If Rex Tillerson is replaced, one barrier keeping the president in check will fall away.
When the President of the United States retweets crude anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, a neo-fascist convicted for harassing Muslims on the street, it’s useful to have a secretary of state with a different point of view. And Rex Tillerson, for all his faults, does. Tillerson has declared that, “there’s a great deal that’s misunderstood about the Muslim world” and that “we need to put a lot more effort into understanding one another better.” He’s even ventured that “the president's views” about Islam, perhaps with a nudge from him, “are going to continue to evolve."
But they’re less likely to “evolve”—or be mitigated in any way—if Trump enacts the plan The New York Times describes, in which Tillerson is replaced early next year by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. That’s because Pompeo embraces anti-Muslim bigots, and defames Muslims, with almost as much gusto as Trump himself.
Among Fransen’s closest American analogues are Brigitte Gabriel and Frank Gaffney. Gabriel, who has said a “practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America,” runs ACT for America, an organization that scours textbooks in an effort to eliminate references that equate Islam with Judaism and Christianity, and urges its members to protest the sale of halal food. In 2016, Pompeo won ACT’s “highest honor,” the National Security Eagle Award. Gabriel has called him a “steadfast ally.”
Pompeo is also a steadfast ally of Frank Gaffney, President of the Center for Security Policy, who has argued that adherence to Islamic law—far from being protected by the First Amendment—should be considered “an impermissible act of sedition, which has to be prosecuted.” Pompeo spoke at the Center for Security Policy’s “Defeat Jihad” summit in 2015. And as a member of Congress, he appeared on Gaffney’s radio show over 20 times.
Listen to Pompeo and you hear echoes of Fransen, Gaffney, and Gabriel’s worldview. Like Gaffney and Gabriel, Pompeo repeatedly insinuated that President Obama preferred Islam—and maybe even ISIS—to Christianity and the United States. In a February 2015 interview, Gaffney asked Pompeo whether Obama has “kind of an affinity for, if not the violent beheading and crucifixions and slaying of Christians and all that, but at least for the cause for which these guys are engaged in such activities.” Pompeo’s response: “Frank, every place you stare at the president’s policies and statements, you see what you just described.” That December, a questioner—after accusing Obama of supporting Islamists in Egypt and Iran—told Pompeo, “I can’t think of anything where he’s been on our side.” Pompeo’s answer: “The data you point out is correct and I’m not afraid to talk about the data. The data is very clear. Every time there has been a conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic East the data points all point to a single direction”—to Obama’s disloyalty to Christianity and the United States.
It’s not just Obama. Pompeo has depicted American Muslims as a whole as a fifth column. Two months after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, he went on the House floor to declare that the “silence of Muslim leaders has been deafening.” This “silence,” Pompeo declared, “has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts” of terrorism. And it “casts doubt upon the commitment to peace among adherents of the Muslim faith.”
In fact, as Huffington Post noted, the Boston bombing had occurred at roughly 2:49 p.m. on April 15: “The Universal Muslim Association of America spoke out against the attacks at 5:17 p.m.; the Muslim Public Affairs Council at 5:53 p.m.; the Council on American-Islamic Relations 7:46 p.m.; the Muslim Peace Coalition 8 p.m. and the Muslim American Society Public Affairs and Engagement 10:52 p.m.;” and “the Islamic Society of North America” at 12:09 a.m. That’s the silence that Pompeo considered so “deafening” that it cast doubt on whether “adherents of the Muslim faith” believe in peace.
Underlying Pompeo’s remarks was the insinuation that Muslims must prove their loyalty to the Christians who have permitted them to reside in the United States. He made that point more explicitly three years later after the Islamic Society of Wichita, which sits in Pompeo’s former district, invited a sheikh named Monzer Talib to speak. Pompeo, with help from the Center for Security Policy, publicly called Talib a supporter of terrorism. (The Islamic Society’s spokesman called that “completely untrue.”) And in the face of reports that armed protesters would besiege the mosque, it cancelled the talk.
But what’s most revealing is the language of Pompeo’s condemnation. He denounced the mosque for inviting Talib to speak “on one of the most holy days on the Christian calendar,” Good Friday, “when millions of Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” Pompeo spoke to his Muslim constituents not as a Congressman bound to equally represent people of all faiths but as a partisan of Christianity, whose religious calendar he demanded they respect. The message was the same one Fransen sends when she walks through Muslim neighborhoods with a giant cross: You are guests in our land.
Pompeo’s attack on the Islamic Center of Wichita, and his claim that American Muslim leaders are “potentially complicit” in terrorism, become particularly menacing in the context of his support for designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Gaffney and Gabriel have both repeatedly claimed that the Brotherhood secretly controls America’s most prominent Muslim organizations and mosques. Pompeo has alluded to that theory himself, arguing that “there are organizations and networks here in the United States tied to radical Islam in deep and fundamental ways. They’re not just in places like Libya and Syria and Iraq, but in places like Coldwater, Kansas, and small towns all throughout America.” Designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organization would provide the legal basis for investigations that could cripple American Muslim civil society and religious life.
Rex Tillerson’s refusal to apply that designation to the Brotherhood made him a Gaffney target. He served as barrier—albeit a weak and porous one—against the president’s wanton, fevered anti-Muslim bigotry. Now, it appears, that barrier may soon be gone.
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