Islamism’s No-Show at CPAC

My effort to find concern for U.S. national security at the Conservative Political Action Conference 2013.

To watch Robert Spencer's and Pamela Geller's speeches on the "Uninvited Panel," click here.

At the fortieth annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past March 14-16, 2013 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center just outside of Washington, DC, the Center for Security Policy’s (CSP) Christine Brim complained of an “amateurish view” of national security “unworthy of CPAC.”   Brim and other CPAC attendees charged CPAC’s organizers, the American Conservative Union (ACU), with neglecting national security issues, particularly those involving multiple interrelated global Islamist threats.   This national security component, which along with economic freedom and family values comprises conservatism’s traditionally-defined “three-legged stool,” did not receive the attention merited by a still dangerous world.

Interviewed at CSP’s booth in the exhibit hall, Brim attributed to CPAC 2013 a “deeply dangerous” outlook of living in the “best of all possible worlds” famously manifested by Voltaire’s thinker Pangloss in Candide.  Some CPAC panels even had “whether or not we should defend America” as a theme, something that before was “not a conservative question.”  In contrast, Brim wanted CPAC to return to discussing the “broader issue of US leadership in the world” according to Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” formula.

In particular, Brim complained of a “token number” of national security discussions at CPAC.  Indeed, the CPAC schedule reveals that only six panels (3% of the total, including one about military voting) had any relevance to national security, while 68 other panels covered assorted social, economic, and political organizing issues.  Brim wished for 2014 a “much greater number” of national security panels on topics such as border control, asymmetric warfare, cyber security, transnational movements (e.g. Hezbollah), and legal efforts “to de-legitimate drones.”

Almost completely missing from CPAC’s schedule was any discussion of a global authoritarian and aggressive Islamist threat, something disappointing many CPAC attendees.  Ann-Marie Murrell of Politichicks, for example, considered this to be a “real travesty” concerning “our number one enemy.” Questioned after his appearance on the panel “Religious Freedom:  A Winning Issue for Conservatives,” Rabbi Aryeh Spero also felt that CPAC was neglecting “one of the most important issues facing Western Civilization and America.”  Briefly questioned in the hallways, Phyllis Schlafly commented that Islamism is “neglected everywhere.”  Representative Allen West claimed to have not examined the CPAC schedule, but warned that this topic deserved examination because of a “slight, little infiltration” of Islamists in the United States.

John Hawkins of the Tea Party News Network (TPNN) also expressed a desire “to see more” on Islamism at CPAC.  Hawkins mentioned that in the past the “Ground Zero Mosque was a big thing for me.”  Hawkins' reaction was interesting given that he is “not a fan” of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.  Although Hawkins has interacted with Geller and Spencer in the past, Hawkins fell out with the pair after Spencer’s website Jihadwatch overwhelmingly won the CPAC 2013 “People’s Choice Blog Award.”

In a disputed phone call from Hawkins to Spencer, Spencer claimed that Hawkins demanded, at the behest of ACU board members Suhail Khan and Grover Norquist, that Spencer not condemn Khan and Norquist for their questionable associations with Islamists while receiving the award.  Rejecting this demand, Spencer refused to attend the CPAC award ceremony.  Hawkins, in contrast, claimed that he had merely personally requested that Spencer be courteous toward CPAC’s hosts, and that no precondition existed.  Showing me the award Hawkins would mail to Spencer, Hawkins stated that Geller and Spencer presented “not a problem with their message, but with their behavior.”

Issues of Islamism incidentally appeared during various panels and speeches.  Georgetown University Professor Thomas F. Farr at the religious freedom panel described religious freedom as a tool of “counterterrorism” in countering fanaticism formed in religiously repressive societies such as Saudi Arabia.  In response to a post-panel question, Farr felt that CPAC neglected Islamism, but for him “ignorance about the threat is not the problem.”  Rather than “curse the darkness” of Islamism, Farr advocated that people support solutions such as religious freedom.

Reagan scholar Kiron Skinner of the Hoover Institution described an official “rhetorical confusion” avoiding terms such as jihad during her participation in the panel “What is a Conservative Foreign Policy?”  Questioned after the panel, Skinner stated that CPAC along with “conservative media” in general is “not at all” covering Islamism appropriately.  Yet Islamism presented a “broader challenge” to “our way of life,” the neglect of which ignored the Cold War legacy of Reagan who “challenged the Soviet Union in the realm of ideas.”

Similar to Skinner, Angelo Codevilla on the panel compared the “ideological challenge” of “Islamism” to Cold War Communism.  He noted that “Islam itself was the West’s biggest problem” from the seventh century until the 1683 Ottoman defeat at Vienna.  Codevilla had previously implied a need for understanding Islamism on CPAC’s main stage where he noted that terrorism (minute 9:54 of the archived panel footage) is an “abstract noun” while military victory demands asking “who ought to be shot.”  Following Codevilla, the army veteran Representative Tom Cotton (minute 14:57) similarly spoke of the United States in the modern world “fighting one war…against radical Islamic jihad” and not just against a “technique” such as terrorism.  Iraq and Afghanistan were “just two battlefronts in that war.”

On CPAC’s main stage as well, one panel focused on the September 11, 2011 Benghazi consulate attack.  Parallel to the Iran panel, editor Joel Pollak said that “Al Qaeda has lost its leader but regained its momentum” and that Iran, the “key strategic challenge in the region today,” sees a “US commitment to retreat.”  Benghazi also featured in the main stage addresses of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Senator Kelly Ayotte.  Making perhaps CPAC’s most extended discussion of national security, Ayotte (mark 4: 15) focused on “radical Islam” as a “threat to our way of life.”  Ayotte discussed wide-ranging terrorist and nuclear proliferation threats from groups like Al Qaeda and Iran and crises in Syria and Libya.

