Spying on Muslims, Good; Spying on Christians, Bad

Photograph Source: David Geitgey Sierralupe – CC BY 2.0

The FBI has retracted a document showing that its “Richmond division launched an investigation into ‘radical traditionalist’ Catholics and their possible ties to ‘the far-right white nationalist movement,’” because, as the FBI said, the document “does not meet our exacting standards” (Catholic News Agency, 2/9/23).

With the US right using the FBI’s investigation into former President Donald Trump as proof that the federal law enforcement agency is run by the radical left (Mother Jones, 9/4/22), the latest news has become new ammo in the conservative cultural offensive.

The National Review (2/10/23) called the FBI document “slander,” and (2/8/23)  that the “federal side-eye falling on a minority of Catholics is a predictable outcome of the war-on-terror suspicion” coupled “with the intel community’s [sic] and political elite’s alienation from religion as practiced in America.”

Fox News (2/12/23) called it proof of the federal government’s persecution of conservatives. The former FBI agent who exposed the document told Fox’s top news host Tucker Carlson (2/10/23), “They have found a gateway in what they think is fringe Catholicism in order to move into Christians in general,” adding that the federal government wants to “declare them to be the actual criminals in this country or the potential terrorists.”

The Washington Examiner (2/11/23) quoted Catholic League President Bill Donohue, saying “There hasn’t been a wave of virulent anti-Catholicism in the West like what we are currently witnessing in at least a hundred years.” The Federalist (2/13/23) said this wasn’t new, because the “Department of Justice, FBI and federal government in general have repeatedly targeted conservatives for their speech and beliefs.” Nearly two dozen state attorneys general are calling for an investigation into the matter (Catholic News Agency, 2/13/23). The Wall Street Journal editorial board (2/15/23) said Republicans are “accusing the Federal Bureau of Investigation of political bias, and the bureau certainly isn’t helping its own defense.”

The FBI document has been linked to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which outlined several radical traditional Catholic hate groups, differentiating the extremist ideology from the larger community of devout Catholics as “Adherents of radical traditional Catholicism, or ‘integrism,'” who target “Jews as ‘the perpetual enemy of Christ.'” Rad trads als “reject the ecumenical efforts of the Vatican, and sometimes even assert that recent popes have all been illegitimate,” SPLC said. It went on “These groups are incensed by the liberalizing reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which condemned hatred for the Jews and rejected the accusation that Jews are collectively responsible for deicide in the form of the crucifixion of Christ.”

The Daily Signal (2/10/23), the outlet of the Heritage Foundation, in announcing a freedom of information request about other such documents that might exist, dismissed the SPLC summary and its work generally, saying that it “brands mainstream conservative and Christian nonprofits ‘hate groups,’ putting them on a map with the Ku Klux Klan.”

At the Washington Post (2/13/23), syndicated conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt said “My Rad Trad friends are—every one of them—kind, generous and devout folks who take very seriously their duties.” He added, “It seems the FBI is bent on hounding harmless people — if they are conservatives.”

Hewitt insisted that FBI Director Christopher Wray “must firmly and forcefully bring hammers down on those ideological outliers and political partisans operating inside the bureau” who led the charge against radical Catholics. “Congress should give Wray the power to toss them out without the endless process that surrounds even minor disciplining of civil service-protected careerists.”

The FBI directive is so vague in its assertion that radical traditionalists pose a threat to public safety that Catholics and non-Catholics alike should be alarmed at the federal agency’s sloppiness. For example, Ben Lorber, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, said that “an approach which further empowers state surveillance and civil liberties violations harms our democracy, and puts actually-marginalized communities in danger down the line.”

And for right-wing media, linking the SPLC’s research to the FBI’s directive fits the narrative that the agency is in bed with the left. The “rad trad” movement has, indeed, raised eyebrows among observers of the far-right, as there is “considerable overlap between online trad-Cath communities and white nationalist movements like the groypers, which were active in the January 6 insurrection,” said Lorber, adding that that they “target LGBTQ people, Jews and other minorities.”

The QAnon conspiracy theory, the driving ideological force in the failed insurrection at the Capitol, is now a growing influence among American Catholics who oppose the generally liberal Pope Francis (Religion Dispatches, 12/1/21).

And yet, it is one thing to say crazy, extreme things and to actually do them. No one wants to think federal agents might be posing as attendees at their house of worship because of some fringe extremists.

But the problem here is that many of the right-wing outlets lambasting the memo are the same who supported wide-ranging law enforcement surveillance in Muslim communities.

