Rep. Bachmann’s Witch Hunt
This past week, Minnesota Tea Party Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four other Members of Congress escalated her witch hunt, claiming the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated Congress and national security agencies. A prime target is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s close longtime aide Huma Abedein. Joe McCarthy, anyone? Salon.com political reporter Alex Seitz-Wald, who has led coverage of this story, joins us this week to expose what he thinks is really going on.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon.com[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio. I’m Welton Gaddy.
As much of the media focus on the daily minutiae of the Presidential horse race, there’s a lot more going on in government and politics that’s not getting nearly as much attention. Sure, Congress keeps voting to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act – we’re just running up the numbers on that one. And important budgetary principles are being debated, with giant implications for the poor and middle class in this country.
And then there’s this: when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt this past week, her motorcade came under attack – the target of hurled shoes and tomatoes. Subsequent reports suggest that part of the provocation was the irresponsible anti-Muslim rhetoric infecting the House of Representatives thanks to failed presidential candidate and founder of the Tea Party Caucus Michele Bachmann.
Joining me now to talk about this bizarre campaign is Salon.com political reporter Alex Seitz-Wald, who has done an incredibly thorough job of covering this fast-moving story. Alex, welcome to State of Belief Radio, and thank you for what you’ve done on this story.[ALEX SEITZ-WALD, GUEST]: Thank you so much for having me. [WG]: If you would, please, start with just a little background – because you probably know more about this than anyone with whom I’ve talked. [AS]: Well, I appreciate that. Sure, so in June, Michele Bachmann and four of her colleagues sent five letters to various national security agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, Homeland Security and the Intelligence Directorate and the Department of Justice, asking them to investigate potential infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood into the ranks of the highest levels of the National Security apparatus. And they named names; specifically, they singled out Huma Abedin, who’s a top aide to Hillary Clinton and the wife of former Congressman Anthony Wiener from New York, and they also took problems with the way the Department of Homeland Security had investigated the Fort Hood shooting – and all this was based on very thinly-sourced evidence, based on nothing, really. The work of a guy named Frank Gaffney, who’s been around Washington DC for a long time, she cites him very prominently all of her letters; and he’s basically made a career out of accusing anyone and everyone of being a secret terrorist or a secret Muslim Brotherhood infiltrator.
This has launched a huge storm. She was condemned by Senator John McCain, former presidential candidate, on the senate floor; and many other leaders: speaker John Boehner, another Republican, Senator Scott Brown, Marco Rubio – have all come out and spoken out against her. There’ve been accusations that this is like Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist attack and I think that’s a very fair comparison. So she’s basically launching a witch hunt, here, into Muslims and has no evidence to support it.[WG]: So, if we take her – and there’s a big “if” there – if we take her at face value, what is it that Michele Bachmann is trying to achieve with the witch hunt? Now, I’m going to ask you, after you answer that, whether or not we can take her for face value, but if we were, what is she trying to achieve? [AS]: Well she’s alleging that, you know, a very serious accusation and an accusation that should be taken seriously which is that enemies of the United States, terrorists, the Muslim Brotherhood specifically – which is, you know, a large Islamicist movement, they just took power in Egypt where they were touted but they have chapters all over the world, and they have been connected to violence in various places. She’s alleging that they have agents, you know, secret infiltrators throughout the US government in the highest levels of the National Security apparatus; and that they’ve been conducting policy, they’ve been moving policy in a way that’s beneficial to the Muslim Brotherhood and harmful to US interests. So that’s what, you know, that’s a very serious accusation; and if true, that would obviously have wide-ranging consequences and would be a huge breach security. So that’s the answer for if we’re going to take her seriously. [WG]: Ok. Can we take her seriously? Do you take her at face value? [AS]: Absolutely not. I mean, so first of all let’s start by the fact that we’re even talking about