Anti-Muslim crusaders make millions spreading fear
BY BOB SMIETANA • THE TENNESSEAN • OCTOBER 24, 2010
First Of Two Parts
Steven Emerson has 3,390,000 reasons to fear Muslims.
That’s how many dollars Emerson’s for-profit company — Washington-based SAE Productions — collected in 2008 for researching alleged ties between American Muslims and overseas terrorism. The payment came from the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, a nonprofit charity Emerson also founded, which solicits money by telling donors they’re in imminent danger from Muslims.
Emerson is a leading member of a multimillion-dollar industry of self-proclaimed experts who spread hate toward Muslims in books and movies, on websites and through speaking appearances.
Leaders of the so-called “anti-jihad” movement portray themselves as patriots, defending America against radical Islam. And they’ve found an eager audience in ultra-conservative Christians and mosque opponents in Middle Tennessee. One national consultant testified in an ongoing lawsuit aimed at stopping a new Murfreesboro mosque.
- Religious conflict isn’t new to Murfreesboro
- Murfreesboro Muslim baffled by how others portray his faith
- Complete Coverage: The Price of Fear
- PDF: Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation’s 2008 tax return
- PDF: Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation’s application for tax exempt status
- PDF: Center for Security Policy, Inc.’s tax return
- PDF: David Horowitz Freedom Center’s tax return
- PDF: Act for America’s tax return
- PDF: American Congress for Truth’s tax return
- PDF: New English Review’s tax return
But beyond the rhetoric, Emerson’s organization’s tax-exempt status is facing questions at the same time he’s accusing Muslim groups of tax improprieties.
“Basically, you have a nonprofit acting as a front organization, and all that money going to a for-profit,” said Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog group. “It’s wrong. This is off the charts.”
But a spokesman for Emerson’s company said the actions were legal and designed to protect workers there from death threats.
“It’s all done for security reasons,” said Ray Locker, a spokesman for SAE Productions.
Emerson made his name in the mid-1990s with his documentary film Jihad in America, which aired on PBS. Produced after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the film uncovered terrorists raising money in the United States.
He followed up with the books Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the U.S. and American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us.
He claims that extremists control 80 percent of mosques in the United States. In August, he claimed to have uncovered 13 hours of audiotapes proving that Feisal Rauf, the imam behind the proposed mosque near ground zero, is a radical extremist.
“I don’t think he’ll survive the disclosure of these tapes,” he told talk show host Bill Bennett.
Rauf is still in place as a project leader, even though tape excerpts have been online for weeks.
Emerson formed a Middle Tennessee connection last summer, when his organization uncovered pictures on a Murfreesboro mosque board member’s MySpace page. His company said the pictures proved connections to Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization, but mosque leaders said they checked with the Department of Homeland Security and found the concerns were groundless.
Special Agent Keith Moses, who heads the FBI’s Nashville office, told The Tennessean last month that the bureau doesn’t discuss specific allegations.
“In a post-9/11 era, the FBI is taking every step to prevent further terrorist attacks,” he said. “We also want to protect civil rights and the freedom of religion.”
Others Cash In
While large organizations like Emerson’s aren’t the norm, other local and national entrepreneurs cash in on spreading hate and fear about Islam.
Former Tennessee State University physics professor Bill French runs the Nashville-based, for-profit Center for the Study of Political Islam. He spoke recently to a group of opponents of the Murfreesboro mosque gathered at a house in Murfreesboro.
With an American flag as a backdrop, French paced back and forth like the Church of Christ ministers he heard growing up. His message: how creeping Shariah law is undermining the very fabric of American life.
“This offends Allah,” said French, pointing to the flag on the wall. “You offend Allah.”
French, who has no formal education in religion, believes Islam is not a religion. Instead, he sees Islam and its doctrine and rules — known as Shariah law — as a totalitarian ideology.
