Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

Last year, my colleagues Steven Corman, Jeffrey Halverson and I wrote a series of blog posts exploring Islamist reactions to anti-Islam and anti-Muslim events in the US, including the debate over the Park51 Islamic Center and an American pastor’s proposal to burn a Qur’an on 9/11, among others. One of the points we made in our final post was that these events fuel the extremist narrative that the US and its allies are at war with Islam, rather than counter the extremists’ messages. We also argued that the State Department could play a more proactive role in refuting the acts and rhetoric that damages the American message abroad, especially since the acts and rhetoric were mainly coming from private citizens, and not the government. What to do, however, when it is the government itself that is making the gaffes?

Last week a story about an FBI trainer gained a lot of traction in both the American mainstream media as well as various online outlets including blogs and news sites. William Gawthrop, who is an instructor at the American Military University and has held several positions in national security and intelligence, also trains law enforcement officials in counterterrorism. On June 8 he was discovered to have been continuing to conduct law enforcement training lectures that repeat messages about Islam and Muslims, even though the FBI claimed that the presentation was a one time affair that ended in April after fierce criticism of its content. Gawthrop’s analysis, which essentially states that the problem isn’t radical Muslims but Islam itself, was spread to a room full of law enforcement officials who likely trusted that their source of information was not only better informed that they were, but well informed. Gawthrop violated this trust, however, and delivered a lecture that demonized Islam.

Counterterrorism experts have widely criticized Gawthrop, yet he continues to misinform law enforcement. From a Wired article (with a video clip of the presentation), here is Aki Peritz, a former analyst with the National Counterterrorism Center:

This is mind-numbingly stupid and dangerous. If we were to follow his idea to a logical extension, that means we have individuals in every single government agency, at top levels, from CIA to the Defense Department to members of Congress, that are part of this cabal to destroy Western civilization. If you truly believe that, then this is McCarthyism on steroids.

Not only did this story spread through US media, but it spread to extremists sites where it was touted as evidence that the US was actually at war with Islam; Gawthrop’s plays right into the terrorists’ narrative. First, some of what Gawthrop said.

Gawthrop’s assertion that Islam was 17 percent religion and 83 percent ideology might have seemed charitable when compared to Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilder’s assertion that the proportion are more like 5 percent and 95 percent, respectively. Both comments cry out for an explanation, however; how in the world did Gawthrop come up with that number? He doesn’t say. Most offensive, however, is his general demonization of Islam, comparing Muslims to iron filings and stating that Islam is like a magnet determining their movement, and whose “force is exerted against you” — a room full of New York City police officers. Most dangerous is his claim that instead of focusing our counterterrorism efforts on groups such as al Qaeda, we should instead focus them on the “ideology” of Islam. Gawthrop cites Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which has been widely criticized for its lack of depth and understanding and broad generalizations of the “civilizations” that Huntington purports are destined to fight each other.

This kind of disinformation about Islam is unfortunate because it spreads incorrect and dangerous ideas to American law enforcement, and increases tension between them and the American Muslim community. This tension causes distrust, and makes law enforcement more difficult. Yet it is not simply a domestic problem.

Not only did this story spread through US media, but it spread to extremists sites where it was touted as evidence that the US was actually at war with Islam; Gawthrop’s ideas are consistent with Islamist extremists’ narrative. It plays directly into the hands of Islamist extremists the world over, and bolsters their message that America’s desire to end Islamist terrorism is really a war on the religion of Islam itself. This message could be effective at drawing recruits to terrorism. But is the message really spreading? Is the Muslim world paying attention?

The answer is a definite yes. In Southeast Asia, Islamist extremists have picked up the story about Gawthrop and spread it, including on social media cites such as Facebook. Posted Wednesday, September 21, the ar Rahmah story on Gawthrop’s lecture had nearly 3000 hits by Thursday afternoon, and the link was recommended by 811 people on Facebook. On their Facebook posting of the same story, it was “liked” by 101 people, and 30 comments. Comments range from the hope that non-believers will find one day find Islam to agreeing that this is proof that the United States is at war with Islam. Some of these comments include violent rhetoric. Does this mean everyone who posted comments will take up arms against the United States? Of course not. But will they spread the message that Americans are admitting that they are at war with Islam? Almost certainly, and this can lead to radicalization. In the Arab-speaking world, the story spread as well; Islamist Ansar al Jihad, for example, has posted it. The story has also been reported in mainstream news outlets in the Muslim world.

This is similar to a flap that occured last week, when an FBI manual was found to contain similar anti-Islam sentiments. In one graph, the manual argued that the more devout a Muslim was, the more likely the Muslim was to be violent. This story was also reported in the Muslim world, for example here on al Jazeera (this is the English language version), an here on Islamist site Islamic Awakening.

The United States Government has repeatedly acknowledged that it needs to work on its message to the Muslim world. This latest flap shows that it also needs to work on its message to Americans, because the wider Muslim world continues to pay attention.

 UPDATE, January 26, 2012

In another example of a messaging gaffe on the part of the American law enforcement, the film “The Third Jihad,” an anti-Muslim film that purports to show the threat to the United States from American Muslims, continued to be shown to law enforcement oficers despite widespread condemnation and statements that it was no longer shown, according to the New York Times and other sources.

The film is another example of anti-Muslim scare tactics that do not reflect reality, but rather complement the Islamist extremists’ messages that the US is at war with Islam. “This is the true agenda of much of Muslim leadership here in America… A strategy to infliltrate and dominate America… This is the war you don’t know about,” warns a narrator. Using this kind of misinformation to train law enforcement is not only mind boggling, but it creates clear difficulties and mistrust between law enforcement and the Muslim community.

The New York city Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is featured in the film, but a police spokesman initially denied that he participated, stating that his presence in the film was based on old interviews. The film’s website, however, contradicts that claim and states that the Commissioner sat for an exclusive 90-minute interview. Yesterday the New York Times printed a story describing Kelly’s acknowledgement and regret at having participated in the film.

The film shows inflammatory images such as an Islamic flag flying over the White House. Images such as these are easily obtained from Islamist extremist sites, but to portray them as common ideas among American Muslims is grossly misleading. Furthermore, in a statement defending the film, its producer Raphael Shore argues that it is based on information provided by terrorism experts, including Kelly and Rudolph Giuliani. These two may have tactical knowledge regarding how to deal with terrorism, but I question the depth of their knowledge of Islam as a religion, or even Islamist movements in general, based on their statements. And despite what the Islamist extremists and the anti-Islam propagandists want us to believe, the two are very different subjects.