For the Islamophobes of the Trump campaign, Hillary Clinton’s Muslim-American aide makes an inviting target.
Once again treating news of other people’s pain as an opportunity to score political points, Donald Trump seized on Huma Abedin’s decision to separate from Anthony Weiner on Monday as an opportunity to repeat his unsubstantiated claim that Hillary Clinton’s closest aide must have shared classified information with her husband and draw attention to a fringe conspiracy theory that she is a secret agent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“I know Anthony Weiner well,” Trump said in a press release about the former congressman he donated $2,000 to in 2010, the year before evidence of his sext addiction was first reported by Andrew Breitbart.
“He’s a very sick guy and, if you look back, you’ll see that I said, at the beginning, the worst thing she can do is marry this guy,” Trump then told a conservative radio host.
Having congratulated himself for his foresight, Trump moved on to speculating that this private matter might have national security implications if, as he first suggested last year, Abedin had shared any classified material she was privy to through her work at the State Department with her husband.
“Hillary Clinton was careless and negligent in allowing Weiner to have such close proximity to highly classified information,” Trump said, treating a theory he concocted a year ago as if it were established fact. “Who knows what he learned and who he told?” he continued. “It is possible that our country and its security have been greatly compromised by this.”
Trump had suggested that Abedin must have shared classified information with her husband last year, after CBS News reported that in 2011, she had used her own State Department email account to forward an unclassified message to Clinton’s private server that, intelligence officials said later, should have been treated as classified.
At a fundraiser in Massachusetts last August, Trump insisted that there was no chance that Abedin had not divulged classified information to Weiner since, he said, any woman who is “in love with” her husband would certainly do so.
“Do you think there’s even a 5 percent chance that she’s not telling Anthony Weiner … what the hell is coming across?” Trump asked, rhetorically. “Do you think there’s even a little bit of a chance? I don’t think so.”
“Are there any women in this room who are in love with their husbands who wouldn’t be telling them everything?” Trump then asked the crowd. When one woman said she did love her husband but would not break an oath to keep classified information secret, Trump replied dismissively, “No, you will.”
The frankly sexist nature of that accusation against Abedin is unlikely to dissuade Trump from repeating it again and again until November, along with the racist lie that Clinton’s Muslim-American aide is a terrorist sympathizer and a security risk.
In his interview with the conservative radio host Dori Monson on Monday, Trump made a coded reference to recent attempts by his allies to revive the discredited rumor, spread by the former Reagan official Frank Gaffney and the current Trump adviser Michele Bachmann, that Abedin has ties to “radical Islam.”
“Take a look at where she worked, by the way, and take a look at where her mother worked and works,” Trump told Monson. “Huma Abedin has access to classified information. How Hillary got away with that one, nobody will ever know.”
Trump was referring to the latest version of the smear campaign against Abedin, dredged up from the Islamophobe blogosphere last week by the New York Post and Fox News in misleading reports that wildly misrepresented her work on the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, a scholarly periodical founded by her late father, Syed Abedin.
That peer-reviewed journal — which focuses on research into both minority strains of Islam and issues facing Muslims who live in countries where they are minorities — has been run, since its founder’s death in 1993, by Abedin’s mother, Saleha S. Mahmood, a sociologist who teaches at a liberal women’s college in Saudi Arabia.
That Abedin was raised in Saudi Arabia raises alarm bells for conspiracists with little knowledge of her family’s background. Her parents are not Saudi but Indian, and both were born there during the British colonial era. Her father was educated at Aligarh Muslim University, an institution founded in the late 19th century by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a reformer who wanted Indian Muslims to embrace Western notions of education and rationalism so that they could live in the modern world but retain their identities. He then completed doctoral work, in American Civilization, at the University of Pennsylvania, as did his wife.
The Abedins were working at Western Michigan University when Huma was born in Kalamazoo in 1976. Two years later, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where Syed founded an institute devoted to fostering religious understanding. Huma went to a British girls’ school in Jeddah until she returned to the United States to attend George Washington University. While still a student there, she began working for Clinton as an intern.
Since her father died when she was 17, Huma and two of her siblings have at various times assisted their mother in keeping his publication alive, shepherding into print scholarly research articles like “European Modernity and Islamic Reformism among Muslims of the Balkans in the Late-Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Period (1830s–1945),” “Pre-modern Globalization and Islamic Networks under Mongol Rule: Some Preliminary Considerations on the Spreading of Sufi Knowledge in Gansu-Qinghai,” and “West African Islam in Colonial and Antebellum South Carolina.”
Abedin’s work on this academic periodical, which ended in 2008, has recently become fodder for conspiracy theorists, including Roger Stone, the longtime Trump adviser who got his start in politics fabricating smears to make Richard Nixon’s rivals look bad. In a post for the Trump-supporting platform Breitbart in June, Stone claimed that Abedin’s work on the academic journal suggested that she might be “an Islamic spy.”
Last week, that baseless allegation was recycled by a New York Post columnist, who called the periodical “a radical Muslim publication,” and a Benghazi conspiracist who referred to it as “a Sharia law journal” in a post for The Hill.
The tenuous support for this idea is that the journal is produced by the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, a think tank founded by Syed Abedin in 1978, with the backing of the president of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah at the time, Abdullah Omar Naseef. Five years later, Naseef became secretary-general of the Muslim World League, a pan-Islamic nongovernmental organization.
