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Barack Obama's presidency

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Islam Basher Claims to Unmask Cleric

By Robert Parry
September 10, 2010

Last month, Steve Emerson, a propagandist with close ties to Israel’s Likud and America’s neocons, went on a national radio program and claimed that Islamic cleric Feisal Abdul Rauf would likely not “survive” Emerson’s disclosure of supposedly radical comments that Rauf made a half decade ago.

Although acknowledging that his “investigation” was incomplete, Emerson offered the listeners to Bill Bennett’s right-wing radio show  “a little preview” of the allegedly offensive comments by Rauf, the cleric behind a planned Islamic center in Lower Manhattan near the site of 9/11’s “ground zero.”

“We have found audiotapes of Imam Rauf defending Wahhabism, the puritanical version of Islam that governs Saudi Arabia; we have found him calling for the elimination of the state of Israel by claiming he wants a one-nation state meaning no more Jewish state; we found him defending bin Laden violence.”

However, when Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism released its evidence several days later, it fell far short of Emerson’s lurid descriptions. Rauf actually made points that are shared by many mainstream analysts  – and none of the excerpted comments involved “defending Wahhabism.”

As for Rauf “defending bin Laden violence,” Emerson apparently was referring to remarks that Rauf made to an audience in Australia in 2005 about the history of U.S. and Western mistreatment of people in the Middle East.

“We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al-Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims,” Rauf said.

“You may remember that the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was Secretary of State and was asked whether this was worth it, [she] said it was worth it."

Emerson purported to “fact check” Rauf’s statement on the death toll from the Iraq sanctions by claiming “a report by the British government said at most only 50,000 deaths could be attributed to the sanctions, which were brought on by the actions by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.”

What Emerson’s “fact check” ignored, however, was that Rauf was accurately recounting Leslie Stahl’s questioning of Secretary of State Albright on CBS “60 Minutes” in 1996. Emerson also left out the fact that United Nations studies did conclude that those U.S.-led sanctions caused the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five.

In the 1996 interview, Stahl told Albright regarding the sanctions, “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

Albright responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”

Later, a competing academic study by Columbia University’s Richard Garfield put the sanctions-related death toll of Iraqi children, under five, at 106,000 to 227,000.

Emerson doesn’t identify the specific British report that contains the lower figure, although even that number – 50,000 – represents a stunning death toll and doesn’t contradict Rauf’s chief point, that U.S.-British actions have killed many innocent Muslims over the years.

Also, by 2005, when Rauf made his remarks in Australia, the United States and Great Britain had invaded and occupied Iraq, with a death toll spiraling from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands with some estimates of war-related deaths in Iraq now exceeding one million.

Far from “defending bin Laden violence,” Rauf’s comments simply reflected the truth about the indiscriminate killing inflicted on the Muslim world by U.S.-British military might over the years. Indeed, British imperialism in the region dates back several centuries, a point that Emerson also ignores.

U.S.-Backed Dictators 

Emerson next takes Rauf to task for asserting that the United States has supported authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes that have driven Muslims toward extremism.

"Collateral damage is a nice thing to put on a paper but when the collateral damage is your own uncle or cousin, what passions do these arouse?” Rauf is quoted as saying. “How do you negotiate? How do you tell people whose homes have been destroyed, whose lives have been destroyed, that this does not justify your actions of terrorism. It's hard.

“Yes, it is true that it does not justify the acts of bombing innocent civilians, that does not solve the problem, but after 50 years of, in many cases, oppression, of U.S. support of authoritarian regimes that have violated human rights in the most heinous of ways, how else do people get attention?”

Emerson “fact-checked” this comment by declaring, “This is justifying acts of terrorism by blaming the United States for the oppression of Islamic regimes of their own citizens. This also ignores U.S. aid of Muslim citizens in nations such as Kosovo and Kuwait.”

However, any fair-minded observer would agree with Rauf that the United States has supported many brutal and undemocratic leaders of Muslim countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran under the Shah, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1980s.

Even President George W. Bush might agree with Rauf. A key Bush argument for “regime change” in the Middle East was the need for the United States to finally stop coddling dictators because their repressive practices were a central ingredient in the toxic brew that contributed to terrorism.

