issue relating to this was when both Trump and Cruz unveiled their advisors, more specifically their national security advisors, which included a number of anti-Muslim figures. Frank Gaffney from Center for Security Policy was an advisor to Ted Cruz, as well as Jerry Boykin who is extremely anti-Muslim and is part of an anti-gay group called the Family Research Council. Jerry Boykin, Clare Lopez from the Center for Security Policy, Andy McCarthy an outspoken anti-Muslim figure, and Fred Fleitz another member from the Center for Security Policy were all on Ted Cruz’s team. Looking at Donald Trump’s team, Jeff Sessions who is very outspoken about immigration, and Walid Phares who is a kind of ‘validator’—a person who grew up in the Middle East or in a predominantly Muslim country, or they claim to be ex-terrorists—grew up in Lebanon and that’s his claim to being an authority on Islam. And lastly, Joseph Schmidt from for Center for Security Policy. Essentially, the people that Trump and Cruz surrounded themselves with from a national security perspective are people who clearly have anti-Muslim views.
 
There was a study put out by the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University in May of 2016 called “When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 US Presidential Election.” The study looks at anti-Muslim incidents from January 2015 through December 2015, and then March 2015 through March 2016, and what they found was 174 reports of anti-Muslim incidents which included violence, vandalism, 12 murders, 29 physical assaults, 50 threats against persons or institutions, 54 acts of vandalism or destruction of property, 8 arson, and 9 shootings, bombings, or other incidents. This was all occurring around the time of the election season, and it’s indicative of the climate today. Also, the most recent hate crime data from the FBI shows that hate crimes went down in every single category except for anti-Muslim hate crimes, and anti-Muslim hate crimes rose from 154 in 2014 to 257 in 2015. So, yes, the election has contributed to a climate of fear and hate toward Muslims, and contributed to an increase in my opinion, because of the mainstreaming of Islamophobia, but it’s been continuously building-up before this.
 
One would assume that anti-Muslim sentiment and violence would spike after incidents or attacks that have been perpetrated by terrorist organizations, i.e., radical Islamic terrorism, or Islamists, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, however you want to describe them, but Dalia Mogahed from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that this is actually not the case. Mogahed has been documenting for years the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and her research found that, surprisingly, increases in anti-Muslim sentiment and acts of violence spike during election campaigns and election cycles, as opposed to post an attack.
 
Q3: What is the larger goal of anti-Muslim groups introducing or passing anti-Muslim legislation? Who are the groups pushing for this legislation, and what do these individuals and/or groups have to benefit?
I think there are a couple of different goals, one of which is inciting anti-Muslim sentiment. If you look at the bills, there’s no mention—for the most part—in the anti-Sharia bills of Sharia Law, or it was removed in some cases, but it’s used as an excuse to rile-up anti-Muslim hate speech. There’s also a policy in the anti-immigrant world called attrition through enforcement, the other way of saying that is self-deportation—one thing to note here is that the anti-immigrant world and the anti-Muslim world are almost two sides of the same coin, and there’s been a lot of crossover work between anti-immigrant groups and anti-Muslim groups. Essentially, attrition through enforcement is implementing policies and laws at the local level, or the state level, that are so harsh, and really these laws or efforts are targeting undocumented immigrants, it becomes difficult for immigrants to live and go about their daily lives, and people will actually self-deport from that particular city or state. One of the people really pushing this is Kris Kobach, the Secretary of the State of Kansas. Aside from Kobach, you have the law firm Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI)—that operates similarly to the American Public Policy Alliance—and the major group above the IRLI is the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR is the group responsible for this policy, attrition through enforcement, and they try to enact these laws throughout the country in order to force undocumented immigrants to move away. I don’t have direct proof of this, but it seems as if the groups trying to get anti-Muslim legislation passed have almost similar goals, where if states pass these anti-Sharia bills, it will force people [Muslims] to think, “I can’t really stay here anymore, I’m sick of this environment, I’m sick of being persecuted, I’m going to move away.” I haven’t seen anti-Muslim groups use this phrase of self-deportation, but I think it makes sense that this would be one example of their goals. One person to mention who does this kind of work is Pamela Geller, who is obviously really outspoken and has been very successful in some ways of stopping the development of the Islamic Center in New York City, and she’s taken that to another level by providing people with a blueprint to follow. One of her main tactics is fighting through the court system and using the laws that are currently in place, like zoning laws, and essentially using the laws already on the books by any means possible to stop the development of a mosque or something similar. But I would say that Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who traditionally if you go back to 2010 when there was the real outcry from them around the development of the Islamic Center in New York City, are not dangerous in the sense of aggressively getting laws passed, or working closely with elected officials and things like that. The two groups that I find the most problematic who do have close relations with government officials and legislative campaign efforts are Center for Security Policy, the think tank, and ACT for America, which is a grassroots arm of the anti-Muslim movement.
 
