Waging a One-Man War on American Muslims

The New York Times/December 16, 2011

During the mid-1990s, after hearing about the harassment of gay students, the principal of Largo High School in Florida created a support group for them. Over the next year or two, the meetings also drew sympathetic friends, evolving into a club called the Gay Straight Alliance. For a while, it operated in comfortable obscurity.

Then, in 1998, the principal, Barbara Thornton, began receiving postcards, many bearing the identical message bizarrely denouncing the alliance as a "government-funded witch hunt." The local school board felt compelled to take up the issue, with 400 parents attending a meeting at which one speaker compared the gay students to murderers.

During that session, Ms. Thornton encountered the man who had manufactured the entire controversy: David Caton. An accountant turned rock-club owner, the author of a book about his pornography addiction, Mr. Caton had become a born-again Christian and the founder and sole employee of a fundamentalist group called the Florida Family Association.

This dispute, otherwise a mere footnote in America's culture wars, matters very much right now. This same David Caton is the person who has maligned the television show "All-American Muslim" — a reality series on the Learning Channel about five families in Dearborn, Mich. — as a front for an Islamic takeover of America and pressured advertisers to pull their commercials.

At least two, Lowe's Home Improvement and Kayak.com, have acknowledged doing so, partly in reaction to Mr. Caton's campaign. Subsequently, after being criticized by consumers and antidiscrimination groups, both companies issued statements declaring their support for tolerance and diversity.

It would be upsetting enough if a well-financed, well-organized mass movement had misrepresented a television show, insulted an entire religious community and intimidated a national corporation. What makes the attack on "All-American Muslim" more disturbing — and revealing — is that it was prosecuted by just one person, a person unaffiliated with any established organization on the Christian right, a person who effectively tapped into a groundswell of anti-Muslim bigotry.

"We live in the age of the Internet and a well-organized extreme right," said Mark Potok, who investigates hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center and has followed Mr. Caton's activities. "This little man was able to have his voice amplified in huge ways."

Wajahat Ali, who has written about "the Islamophobia network in America" for the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group, made a similar point in an interview.

"It's literally one dude with a poorly made Web site, one fringe individual with an e-mail list," Mr. Ali said. "But by parroting the talking points created by this incestuous network, he's triggered a national crisis."

Mr. Caton did not respond to numerous calls seeking comment. On his association's Web site he had accused "All-American Muslim" of hiding "the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values." In an interview this week on CNN, he reiterated the thesis.

Yet, with its focus on such wholesome archetypes as a police officer, a newlywed couple and a football coach, "All-American Muslim" struck many reviewers as too tepid to be entertaining. It aspires to do for Muslims what earlier television series like "The Goldbergs" and "Julia" did for Jews and African-Americans — show they're just regular folks.

The question is why anybody, especially a major company like Lowe's, would be swayed by Mr. Caton's campaign. (A spokesman for Lowe's declined the opportunity to comment.) The 2010 federal tax forms for the Florida Family Association list Mr. Caton as its only paid employee, earning $55,200. The association took in $172,133 in donations and closed out the calendar year with precisely $8,868.76 on hand.

Mr. Caton set up the Florida Family Association after having broken with the American Family Association, a more mainstream group within Christian activist circles, for reasons that remain unclear. Mr. Caton worked independently of such established groups as Florida Family Action, Focus on the Family and the Florida Baptist Convention during the 2008 campaign to amend the Florida Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage.

"His tactics may differ from other organizations," said Mathew Staver, the chairman of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law and policy organization often involved in evangelical Christian issues. "Other organizations may have similar goals but use different tactics."

For the first 15 years of his public life, Mr. Caton aimed almost entirely at homosexuals, whether with the high school club, the marriage amendment or gay rights measures in Tampa, Fla. He even urged Florida to fire an openly gay lawyer from the state attorney general's office.

Mr. Caton often used the tactic of pressuring advertisers on shows he depicted as advocating for homosexuality — "Sordid Lives," "Degrassi High" and "Modern Family." On the Florida Family Association Web site, he posted grandiose claims about the companies that pulled their advertising and the cable networks that canceled shows. He appears to have frequently exaggerated, but he was almost never publicly contradicted.

Within the past two years, Mr. Caton has largely dropped the anti-gay banner in favor of a new villain: American Muslims. His concern about Sharia law partly grew out of a court decision in Tampa in which a judge allowed a mosque to settle an internal dispute according to religious law.

But Mr. Caton's new obsession also drew upon the heated comments of such prominent anti-Muslim activists as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. And it coincided with the national controversies about the "ground zero mosque" — in fact, an Islamic cultural center several blocks from ground zero — and the hearings led by Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican, on alleged subversion by American Muslims.

If there is any upside to the campaign against "All-American Muslim," it is that national scrutiny has cut Mr. Caton down to size. Several major companies that he claimed had stopped advertising — Home Depot and Campbell's Soup — issued statements saying they had done no such thing. The entertainment mogul Russell Simmons paid the Learning Channel for the advertising revenue lost from Lowe's. Mr. Caton's broadsides have potentially created a larger, more sympathetic audience for the very series he reviles.

That would not be the first example of unintended consequences in his career. "We found it a good thing he brought the issue out," Ms. Thornton, the Florida principal, recalled. "It ended up with the student population at large supporting the Gay Straight Alliance because of the attacks from outside."

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