Muslim Hunting: David Horowitz’s Antagonistic Career


Alex Galvan was in El Salvador teaching English to poor kids when he first learned about his ties to terrorism.

It was last March, during the patch of the calendar most universities cut out for spring break. But instead of beer-bonging his way through a beach week or posting up on the couch, the Florida State University political science and international relations major caught a flight south.

The trip wasn’t unusual: Galvan is hardwired for giving. The Tampa native helped open a free clinic for the uninsured in Tallahassee and has taught poor Moroccans about the importance of clean water. Working young Salvadorans through their ABCs was merely his latest adventure.

Galvan touched down outside of the city of Zacatecoluca, located in a rural region still bleeding from years of civil war and poverty. A bout of malaria was already swimming through his bloodstream. Soon enough, armed thugs were asking about the American stranger. “Be careful,” a family member familiar with the area had warned him before the trip, “and don’t tell anyone you’re Muslim.”

Galvan touched down outside of the city of Zacatecoluca, located in a rural region still bleeding from years of civil war and poverty. A bout of malaria was already swimming through his bloodstream. Soon enough, armed thugs were asking about the American stranger. “Be careful,” a family member familiar with the area had warned him before the trip, “and don’t tell anyone you’re Muslim.”

But Galvan’s problems wouldn’t come from El Salvador. They would arrive via e-mail just a few days in, sent by panicked colleagues from the Muslim Student Association chapter at Florida State. The campus newspaper had run an ad claiming the MSA was aligned with terrorists. Galvan anxiously waited out the 30 minutes it took for his shoddy Internet connection to spit out a copy.

The ad climbed half the page, its top splashed with bold lettering: “Former Leaders of the Muslim Student Association (MSA): Where Are They Now?” Below were 10 names, some familiar echoes from the news. Each was followed by lines identifying their terrorist ties, words like “Al Qaeda,” “Taliban,” and “jihad” shouting at him.

“I took it almost as a personal threat, because it was citing how all these people were presidents of MSA, and I’m a president of MSA,” Galvan recalls.

Florida State’s Muslims were used to low-dose bigotry. This was panhandle Florida. Galvan regularly endured taunts as he made his Friday trek to the mosque dressed in traditional prayer robes. It was just part of life in the South. But the ad suggested that his group was a pilot program for the terrorists of tomorrow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Normally concerned with sponsoring beach-volleyball games and barbecues, the MSA’s most political activity was a yearly Fast-a-Thon to raise awareness about hunger. Looking for a retraction or condemnation, Galvan tapped out angry e-mails to the paper and school administrators.

He was met with silence. The paper wouldn’t print his full-length defense, nor, he says, could FSU president Eric Barron be bothered to return his calls: “It was really alarming to us that no one at our university was willing to step up. We seemed to be alone on this issue.”

The ad did draw the attention of one group: the FBI. Two years earlier, a mosque near FSU had been torched. A few hours east, in Gainesville, Reverend Terry Jones had become a news-cycle fixture for periodically threatening to burn the Koran. The FBI wanted a sit-down, worried that some backcountry type might see the ad and reach for a gun.

“In the Muslim community, we’ve seen how far this goes,” Galvan says. “People don’t just kill a Muslim for no reason. They do it because they’ve developed an image in their head of Muslims as an evil threat to their lives and families.”

But while Galvan and his friends were meeting with the FBI after spring break, a 74-year-old man in Sherman Oaks, California, was most likely gloating over his latest incitement of panic. Over the years, David Horowitz had turned baiting Muslims into a spectator sport. The Florida State ad was just another slash in his win column.

Like many of the ’60s generation, David Horowitz changed his political coloring over time.

His career as an antagonist began in Berkeley with the budding New Left movement, which spliced lecture-hall idealism with radical street work. He edited Ramparts magazine, the ’60s muckraking venture that printed the first exposés on the CIA’s role in Vietnam, allowing him to rub shoulders with revolutionary royalty like writer Noam Chomsky and the Black Panthers.