In his 45-minute speech, he outlined a kind of 10 commandments of evil — no music, no art, no rights for women — taken from his book Sharia Law for Non-Muslims. The speech was free, but his books, penned under the name “Bill Warner,” were for sale in the back and ranged from about $9 to $20.
hen he was done, the 80 or so mosque opponents gave him a standing ovation and then began buying French’s books to hand out to their friends.
Frank Gaffney, head of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Security Policy, earned a $288,300 salary from his charity in 2008. Gaffney was a key witness in recent hearings in the Rutherford County lawsuit filed by mosque opponents. He said he paid his own way.
On the stand, the Reagan-era deputy assistant defense secretary accused local mosque leaders of having ties to terrorism, using ties to Middle Eastern universities and politics as evidence. His main source of information was his own report on Shariah law as a threat to America, one he wrote with other self-proclaimed experts.
But, under oath, he admitted he is not an expert in Shariah law.
The list of people on the anti-Islam circuit goes on. IRS filings from 2008 show that Robert Spencer, who runs the Jihadwatch.org blog, earned $132,537 from the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative nonprofit.
Brigitte Tudor, who runs the anti-Islam groups ACT! For America and the American Congress for Truth, earned $152,810, while her colleague Guy Rogers collected $154,900.
Emerson’s older, most established organization collects several times that in an average year.
Emerson incorporated his for-profit company, SAE Productions, in Delaware in 1995. He launched the nonprofit Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation in Washington, D.C., in 2006.
But he doesn’t make that distinction on his website, http://www.investigativeproject.
org, which describes the Investigative Project on Terrorism as “a non-profit research group founded by Steven Emerson in 1995.” And today, the two groups share the same Washington street address, which is published on Emerson’s personal website.
In 2002 and 2003, despite lacking nonprofit status, Emerson received a total of $600,000 in grants from the Smith Richardson Foundation, a conservative public-policy shaper based in Connecticut. The foundation declined to comment on the grants but said it gives money only to tax-exempt charitable groups.
Giving money to a for-profit is extremely rare for foundations, said Peter Bird, president of the Nashville-based Frist Foundation. It can happen only when the foundation keeps meticulous records on how the money was spent by the group that received it.
“It almost never happens,” he said.
Locker, a former USA TODAY national security editor now working for SAE Productions, said his organization does not discuss funding.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation’s 1023 application for tax-exempt status stated that all of the money raised by the Washington, D.C.-based charity would go to a nonprofit subcontractor with no ties to Emerson or any board members. The application also said the charity would buy no services from board members. Emerson ended up being the only board member.
In a letter dated Dec. 8, 2006, the IRS asked if there would be any ties between the subcontractor and the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation. On Dec. 29, 2006, Emerson wrote back: “There are and will be no financial/business transactions between officers, board members or relatives of the aforementioned and applicant organization.”
In 2008, however, the charity paid $3,390,000 to SAE Productions for “management services.” Emerson is SAE’s sole officer.
Because of its unusual arrangement with Emerson’s company, the Investigative Project’s tax returns show no details, such as salaries of staff.
Locker said the approach was vetted by the group’s lawyers and is legal. He said that Emerson takes no profits from SAE Productions and therefore the Investigative Project is a nonprofit.
That doesn’t fly, said Charity Navigator’s Berger. Berger said tax-exempt nonprofits must be transparent and disclose how they spend money and how much they pay their staff. Emerson’s group appears to be trying to skirt these rules, he said.
“It really undermines the trust in nonprofits,” he said. “This is really off the grid.”
The Frist Foundation’s Bird said the discrepancy between the Investigative Project’s application to the IRS and its practices is troubling.
“It looks like they told the government one thing and did another,” he said.
But Rebecca Bynum, editor of the New English Review, a Nashville-based online magazine that’s critical of Islam, said she has no problem with Emerson’s big take. Her nonprofit took in $30,000 in 2008 and has no paid employees.
“I know that (Emerson) does great work,” Bynum said. “They investigate very thoroughly. You can always count on what they say.”