this today. If you were really going to start an investigation into secret infiltrators, you know, spies basically, you would not announce it to the world. That just is basic common sense; if you’re going after somebody who is hiding, you’re not going to let them know that you’re going after them. But instead of going secretly, privately, confidentially – which she could’ve done – to these various agencies and telling them: “Hey, I have information that might be of use to you, you need to look into these people,” she put it on her website! She went on a conservative talk radio show to announce that she was doing this, and she made it a public affair. So this is clearly not, in my mind, a serious, earnest attempt to root out security concerns. This is a publicity ploy for her and, you know, is more about politics than about security. [WG]: I want to play – you mentioned in your remarks, or referenced, the comments coming from Senator John McCain this past week; I want to play a quick excerpt from a floor speech that you talked about regarding this kind of McCarthyesque witch hunt by Michele Bachmann and her sympathizers: [SEN. JOHN McCAIN RECORDING]: “These attacks have no logic, no basis and no merit and they need to stop, they need to stop now. … This is about who we are as a nation and who we aspire to be. What makes America exceptional among the countries of the world is that we are bound together as citizens not by blood or class, not by sect or ethnicicity, but by a set of enduring universal and equal rights that are the foundatiosn of our constitution, our laws, our citizenry and our identity. When anyone, not least a member of Congress launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation and we all grow poorer because of it.” [WG]: How did Bachmann come to focus on Secretary of State Clinton’s close longtime aide Huma Abedin? [AS]: That’s a great question; I mean, we can’t know, you know, what she’s thinking, but Huma Abedin has been targeted by, I would say, Islamophobic elements in the conservative movement for many years now. If you Google her, you can find countless blog entries alleging connections to the Muslim Brotherhood or what-not. She is Muslim, her parents were well known Muslim academics. So I think that being one of the few high-profile Muslims in the US government, I think that, right there, makes her a target. And Frank Gaffney, whom I mentioned earlier, who is sort of the intellectual inspiration behind all of her work and where most of her research comes from, he’s been going after Huma Abedin for a long time as well. But why all of a sudden? I would, if I had to guess, I would say that it’s about the election coming up, and she’s looking to make, you know, a political issue here, to kind of gin up her base and to get people excited; and unfortunately, this does sell in the, kind of, Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. [WG]: You know, I just – I have all kinds of trouble with that, because there is absolutely nothing patriotic about that; in fact, I almost want to talk about it as anti-patriotism for anybody that would use an issue that serious to gain attention or to raise funds for their own political interests. I just find that offensive. [AS]: Absolutely. And so does John McCain, you know, a war hero who – I mean, I was really moved by his comments, and that’s exactly what he said. You know, he said that Huma Abedin, contrary to what Michele Bachmann would have you believe, is the epitome of the American dream, the American ideal: she’s worked hard, she’s succeeded, she’s a, you know, a patriotic American – and that’s exactly the values of the country should be about. But this is just the most cynical stooping to the lowest common denominator, divisive kinds of attacks that are exactly contrary to the highest ideals of tolerance and religious acceptance; and frankly, you know, criminal justice with innocent until proven guilty. But what happens, they’ve gone after people – this, kind of, cottage industry of folks have gone after people in – Republicans, Democrats in the Bush administration, the Obama administration – and these allegations stick with people for years. You can never escape them, because once they’ve been accused of it, it just hangs around them forever, even when there’s nothing to it. [WG]: Yeah. Do you agree with the commentators who’re saying this kind of rhetoric is hurting our foreign affairs, as demonstrated by the incident in Egypt? [AS]: Certainly the incident in Egypt is very troubling. I think it’s too early to say how much consequence this particular incident will have; but this kind of thinking, I think, is very dangerous – I mean, especially when it just, it goes against everything that we try to present ourselves – how we try to present ourselves – abroad. So people who are looking to cast aspersions on the United States – they can point to this and say: “Look, they claim to be inclusive and to be democratic and to be tolerant, but look at what they’re doing to