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Podcast: Max Blumenthal on investigating the Islamophobia industry’s financial network

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Palestinian women rallied at the UN headquarters in Ramallah, holding placards with the names of villages from where their families were expelled during the 1948 Nakba.

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

Rush transcript: Max Blumenthal on the Oslo Freedom Forum’s founder’s ties to the Islamophobia industry

The Electronic Intifada: First, lay out what was uncovered in this extensive investigation. This was a multi-layered expose on what you call the Islamophobia industry’s financial network.

Max Blumenthal: We uncovered some remarkable things that were unfamiliar to me, because you associate the Islamophobia industry with a small coterie of funders and activists who are very open about their opinions, but we found some more insidious groups who are playing still an effective role in pushing what I consider to be a right-wing, reactionary agenda.

And it started when I saw the interfaith ceremony after the Boston bombings, it was nationally-televised, Barack Obama spoke there, and the Muslim representative was supposed to be Iman Suhaib Webb, who is one of the foremost Islamic religious figures in the country, and he was replaced at the last second with someone named Nasser Wedaddy, who’s a Mauritanian internet activist who has really no … he’s unknown in the Muslim community. He works for a group called the American Islamic Congress. And I’d looked into who they were, got their funders, realized they were funded by people like Sheldon Adelson, the Bradley Foundation — which is a right-wing foundation behind Daniel Pipes and the whole Islamophobia industry that had Zuhdi Jasser, who testified at Peter King’s hearing, on their board — so we did a report for EI about this group that was clearly being put forward to create a wedge in the Muslim community and undermine mainstream Muslim organizing, also to take Palestine off the table.

This is a group that was heavily involved in promoting the Iraq war and received grants from the Bush administration, still receives grants from the Obama administration, and then it rolled into this next investigation into the Human Rights Foundation, which is this kind of shadowy human rights group run by figure named Thor Halvorssen. He’s a Venezuelan oligarch, he’s the son of an oligarchic family heavily-connected to the Venezuelan anti-Chavez opposition.

Actually I went … I didn’t know but I went to college with him at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a right-wing activist there, ran the conservative paper which published all kinds of borderline racist, anti-feminist, anti-gay articles, continued conservative activism after college and then rolled it into this Human Rights Foundation, which he’s been using to whitewash the Venezuelan opposition, to whitewash all sorts of neo-conservative figures and himself, by bringing legitimate human rights defenders together with neo-conservatives, with right-wing radical libertarians like PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who openly … he says he opposes democracy.

And so the Norwegian press calls it the washing machine. But it’s co-sponsored by the Norwegian government, it’s co-sponsored by Amnesty International, and what we did at EI was to investigate its funders. We found that it shares the same funding network as the Islamophobia industry, as the American Islamic Congress; that Nasser Weddady from the American Islamic Congress was being thrown out, junketed out, to Norway along with Ahmed Benchemsi who’s the co-founder with Weddady of Free Arabs, which says that it was sponsored by the American Islamic Congress.

So there they are, having this human rights extravaganza, that Thor Halvorssen calls “the Davos of human rights” — no one knows that he was a long-time right wing activist, no one knows what his agenda is, and the Norwegian government seems to think that it’s sort of just this benign event designed to connect human rights defenders around the world, when it’s really anything but that. It’s partly about regime change, it’s partly about whitewashing sordid figures who are representing the oligarchic class in Venezuela. And it’s also, just generally speaking, about the right-wing neo-conservatives and libertarians co-opting the human rights cause, and gaining control of it.

One of the things they’re going to do when they gain control of it is gradually force Palestine off the table. And a lot of the people who participated in this conference seem pretty comfortable with that.

EI: Max, talk a little bit more about what these investigations tell us about the structure and influence of these types of organizations that fund the worldwide Islamophobia industry.

MB: There are definitely less than ten foundations who are at the core of this Islamophobia industry. And what we found in our investigation, in this two-part investigation, is maybe less than five. And there are really less than twenty key Islamophobic figures, and they’ve managed to have a massive impact on American culture, and on Europe, which is having a much harder time assimilating Muslim immigrants partly because they just don’t have an immigrant culture, they don’t have an immigrant tradition like the United States.

And so in Norway — I mean Oslo is the site of Anders Breivik, the far-right Islamophobic terrorist’s murderous rampage. He attacked Oslo’s main government building, and he attacked a youth camp run by the governing labor party because he blamed these people — he called them “cultural Marxists,” or “multiculturalists,” and he blamed multiculturalism for destroying Europe, for letting Muslim immigrants in. By the way, this is the same rhetoric we heard from conservative campus organizers like Thor Halvorssen.

And what Breivik left is a 1,500-page manifesto outlining his influences. And it’s just basically a compendium of the writings of all the figures produced by the Islamophobia industry, who are funded by the Bradley Foundation, who are funded by the Donor’s Capital Fund, and these are the two — two of the main funders of the Human Rights Foundation, which is behind the Oslo Freedom Forum.

So we found that this network stretches further beyond anything we imagined before, and it’s gained the cooperation of the Norwegian government — which suffered these attacks from an Islamophobic terrorist. So we thought that this was shocking. So Ali, the publisher of EI, Ali Abunimah, called the Norwegian government. The foreign ministry was appearing at this conference, conferring legitimacy on it, and they dismissed us. Amnesty International was called and they dismissed us too.

So they really can’t say that they didn’t know. That what we’ve done here with this investigation is for the first time revealed — the Norwegian press hasn’t been able to do this after years of investigation — revealed the funders of Thor Halvorssen and the Human Rights Foundation, and shown their connection not just to the international Islamophobia industry, but to the figures who radicalized Anders Breivik.

And I really think that this is a huge scandal that is just beginning to unfold.

EI: Max, what has been the reaction so far to this expose to the Oslo Freedom Forum and the figures behind it.

MB: These are people who are really experienced — the people who put on the Oslo Freedom Forum — are very experienced in PR, in publicity, in using social media. They’re very powerful, they have a vast network, and their response has been pathetic. It’s been almost nothing. A series of insults directed at me and Ali Abunimah, and really nothing else, because they are unable to challenge a single fact that we’ve reported. And this two-part investigation spans almost 9,000 words. We just relied on solid facts.

And I think that slowly but surely the Norwegian press is starting to pick up on it. Klassekompen, which is the major left-wing daily in Oslo has covered our reporting, and they grilled Thor Halvorssen about it. And his response was, well, I’ll take money from anyone as long as they give me the money unconditionally. But ironically, he’s attacked people in the past — like Danny Glover, for example, for taking funding for two films he had in development from the Venezuelan government.

So it’s hypocrisy on his part, and I think what he really wants to do, and what the American Islamic Congress wants to do, and what Free Arabs wants to do is duck and cover. And hope that they’re just powerful enough and their funders are reliable enough that they could weather the storm. While they might be right, we’re going to continue to expose these people, and just let the public judge.

Finally, in the case of the Oslo Freedom Forum, the Norwegian public really should have a right to have a say, because they’re paying for this. They’re paying for this guy’s operation. The Norwegian government is kicking in lots of money, over $100,000 a year, for him to put on this whitewashing festival. So it’s really up to them to have a say.

And it’s up to the American public, because the State Department is kicking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to the American Islamic Congress — a group that promoted the war on Iraq, to do things that we don’t even understand. Nobody knows what they’re doing. They have an office in Tunis, and they have an office in Cairo, and we don’t know what they’re doing there, and that’s our tax money.

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