There are many, many, examples to point to, where anti-Muslim groups are pushing for anti-refugee legislation. ACT for America in the past couple of years set-up a refugee resettlement working group, which essentially functions as pockets of activists who will resist the relocation of specifically Syrian refugees, and the relocation of refugees in general, to smaller locals throughout the country. ACT has been pushing people to introduce anti-refugee legislation, and there are examples of this. Like in the Flathead Valley of Montana, a county council meeting was scheduled to discuss the relocation of refugees to their area by the federal government, and the local ACT chapter organized a huge meeting about ten days before the council meeting was supposed to take place, and nearly 500 people showed up. Ten days later the county council buckled and published a letter to the federal government opposing refugee resettlement in Flathead Valley. Brigitte Gabriel, head of ACT for America, later sent around an email titled “The Victory in Montana,” affirming that they defeated the possibility of refugee relocation.
 
For the Oklahoma anti-Sharia bill, ACT poured roughly $60,000 into an ad campaign that they ran to try to get the bill passed. But switching to Center for Security Policy [CSP], if you look at CSP, David Yerushalmi, who’s credited for being the Godfather of this anti-Sharia legislation, he is on the general council for Center for Security Policy, acting as their lawyer. If you look at more recent examples, there have been several examples over the years of CSP figures going around the county and encouraging elected officials to introduce anti-Sharia or anti-refugee legislation, and it’s been successful in some places. Kansas is one such example of this. There was an anti-refugee bill introduced by a legislator by the name of Peggy Mast, and when she was asked why she was introducing an anti-refugee bill, she publically stated that she had been consulting with Center for Security Policy on the bill, so there’s no way to hide the fact that CSP is working to pass these bills. Another example was in January 2016, when Christopher Holton—the same Center for Security Policy member who was consulting with Peggy Mast in Kansas—went to Idaho and set-up a legislative forum with Shahram Hadian, a very outspoken pastor and ex-Muslim Christian convert who speaks against Islam. Both Holton and Hadian spoke at this legislative forum in Idaho, imploring people to introduce an anti-refugee bill. Their efforts were unsuccessful as the legislators in Idaho did not introduce the bill but in March of 2016 a representative who attended the legislative forum introduced an anti-Sharia bill in Idaho [there was no anti-Sharia activity in Idaho before this] and when he introduced the bill he cited some material from Center for Security Policy, which again is another direct example of how these anti-Muslim groups are helping to consult lawmakers who have introduced anti-refugee or anti-Sharia bills, as well as helping to build support for the bill. This is really the role that ACT for America plays in a lot of ways, because they have a large grassroots following of activists who really want to get these kind of bills passed.
 
There is also work being done between anti-gay and anti-Muslim groups which falls into this world of legislation. One example of this is the Idaho anti-Sharia bill from 2016. When lawmaker Eric Redman introduced the bill, he was passing out anti-Muslim pamphlets, one of which had a picture of a severed hand. Redman stated he was a freshman representative, and over the summer of 2015 he had attended around ten different conferences for state lawmakers, and that’s where he got the idea to pass an anti-Sharia bill. One of his inspirations for introducing the bill came from a group called WallBuilders. WallBuilders is a group run by David Barton, a right-wing Christian activist and conservative, who claims to be an expert on the Constitution, and he happens to be very anti-gay as well as very anti-Muslim. Redman stated that he met with individuals who were very involved with anti-Sharia legislative efforts, and referenced David Barton. That is just one example where you have anti-gay and anti-Muslim groups coming together for legislative purposes.
 
