Steve Emerson's Big Bucks Jihad
I've long suspected that the anti-Muslim crusade in this country is a racket — a device for raking in bagfuls of cash, usually by scaring vulnerable people into thinking that without the work of these self-professed anti-jihad activists, the overthrow of America is inevitable. Hate has always been a lucrative industry, and these days the industry works non-stop attacking Muslims and denigrating their faith.
Hardly a day goes by that I don't receive direct mail solicitations from this-or-that organization telling me that my check is needed to save Israel or the United States from the existential threat of radical Islam.
Many of these solicitations have focused heavily on how radical religious zealots have taken over Europe. They warn that without vigilance, America is surely next. A chain e-mail being sent around warns that "in 20 years there will be enough Muslim voters in the U.S. to elect the president by themselves."
I don't like this scare mongering, but the fact is that it's not limited to any one issue. Hundreds of tax-exempt groups of every kind raise money by offering scary descriptions of what will happen if the other side prevails. Both major political parties are famous for employing fear in their message.
And it's all legal. So long as a non-profit informs the IRS where its money is coming from, how it spends it, and how much it pays its staff, it can solicit support any way it wants to. The government just wants to make sure that the benefit of tax exemption is not exploited to make the beneficiaries of these contributions rich. Tax-exempt donations are meant for supporting the cause — no matter whether the cause is good, bad or indifferent. They are not for lining anyone's pocket.
But one of the leading newspapers in the south, the Tennessean, reported over the weekend that one of the "anti-jihadist" groups is not only in the business of Muslim-baiting but also in the business of business. An investigation into Steve Emerson, who has literally built his entire career on telling Americans that Muslims — pretty much all Muslims — threaten our way of life, had revealed that Emerson is reaping the benefits of hate. (In the name of disclosure, I should reveal that I knew Emerson when we were both connected to AIPAC.)
Here is what the Tennessean says about him in an exhaustive two-part series on the funding of anti-Muslim hate.
Steven Emerson has 3,390,000 reasons to fear Muslims.
That's how many dollars Emerson's for-profit company - Washington-based SAE Productions - collected in 2008 for researching alleged ties between American Muslims and overseas terrorism. The payment came from the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, a nonprofit charity Emerson also founded, which solicits money by telling donors they're in imminent danger from Muslims.
Emerson is a leading member of a multimillion-dollar industry of self-proclaimed experts who spread hate toward Muslims in books and movies, on websites and through speaking appearances.
Get that? Emerson raised nearly $3.5 million for his non-profit (again, non-profits, essentially charities, are regulated) and dumped the money into his private, for-profit company.
According to Ken Berger, president of the renowned Charity Navigator, which vets the bona fides of charities, Emerson's actions are pretty incredible.
"Basically," Berger said, "you have a nonprofit acting as a front organization, and all that money going to a for-profit. It's wrong. It's off the charts."
Justin Elliot, an ace reporter at Salon, offers a "thumbnail" version of what these shenanigans are all about.
Emerson collected over $3 million in 2008 for his tax-exempt non-profit, the Investigative Project on Terrorism. The Investigative Project then paid all of that money to another entity controlled by Emerson, the for-profit SAE Productions (the two entities also share a Washington, D.C., address). The result: it's impossible to see how the money is being used by Emerson, including how much he is paying himself and others. A spokesman for the groups maintains that this setup was created for security reasons so names of employees are not publicly released.
The bottom line is that it is impossible to know where the money Emerson collects goes. Is he paying himself a million dollar salary? Is he investing it? Buying art? Funding illegal settlements in the West Bank? Who knows! (These are precisely the kinds of accusations that Emerson and his ilk routinely employ against others. By his own twisted logic, Emerson could very well be funding terror with this money.)
Of course, after the Tennessean's report, one can hope that the IRS will find out.
So how did Emerson get on the Tennessean's radar screen anyway?
Emerson made a name for himself by investigating and exposing the real threats Muslim terrorists pose to this country. In 1998, he went before Congress to warn of the imminent dangers posed to this country by Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and their followers and sympathizers.
But at some point, he became consumed by anti-Muslim zealotry. Today he is just another highly-paid anti-Muslim crusader. His group, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, is completely devoted to attacking Muslims.
And that is what brought him to the attention of the Tennessean. During the past few months, Emerson became involved in the effort to stop the 30-year old Muslim community in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, from expanding their prayer space. When Emerson heard that the Murfreesboro mosque was seeking to move to a new facility, he went to work trying to show that people involved with the mosque were radical, pro-terrorist, and anti-Israel.
But locals, including reporters at the Tennessean, knew that those attending the mosque have been integrated into the community for decades. Emerson's scare mongering wasn't about Murfreesboro at all, but about his hatred of all things related to Islam. (For instance, his group frequently accuses Rep. Keith Ellison, one of the most progressive members of Congress, of being a shill for terrorist groups solely because he is Muslim.)
It is to the Tennessean's credit that it set out to discover what the Emerson jihad is all about. What it discovered is that, to a startling extent, it's about money. But don't kid yourself; it's not just about the money.
For Emerson, and many others who have gotten rich off of the Muslim-baiting industry, the situation just doesn't get any better. It's nice to get paid for doing what you love, even if what you love is grounded in hate.