I’m an American Muslim who’s lived his entire life in the New York area, and the only times I’ve heard anything about the so-called Islamberg—a rural community of Muslims in upstate New York—is when someone demands I answer for its existence. The unusual hamlet has a unique history and has operated on private property for more than 36 years, but it has, in recent years, become the target of lazy conspiracies that it’s a “no-go zone” governed by sharia, or maybe even a training camp for terrorists.
American sharia zones don’t exist, it should go without saying. (I once visited one identified by Fox News. It was, you’ll be shocked to learn, something much more boring.) The Muslims living in Islamberg have been described by local law enforcement as friendly. “I would say that the amount of crime that is associated there at the land is less than it is anywhere else,” James Barnes, of the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, told CBS News in 2015. At that point, he had maintained a relationship with the residents of Islamberg for more than 12 years.
America’s right-wing media, however, has been grooming its followers to believe that Islamberg is a terrorist compound secretly planning attacks on American soil. Fox News: “Islamberg: A Terror Compound in New York… or Misunderstood Neighbors?” Breitbart, in a headline that aggregated a debunked claim from another Islamophobic blog: “Jihadi Cult Associate Arrested in NY With Firearms Stockpile.” That same smear, which was rigorously disputed by local law enforcement, was repeatedly aired unchallenged on Fox News. All of these headlines are still online and surely still read and shared today. If all you read is right-wing news, you’d really have no reason to doubt that Islamberg is a Trojan horse for foreign terrorists. It’s a perfect boogeyman, and the persistent coverage has become a common, banal evil that it’s easy for me to drown it out, given all the other threats American Muslims face.
What’s less common is a henchman in these operations confessing in the New York Times, as happened last week. In a long-winded first-person piece that reads both like a confession and an extended attempt at atonement, one of the people who helped demonize Islamberg admitted to fabricating stories. In the Times Magazine, Josh Owens, who worked as a video editor at Infowars, detailed how the site invented conspiracies about Muslims. The site regularly reports on nonexistent sharia zones in America, Islamberg chief among them. Posts include headlines like “Drone Investigates Islamic Training Center,” “The Rumors Are True: Shariah Law Is Here!,” and “Infowars Reporters Stalked by Terrorism Task Force.”
To hear it from Owens, he was practically forced to. He was initially drawn by founder Alex Jones’ conspiracy intrigue, but described feeling captive to his boss. He spends ample words describing the immense pressure he felt to keep his exploitative employer satisfied, his job a minefield of unpredictable and violent outbursts. “Working for Jones was a balancing act. You had to determine where he was emotionally and match his tone quickly,” he writes. Owens describes scrambling to film something, anything, or otherwise be subject to Jones’ fury. When Owens traveled with Infowars to Islamberg and found nothing, the team improvised. “The information did not meet our expectations, so we made it up, preying on the vulnerable and feeding the prejudices and fears of Jones’s audience,” he wrote. “We ignored certain facts, fabricated others and took situations out of context to fit our narrative.”
On a private ranch, where the Infowars staff would fire high-powered rifles to blow off steam, Jones accidentally fired a round in Owens’ direction, missing by only around 10 feet. Another employee “lost it” at Jones. Owens? He says he “stood by silently, considering what might have happened if the gun had been pointed a little to the right.”
It’s a powerful image. Owens’ piece is wrenching, the reflections of someone who seems to have endured a particularly terrible job. I only wish he had given that kind of consideration to the many people affected by his work. He writes that he came to his senses on a plane home after a trip to Islamberg, sitting next to a woman in a hijab and her young child, whose humanity he only recognized because of her youthful excitement of flying on an airplane for the first time. “I thought of the children who lived in Islamberg: how afraid their families must have felt when their communities were threatened and strangers appeared asking questions; how we chose to look past these people as individuals and impose on them more of the same unfair suspicions they already had to endure. And for what? Clickbait headlines, YouTube views?”
This is meant to be a poignant moment. To Muslim readers, it’s infuriating. Sitting next to an excited child on a plane was enough to prompt this reflection, but not the years of violent rhetoric and threats directed at people targeted by Jones’ hate machine? Owens writes that he always knew much of what the site put out was nonsense, but “it was easy to brush off these fever dreams as eccentricities and excesses—not the heart of the Alex Jones operation but mere diversions.” He addresses the very real, violent consequences of the site’s work only in passing, instead focusing on how he “resented Jones for creating an environment of rage, fear and confusion.” He seems to regard walking away as an act of absolution. If he considered that the people in Islamberg, and people like me, are doomed to deal with the repercussions of his work for as long as it’s in fashion, I must have missed it.
As a reminder, while Owens worked for Infowars, notorious extremist Jon Ritzheimer posted a video of himself on a road trip toward Islamberg with a loaded gun. In the video, he cocks his pistol and shouts, “Bring it on, you Muslim fucks!” A onetime Republican congressional candidate named Robert Doggart was also convicted of trying to recruit people to burn down the mosque at Islamberg. He threatened to use an assault rifle against anyone who tried to stop him. Earlier this year, three men in a nearby town were caught with a cache of weapons, including homemade explosives, that were going to be used against the Muslims living at Islamberg. The FBI and local law enforcement thankfully thwarted the attack.
Infowars isn’t the only conservative website to publish pieces that incite readers against Muslims, but it’s a primary vector. Owens’ essay reads like it’s asking us to consider his humanity—that Jones was an overbearing, violent boss and that he was swept up in the operation—when it still isn’t obvious he’s really considered ours. Has he done anything to make it up to the Muslims living in Islamberg, who’ve endured many threats against their lives, other than take a high-profile commission in the New York Times Magazine, a publication the people he once catered to famously don’t trust? His readers and viewers clearly still believe that the Muslims next door are out to kill them. What does Owens’ lament do for them, and for us?
American Muslims already know our communities aren’t bloodthirsty sleeper cells. We already knew that people like Owens fabricated “proof” to slander us. And more than two years after he quit, after all of the damage has been done, it’s nearly useless to hear from Owens now, especially in this venue. Maybe he should go back to Islamberg to hear about what he’s done firsthand. Or maybe, better yet, he should leave us alone, and not ask us to try to understand why he did what he did. It’s too late now.