The GOP’s Sharia Law Liars Are Hyping Critical Race Theory Now
This is the only script Republicans know how to act out now, the same one that they’ve used to demonize Muslims. Here’s how it works, and how to counter it.
Save yourselves! Run from the latest menace unleashed by the Marxist forces of wokeness to indoctrinate our children, replace our democracy, and threaten our cherished American values! Critical Race Theory is right around the corner!
If we don’t immediately cancel and ban it, it will soon take over the country and transform our innocent, naive youth into anti-American socialists who reject the gospel of capitalism, believe structural racism exists, empathize with BLM, call out white privilege, kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality, and acknowledge that the founding fathers were also slave holders. If you’re not careful, it might even eat your baby and make you pray towards Mecca!
Thankfully, the GOP is here to stop CRT and protect our American Judeo-Christian civilization.
The trailer for the latest conservative horror movie is a derivative remake. They switched the villains but remained loyal to the same tried and true script, because why mess with a winning formula?
Over a decade ago, I remember seeing a similar movie called “The Sharia Threat” as a non-existent problem was transformed into a national “crisis” within a few months.
That bogeyman was used to rally voters, mobilize support for anti-Sharia bans across the nation—a useless solution in search of a mythical problem —and fuel hateful conspiracy theories against innocent Muslim American communities.
Conservatives are now relying on the same strategy to attack CRT as an insidious, unpatriotic movement that seeks to attack white people and “dismantle the United States.” Here’s the four-step script that they’re using, and how progressives should respond this time.
Step 1: Manufacture the Bogeyman
Every good story needs a crisis, a disruption in the normal routine that threatens the protagonists and their community. It is usually orchestrated by a villainous force representing sinister values that are affront to decency and virtue.
You need to warn the masses of this threat.
Enter Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank the Manhattan Institute, whose sole expertise on critical race theory seems to be that he’s against it. Regardless, CRT provides the former documentary filmmaker a perfect bogeyman for his political agenda. He admitted that he paired CRT "with breaking news stories that were shocking and explicit and horrifying, and made it political.” He boasted of manufacturing a “salient political issue with a clear villain.” Like a stereotypical Bond villain, Rufo gave away the plot: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”
“Something crazy” is any and all endeavors that seek to educate people about systemic racism in this country and elevate marginalized people of color. Historically, such attempts have always triggered “economic anxiety” among many in the white majority, who see equality as oppression. It shouldn’t be surprising that racial anxiety was the main driver for Trump voters.
Recent examples of “clear villains” include the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer-winning endeavor led by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah Jones and published in 2019 that acknowledged the 400th anniversary of slavery in America as central to America’s national narrative. It also includes the BLM movement, marches to protest George Floyd’s murder, and any and all diversity, equity and inclusion trainings in government or educational institutions that might, God forbid, mention and criticize the Voldemort known as white supremacy.
Historian Carol Anderson, author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, told me CRT is being attacked to maintain “that everything good that has ever happened to Black people has been through the benevolence of hard-working, God-fearing, white people.” She says this literal whitewashing of history is “a myth making exercise to justify and rationalize the systemic inequalities that undermine American democracy."
Author and academic Jared Yates Sexton told me right-wing attacks on these measures are “misdirections” and are instead about creating “safe harbors for people wishing to be left in their convenient mythologies, and, over time, preparing them for pre-emptive violence should marginalized voices be heard, recognized, or even acknowledged.”
We saw this violence during the 2018 midterm elections when the right incessantly warned about another manufactured bogeyman: the caravan. That fear inspired Robert Bowers to kill 11 Jews in a synagogue to punish them for allegedly helping the “invaders,” including undocumented immigrants and Muslims. We are seeing a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, who are being blamed for the coronavirus, a pandemic that has no ethnicity or zip code that was rebranded by Trump as “the China virus” and “Kung Flu.”
In 2010, we saw it with Muslims and Sharia.
Rufo has taken a page from attorney David Yerushalmi, who the ADL says has a history of anti-Black, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant statements. In 2007, Yerushalmi wanted to criminalize Sharia, which is loosely defined as Islamic religious law, and he proposed legislation that would make practicing Sharia a felony in the United States punishable with a 20-year sentence. In 2010, he teamed up with right-wing hawk Frank Gaffney and his think tank Center for Security Policy, a hate group according to the SPLC, where he helped co-author a document, “Sharia: The Threat to America,” written almost entirely by people with no expertise in Islam or Arabic.
