Trump's Coming Witch Hunt Against Political Islam

The war on "violent extremism" is ending. The new targets are parties abroad and nonprofits at home.

Frank Gaffney, newly influential on U.S. policy toward Islam.

Photographer: J Carrier/Bloomberg

On the day after Donald Trump won the election, one of his campaign's advisers and endorsers made a prediction. "You are going to see a purging," retired Lt. General Jerry Boykin told Frank Gaffney on his "Secure Freedom Radio" podcast. Boykin predicted that Trump as president would purge "people inside the government that are known to have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and its front groups and its entities here in America."

This kind of comment is expected from Boykin, one of the founders of the Army's elite Delta Force. When he served in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon during George W. Bush's administration, he boasted that his God was mightier than the one worshiped by Muslim terrorists. Since retiring from the Army, Boykin has been a leader of a movement fighting against what it calls a civilization jihad, a network of Muslim ideologues trying to take over American society.

Until now, this movement was largely ignored by elites in the Republican and Democratic parties. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have gone to great lengths to distinguish between Muslims who commit violence in the name of Islam and Muslims who seek to impose Islamic rule on secular societies through elections and free debate. In Iraq, Bush embraced Sunni and Shiite leaders from Islamist parties. Obama went further. His government eliminated terms like "jihad" and "radical Islam" from official FBI and Homeland Security documents. In his first term, Obama explored a deeper relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood abroad in places like Egypt and Turkey.

There are strong indications that Trump will be taking a different approach. First consider what Trump has said. It's not just his off-the-cuff remarks about Muslims. On Aug. 15, Trump gave a prepared policy speech in which he said the U.S. should not only wage an ideological war against our Islamist enemies but also should instate a screening test for immigrants to keep out those who "believe that Sharia law should supplant American law," similar to Cold War era tests to keep out committed communists.  

So far key advisers to Trump, like incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, have spoken and written at length about combating radical Islam, not just the most extreme terrorist groups inspired by this ideology. Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's nominee for attorney general, has also said there is a need for a bipartisan strategy, similar to the Cold War policy known as "containment," to fight the menace of jihadi ideology.

James Mattis, the front-runner to be Trump's next secretary of defense, has lamented the lack of a national conversation about political Islam. In 2015, the retired Marine Corps general told the Heritage Foundation that the Islamic State's strategy was premised on the assumption that "the Americans will not ask one fundamental question: … Is political Islam in the best interest of the United States?" Mattis continued: "I suggest the answer is no, but we need to have the discussion. If we won't even ask the question, how do we even recognize our side in this fight?"

One person who has been asking that question for the last 15 years has been Gaffney, a former senior Pentagon official under President Reagan. He has a habit of saying and writing outrageous things about Islam. He has mused that Obama was secretly Muslim. He conflates Islamic supremacism with Sharia Islamic law, which has multiple sources and interpretations. And he has accused the federal government of collaborating with radicals intent on bringing Islam to America.     

This kind of hyperbole once kept Gaffney and his cohorts out of power and influence. That looks to be changing, though. While Gaffney is not on the transition team, he told me he is hopeful that his ideas and policies will influence the Trump administration. In an interview this week he said he has periodic communications with Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, whom Gaffney described as a "good friend." Trump also spent an hour with staff from Gaffney's think tank, the Center for Security Policy, for a briefing on Sharia, hosted before the primaries in Iowa.

"He has put around him people who are members of that team," Gaffney said of the analysts who briefed Trump in Iowa. "A number of people who are friends of mine, who are colleagues for years, in some cases decades, are among the people who he has decided will have prominent positions in his administration."

All of this brings us back to the Muslim Brotherhood. Like all the best conspiracy theories, there is a kernel of truth in it. It's true that the federal government's prosecution of a group known as the Holy Land Foundation found evidence that the founders of the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, were linked closely with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's also true that the FBI produced evidence in the Holy Land Foundation trial that the Muslim Brotherhood instructed followers to advance the goal of overturning secular societies in the West to usher in Islamic rule.   

Where Gaffney gets it dangerously wrong is in his assessment of the threat all of this poses to America. In the interview, he said he does not have a list of Muslim Brotherhood agents inside the U.S. government. But he did point me to a 10-part video course from his organization that purports to identify six Muslim Brotherhood operatives inside the Obama administration. One of these names is no doubt familiar: Huma Abedin, the long-time aide to Hillary Clinton. When I asked Gaffney how an unveiled woman who had married and conceived a child with a Jewish member of Congress could be a stealth Islamist, he responded with another question. "How could she still have a relationship with her parents if she was not?"

Gaffney is hardly alone in worrying about Abedin and others. Trump himself told a radio host in August to "take a look" where Abedin and her mother worked. This was a reference to the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, which Abedin's father founded and her mother still edits. Huma Abedin was listed as an editor of the journal between 1996 and 2008, though the Clinton campaign has said she did not actually do any editing in this period. As the Washington Post reported in August, many experts dispute that the journal is a stalking horse for radical Islam. Bernard Lewis, a historian who first publicly warned of the rise of political Islam before the Iranian revolution, was at one point on the journal's advisory board.

Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and author of numerous books and articles critical of political Islam, compared the campaign against stealth Islamists to the McCarthy-era purge of academic Marxists. "These people are spreading ideas we don't necessarily like," he said. "But the way to counter them is to promote our own ideas." Without mentioning Gaffney by name, Haqqani said it was proper for the U.S. intelligence community and the FBI to investigate any and all foreign subversion of the U.S. government. But he said it was wrong to "wage this campaign in the press and in public."

It's still early days for a Trump administration. But there are signs that the purges may be coming. To start, there is legislation in Congress today sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican who was beaten by Trump in the primaries, to ask the secretary of state to review whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be designated as a foreign terrorist organization. Walid Phares, an adviser to the Trump campaign, told an Egyptian news channel after the election that Trump would support the Cruz bill that was opposed by the Obama White House.

It's unclear what it would mean if this legislation became law. Flynn for example has floated the idea that a Trump administration would work more closely with Turkey's current government, whose ruling party is inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Would the Muslim Brotherhood designation make such cooperation illegal?

The more dramatic impact of this approach though will be felt at home. Gaffney said that if the Muslim Brotherhood were designated a terrorist group, " CAIR is one of the organizations they would have to look at."

Andrew McCarthy, one of the leading intellectuals of the anti-Sharia movement, told me that he doubted the U.S. government could reopen the Holy Land Foundation case because of the statute of limitations. But he did say that CAIR and its affiliates would need to examine their ties to the Muslim Brotherhood moving forward.

If indeed this is what a Trump administration does, it will be entering dangerous territory. While it's true that CAIR's founders were Islamists and linked to Hamas, the organization and its chapters today spend a lot of time documenting anti-Muslim hate crimes. A federal prosecution of CAIR and organizations like it would be perceived in many quarters as an abuse of power and a return to the witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The thing to remember about the McCarthy era was how much harm the senator ended up doing to his own cause of anti-communism. It's a lesson Trump would do well to learn as he decides how to prosecute his ideological war against radical Islam.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Eli Lake at

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