Michelle Bachmann‘s latest antics have provoked an unusually strong backlash. The latest development came Wednesday, when hawkish Republican Sen. John McCain denounced Bachmann for making “sinister accusations” that “have no logic, no basis, and no merit.” McCain was referring to Bachmann’s insinuations that longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin may be tied to an allegedly large-scale Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the U.S. government. (Abedin is otherwise known as the wife of former congressman Anthony Weiner.) Perhaps the funniest take comes from Juan Cole, who uses Bachmann’s own haphazard guilt-by-association methods to prove that she herself is a Brotherhood agent.
While the sheer nuttiness of Bachmann’s accusations has understandably prevented commentators from taking them seriously, we should at least recognize that they spring from a broader nexus of conspiratorial thinking about Muslims that has far wider currency on the right. As I’ve written elsewhere, there has been a mini-boomlet of these conspiracy theories since President Obama’s election, fueled by a set of common tropes: the omnipresence of Muslim Brotherhood infiltration among American Muslims, the “creeping” spread of sharia law through the American judicial system, and the aiding and abetting of these currents by the ambiguously-Muslim Obama himself.
Bachmann and her congressional allies were clearly working from this playbook. Allegations against Huma Abedin herself are not new; only last year, well-connected neoconservative political operative Eliana Benador suggested that Weiner may have secretly converted to Islam upon marrying her. (Benador justified this strange theory with reference to another trope of the literature — the alleged pervasive reliance of Muslims on taqiyya, i.e. religiously-sanctioned deception.)
Allegations of crypto-Muslim identity are also far from unique to Weiner; Center for Security Policy (CSP) chief Frank Gaffney, for instance, took to the Washington Times soon after Obama’s Cairo speech to suggest that “the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself.” Gaffney, not coincidently, was the main source for Bachmann’s original letter against Abedin — although, as Alex Seitz-Wald notes, he was dropped from Bachmann’s latest defense of her position. Yet Bachmann has a long history of relying on Gaffney’s half-baked theories; she and Rep. Trent Franks (another signatory of the Abedin letter) were two sponsors of the 2010 CSP report “Sharia: The Threat to America,” which advocated harsh McCarthyite prescriptions against Muslims to counter the alleged spread of sharia in America. (Still another signatory of the Abedin letter was Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, perhaps best known for 2008 comments in which he disparaged Barack and Michelle Obama as “uppity.”)
The mastermind of the broader anti-sharia movement is a Gaffney staffer, CSP counsel David Yerushalmi, who — prior to cloaking his intentions in rhetoric about sharia — advocated making “adherence to Islam,” in any form, “a felony punishable by 20 years in prison.” Yerushalmi himself has recently published in support of anti-sharia legislation in National Review, the conservative flagship, at the invitation of Andy McCarthy, yet another Bachmann favorite, whose book The Grand Jihad is perhaps the leading text claiming an Obama-backed Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy against America. And so on.
All this is merely to say that if John McCain is sincerely concerned about Bachmann’s latest fulminations, he should recognize that they have much deeper roots than he might like to admit. This kind of zany Islamophobia has taken hold of a large portion of the right, and getting rid of it will require more than a few ad hoc interventions.