The message anti-Islam authors and groups disseminate isn’t always accurate.
Brannon Wheeler, history professor and director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy, said critics of Islam mistakenly assume that Shariah law is a set of fixed principles that apply to every Muslim, everywhere.
That’s not the case, he said, making clear that he speaks as an expert and not for the Navy or the Naval Academy.
While French, for example, has put together his Sharia Law for Non-Muslims, no similar book exists for Muslims.
“There’s no text that is entitled The Shariah,” Wheeler said. “It’s not a code of law. It’s not like you could go to the library and get the 12 volumes of Shariah law.”
Instead, Shariah is flexible, and applies differently in different contexts. It comes from clerics’ and scholars’ interpretations of the Quran and other holy books.
Wheeler also had harsh words for Gaffney’s report, which claims Shariah is an imminent threat to America.
“He makes the Shariah look absurd and insidious by trolling through and finding outrageous rulings and then making them universal for all time,” Wheeler said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Wheeler also responded to another criticism of Islam — that it allows Muslims to lie to non-Muslims. Critics of the local mosque often say that’s why Muslims can’t be trusted when they say they’re peaceful.
Wheeler said the term applies only to Shia Muslims, the smaller of the two majors sects of Islam, during times of persecution.
“It’s an escape clause,” he said. “You are not required to tell the truth about your religion if someone is going to kill you. It’s not to be understood as lying.”
Middle Tennessee’s Muslims are Sunnis, the larger sect. They find the constant barrage of mistruths about their faith baffling.
“What does Shariah law have to do with America? Why are they talking about it?” asked Abdiaziz Barre, who immigrated to Nashville from Somalia 17 years ago. He said he has heard claims that Muslims endorse slavery and terrorism.
That’s nonsense, said Barre, who rejects both. But he’s not going to lose sleep over the misinformation of critics.
“If people don’t want to be a good neighbor or friend, so what,” he said. “I have plenty of neighbors and friends.”
Message Gains Traction
Despite what critics call inaccuracies, the anti-Islam message has found traction in Middle Tennessee, with some casually citing it.
Sally Snow hosted French’s speech along with her husband, former Rutherford County Republican Party Chairman Howard Wall. She has been a regular at hearings in a lawsuit aimed at stopping a new Murfreesboro mosque.
One day this month, Snow arrived wearing sunglasses and joked that she was trying to cover up marks on her face.
“Howard’s turned into a Muslim,” she said. “He’s started beating me.”
French’s crowd contained politicians and preachers, businesspeople and others — brought together by their fear of Shariah and their belief that Islam is incompatible with American life. Some oppose Islam on theological grounds, seeing it as a threat to their Bible Belt culture or, for Christian Zionists, to the state of Israel.
According to that belief, American Christians have a religious duty to protect the state of Israel. When Israel expands, they believe, Muslims in Iran and Iraq will be forced out of their homes to make way. Then the second coming of Jesus can begin.
“The reason America exists is to partner with Israel, to protect Israel,” said the Rev. Darrel Whaley, pastor of Kingdom Ministries Worship Center and head of a Protestant ministers group opposed to the mosque in Murfreesboro.
Laurie Cardoza-Moore, who led opposition to a failed mosque in Brentwood, also is Christian Zionist. Her nonprofit, the Franklin-based Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, exists to drum up support of Israel among Christians.
With those stances out there, it’s unlikely broad-based, interfaith cooperation is possible, said Rabbi Rami Shapiro, an adjunct religion professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
At an interfaith event at the university this month, he downplayed fears that Muslims would try to impose their religious laws on the United States.
“Muslims are not going to ‘Shariah-ize’ America,” Shapiro said. “What’s going to happen is that America is going to Americanize Muslims.”
Still, he said, building trust between Muslims and some right-wing Christians will be difficult.
“According to their beliefs, Muslims are in the way of God’s plan,” he said. “You can’t argue with that.”