Emerson also slams Rauf for citing political – rather than strictly religious – motivations behind suicide bombings. According to an Emerson-cited clip from the 2005 talk, Rauf said:

"But what makes people, in my opinion, commit suicide for political reasons have their origins in politics and political objectives and worldly objectives rather than other worldly objectives.

“But the psychology of human beings and the brittleness of the human condition. And how many of us have thought about taking our own lives. We may be jilted, had a bad relationship, you know, didn't get tenure at the university, failed an important course, there's a host of reason why people feel so depressed with themselves that they are willing to contemplate ending their own lives.

“And if you can access those individuals and deploy them for your own worldly objectives, this is exactly what has happened in much of the Muslim world."

Again, Rauf’s comments might seem commonsensical to anyone who has studied the phenomenon of suicide attacks. It’s well known that terrorist recruiters prey upon people who have suffered some personal loss or who harbor some grievance, to transform them into suicide bombers.

But Emerson instead provides a “fact check” that accuses Rauf of trying “to negate that suicide bombings are driven by Islamic religious beliefs and trying to equate terrorist activity to someone who doesn't get tenure.” Rather than a “fact check,” the comment is a gross distortion.

Similarly, Emerson cites Rauf saying in 2005 that terrorism, “whether it was done by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or by al-Qaeda or whoever is behind the bombings in London or those in Madrid, we can see that they were target political objectives.”

Again, Rauf’s point seems beyond dispute – for instance, the bombings in London and Madrid targeted countries that had joined Bush in the invasion of Iraq – but Emerson offers another “fact check” which declares: “Rauf again seems to justify terrorist acts by equating hitting civilians with political objectives.”

Destroying Israel?

Regarding Rauf’s supposed desire to destroy Israel, Emerson singles out this comment by Rauf:

"The differences, perhaps, may lie on whether the solution lies in the two-state solution or in a one-state solution. I believe that you had someone here [in Australia] recently who spoke about having a one land and two people's solution to Israel. …

“My own personal analysis tells me that a one-state solution is a more coherent one than a two-state solution. So if we address the underlying issue, if we figure out a way to create condominiums, to condominiamise Israel and Palestine so you have two peoples co-existing on one state, then we have a different paradigm which will allow us to move forward."

Emerson “fact check” on this quote condemns Rauf’s opinion as “a euphemism for the destruction of Israel, because Palestinian Muslims will quickly outnumber the Jewish resident[s] of Israel. Such a position is advocated by radical groups, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

But the truth is that a one-state solution, in which all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine are treated equally, is a position fitting with American and other democratic principles, whereas any government that discriminates against one religious or ethnic group in favor of another goes against these values.

Many people around the world, including some leaders in Israel, have moved toward favoring a one-state solution in at least a modified form. The Washington Post’s op-ed page – a neoconservative bastion – recently published an article by George Bisharat, a law professor from the University of California, explaining why a one-state approach made more sense than trying to carve out two states.

“Although the one-state option is sometimes dismissed as utopian, it overcomes major obstacles bedeviling the two-state solution,” Bisharat wrote. “Borders need not be drawn, Jerusalem would remain undivided and Jewish settlers could stay in the West Bank. …

“A state based on principles of equality and inclusion would be more morally compelling than two states based on narrow ethnic nationalism. Furthermore, it would be more consistent with antidiscrimination provisions of international law. …

“The main obstacle to a single-state solution is the belief that Israel must be a Jewish state. Jim Crow laws and South African apartheid were similarly entrenched virtually until the eves of their demise. History suggests that no version of ethnic privilege can ultimately persist in a multiethnic society.”

Bisharat also observed that “Israeli perspectives are already beginning to shift, most intriguingly among right-wing leaders.”

He noted that former defense minister Moshe Arens had proposed that Israel annex the West Bank and grant citizenship to its residents and that Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin and Likud parliamentarian Tzipi Hotovely also have advocated citizenship for West Bank Palestinians.

Regarding the continued division of Israel and Palestine, Hotovely said, "The result is a solution that perpetuates the conflict and turns us from occupiers into perpetrators of massacres, to put it bluntly."

Though these right-wing Israeli politicians pointedly exclude Gaza and its 1.5 million Palestinians from the one-state approach, the larger point of Bisharat’s op-ed is that thoughtful Israelis of all political stripes are starting to come to grips with the consequences of more than six decades of repression against the Palestinians.