A few months later, right before the 2010 midterm elections, conservative activists warned that Sharia, a term that even most practicing Muslims don’t understand and most Americans had never heard of, was about to infiltrate and overtake American courts. In 2011, the ACLU reviewed and debunked the “mythical sharia threat” in a report titled "Nothing to Fear" and concluded these right wing warnings were “based both on misinformation and misunderstanding of how our judicial system works.” Instead, they said the Sharia threat was a “red herring” meant to distract and denigrate Islam and deny Muslims their rights and equal access to the judicial system.
It didn’t matter. The right-wing ecosystem had successfully created a fictional bogeyman to rally their base. By 2015, President Trump promoted a complete and total ban on Muslims from entering the United States.
Step 2: Re-define the bogeyman as an existential threat
After naming the bogeyman, you have to define it. Don’t worry about facts, citations, accuracy or expertise. Misinformation and vagueness help the confusion. That’s the point. Rufo admits that conservatives have “decodified the term” CRT and will now “re-codify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
It’s like painting on a blank canvas. CRT can be whatever you want it to be. It’s the ideal villain, all of conservatives’ worst fears embodied in one simple package and introduced to the public as a horrific monstrosity about to take over America.
Critical Race Theory, which most Amerians are just hearing about now, is an academic movement that is nearly 40 years old, taught in post-graduate studies, and examines how racism and racist policies have intersected with the law to negatively impact people of color. I took my first CRT class in law school with 20 other students, and not a single class was dedicated to killing whitey, replacing the Constitution or creating a branch of antifa to overtake the government.
Most Republicans who oppose CRT can’t define it. All they “know” is that it’s being used by liberals to teach their kids to hate America and white people—and that’s enough to ban it. Republicans now parrot Rufo as he spews a nonsense word salad, warning that CRT is a “cult of indoctrination" and the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” that is supposedly being weaponized against the American people and has “pervaded every institution in the federal government.”
According to Rufo, CRT “prescribes a revolutionary program that would overturn the principles of the Declaration and destroy the remaining structure of the Constitution” and seeks to displace the Christian God. Well if that's been CRT’s goal for 40 years, then take comfort in knowing it has failed miserably.
These same broad conspiracy theories were used to promote the Sharia threat. In the 2010 document, “Sharia: The Threat to America,” the authors misdefined Sharia in a way which is entirely unrecognizable to any practicing Muslim.
They defined it as “the pre-eminent totalitarian threat of our time” and a “legal-political-military doctrine” that is “incompatible with our Constitution and a threat to freedom here and around the world.” Frank Gaffney furthermore said Sharia is “sedition.” So, next time you see a friendly neighborhood Muslim abstaining from alcohol, praying in the mosque, fasting, or giving money to charity, and basically following Sharia, please know that’s sedition and worse than a mob violently overtaking the US Capitol to cancel a free and fair election.
“I don’t hold myself out as an expert on Sharia law," Gaffney admitted, “but I have talked a lot about that as a threat.” Just like Republicans who are talking about CRT. In 2010, 70 percent of Oklahoma voters voted for State Question 755 barring state courts from considering international or Islamic law when deciding cases. No Republican proponent of the measure could cite one instance where Sharia had replaced U.S. law in Oklahoma.
For Yerushalmi, the ultimate purpose of the anti-Sharia movement was not to ban Sharia law but rather “to get people asking this question, ‘What is Sharia?"
Along with the Islamophobia network, an incestuous coterie of conservative funders, activists and grassroots groups, he was successful in redefining Sharia for the majority of 2012 Republican Presidential candidates. In 2011, Rick Santorum said Sharia represented an “existential threat” and is “antithetical to American civilization.” By 2015, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said he wouldn’t accept a Muslim as president until they renounce Sharia.
Step 3: Galvanize the base
Leading up to the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, conservatives mobilized protests against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York City, which was neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque. The event was headlined by Pamela Gellar and other anti-Muslim bigots to stop the “Islamic takeover” of America. It was funded and supported by a tight network of connected conservatives who created the threat and then warned their base about it through media platforms and local grassroots groups. A non-issue was manufactured into a national scandal right before the 2010 midterm election.
