MARK POTOK shares his concerns about anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States, and explains the country’s exceptional commitment to free speech.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which began life in 1971 fighting the Ku Klux Klan, is the leading American non-profit organisation monitoring hate groups. Former newspaper journalist Mark Potok is the editor in chief of SPLC’s investigative reports. Cherian George interviewed Potok at the SPLC headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama, on 20 February 2015. One of his assessments that may surprise readers is that anti-Muslim hatred poses a bigger threat to American democracy than Islamist radicalism.
Tell me about the SPLC’s take on hate speech.
The SPLC is a very American organisation in the sense that it is very much in favour of free speech. We don’t presume to lecture countries like Germany that have their own particular experience. But our attitude has been the classic American thing, that it is generally better to answer with more speech rather than suppress other people’s speech.
There is an interesting history of this with regard to extremist groups in the United States. If you go back to the post-war period, there was one very large well-known group called the American Nazi Party. It was headed by a man named George Lincoln Rockwell. These were uniformed Nazis.
Jewish agencies, like the American Jewish Committee, would approach the owners of television stations or the managing editors of newspapers and ask them not to give coverage to the American Nazi Party. The case they made was, look, this is just a small band of people, they’re basically insane, and to give them press helps them. They called it the “quarantine policy”.
What happened was that Rockwell and the American Nazi Party got more and more outrageous. They would do things like dress up in their stormtrooper outfits and go march down the Washington Mall in Washington D.C and make a huge spectacle of themselves. As we get into the late sixties hippie era, when people were going around in Volkswagen “love buses”, Rockwell bought a Volkswagen bus and called it the “hate bus”. It was irresistible to journalists. So it became this kind of battle of trying to get noticed.
Whatever one thinks of the tactic, it is completely impossible today. It’s no longer the case that editors at the New York Times or CBS News control what people see. It’s completely out of their hands.
We no longer have powerful gatekeepers.
Right. You’ve got an enormous amount of social media, and the internet and cable television. There are so many outlets, it is simply impossible to consider trying to exclude this kind of speech from the public arena.
One of the ways that these hate groups make money is by selling white power music. It’s music you couldn’t buy in any record store—nobody would carry it—but you can get it easily on the internet here. Most countries in Europe, certainly Germany and Austria and a number of others, ban the music completely. So, from time to time you’ll read a story about the Germans finding some warehouse and destroying a hundred thousand CDs and so on.
Interpol about 10 or 12 years ago put out a report in which they said, because of the suppression of the music, it had become so valuable on the black market that it was now more lucrative to trade in white power music than in hashish, which is of course the big street drug in Europe. So one could make the argument that the prohibition of this music was in effect helping to fund the Neo Nazi groups.
Thinking about your own children, do you tell your teenage son that he can never look at a picture of a naked woman, never open a Playboy magazine? Well, you can tell your teenage son that all you like, but in this country, by the time that kid is 16 or 17 years old, he is going to see that picture. So if you want your son not to be a sexist and act poorly towards women, is the answer to forbid him to look at Playboy magazine? Or is the answer, as a father, to model a good and respectful behaviour towards women, towards your wife, his mother and other women in your world? To me the answer is obvious. If you show that kid what it really is to respect a woman, then I think you go much deeper in helping that young person to become a man.
The Europeans, by and large, think that we are insane. They view speech as just another form of action and think that the distinction that’s made in the United States under the First Amendment is completely baloney. In the United States, we host enormous amounts of hate sites for other countries. The Europeans and the Canadians, by and large, don’t at all agree with the American view of free speech. There is not much that they can do about it. There’s no prospect at all politically of the First Amendment to the Constitution being rolled back. Support for it is absolutely broad. It goes from the far left to the far right, right across the board. There are very, very few Americans who are opposed to that kind freewheeling free speech. So that’s the way it is.
I went to a big international extremist conference in Stockholm, I think it was 2003. There was a panel discussion about the freedom of expression, and I stood up and gave a very, very mild statement in support of the free press, along the lines of, look, suppression doesn’t work usually. I was just trying to explain the American position. And some guy from a big anti-racism group in France grabs the microphone from somebody and says, “America uber alles.” He called me a Nazi. I won’t forget it because it was like, wow, we’re all supposed to be comrades in the struggle against racism, and this guy’s telling me I’m a Nazi because we won’t suppress speech in the way that he likes.
Is there any evidence that, as a result of the open environment of the First Amendment, there is in fact more hate speech in the US than in Europe?