National Review (3/26/16) said “surveillance in Muslim communities is indispensable for defeating terrorism,” and celebrated (3/24/09) the FBI cutting ties with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, saying “establishing sharia [Islamic law] is the central imperative of CAIR and several other organizations to which our government has recklessly been reaching out for years.”

The editorial board of the New York Post (11/28/19), part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire along with Fox News, hailed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as he ran for president in the 2020 Democratic primary race, saying critics of police surveillance of the city’s Muslim community under his watch at mayor was “cause to be proud,” because cops went to Muslim communities “to become more familiar with them and gain background info for future investigations or leads on possible attacks.”

The AP won a Pulitzer Prize for its series documenting the NYPD spying, which the New York Times editorial board (9/8/13) called an “indefensible program of spying on law-abiding Muslims.” But the right thought differently.

Fox News (1/13/15) even carried an AP story about Muslims who support surveillance in their communities, and quoted (11/21/15) an Muslim journalist who defended surveillance, because “we use religion as a cover.”

Bill O’Reilly, then a bombastic Fox News host, debated the publisher of the Arab American News, Osama Siblani, on the ending of the NYPD snooping program. The Fox host (4/22/14) said that it was letting “them attack first,” while Siblani said he was standing up for constitutional rights (Arab American News, 4/25/14).

The Wall Street Journal editorial board (6/8/16) said cops were “right all along” in spying on Muslims in New York City.

Hewitt said at the Washington Post that the FBI document was a reason to clean house at the agency, but he has also promoted (Twitter, 11/1/17) a book on FBI surveillance of Muslims, in addition to downplaying the Trump administration’s Muslim ban (Twitter, 10/12/20).

Then New York Republican Rep. Peter King – who once declared that there are “too many mosques” in the United States (Politico, 9/19/07) – told Fox News (12/28/15) the country needed “better surveillance of mosques” in the US because “Islamic terrorists visit them,” adding “that critics can ‘cry all they want’ about the tactic amounting to a civil liberties violation.”

In the New York City case, the spying was widespread and, as the American Civil Liberties Union explained, unconstitutional. The ACLU said the “NYPD’s Intelligence Division has singled out Muslim religious and community leaders, mosques, student associations, organizations, businesses, and individuals for pervasive surveillance,” which was “discriminatory and not conducted against institutions or individuals belonging to any other religious faith, or the public at large.”

There’s no real evidence that the FBI document regarding radical traditional Catholics has resulted in the kind of widespread spying Muslims endured under Bloomberg. Yet conservative media treat these things very differently. And the FBI quickly distanced itself from the document regarding Catholics, while law enforcement spying on Muslims resulted in long legal and political struggles (Guardian, 4/5/18; ACLU, 3/4/22).

The touchstone in all of these defenses of this targeted surveillance of Muslim communities is the 9/11 terrorist attack that is so seared into the American consciousness. We have to do anything to stop that from happening again, right? But that’s still not a just excuse for the double standard. Before 9/11, the worst terrorist attack on American soil had been the Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by a white, Christian nationalist – Timothy McVeigh –  who remains dangerously relevant among today’s extremists (ABC, 10/6/20).

It would be wrong to use someone like McVeigh as a reason for the FBI to start tracking Christians generally, but then, that logic would follow for people of other faiths. The right-wing media’s double standard here is telling, essentially elevating one religion as sacred and another a suspicious element. Religious Catholics—especially those who strongly oppose abortion and LGBT rights—are an essential part of cultural conservatism. Democrats and Republicans both do well with Catholic voters (Pew Research, 9/15/20), so it is obvious that the latest attempt to paint the Biden administration (the president is Catholic, by the way, the second Catholic chief executive in US history) as somehow anti-Catholic is linked to election hopes.

And while the FBI document targeted a very specific group of Catholics, the conservative media spin has insinuated that it is a greater bias against Christians—the idea being that if this can happen to traditional Catholics, it could happen to Protestants. Of course, we all got that warning a while ago: If it could happen to Muslims, it could happen to anyone. But that message doesn’t fit with these outlets’ politics.

It’s further evidence that even the mainstream outlets of US conservatism are motivated in large part by naked Christian supremacism. Or as Lorber said, “It is ironic, and not surprising,” that the outlets and pundits who are “now concerned about the civil liberties of radical-right Catholics, have been supportive, or remained silent, over the many years that the state has curbed the civil liberties of other groups.”