Thus, Rauf’s opinion is clearly not an extremist position, despite Emerson’s contempt for it and his effort to associate a one-state solution with the extremist Islamic Jihad.

Propagandists at Work

For much of Israel’s existence, right-wing Zionists, especially Likudniks (since the 1970s), have counted on American propagandists like Emerson to cover Israel’s political flanks in the United States. This has involved demonizing the Muslim world and Americans who express sympathy for Palestinians.

Yet, even as more enlightened thinking has begun to take hold in Israel, Emerson and similar Islam bashers have kept on whipping up American fears about Muslims.

That was what Emerson’s appearance on Bennett’s radio show was all about, as Bennett flogged his listeners to donate to Emerson “Investigative Project on Terrorism.”

Emerson depicted Americans as the victims of a radical Muslim plot to subjugate them. He also disparaged mainstream U.S. news organizations for objecting to the anti-Muslim racism that has pervaded the new, favorite right-wing “wedge issue” – the planned Islamic community center two blocks from “ground zero” in Lower Manhattan.

Emerson postured as the voice of the common man standing up to “the elites.”

“I’ve never seen in my entire adult life the arrogance and haughtiness of the elite mainstream media and Democratic leadership so far astray from the facts on the ground and the reality that this man, one, Imam Rauf is a radical extremist cleric who cloaks himself in sheep’s clothing,” Emerson said.

His voice rising, Emerson said he had just looked at Time magazine’s Web site and “saw four articles in the span of two weeks all condemning anyone who opposed the Ground Zero Mosque as a racist. Mark Halperin … wrote an outrageously stupid, biased and moronic article claiming that if we stop the Ground Zero Mosque we’re going to be creating new bin Ladens. This is the most outrageous argument.”

As the interview wore on, Emerson grew even more truculent – and more incoherent – declaring, “While the elites -- the New York Times, the Time magazines, Bloomberg, MSNBC -- they’re the elites and they think these [Islamic] groups are all fine and there’s no radicalism and there’s just the same percentage of radicalism in Islam than there is in Judaism and Christianity. …

“If stupidity and inaccuracies were crimes, the reporters of the New York Times – most of them – would be serving life sentences because they have been perpetrating the lies by radical Islamic groups that they are anti-terrorism when they’re absolutely not. …

“The bad guys are considered  legitimate moderates by CNN and NPR, when  NPR is really an enabler of the deception perpetrated by radical Islam.”

In language that bordered on threatening, Emerson boasted that his disclosure of the audiotapes would eliminate Rauf.

“Let me tell you, I don’t think he’ll survive the disclosure of these tapes,” Emerson said. “They will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the guy is an apologist for radical Islam and justifies acts of violence that he basically blames on the United States, repeatedly.

“Never once in 13 hours of lectures did he ever blame the militants for waging a war against the U.S.  He blames the U.S. for waging a war against Islam.”

However, Emerson’s statement is untrue even based on the few snippets chosen by Emerson. For instance, Rauf is quoted as saying that whatever violence has been done by the West against the Middle East, “it does not justify the acts of bombing innocent civilians” by Islamic terrorists.

Emerson also attacks Rauf’s personality and mocks the cleric’s frequent appeals to religious tolerance.

“This guy has an ego the size of Manhattan,” Emerson said. “If you listen to his words, they’re convoluted gobbledygook about interfaith stuff, and all of a sudden you see Jewish and Christian theologians falling all over themselves to say, ‘you’re wonderful, you’re the true face of Islam’ and then you see him make these other statements. That’s the reality. It’s the deception.”

Emerson’s rant prompted a frightened “Bob in Cleveland” to call in and ask, “How can we possibly prevail in the long run … if they’re militarizing and training armies and in our culture people are sitting around watching movies. Don’t we need to militarize and beef up our defense forces?”

Emerson responded by demanding that the power of the U.S. government be turned on disfavored Muslims, like Rauf, including congressional hearings, which Emerson presumably considers more likely if, as many analysts expect, the Republicans gain control of Congress in November.

The Democrats have “been so obsequious to Imam Rauf they don’t deserve to get re-elected,” Emerson said.

[For more on Emerson’s history of twisting facts to protect Likud’s interests, see’s “Rethinking Iran-Contra.”]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to  

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