Yes, I think that’s probably so, And the interesting thing is that you see it not only on hate sites—real Neo-Nazi websites or forums like Stormfront, which is the largest white supremacist forum in the United States; it’s huge, 300,000 registered users—you see it also very much on mainstream sites. We see all kinds of hate speech on newspaper sites in the comment fields, on blog sites. One of the new things we’ve been looking at are the reddits, the sub-reddits. Incredibly hateful stuff. Right after Obama was elected the first time in November 2008, CBS News got so many comments like, nigger this, nigger that, that they could not keep up. The whole site shut down for a couple of days. So that gives you a sense of how people reacted.
We’re following essentially the opposite of the quarantine policy of the 1950s. We encourage press coverage of the world of the radical right. I spend a lot of my day, every day, helping reporters, giving them details about various groups and individuals.
Is giving these groups coverage a good thing? Our attitude about that is, if the groups get stupid coverage—naïve and ignorant coverage from young reporters who don’t know any better—it’s terrible. The groups will say, “We don’t hate anyone. We’re just proud of white people and our heritage but we’re not about talking bad about black people, brown people, gay people. It’s just that we’re proud of ourselves.” That’s what they will tell these young reporters. They’ll also make other kinds of statements like “we have 60,000 members”, when they really have 16.
So what we try to do is provide these reporters with accurate information. So, yes, it may be that the clan leader is saying “I hate no one, I just love white people and I’m so proud of our past” to the television cameras. But you’re able to provide that reporter with what he said to the clan rally when there were no reporters present and it was “kill the black people”.
Or we point out he just came out of prison for child molestation. These people almost universally have bad pasts and really ugly sides to their character and their careers that they hide.
We understand that every time a newspaper writes a story that says the Klan is coming to town next week, no matter how the story’s written, there are going to be one or two people out there who say, I’m going to join up. So we recognise that press coverage results at least in very small amounts of recruiting.
But it’s better to allow that Klan group to get one or two more members if we in the same process can inoculate 99.99% of the public against the group by getting truth into the newspaper about what the groups are. We’re in an era when many people, young people, don’t really remember what the Klan was.
We do an awful lot of exposing work. For instance, if there is a very major nativist leader, we point out how he’s been accused of molesting his own children and those kinds of things. And more often than you would think, it’s really true that the Klan leader secretly has a black girlfriend, or worse, a white boyfriend. And we will use that kind of information, because we can destroy groups with it.
So you do fight dirty?
And we don’t apologise for it either. A few years ago, there was group called the Knights of Freedom, led by a young guy named Davis Wolfgang Hawk. We started looking at the group and found out that his name before he went away to college was Andy Greenbalm. He was Jewish, his father was Jewish. So the kid had big problems with his parents. But that wasn’t our issue, right. Our issue was we could destroy a group of a hundred-plus people. These were uniformed Neo-Nazis, they’re wearing swastikas and all that kind of thing. And, of course, you point out, hey his father is Jewish—it completely destroyed the group.
I mention that because it relates to free speech in the American context. I think, in virtually all European countries, it would not be legal to say something about the guy’s secret love life or something about his ancestry that he was hiding, or something like that. Here, under the First Amendment if it’s true, I can print it.
In many other ways, too, free speech means we can do things that anti-racist groups in Europe really can’t do. And, like I said, we don’t apologise for it at all. You know, we’re not social workers, we’re not trying to help Davis Wolfgang Hawk resolve his issues with his parents. We’re trying to destroy, or at least weaken or marginalize, the extreme right in America.
What’s the threshold you apply before you label a group a hate group?
Our hate group label has nothing to do with criminality or violence. Our hate group listings are strictly about ideology. Does a hate group say on its website and in its publications and the speeches or writings of its leader or leaders that an entire group of human beings, by virtue of their class characteristics, are somehow less. That’s it. So do you say, white people are blue eyed devils, all black people are criminal rapists, etc. Those kinds of things.
Can you tell me about Islamophobia in the US?
I think we’re in a very bad moment. Islamophobia is one of our main concerns. As the years have gone by, although we cover in great detail the radical right, our concern has become more and more the way the ideas, the demonising propaganda and conspiracy theories of the radical right move into the political mainstream. So then you start to hear their ideas being propounded by Ted Cruz or Lou Dobbs on CNN or Peter King, the congressman from New York.
Very often, it’s public figures that have a very important effect ultimately on hate crime. It is obviously much more important what a house majority leader says than the leader of some Klan group in the bayous of Louisiana. Before 9/11, there were almost no anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States, at least according to the FBI statistics. There were like 25-30 anti-Muslim hate crimes a year prior to 9/11. I guess that’s 30 too many, but we’re a country of 310 million people. It’s not a very high rate.
Then 9/11 happened, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, hate crimes against Muslims or perceived Muslims went up by 1600%. For someone to fly those planes into those buildings that was a hell of a thing. Every person in America watched that on television a thousand times. You couldn’t take your eyes off it.
