By David Reaboi and Kyle Shideler
Thousands attend their rallies, claiming widespread discrimination. They wrap themselves in displays of “interfaith” cooperation. National, state, and local officials pay them heed. Words that “offend” them are removed from movies, newscasts, and even official government reports. All the while, the men who lead this organization have appeared extensively on FBI wiretaps and are known to federal law enforcement to be involved in a national criminal conspiracy.
You could be forgiven for thinking this describes the Council on American Islamic Relations(CAIR) and its Muslim Brotherhood-linked leaders—a group the FBI, federal prosecutors and a federal judge have all affirmed supported the designated terrorist group, Hamas.
But no. The year is 1971, and the pressure group is the Italian American Civil Rights League (IACRL). Its founder, Joe Colombo, is known to federal law enforcement as the head of New York’s Colombo crime family, one of the infamous “Five Families” of the Cosa Nostra. Its most high-profile spokesman is his son, Anthony, who, for more than 30 years would deny the Mafia existed and rail against dark government conspiracies targeting Italian-Americans.
It may seem like a punch line now but, in the 1970s, the effort by gangsters to don the mantle of activists and wrap themselves the flag of “civil rights” was taken semi-seriously. Many prominent Italian-American elites (prominenti in Italian) endorsed the call, throwing their influence behind the grievance-mongering. As scholar Joseph Sciorra of the Italian American Review describes,
A blurring occurred in which the mobbed-up League was conflated in the popular imagination with civic-minded spokespeople, thus diminishing the latter’s seemingly altruistic efforts (Kenna 2007, 193). But as historian Philip V. Cannistraro notes, “the prominenti’s constant preoccupation with the Mafia issue” (2005, 83), dating to the early 1930s when newspaper owner Generoso Pope launched an anti-defamation campaign against cinematic depictions of mafiosi, has historically been a self-serving agenda. ‘The dual focus of prominentismo has always been to promote the separate, self-aggrandizing interest of their own particular elite rather than the community as a whole, and to stress what Italian Americans are not’ (Cannistraro 2005, 84). It is no surprise, then, as Fred Gardaphé observes, that ‘more unified acts by Italian Americans have been launched against fictional portrayal of the mafia than ever were mounted against real mafiosi in the United States’ (2015, 365).
The obvious parallel is to the tens of thousands of Muslim-Americans CAIR enlists to bolster crowds condemning “Islamophobia” and any discussion of Islamic terrorism, but offer at best anemic support for pro forma denunciations of terrorism. As The Federalist’s Sean Davis has noted, the analogue between the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Italian American Civil Rights League is so close that, reading the latter’s public statements from the early 1970s and replacing “Italian” with “Muslim,” you’d be hard-pressed to spot the incongruence.
The way Sciorra described “the mobbed-up League” and its efforts could be an apt descriptor for CAIR, a group founded and run by ex-Islamic Association for Palestine staffers that has had more than one of its employees convicted of terror-related criminal activity. As Sciorra explained, while the crowd at the league’s rallies wore pins discussing their Italian pride, the leadership had more strategic concerns. They focused on attacking federal law enforcement and purposefully conflating all investigation of Mafia criminal activities with discrimination against the large Italian-American community.
The only way to end this perceived “discrimination,” the league insisted, was for the government and media to change its ways; not only must it stop using the word “Mafia,” it must deny that any such criminal conspiracy existed. And they did. The Department of Justice adhered to federal regulations, which prohibited use of the word. “There is nothing to be gained by using these terms,” U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell wrote, “except to give gratuitous offense” to “many good Americans of Italian-American descent.” The New York State Police had a similar rule. The word “Mafia” was deleted from the script of “The Godfather” at the behest of Colombo’s league.
Not everyone fell for it, including among the Italian-American community. New York state Sen. John Marchi warned that Italian-Americans had “been had” by their endorsement of Colombo’s Italian American Civil Rights League, only to be denounced as a “self-loathing Italian.” One wonders if Marchi didn’t feel then much the way Zhudi Jasser of American Islamic Forum for Democracy must feel now as he warns the American people about the machinations of Islamist groups, only to be denounced as an “Islamophobe” by known terror conspirators.