Regarding Center for Security Policy and their efforts to push anti-refugee bills, what we’ve seen over the past few years, what everyone is referring to as a “crisis,” “the Syrian refugee crisis,” is really come to the forefront of anti-Muslim efforts. I think both ACT for America, and Center for Security Policy, see the push against refugee resettlement as an easy argument to gain the public’s support, pointing to what happened in Paris and Brussels, and peddling the idea of ISIS sending sleeper cells through the refugee system, etc. That’s one of their easiest selling points in terms of what argument is going to resonate strongly with people, and we’ve seen that in the reaction from thirty plus governors who were in opposition to Syrian refugee relocation in their state. SPLC has spoken to refugee agencies in the U.S, and they say that they’ve never experienced this kind of pushback, with death threats and the Klan publishing the address of one of the refugee relocation offices, so this issue around the relocation of Syrian refugees has really been the most recent effort in terms of getting the public onboard with anti-Muslim efforts, which is obviously very problematic.
 
Q4: Is it possible that Center for Security Policy could have had a significant influence in persuading the governors that have opposed Syrian refugee relocation?
I think it is possible, and I will say that I don’t have direct proof of that, but if you look at ACT for America and Center for Security Policy, what they covet more than anything is their connection to elected officials. Every year ACT for America has a conference in Washington D.C. where around ten elected officials come and speak at the conference on what they call a ‘national security update,’ and it’s people you would expect to be there, like Representative Louie Gohmert, Representative Steve King, and Representative Peter King. Act for America is recognized by the SPLC as a hate group, and yet they’re able to attract at least ten federal elected officials to come and speak at their event. Center for Security Policy is the same thing, they give out awards to legislators, and in December 2016 they awarded their highest honor to the current Israeli Ambassador to the United States. The Ambassador accepted the award, and when I contacted the Israeli Embassy for a statement the Embassy said that, “The Ambassador is unaware of any anti-Muslim sentiment coming from Center for Security Policy,” which again, shows how these groups are extreme, but they’re not fringe, they have strong connections. ACT and CSP covet these relationships with elected officials and they are quite successful in their efforts, and many elected officials will actually listen to what they have to say.
 
Q5: What do people like Pamela Geller, David Horowitz, David Yerushalmi, and others, have to gain from pushing anti-Muslim, and-refugee legislation and efforts?
That’s the million-dollar question, and I think it’s a mix of things. Yerushalmi, if you look at things he’s said, he is the kind of person who truly believes that Muslims are a major issue in the United States, and his good deed for the American people is to ban Sharia because he feels it’s something creating some kind of culture that is poisoning American society. Now Brigitte Gabriel, I think she’s a little bit different. She runs ACT for America, and I would argue that there is potentially a financial incentive and a power incentive that comes from rubbing shoulders with politicians and being in the news all the time that she may enjoy. However, for many of these anti-Muslim activists, I think they see the anti-Sharia movement as a way to create space for an anti-Muslim climate by introducing these bills, which then creates a platform to launch other anti-Muslim campaigns in the future.
 
Q6: When you read the model legislation, American Laws for American Courts, what in your opinion does it seek to do? And secondly, tying into the point you made just earlier, is ALAC itself damaging, or is the atmosphere or the environment these bills seek to create more of the concern?
When reading the American Laws for American Courts model act, what is interesting to me is the first line of the act which reads, ‘The general assembly or legislator finds that it shall be the public policy of the state to protect its citizens from the application of foreign law…’ and the word ‘protect’ is what stood out to me. We’ve already discussed that actually using the word Sharia in the bills hasn’t been successful for this legislation, and so they use the word foreign law instead, but this ‘protecting’ indicates that it’s protecting against Islam or the evil ideology that’s coming into America through Sharia. That’s what really sticks out to me, and it’s almost a hidden statement.
 