But what was surprising was that immediately afterwards, starting in 2002, which is a mere three months or so after the 9/11 attacks, hate crimes against Muslims went down by two thirds. For the anti-Muslim feeling to die down that fast was quite something. I think that probably the main reason for that was the way that President Bush acted at the time. I’m no big fan of President Bush. But that is something he did right. He said, right from the beginning and repeatedly over the next months, Islam is not our enemy, Arabs are not our enemy, our enemy is this one specific group called al-Qaeda. And he did things like go with some imam and stand in the National Cathedral, and he kept having these appearances with Muslim leaders, and so on.
Very much the things that Obama is trying to do, but I guess Bush had the credibility with the Christian Right. So people are more willing to listen. I can’t prove it, but certainly I think that’s what was responsible for the decline in anti-Muslim hate crimes. From 2002 until 2010, the trend is down, down, down.
In 2010, again according to the FBI’s statistics, anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 50%. If you think about what happened in the United States during 2010 with regard to Islamist terrorism, there was nothing. There was nothing objective out there that you could use to explain this jump in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Well, what did happen in 2010 was the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy which of course was neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque. But that controversy was jimmied up in large part by this woman Pamela Geller in New York, and of course New York is the number one media market in the world. She called it a “Victory Mosque” and said it was being built on the corpses of the American victims and so on, and it got a lot of press. And that idea spread, so in 2010 there was a big conflict over a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and other mosques as well.
At the same time, in the middle of this controversy people like Newt Gingrich were out there making these incredible statements. In effect, Newt Gingrich likened all Muslims to Nazis when he said that to allow this Islamic centre to be opened would be the same as allowing a monument to Hitler to be built at Auschwitz. Which in effect is saying Muslims are the same as Nazis. The other big and very important thing that happened in 2010 was that David Yerushalmi comes back from Israel and he writes this model statute, “American laws for American courts”, and that was accompanied with a big report on the completely bullshit theory that there was a big plot to impose sharia law in the United States. And we now have seven states with statutes forbidding the use of sharia law in American courts. They’re completely unnecessary. It’s impossible under the Constitution, but there it is.
So, I would argue that what was behind that 50% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes was all that. It was all what was being said in the public square.
What was the motivation behind the Ground Zero controversy? Do you think it’s because the Religious Right began to see Muslims as an easy target, compared with Hispanics and the LGBT community?
I think there is some truth to that. It’s obviously become much, much harder for any public figure to go out there and describe black people are somehow less than other people. And even the Republicans have to go, if we don’t get Latinos in our party, we’ll never have a president in the White House again. And attitudes towards gay people, gay men and lesbians, have changed very dramatically. Everybody knows a gay person and a lesbian, and when you start to know people, you realise the gay guy I know isn’t a child rapist, he’s a nice guy. But of course very few people know Muslims in this country. Yes, if you live in Dearborn, Michigan, or in New York, you certainly see many woman in the hijab. But by and large they’re a fairly invisible minority.
Going back to your point about that we’ve got to look at what elites are saying. It may not be a conspiracy, but it’s a network in which people feed off each other?
No, it isn’t a conspiracy, but there really is a right wing echo chamber. And there is a certain division of labour as well. There may be extreme groups that actively use hate speech but there’s also sort of reasonable racism that’s practised by politicians and they can get away with it. It very subtly references or reinforces what the hate groups are saying. How do you combat them, because it does really test our understanding of what it means to practise hate speech if it’s not actually being said, but there are mental connections that are unavoidably being made.
There is a little tiny group in Arizona called American Patrol, later renamed American Border Patrol. It might have been six people in this group. One guy, his computer, his dog and a few of his friends. This guy Glen Spencer started probably ten years ago to concoct a theory that Mexico had a secret plan, Plan de Aztlán, to invade and re-conquer the American South West.
Needless to say, there’s absolutely nothing to it, it’s a fantasy. But this was pushed by Glen Spencer enough that it got out. The idea jumped out of this tiny group and into the larger Minuteman movement, the vigilante groups on the border between about 2005 and 2011. So you start to see these big groups of citizens with guns down on the border carrying signs like “Aztlán hell no” and “Fuck the Mexicans”. All of a sudden, now it’s a movement that has maybe a million people or half a million people, no longer six people in a trailer in Southern Arizona. And about two months after it entered the Minuteman groups, it was presented as fact by Lou Dobbs on CNN. In that case, we were able to call out Lou Dobbs, and ultimately Lou Dobbs was forced out of CNN, in part due to things we said and wrote.
When you mention these cases, I guess it would surprise a non-American that you still have such faith in the marketplace of ideas. Sometimes it doesn’t work, right?
