Benjamin Baird, deputy director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project and head of the Counter-Islamist Grid, spoke to participants in a March 27 webinar (video) about Islamism in American politics.
Baird explained that Islamists – "a minority among Muslim Americans" who have a "theocratic vision" and "believe that their religion should dominate all facets of life" – have become "incredibly organized" politically in recent years, especially since the 2016 elections, when they saw President Donald Trump's policies on immigration and foreign affairs "as a direct challenge to their agenda." In the past, many Islamists looked at voting as something to be avoided because they rejected "corrupt" Western political institutions. Today, they treat democratic participation as "somewhat of a religious obligation."
There are two main trends in Islamist political organizing. The first, led by such groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and Emgage, is focused on increasing registration and turnout of Muslim voters, and on supporting scores of Muslim candidates win elections, mostly at the local level. They use identity politics in hopes of mobilizing Muslims into a monolithic voting bloc to push their agenda.
The second trend consists of organizations, such as the Turkish Heritage Organization and the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), that are tied to foreign regimes and focused on pressuring candidates to support the interests of those regimes. The NIAC, for instance, "will evaluate candidates based on how well they support ... the Iran nuclear deal, or whether or not they've stood up against sanctions, whether or not they want to take away the president's war powers."
"Islamism ... seeks to replace America's democratic institutions with Islamic law."
Both trends support progressive leftists, such as Bernie Sanders, due in large part to their anti-Israel views and opposition to Trump policies.
Baird stressed the importance of combatting the political activities of Islamists. "Many people who take on Islamism take it on at a social level," he noted. "But Islamism is inherently political. It is theocratic. It seeks to replace America's democratic institutions with Islamic law. So therefore, we need to look at this as a purely political challenge."
The Islamist political surge is strongest at the regional level. "Many Americans ignore state government, and I think Islamists have sort of fallen into this niche and said, 'Hey, we're going to take advantage of every level of government that we can.'" Islamist lobbying is very intense in state legislatures throughout the country, and most Muslim electoral candidates are competing at the state and local level – for school boards, city councils, county judgeships, and the like. Success at the local level is a steppingstone to Islamists gaining political clout at the national level.
Islamists "are not [merely] anti-Israel, they're anti-Semitic."
Baird emphasized the need to "separate" Islamists from their allies in the progressive left by drawing attention to their retrograde beliefs. "This is not about them truly believing in [the] progressive cause. They may believe in many of the foreign policy issues that that progressives push, but at their core when it comes to issues like gay marriage, when it comes to abortion, Islamists aren't on the same side in many cases as progressives." In particular, it's important to inform the public that Islamists aren't merely critical of Israel, but rather "are antisemitic at their core," said Baird. "You need only look at the statements that these groups make, the clerics that they support, and of course their overseas connections to terrorist groups to know that they are not [merely] anti-Israel, they're anti-Semitic."
Meanwhile, the rest of us should seek to support non-Islamist leaders who reflect the majority of the Muslim community. "Making it incredibly clear that we side with ... the moderate Muslim majority, that is ultimately the way to win this battle."