Jeff Sessions and the Islamophobia Industry

Trump's pick for attorney general has close ties to the worst of the Islamophobic far right.

Jeff Sessions at a Trump campaign rally in Phoenix, AZ. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Jeff Sessions will likely go up for a confirmation vote this week to become the next US attorney general. Much has been written about the Alabama senator’s racist history, including his hostility to the Voting Rights Act and his disturbing remarks about the Ku Klux Klan, which in 1986 led to his rejection for a federal judgeship.

Less is known about Sessions’s close ties to the well-funded bloc of extremist anti-Muslim activists that author Nathan Lean has called the “Islamophobia industry.”

The Islamophobia industry refers to the network of extremist anti-Muslim alarmists and fearmongers who warn of things like “creeping Sharia law” and “Islamofascism.” Leans calls them “a right-wing cadre of intellectual hucksters, bloggers, politicians, pundits, and religious leaders” who for years “have labored behind the scenes to convince their compatriots that Muslims are the enemy, exhuming the ghosts of 9/11 and dangling them before the eyes of horrified populations for great fortune and fame.”

In other words, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill anti-Islam bigots. This is a network of zealous, far-right astroturf organizers, the worst of the Islamophobes, who seek to foment a war on Muslims.

And people like Jeff Sessions are helping their worldview move from the political fringe to the commanding heights of power.

Sessions and Breitbart

A window into Sessions’s relationship with the extremist Islamophobic right is his longtime relationship with David Horowitz, a key funder and ideologue of the far right. Horowitz, of course, is the Marxist-turned-conservative who has made a career out of bashing academics, baiting the Left, and professing a litany of racist, xenophobic, and otherwise despicable views. He’s worked through vehicles like his Frontpage magazine website and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, relying on big donors to help sustain his operations. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called Horowitz “the godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement.”

According to a recent Politico article, Sessions and Horowitz are “old friends.” In fact, it was Horowitz who recommended his young mentee, Stephen Miller, as a political aide to Sessions in 2009. Miller is now a senior adviser to the president; he co-wrote Trump’s dark, nativist inaugural speech along with Steve Bannon.

Miller had been president of the Duke University chapter of Horowitz’s front group, Students for Academic Freedom. As Sessions’s political aide, he was supposedly the brains behind the Alabama senator’s leading role in defeating immigration reform in 2014. Horowitz recently called Miller his “conduit” to Sessions.

More than that, Miller came to develop a close relationship with Breitbart News while serving as Sessions’s aide. He even organized weekly happy hour hang-outs with Breitbart reporters which Sessions attended.

The Sessions-Breitbart ties run deep. Steve Bannon has high praise for Sessions and interviewed him multiple times for Breitbart News. In one of the interviews, Sessions had this to say about Breitbart:

Let me just stop a minute and say Breitbart has been the absolute bright spot in this whole debate. You get it, your writers get it, every day they find new information that I use repeatedly in debate on the floor of the Senate because it’s highlighting the kind of problems that we have.

The Horowitz Empire

While David Horowitz helped pave the way for a Bannon-Sessions alliance via Stephen Miller, the Sessions-Horowitz friendship runs deeper.

In 2014, the David Horowitz Freedom Center awarded Sessions their “Annie Taylor Award for Courage.” Sessions praised Horowitz in his acceptance speech: “I’ve seen some great people receive this, David, and it’s a special treat and pleasure for me because you know how much I admire you.” When Sessions was pressed on his association with Horowitz during his recent confirmation hearings, he doubled up, calling Horowitz “a most brilliant individual” with “a remarkable story” and who he didn’t believe to be a racist.

The attorney general to-be shares quite the slate of fellow Annie Taylor Award alums. In 2016, the prize went to Milo Yiannopoulos, the immigrant-bashing, transphobic, Islamophobic Breitbart writer and digital editor. And in 2010, the award went to another leading extremist anti-Muslim zealot, Pamela Geller.

It would be bad enough if Sessions’s association with the Horowitz Freedom Center only went as far as his 2014 award. But in fact, Sessions attended and spoke at events in 2013, 2010, 2008 and even as far back as 2003.

But the significance of Sessions’s links to the Horowitz Center aren’t fully appreciated unless we look at Horowitz’s connections to the worst of the Islamophobic far right.

The Horowitz Center funds the Jihad Watch website, run by Robert Spencer, a prolific writer of anti-Islam books, with titles like Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam.

Perhaps worse than Spencer — and he’s a tough act to follow — is Pamela Geller. She heads up Stop Islamization of America and was at the forefront of the absurd campaign to prevent an Islamic community center from being built near the site of Ground Zero. Her outlandish claims — for example, that the State Department was run by “Islamic Supremacists” — have been widely profiled.

Geller and Spencer are close allies. Together in 2010 they co-founded the American Freedom Defense Initiative, whose website declares that  “AFDI acts against the treason being committed by national, state, and local government officials, the mainstream media, and others in their capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism.”

Among other things, Geller and Spencer notoriously spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on anti-Muslim ads that ran on San Francisco, Washington DC, and New York City buses. And they’ve done it all with lavish funding from multi-millionaire donor networks — including from Jeff Sessions’s friend David Horowitz.

And of course, Geller and Spencer are also tight with Sessions’s friend Steve Bannon. Bannon’s personally interviewed the two on his Breitbart show, and he also organized a renegade panel (called “The Uninvited”) with them at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference.

Dark and Warped

So, to be clear: the United States is set to have an attorney general who has a long, active history of belonging to a circle of political characters like Horowitz, Spencer, and Geller — the vanguard of the extremist Islamophobic far right who, by many indications, Sessions sees as kindred spirits.

(This visual network map can also take you through the connections).

If all this is any sign, Sessions shares the administration’s dark and warped view of Islam and will work hard as attorney general to support Trump’s Muslim ban and to increase the demonization and criminalization of Muslims.

Luckily, in recent weeks we’ve seen the birth of a powerful countervailing force: tens of thousands of people across the country who have taken to the streets and airports to block the Bannon-Horowitz-Sessions-Trump agenda of racism and hate. This movement has created both the climate and the pressure for legal resistance to Trump’s immoral and unconstitutional order.

With the worst kinds of extremist ideologues in the highest positions of executive power, left and progressive forces will have to keep up the pressure to prevent as much damage as possible and to defend the rights and well-being of Muslims in the United States. But if recent events are any indication, we might be able to do it.