But Horowitz’s feelings for the left eventually soured. He spied hypocrisy in the liberals who decried Lyndon Johnson while trumpeting dictators like Ho Chi Minh. This growing unease came to a head in 1975, when Betty Van Patter’s beaten corpse was pulled out of the San Francisco Bay. Horowitz believed that Van Patter, who’d kept the books at Ramparts, had been slain by Black Panthers trying to cover up an embezzlement scheme. The case was never solved.

By the 1980s, Horowitz had switched teams. He founded what would later become the Freedom Center in suburban Los Angeles, producing pamphlets that urged Republicans to take up arms. “The Art of Political War” called for the GOP to adopt an aggressive activist tone that would come to be its trademark. Karl Rove was a fan. The none-too-subtle “Hating Whitey” scorched liberals for unfairly blaming whites for the problems confronted by minorities.

Horowitz had become an early champion of the outraged right, showing a keen ability to spot minor flares in the culture wars and then shower them with the appropriate dose of gasoline. He developed a grab bag of liberal targets that would soon make up the hit lists of better-known conservatives, including Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. The Freedom Center’s annual Restoration Weekend, a white-meat gathering of right-wing notables, featured such prominent speakers as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Horowitz became a regular on the lecture circuit and Fox News.

His message was designed to incite. Take his 2006 book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, which sought to out the instructors infecting the nation’s youth with anti-American notions. His logic might have been unhinged—The Boston Globe called it a “one-sided screed” that simply targeted “professors who hold political views different than [Horowitz’s] own”—but that wasn’t really the point. Like most on both the left and right fringes, Horowitz’s primary goal was starting fires, hoping they’d burn bright enough to make the news.

Republican sugar daddies took notice. Benefactors like Richard Mellon Scaife, publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, wrote checks to the Freedom Center. So did the Bradley Foundation, which also backed well-known conservative institutions such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. In 2010, Politico reported that Horowitz had taken home an average of $461,000 in salary and benefits in each of the previous three years.

Yet the polemicist’s profession is a crowded one. It’s difficult to break through the noise when your competition has its own syndicated radio shows and prime time news slots. So Horowitz found a reliable niche by standing bullish on Israel.

In 2007, he began providing conservative college students with starter kits to hold their own Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. Horowitz would parachute onto campuses across the country and promote documentary screenings and appearances by Freedom Center speakers. He showed students how to conduct sit-ins at women’s studies departments to protest feminism’s silence on Islam’s oppression of women. According to the center’s website, the festivities have been held at 114 schools.

He followed up by purchasing an ad in The New York Times proclaiming, “The Palestinians’ Case Against Israel Is Based on a Genocidal Lie.” Another ad likened boycotts of Israeli products to the first step toward Nazism. He even began to argue that the White House had been infiltrated by extremists, in a Freedom Center publication titled “The Muslim Brotherhood in the Obama Administration.”

His work could easily be dismissed as braying theatrics, ’60s radicalism re-engineered for the conservative sensibility. “The way that he approaches all of this is very much still in the strategies and rhetoric of the Berkeley left,” says Eli Clifton, a writer for the Center for American Progress who profiled Horowitz as part of a report on groups involved in spreading Islamophobia. “It’s very much the same hardware. They’ve just changed the software.”

But sometimes Horowitz’s standard operating procedure yields a surprising result. Sometimes—as in the case of Florida State—he’s actually right.

Somewhere in a CIA bunker, algorithms spit red-flagged names linked to jihad. More than a few Muslim Student Association alumni are among them. They include everyone from bit players in bungled terror plots to those who have left enduring fingerprints on recent history. These are the names that Horowitz plasters throughout his ads in college newspapers.

Born in America to Yemeni parents, Anwar al-Awlaki served as president of the MSA at Colorado State in the late ’80s. Although he reportedly walked a moderate line in Fort Collins, the post-9/11 al-Awlaki would become one of the most popular clerics in the Muslim world. His jihadist rallying cries beamed via Internet from Yemen, sprinkled with references to “Joe Sixpack” and other bits of Americana, became must-see screeds for the young and violent. He swapped e-mails with Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who turned his gun on fellow servicemen at Fort Hood in 2009, leaving 13 dead. Officials also believe al-Awlaki was the puppeteer behind Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who failed to ignite an underwear bomb on a flight to Detroit in 2009. Al-Awlaki became the first U.S. citizen to rank on the CIA’s kill list. A drone strike in Yemen took him out last year.