As the Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler explained last week, the key link in the chain for conspiracy theorists is Naseef’s later support for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
In 1988, during his tenure at the Muslim World League, Naseef authorized a Pakistani charity called the Rabita Trust at a time when the United States and its allies funded the mujahideen fighting the Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. Years later, the fund became associated with al-Qaeda (which, after all, emerged from the mujahideen) and was frozen in 2002 by the Treasury Department after the 9/11 attacks. But that distant connection, a quarter-century later, is now used to tar Abedin.
In reality, the whole thrust of the journal — the close study of minority strains of Islam — is evidence that it is not a vehicle for spreading the ideology of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism embraced by Islamist militants.
Dale Eickelman, an anthropologist at Dartmouth who serves on the journal’s editorial advisory board, laughed at the idea that the publication was a front for “radical Islam” in an interview with The Intercept last week. Pointing to a number of research articles on minority sects of Islam, he said, “A journal that had a Sunni supremacist outlook simply would not produce such studies.”
“Like any good journal which is taken seriously by academics,” he said, “it introduces people from a wide variety of perspectives.”
“To call the journal radical is astonishing,” Eickelman said. “I suppose somebody could go through and look at individual arguments” that might sound extreme, he added, “but I find it well within the spectrum of the golden mean of academic journals.”
Ali Asani, who directs the Islamic Studies program at Harvard University and also serves on the journal’s editorial board, told The Intercept that there was no ideological pressure at all coming from the editors of the publication. When Asani published some of his own research in the journal, it was on South-Asian Ismaili communities, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Ismailis in Pakistan have been the target of deadly terrorist attacks by a branch of the Taliban that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. A spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban told Reuters last year that the group had killed dozens of Ismailis on a bus in Karachi “because we consider them kafir,” or non-Muslims. “In the coming days we will attack Ismailis, Shiites, and Christians,” the spokesperson added.
Asani also recalled that Syed Abedin was so far from being a supporter of fundamentalist Islam that he once invited Bernard Lewis, the neoconservative icon, to give the keynote address at an academic conference he organized in the 1980s about Muslims living as minorities in the West. Lewis also served for a time as a member of the journal’s editorial advisory board, and his name was listed on the masthead near Huma Abedin’s.
In 2012, when Michele Bachmann endorsed Frank Gaffney’s wild claims that Abedin was connected to a supposed Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the United States government through her late father, another respected scholar on the journal’s editorial board, John Esposito of Georgetown University, provided evidence that Syed Abedin was an outspoken opponent of political violence in the name of Islam.
As Esposito noted in an article eviscerating the conspiracy theory about Huma Abedin, her father published a rejection of such attacks in the Saudi Gazette in 1992, two months after the outbreak of war in Bosnia. In an excerpt from that article republished in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs in 2000, Syed Abedin argued: “Wherever the glory of Allah is sought to be proclaimed through the barrel of a gun … there God is banished and Satan is triumphant; there the angels weep and the soul of man cringes; there in the name of God, humans are dehumanized; and there the grace and beauty of life lies ravished and undone. When would men ever realize: in this game there are no winners.”
Despite the lack of any evidence that Huma Abedin has extremist sympathies, it seems extremely likely that Trump will continue to suggest that she does, given that his new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has played a central role in nurturing the myth that Muslims immigrants are secretly plotting to impose Sharia, the Islamic code that guides Muslim beliefs and actions, on all Americans.
Conway, a veteran pollster whose current role seems to be making Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims and immigrants sound somewhat reasonable, previously played a key role in the anti-Sharia movement.
As Andrea Elliott of the New York Times has explained, a small number of dedicated activists, clustered around Frank Gaffney, have relentlessly promoted the idea that Sharia “is not just an expression of faith but a political and legal system that seeks world domination” and poses an existential threat to Americans.
“Yet, for all its fervor,” Elliott reported in 2011, “the movement is arguably directed at a problem more imagined than real.”
By using questionable methodology to poll American Muslims for Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy in Washington, and calling the findings alarming, Conway has played an important role in making this imaginary threat seem urgent to a significant minority of Americans, including Donald Trump.
In a video posted online by Gaffney’s group last year, Conway celebrated how widespread awareness of the supposed threat from Sharia had become among Americans, prompted, she said, by an increasing number of news reports about the threat.
What Conway neglected to mention was how much her own work for Gaffney had contributed to the spike in news reports.
For example, a poll Conway conducted for Gaffney’s center last summer, asking 600 Muslim volunteers recruited online about their attitudes to Sharia, immediately generated an alarmist segment of The O’Reilly Factor, in which the survey’s questionable methodology was never explained, or even mentioned.
(The data was essentially useless since, as the Pew Research Center has explained, when pollsters “use one-time surveys that invite participation from whoever sees the survey invitation online, or rely on panels of respondents who opt-in or volunteer to participate in the panel … the relationship between the sample and the population is unknown.” What that means is that there is no way of knowing how representative the sample is of the population of American Muslims as a whole.)
Then too, as the Democratic pollster Mark Mellman argued in December — after Trump cited Conway’s poll in support of his proposal for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” after the San Bernardino attack — the survey questions were apparently shaped to produce findings that would sound alarming, and Gaffney’s interpretation of the data was profoundly misleading.
The same week that Trump elevated Conway from an adviser to his campaign manager, he also signaled his intention to play up the imaginary threat posed to Americans by Sharia. Speaking on August 15 about his plans to crack down on “radical Islam,” Trump announced his intention to impose an ideological test at U.S. borders that clearly identified Muslims as its main target. “In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups,” Trump said, “we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles — or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law.”