In the early 1970s, the media was a lot more skeptical of these obvious propaganda efforts, as well. At the end of a syndicated 1971 article about the League’s alliance with the Jewish Defense League, the Jewish Telegraph Agency slips in the following inconvenient information for context, complete with parentheses:
(Joseph Colombo, president of the League, faces a Federal hearing on April 21st on charges of conducting a gambling business. He has also just been convicted in the Manhattan State Court on a perjury charge and was recently arrested for allegedly receiving stolen goods from a robbery of the Long Island Jewelry Exchange in Mineola.)
The JTA obviously thought it was important to describe for its readers the provenance of the league’s complaint, as well as its unsavory record. Of course, one would wait in vain today for a mainstream media outlet to describe CAIR’s troublesome history with the same forthrightness.
In fact, despite U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Solis ruling that, “The government has produced ample evidence to establish the associations of CAIR [and other Islamist groups] with Hamas,” none of the nearly 700 articles the New York Times has run about the group has mentioned it. Even more egregiously, the Times covered CAIR’s 2007 efforts to break free of its designation as an unindicted coconspirator in the largest terror finance trial in American history, yet neglected to cover the 2009 rejection of the Islamist group’s appeal.
The parallels between the League’s censorship efforts in the ‘70s and CAIR’s efforts today aren’t lost on Rudy Giuliani, and for good reason. In 1983, when he was U.S. attorney, Giuliani launched his successful prosecutions against the New York crime families. One of his first actswas to violate the prior decade’s DOJ regulations and say the forbidden word “Mafia.” In a piece for the Wall Street Journal last year, Giuliani made an apt comparison between the battle for accurate vocabulary in both the fight with the mob and with Islamic terrorists.
I had a different view of using the term Mafia. It reflected the truth. The Mafia existed, and denying what people oppressed by those criminals knew to be true only gave the Mafia more power. This hesitancy to identify the enemy accurately and honestly—“Mafia” was how members described themselves and kept its identity Italian or Italian-American—created the impression that the government was incapable of combating them because it was unable even to describe the enemy correctly.
As Giuliani argued, the similarities go beyond mere forbidden words and get at the heart of what it takes to prevail against both the Cosa Nostra and Islamic jihadists. In a recent piece for the Claremont Review of Books, we argued for a new law enforcement approach to dealing with Islamist movements, of which the Muslim Brotherhood is the most consequential, that draws explicitly on efforts to defeat the Mafia:
Instead of approaching Brotherhood members and organizations as respected community leaders for outreach purposes either at home or abroad, the primary goal should be to acquire the intelligence needed to disrupt terror finance or prevent indoctrination. If necessary, officials can use the possibility of prosecution under the Muslim Brotherhood designation to secure cooperation, which would be similar to the way informants are treated when approaching other conspirators, such as crime organizations.
Since Giuliani crippled the New York mob in the 1980s, Colombo’s League and its campaign to ban the word “Mafia” seems more like a quaint throwback to the 1970s than a threat to the integrity of organized crime investigations. Perhaps the Trump administration will be able to accomplish the same for groups like CAIR, when the inappropriate deference, and White House meetings, become a thing of the past.
Of course, some of the league’s bitter holdouts will always remain. Anthony Colombo continues to write on his mob boss father, insisting the FBI had him killed to halt his civic accomplishments. Even more colorfully, Father Louis Gigante—brother to famed Genovese Mafia Boss Vincent “the Chin” Gigante and a well-known Bronx community organizer—holds up mobsters as exemplars for civic minded Americans, in just the way Islamist groups sing the praises of convicted terror financiers.
For most Americans of all ethnic groups, though, government efforts to act against the Mafia are considered appropriate rather than discriminatory. No serious person insists that admitting Mafiosi were largely Italian-Americans is the same as saying all Italian-Americans are mobsters. The same can and must be done for Islamic terrorism.