Omar Hammami, crowned the “Jihadist Next Door” by The New York Times, grew up feeling ostracized as a Muslim in a small town in the Bible Belt. He was president of the MSA at the University of South Alabama before dropping out in 2002. After heading overseas and rechristening himself Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, Hammami became the media face for Al Shabaab, a Somali insurgency group now affiliated with Al Qaeda. Besides appearing in recruitment videos, al-Amriki recorded rap songs with a jihadist message. He recently earned a spot on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

Ali Asad Chandia was a third-grade teacher at a Muslim school in College Park, Maryland, when the feds booted in his door in 2003. The Pakistan native was eventually handed a 15-year sentence for providing support to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Muslim extremist group focused on liberating Kashmir from India. The organization is responsible for numerous attacks on military and civilian targets, including the attacks across Mumbai in 2008, when 164 people were massacred. Chandia shuttled group members from the airport when they visited America and let them use his home computer to order Kevlar vests, night-vision goggles, and other supplies. His conviction was part of a roundup of the Virginia Jihad Network, also dubbed the “Paintball Cell” for the way it road-tested possible terror ops. Chandia was president of the Montgomery College MSA in the late ’90s.

A supporter’s role also linked Ziyad Khaleel to Al Qaeda. Throughout the ’90s, the Palestinian lived in various locations across the U.S., procuring supplies for overseas extremists. Khaleel’s purchases included the $7,500 satellite phone Osama bin Laden used to plot the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Khaleel previously headed the MSA at Columbia College in Missouri.

During the 1983–84 school year, the MSA at the University of Arizona was run by Wa’el Hamza Julaidan, the son of a wealthy Saudi family. After college, he ran the Islamic Center in Tucson, where he became passionate about the Afghan-Soviet struggle. In 1986, he headed for that region, serving in the mujahideen alongside Abdullah Azzam and bin Laden. The three would later found Al Qaeda.

This small army of MSA presidents–turned-terrorists has provided Horowitz with powerful ammo among the unregenerate right. But, of course, the MSA, like any college group, is as diverse as its membership. Some chapters emphasize religion, others social outreach. The MSA at the University of California, Berkeley, has produced videos on gay rights. The one at UC Irvine is known for flexing a militant side. Two years ago, 11 members were arrested for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador.

In short: Broad-brushing the entire group is akin to labeling all evangelical Christians as freaks on par with the Westboro Baptist Church. But it’s good business for David Horowitz.

Punch Horowitz’s name into a YouTube search and you’ll find a man who clearly enjoys strapping on the pads.

His campus road shows typically begin with an invite from college Republicans to speak, at which point Horowitz begins stoking the uproar with his ads in school papers. By lecture day, things are hot enough to require extra security—and Horowitz delivers.

While visiting UC San Diego in 2010, he scored an on-camera checkmate that has become Exhibit A for Muslim-haters on campus. During a question-and-answer period, he tangled with a female student in a head scarf. The woman was pressing for specifics on MSA’s ties to terrorism. Horowitz ducked the question, instead demanding that she denounce Hezbollah on the spot.

“For it or against it?” he barked.

“For it,” she replied.

Later, the woman, claiming she was upset and confused, backed off the comment. But Horowitz still landed an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show to discuss his triumph.

At a UC Santa Barbara lecture, he didn’t just face down a hostile audience; he controlled the crowd as if his hand had been on a thermostat. The packed auditorium was filled with members of the MSA. One outraged student after the next took the microphone to confront Horowitz. He deftly steered each question off in his own direction or bullied students into frustrated silences by demanding on-the-spot denunciations of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Shouts of “Fuck you!” and “You’re making stuff up!” popped up from the seats.

Horowitz’s incendiary rhetoric was also on full display at a Brooklyn College appearance last year. “No people has shown itself so morally sick as the Palestinians have,” he announced. “No other people in the world have sunk so low morally as the Palestinians have, and yet everybody is afraid to say this.” The crowd responded with angry cries.