I have to also wonder why lawmakers are even introducing anti-Sharia or anti-foreign law bills in the first place, as the constitution has already established that there is no law that trumps the US Constitution. The entire argument surrounding Sharia law, and tying it to the Muslim Brotherhood, to me it’s really this talk of civilization and the infiltration of America from within that Frank Gaffney and others have been really pushing for a long time. The campaigns around the legislation target Islam and Sharia law, arguing if Sharia Law is used in American courts that people’s hands will be cut off as punishment, and that women will be second class citizens, etc. It’s really interesting if you juxtapose the comments from the lawmakers who are introducing the bills, the anti-Muslim groups who are supporting them, and then the actual legislation itself, because the bills read as benign, especially when you’re looking at a legislation that doesn’t mention Sharia explicitly. But if you look at the campaigns backing the legislation, that’s where it’s really problematic, and from there you can see that the legislation is being used as an open excuse for lawmakers and activists to discriminate against Muslims. To me it’s really just an excuse to bash Muslims.
 
Q7: Can trends or patterns be identified amongst the states that have passed or attempted to pass ALAC legislation?
Anti-Sharia bills have been introduced in most of the states, and they have failed in almost all of them. In order to enact an anti-Sharia bill, I would say that the state legislature needs to be sympathetic, such as states like Alabama, Tennessee, Idaho—the red states—but there also needs to be a base of anti-Muslim activists within that state who would be able to push for the bill. Tennessee is a great example, as well as Oklahoma and Arizona where you have hotbeds of anti-Muslim activity and active chapters of ACT for America and other anti-Muslim groups on the ground advocating for the legislation. There are obviously lawmakers sympathetic enough to introduce the bills, and I think all these actors and components are essential to get these bills introduced and enacted. What we see then is the bills creating a climate, so even if the bill doesn’t get enacted, if there wasn’t an anti-Muslim base organized in that state before the bill was introduced, there’s potentially one afterwards, which has a longer lasting effect. Tennessee is one such example, where there was also the Murfreesboro Islamic Center fight that helped to create an anti-Muslim climate, and in Oklahoma a representative received an award from Center for Security Policy, and he has made public statements saying that CAIR members are terrorists and Islam is a cancer that needs to be cut out of America. This same lawmaker has now received funding from the state of Oklahoma to conduct a study to examine the threat of Sharia within Oklahoma. The estimated cost of this ludicrous study to “examine the current threat posed by radical Islam and the effect that Sharia Law, the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist indoctrination have in the radicalization process in Oklahoma and America” is between $50,000 - $60,000 and it’s being paid for with taxpayer dollars. At the first hearing for the study in late 2016 attendees included Frank Gaffney from the Center for Security Policy, and John Guandolo a former FBI turned anti-Muslim activist. In places where anti-Sharia bills have been introduced there are definitely some examples of longer-term effects, with anti-Muslim groups remaining active in those states and groups continuing to push for legislation, and funding being diverted to study the threat of Sharia such is the case in Oklahoma.
 
Last comments:
To reiterate what I said, ACT for America and Center for Security Policy in my opinion are the most dangerous anti-Muslim groups, and I call them the most dangerous because they’re well-funded, they have a lot of supporters and followers, they have smart people working for them, they are very well connected with other movements, and they are very well connected to elected officials at the state and local level. They have all this despite the clearly anti-Muslim comments made from Frank Gaffney, Brigitte Gabriel, Clare Lopez and the entire team at CSP, but that’s why I call them extreme but not fringe. They are in the mainstream, and they’re connected and they’re extremely influential, and that’s why we’re seeing a lot of anti-refugee bills and anti-refugee organizing through ACT for America, and we have to question how much these organizations are influencing lawmakers to pass anti-Sharia and anti-refugee legislation. These two groups in particular we list them as hate groups and it could be easy to think of them as these fringe organizations that don’t have much power or much influence, but it’s actually the opposite. They say really nasty things, but at the same time, they’re really influential and they continue to be, and unfortunately that’s not going to change until more people expose them for what they do.
 
**Interview edited for clarity