Sometimes it doesn’t work. But things are changing a little bit. In December there was a big story here when Steve Scalise, the Congressman from Louisiana, was exposed. Some blogger in Louisiana figured out that Steve Scalise in 2002 gave a speech to a group called EURO, the European and Unity Rights Organization. That’s David Duke’s group, the old Klan leader. It caused a hell of a scandal, and it looked for a bit like Scalise might not be able to hang onto his post. He was the House whip, the number three man in the House of Representatives leadership. He did survive, but it was close. He had to claim that he had no idea who David Duke was. The point I’m trying to make is that although it didn’t cost him his job, it came fairly close, and that would not have happened 15 years ago. It’s getting harder it seems to me to survive these things.
I guess it also depends on what level of government you’re looking at. It’s probably become harder in the US than maybe even in Europe for an outright racist to enter the White House?
I would agree. If you’re a politician with national aspirations, you will be burned by that kind of language and you’ve got to be careful. That’s increasingly true. If you’re a local politician in Northern Louisiana you can say these things and you can get away with it and your constituents might very well think you’re just terrific.
Comparing the US and India and the rise of Narendra Modi: I’m guessing that Modi would never be electable in the US considering that he basically contributed to and endorsed hate speech against the largest minority group in the country.
I think that’s true, I think that that’s not possible, although Muslims are a bit of an exception. I think we’re entering a very bad moment. It’s what’s been in the news: the Islamic State, Charlie Hebdo and it just goes on and on
Objectively, which do you think is the bigger domestic threat to American life. Is it radical Islam that is maybe being promoted in a few mosques benefiting from the freedoms the US enjoys, or is it Islamophobia?
Well, I think Islamophobia is a bigger danger in this country. First of all, it’s obvious that the Muslim population in the United States, while somewhat disenfranchised, it’s nothing like France.
But many seemingly reasonable Americans seem to think that it could happen here.
Yes, but they’re not too reasonable, I don’t think. A great moment was Steve Emerson going on Fox News and saying Birmingham is a no-go city and so on. He was really trashed and rightly so, the man’s a bloody idiot.
There are huge changes that are happening in the country—and really they are more dramatic than what is happening in Europe—in the sense that of demographics. White people are going to lose their majority for the first time since the Europeans arrived, and that is a huge thing. It’s changing everyday life for people where they live. So how do we transition to a truly multicultural country in which no one group predominates for the very first time in our history. And I think it’s a very rough ride.
Maybe I’m a fool, but I’m optimistic about it. I certainly never thought I would live to see a black President, that didn’t seem possible. Same-sex marriage in 50 states? Unbelievable, right? I mean, 10 years ago, you had to be smoking dope to be thinking like that. Yet it seems obvious that the Supreme Court is going to decide in favour in June. So there is a lot happening.
And these reactionary movements, anti-modern movements—I think that ultimately this too will pass. It’s a very rough time, and it probably will be for the next 30 years.
Going back to this idea of a network, would it be fair to say that, looking specifically at Islamophobia, that it includes groups where the anti-Muslim invasion agenda is really paramount on their minds but also includes groups where that is really just a incidental issue?
Well one thing I’ve noticed very strongly is that the Christian right groups, which spent the last five or six years battling same sex marriage and various other gay rights issues, have pretty much wholesale signed on to the idea that Muslims are coming to destroy this country. Groups like the American Family Association, the Family Research Council and a whole plethora of others. That’s quite new.
I think the honest truth is that they’re opportunists. They’re losing the “homosexuals are coming for your children” issue. So they’ve done two things. They’ve gone abroad, so they’re now in places like Russia, Nigeria, Kenya, saying they have wonderful laws about gay people. Then, at home, they’ve taken up the flag against Muslims as well. So that has certainly happened.
So in some senses the Muslim community here is sort of collateral damage in larger struggles going on within the US, including this big demographic change you mentioned.
Yes, I think that’s true. And obviously what’s happening in the larger world is part of it as well.
FEBRUARY 2016 UPDATE
Since the above interview, killings by Muslims in San Bernadino and Chattanooga have made many Americans feel more threatened by Islamist terrorism. I asked Mark Potok to revisit his assessment that Islamophobia posed a bigger threat to the US than jihadist violence.
The attacks in San Bernadino and Chattanooga brought home the reality that—although slightly more Americans have been killed since 9/11 by radical-right domestic terrorists than domestic jihadists—there is an extremely real threat from Islamist extremism. Still, American law enforcement officials are far more likely to encounter violence from the radical right that from jihadists of any description. And the atrocities of the Islamic State and other jihadist attacks, along with the Muslim-bashing comments of politicians like Donald Trump, have greatly amplified Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence in America, starting in 2014 and accelerating afterward.