Horowitz defends the atmosphere at his events by throwing up his hands and pointing to the MSA. “I don’t go to campuses inciting people,” he says. “I go to speak. I can’t have a civil conversation. I have to go with bodyguards, and that’s because of the Muslim Student Associations. Their behavior is what’s important, not their sophistry in avoiding my questions.”

As Henry Kissinger once said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” But they’re very good for landing you an appearance on Fox News.

The charged atmosphere—and the readiness of the far right to cheer him on—allows Horowitz to spin theories with little structural integrity. One of his favorite conspiracies: that all U.S. Muslim organizations are tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian group with a history of jihad and anti-Semitism that has become Egypt’s leading political force. His evidence is woven from the thinnest wool.

The Holy Land Foundation was once the largest Islamic charity in America—until it was caught violating U.S. law by funneling $12 million to Hamas. Five members of the foundation were handed life sentences in 2009 for the crime.

As part of that investigation, the feds found a memo at Holy Land’s suburban Dallas headquarters. It was written in 1991 by a Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas member named Mohamed Akram. The text lays out a comical plot to institute sharia—Islamic religious law—across America by using “our organizations and the organizations of our friends,” MSAs included.

The idea that sharia would ever dominate the land of the mega-church might be laughable, but that hasn’t stopped Horowitz from insisting that Muslim Student Associations take their marching orders from the memo. “I see [MSA] as a recruitment organization,” he says. “Its purpose is first to isolate the Muslim students, to create a Muslim center, so they’re not going to assimilate into Western values. I know this from my youth in Communist front associations. The idea is you create a group that gathers all the Muslim kids, and then you identify the ones who become leaders. Those are the ones who get positions of power in the organization, and those are the ones who go on to do other Muslim Brotherhood tasks.”

Yet there’s little evidence that the memo was ever put into play outside of the overactive imagination of its author.

“It’s one memo that they found that some crazy guy had written that was never in any way accepted by anyone or implemented anywhere, even by the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Haris Tarin, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “The idea of American Muslims on college campuses who have never been to places like Egypt having some affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood is absurd.”

Still, sharia has become a bogeyman for even seemingly sensible conservatives. Two years ago, Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment—with 70 percent of the vote—banning its use in state courts. For Horowitz, it’s a topic that reliably kicks up dust at colleges.

Last January, the Ohio State University student paper ran the same “Where Are They Now?” ad that appeared at Florida State. The Lantern‘s staff was pummeled with e-mails and calls from students. Horowitz chimed in from the sidelines, clearly enjoying the furor.

Freedom Center ads are almost a yearly rite at UCLA, where the Daily Bruin regularly receives alternating waves of attacks and counterattacks. One side clamors for a muzzle, the other wants Horowitz to have his say.

“At MSA, we’ve met with the communications department and made it clear we don’t want David Horowitz’s ad published,” says Haidar Anwar, a UCLA student who serves as president of MSA West, an umbrella group. “We’ve brought it up to the dean of students as well. But after we met with them, David Horowitz published another ad.”

If your business depends on pissing people off, it’s important to have steady reports of success from the battlefront. That’s what funders want to see. And from 2001 to 2009, groups like Horowitz’s received $42 million in donations, mostly from large conservative charities, according to the Center for American Progress.

“These people are very deliberate in how they do things,” Tarin says. “Some of them focus on college campuses. Some of them focus on law enforcement. Some of them focus on churches and Rotary clubs and senior citizen homes. It’s an industry.”

Horowitz swats down any talk about his role in spreading Islamophobia. Because his work is mainly focused on campuses, he can wrap himself snugly in the First Amendment and claim he’s just offering another academic perspective. “If you use the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ in a sentence or a paragraph, you’re an Islamophobe,” he says. “That’s just an attempt to silence critics, which is what I am. I am not a person who is hostile to Muslims.”

But it’s hard to appreciate the distinction, considering Horowitz’s track record of insult. Even if he chooses his words carefully, it’s the suggestion and innuendo clinging to the bottom side of his rhetoric that gets the job done. And critics have taken note, including Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

“There’s no question that there are extremist Muslim groups in the United States. The problem is when it goes from particular extremist to all Muslims,” she says. “I think Horowitz is just coming up to the line of Islamophobia and not stepping over it.” For that, he has the legions behind him.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.