Only the panel “Iran and the Islamist Threat to the West:  What is—What Should Be Our Strategy” specifically mentioned this issue.  Even this panel, one CPAC insider noted, was an “add-on…afterthought” to the CPAC schedule.  Discussing matters more important than an afterthought, journalist Clifford May warned that “it should be clear to all of us that radical Islam is waging a war against the West,” like past totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Communism. Nonetheless, “much of the media refuse to report” this.

Senator Lindsay Graham also worried about “radical Islamists” and an Iranian nuclear test, something that “keeps me up more at night” than anything else.  “If you do not understand the Shia-Sunni conflict,” Graham added, “then you are making a big mistake about the times in which we live.”  As for Al Qaeda being in retreat, Graham said, “tell that to the people in Benghazi.”  The former diplomat Otto Reich, meanwhile, worried about penetration of Latin America by Iran and “radical Islamists.”

Graham discussed these threats within a context of declining American defense capabilities.  “When Ronald Reagan spoke, people listened,” he said, but today “I have never seen deeds so mismatched with words.”   Due to sequestration’s defense implications, House Armed Services Committee chairman Representative Buck Mckeon added that “we are going to be basically sitting naked out there” in the Gulf region.

CPAC’s perceived national security neglect largely explained’s attempt to rectify matters at the last minute with the aptly-named panel “The Uninvited” on March 16.   Among the panelists was former United States attorney general Michael Mukasey who discussed Islamism as the latest “totalitarianism” threatening free societies.  This “ideology cannot be wished away by pretending it does not exist” and was “far from a fringe.”  Paraphrasing Trotsky, Mukasey said that “you may not be interested in Islamism, but Islamism is interested in you.”

Yet Obama Administration actions had refused to expressly address Islamism.  The official report on the Fort Hood shootings condemned by Mukasey mentioned not Islam but “workplace violence.”  Commenting upon National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s February 10, 2011 description of the Muslim Brotherhood as “secular,” Mukasey joked “that is why they call it the Muslim Brotherhood.”  Mukasey dismissed Clapper’s statements as wishful thinking presented by the Obama Administration “to get people to relax.”  “Americans are suckers for good news,” Mukasey added.

The Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea also appeared at the panel and answered in response to questions before speaking that CPAC was not covering Islamism appropriately.  Shea’s particular interest in the Islamic world’s persecution of religious minorities was the “greatest untold human rights story of our time.”  Echoing Farr, Shea described tolerance-supporting Christians and moderate Muslims as a “national security interest.”  Yet as Shea discussed during the panel, the Obama Administration was “silent” on this issue.

The importance of these issues led panelist Robert Spencer to note the event’s title and ask, “Why are we here instead of talking about this on the big stage front and center?”  Sitting next to him, Pamela Geller called the absence of Islamist subjects such as anti-sharia legislation at CPAC a “crime.”  Spencer noted that deficient information about Islamism had consequences, as one Egyptian newspaper had described the United States transforming from the “foremost opponent of Islam to the foremost enabler of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Spencer and Geller clearly identified Khan and Norquist as the source of CPAC’s Islamism deficiencies.  Spencer described the two close ACU board members as “completely in bed with” forces favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood, as indicated by past associations with convicted terrorism financier Abdurahman Alamoudi.  As Spencer has previously written and discussed with me at CPAC 2013, Khan at the previous year’s conference had “boasted” that he had banned Spencer from CPAC.  Geller correspondingly described Khan’s influence during the panel as being “worse” than the Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar Alwaki killed by an American drone strike.  “I worry,” Geller stated in reference to this influence, “about the confusion on our side.”

As Brim’s boss, CSP founder Frank Gaffney indicated to me at the beginning of CPAC that Khan and Norquist were part of America’s “enemy within.” This was not addressed by CPAC but profiled in CSP’s 10-part online series The Muslim Brotherhood in America:  The Enemy Within.  One segment in the series profiles Norquist, and another Khan, whom Gaffney has regularly called a “Prince of the Muslim Brotherhood.”   At the “Uninvited” panel, Gaffney mentioned that Khan’s parents had helped establish the Muslim Students Association (MSA), through which current Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi entered the Muslim Brotherhood while studying in the United States.

Briefly interviewed between events during CPAC, both Khan and Norquist, in contrast, professed no knowledge of CPAC deficiencies with respect to national security and Islamism.  Encountered after a panel on conservative inclusion, Khan stated that CPAC has “always had a strong national security component.”  In choosing panels “there is a process” and “everything is fair game.”  Khan, meanwhile, claimed ignorance of the Jihadwatch-Hawkins controversy.

[Editor's note: Watch David Horowitz call out Suhail Khan in his Keynote at CPAC 2011 here.]

Asked whether CPAC had neglected Islamism, Norquist concisely replied “no.”  Not addressing the issue of panel formation, Norquist pointed to the vast number of speakers at CPAC such as Marcio Rubio who presented their own addresses.  While his organization of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) made presentations on tax issues, if other groups wanted to address Islamism, then “people should do their own work.”  For Geller, though, such comments by Khan and Norquist made no impression, with Geller calling Norquist a “stonewalling…dissembler.”

Asked about national security criticisms of CPAC while leaving after the Iran panel, Clifford May agreed that there was an “emphasis” on “economic and social issues” at CPAC.  With respect to Islamism, he felt that “the more, the better.”  Sidestepping any controversy about, or criticism of, CPAC’s organizers, May called them “my friends,” but noted that “we have enemies” in the wider world.  “To ignore them is not an option.”

Editor's note: To watch this week's episode of The Glazov Gang, which focused on "Heroic Truth-Tellers at CPAC's 'Uninvited' Panel," see below: 

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