one of their top people in the State Department – they’re going after her.” I mean, it’s just prepackaged propaganda for the exact kind of people that Michele Bachmann is claiming to be fighting. [WG]: You know, I also have to ask what this does for unity among Americans of different backgrounds and faith traditions. I’m always surprised to hear some people say that the issue of Islamophobia is overplayed by groups like Interfaith Alliance, and that there’s really no widespread problem; but when a figure like 700 Club host Pat Robertson can counsel a viewer to not marry a woman because of her Islamic faith, and when, really, a fringe character like Michele Bachmann – whose other initiatives have involved things like protesting light bulbs and adding protection for the dollar to the US constitution – can launch this kind of assault on our legislative security bodies – it really highlights how far we still have to go, doesn’t it? [AS]: Absolutely. And I think it creates a chilling effect on people, you know, Christian and Jewish groups that would want to reach out to Muslim groups, that might feel uncomfortable with it but they want make a good faith effort to do that. These kinds of attacks that Michele Bachmann is doing – they make that more difficult to happen. Because now, all of a sudden, even if you don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Mosque down the street, but if you’re afraid that somebody is going to attack you for reaching out to them, that might stop you from doing that. And think about all the, you know, we need Arabic speakers, we need people in the US government, in our national security apparatus, who would want to join up – if you can be the subject of a witch hunt and have your career potentially ruined over nothing, when you have things like these going on. So I think it’s absolutely divisive and toxic and, you know, so far, twelve years after 9-11 – or almost twelve years – I would hope we would be beyond that but we still clearly have a lot of work to do. [WG]: Well in addition to senator McCain, Representative Keith Ellison, a Muslim member of Congress, has spoken out strongly in opposition to Bachmann’s campaign. Who else is bringing a voice of reason to all of this? [AS]: Well, I will say Keith Ellison has been tremendous on this, and I think he should be given a lot of credit. He really – I think this would not have been noticed, and we would not even be talking about this today if it were not for Keith Ellison. This was kind of an effort that I think Bachmann was trying to do to appeal just to her base and not to a wider audience; and I think she kind of got caught when it became a bigger issue, and so I think we have Keith Ellison to thank for that.
Beyond that, we’ve seen some Democrats – Nancy Pelosi put out a statement last night condemning it, there’ve been a few others – but I think, frankly, we need to see more. I would like to see, you know, the President potentially coming out, I’d like to see Mitt Romney coming out. It’s still early on here and, you know, I think there’s a tendency – I’ve talked to some Democrats who say they don’t want to give this oxygen, they don’t want to, you know, raise its platform by speaking against it – which I understand, but I think, unlike a lot of her other crazy conspiratorial charges that Michele Bachmann has made, this one is different, because it has real consequences for real people – and we should draw a strong line against it.[WG]: I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t want you to have to speculate, but with all that you do know about this story, you have ideas about how it may play out? [AS]: Well, the momentum has certainly shifted against her. I don’t think, I did hear, I talked to someone today who mentioned the “C” word, censure. I don’t think that’s likely at all; that’s of course what happened to Joseph McCarthy but it took many years, but he was much more active, he had the, there were active investigations going on constantly that he was leading. This has, so far, been one effort, one round of letters, so I don’t think that that is going to happen, or necessarily warranted; but I think there will be political fallout for Michele Bachmann and for her cohort who joined on her letter. [WG]: I tell you what, I appreciate the work that you’ve done on it. There is a lot to be learned, friends, from this story regarding both the power any misguided legislator has to cause trouble on Capitol Hill, and the diplomatic ramifications of campaigns that can only be seen as attempts at influencing domestic politics. The coverage this story has received at Salon.com has been outstanding and we’ve been keeping the author of that coverage, political reporter Alex Seitz-Wald, from updating it further. He wants to get back to that task, so, Alex, we’ll let you go back to work, and I really thank you so much for taking time to be with us on State of Belief Radio. [AS]: Thanks so much for having me.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.