In 2011, David Yerushalmi wrote the model anti-Sharia bill at the behest of a conservative non-profit group, American Public Policy Alliance. ACT for America, a leading anti-Muslim hate group with chapters all across the country, worked with conservatives to promote the supposed Sharia threat and provide Republican lawmakers with anti-Sharia legislation. They even offered helpful online tool kits for grassroots anti-Sharia activism.
In 2021, a “Reject Critical Race Theory” toolkit was created by the conservative group Heritage Action for America to help parents “stop CRT in your school district” and limit schools’ attempts to promote conversations and education about racial justice, diversity and equity.
Concerned parents are now rallying and packing school boards in Loudoun Country, Virginia, holding up posters, repeating GOP talking points, and demanding their educators stop indoctrinating their children with CRT. They could save their outrage, anxiety and time if they knew that CRT is not taught in elementary schools. But fear and loathing leave no room in the imagination for caution, restraint and calm.
On Tuesday, police declared an unlawful assembly at a school board meeting and arrested two people. Attendees loudly opposed an inclusive policy for transgender students, which asks teachers to use the child’s preferred gender pronouns. At the same event, a former Republican state senator, Dick Black, was cheered when he criticized the board for allegedly supporting critical race theory.
Just like the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy in NYC, Loudoun County has become a laboratory and test case for conservatives seeking to galvanize angry white voters across the country around CRT. GOP candidates in Virginia are supporting Republican activists and conservative parents working in tandem to eliminate racial equity initiatives. They've also initiated a lawsuit that could be used as a model moving forward.
Step 4: Make laws to ban your bogeyman, and sell voters on the threat
The Sharia threat playbook still works. The talking points that were once considered fringe and extreme ten years ago are now mainstream and commonplace in conservative circles.
In the past 10 years, over 200 anti-Sharia law bills have been introduced in over 40 states.
In 2020, Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville warned Alabama voters that “Sharia law has taken over" parts of America. Presumably talking about Muslims, Tuberville said, “it is wrong to come where and [not] go by our Constitution and go by our laws.” Meanwhile, Tuberville was unable to identify the three branches of government and incorrectly thought the inauguration date could be moved. If he had read the Constitution, he would have known better. Regardless, his base doesn't care and applauds his ignorance.
Thanks to the conservative media ecosystem, most Americans who have heard of CRT have an unfavorable view of it, even though many still can’t define it or even knew of its existence until recently. Fox News mentioned CRT more than 1,300 times over a three-and-a-half-month period.
Republican lawmakers, the alleged champions of free speech and opponents of cancel culture, have jumped on the bandwagon and are currently proposing legislation to ban critical race theory and prevent educators from discussing topics such as systemic racism and white privilege. Mitch McConnell and 40 Republicans called on the US Department of Education to cancel a federal plan that would give money to schools that would teach The 1619 Project. Sen. Tom Cotton, who said slavery was a “necessary evil,” is one the most vocal leaders of this movement, but he’s perfectly fine writing op-eds encouraging the military to intervene with an “overwhelming show of force” against BLM protesters.
Meanwhile, Nikole Hannah Jones, a MacArthur Genius recipient and Pulitizer winner, was offered and then denied a tenured position at UNC at Chapel Hill based on the objection of very wealthy and influential conservative donors.
These snowflakes are following in the footsteps of their Chosen One, Donald Trump, who tried to get his government to stop SNL from mocking him. During the waning days of his presidency, Trump issued an executive order banning the use of critical race theory and racial sensitivity training in federal agencies. Instead of embracing the 1619 Project, Trump and Republicans created the 1776 Commission Report that gaslights American history to placate white anxiety and elevate white men as icons of enlightenment, patriotism and mercy.
Robert Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, told me reactionary measures like this “always appear precisely when the old hierarchies and inequalities are threatened.” He said attempts to ban CRT and the 1619 Project ultimately “reveal the inner fears of a former [white Christian] majority who are losing their sense of ownership of the country.”
If only they could be afraid of ignorance and stupidity, this country would have a better chance of moving towards progress and racial equity. Until then, it will take all of us arm ourselves with education, awareness and a loud voice to push back and inoculate ourselves against the right-wing merchants of hate.
To confront this threat, allies should take it seriously but they shouldn’t take the bait.
The GOP believes their bad faith attack on CRT will mobilize voters and help galvanize a victory in the 2022 election. They have an entire conservative ecosystem, from media platforms to grassroots groups, that are activated across the country and spreading talking points and toolkits to concerned parents. Progressives were often behind the eight ball during the anti-Sharia offensive and ignored the concerns of Muslim communities. Don’t accept the GOP’s terms, definitions, conditions, and rules of engagement, which is what they want to gain more legitimacy, mainstream media platforms, and confuse the majority. But that doesn’t mean ignoring it without an appropriate response. They have their script; here’s ours:
Step 1: Punch back hard and concede nothing
I’ve often said Democrats bring a knife to a gun fight and Republicans bring a bazooka. They allow Republicans to mainstream extreme messages with little pushback in order to win over “moderate” voters and Independents who might think they’re soft on crime and border security. Democrats need to attack these hate merchants, call out their lies, reveal their agendas, and flip the script to discuss how their obsession with CRT is a distraction from the GOP’s massive failures and descent into extremism, from their embrace of white nationalism and antisemitic conspiracy theories, to their repeated attacks on Black and brown voters. Both on a national and a local level, progressive leaders must be prepared to attack the GOP and ask them why the party that is allegedly against cancel culture and for free speech is trying to ban an academic movement and censor teachers. Ask them why the GOP isn’t concentrating on real threats, such as white supremacist terrorism, and investigating the violent mob that stormed the capitol. Ask them why they’re proposing massive voter suppression efforts across the country. Put them on the back foot.
Step 2: Create and unleash diverse allies
Back in the day, Muslim communities often felt we were left to defend the right-wing blitzkrieg against Sharia by ourselves, with little help and infrastructure to back us up. People of color need white allies, especially in national security, to step up and speak out against the GOP’s authoritarian efforts. People like Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At a House hearing, he defended curiosity, open-mindedness, and gaining knowledge, specifically when it came to service members learning critical race theory to gain a more informed understanding of how systemic racism has shaped and affected the country they've sworn to defend.
As predicted, Fox News immediately responded by tarnishing him as teaching a “far-left, Marxist, racist ideology” and recommended defunding the military as punishment. Allies also include educators across the country who are fighting back, civil rights organizations, anti-racist movements at local and national levels, influencers with media platforms who reach and educate large audiences, and millions of diverse Americans who marched against the murder of George Floyd.
Step 3 Inform the public and connect the dots
In addition to separating fact from fiction about CRT, keep reminding Americans that this latest manufactured threat is just another step in the GOP’s assault on equal rights to maintain minority rule and white power. It’s just another hateful conspiracy theory that seeks to divide us along racial lines, an extension of Trump’s xenophobia, racism and defense of “very fine people.” The right-wing ecosystem will confuse and mislead about a third of this country, but that doesn’t mean we have to lose the majority.
Instead, we have to do our part to connect the dots. “Discussing issues of race in criminal law, voting rights, health, education, housing, immigration, and virtually any aspect of U.S. social life is unsettling, to say the least,” Kevin Johnson, dean of UC Davis School of Law, told me, but he said one way forward is to actually promote more discussions to confront these existing racial injustices instead of engaging “in the equivalent of a modern book burning by banning CRT in our schools."
By informing the majority, we can inoculate them from future lies and conspiracies.
Step 4: Force Democrats to fight
Political change can happen when people, especially voters, demand it. By focusing on racial justice and equity, the majority can remind Democrats that this isn’t a back-burner issue that can be casually ignored. They’ll have to show up, stand up and fight back against the GOP’s active assault on our democracy, our freedoms and people of color, or else we will replace them with those who will.
At the end of her book, White Rage, Professor Carol Anderson wrote, “This is the moment now when all of us—Black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American—must step out of the shadow of white rage, deny its power, understand its unseemly goals, and refuse to be seduced by its buzzwords, dog whistles, and sophistry. This is when we choose a different future.”
If we do all this, maybe we won’t have to write an article in 10 years about how Republicans have successfully introduced another anti-bogeyman bill mobilizing voters for the upcoming election to protect this country from woke antifa members dedicated to putting a hijab on the Statue of Liberty.