Pamela Geller believes America is at war. Not a figurative one or an ideological one, but a literal one that calls for guns and missiles and planes and tanks and troops. One that has and will cause the deaths of innocents, of men, women, children, and, eventually, of nations.
She believes we are in a worldwide war between good and evil itself. She believes we are losing.
She believes, truly believes, that this evil—Islam—is upon our shores and that the time it takes for Islam to overrun what she calls the greatest country in the history of mankind can be measured not in decades or years but in months. She believes the re-election ofPresident Barack Obama on November 6 has all but assured it.
Geller, 54, one of the most polarizing women in the country, is but a foot soldier in this war—a cog, but a large one that grows larger every day. When I meet her at an upscale coffee shop blocks away from her tony midtown apartment, she is in full combat gear.
"You’re a kid!" she cries when I reach out to shake her hand. Her Long Island accent, thick from her childhood, is distracting from the start. I’m not a kid, but I decide it doesn’t matter, because she’s absolutely giddy. Geller’s mouth is parted in a silent laugh, and she raises both of her hands like she doesn’t know whether to hug me or touch my face. I feel like a baby Labrador. It’s not a terrible feeling.
We buy coffee and take a table near the back of the shop.
There’s a reason why Pamela Geller’s name is almost invariably preceded by “The Beautiful” at her speaking events. Today, she’s wearing a chic leather jacket over a form-fitting black turtleneck, and her trademark diamond-encrusted “Love” charm is hanging from a necklace. She’s wearing loose curls, tawny locks falling over her shoulder. It’s almost December, and even though she posts 10 to 15 times a day from home on her wildly successful blog, atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com, her golden skin is still sun-kissed, and her large light-brown eyes peer from behind impossible eyelashes that rest upon her sculpted cheekbones whenever she blinks or winks or bats her eyes at the kid 30 years her junior.
She’s viewed by “leftists,” as she calls her critics, as a monster, the animalistic id of the racist, paranoid right, a supremacist leader of arguably the most extreme wing in the Tea Party, who knowingly interacts with bigots and xenophobes. She’s the face, literally, of theSouthern Poverty Law Center's national anti-Muslim hate-group page. Of the six New York City anti-Muslim groups listed on the page, she founded three of them herself (Stop the Islamization of America, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, and her blog, Atlas Shrugs). Most recently, she has drawn ire for a series of public-transit ads she has run in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Most read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Geller fights her war on two fronts. The first is against Islam itself, which she calls “the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth.” The second is against Barack Obama. Geller, a secular Jew, is a pro-choice, pro-marriage-equality Manhattanite raised by liberal parents. But when it comes to the president, Geller holds nothing back. She has devoted the past four years of her life to fighting his re-election, because the war is already here, and we’ve already lost if the most powerful man on the planet is, as she calls him, “an Islamophiliac”: a lover of Islam.
She helped launch the birther movement before the president was even elected. And in a 2009 blog post, she wrote that Obama had slept with a crack whore and posted nude photos of Obama’s mother, supposedly taken in 1960 by alleged black communist Frank Marshall Davis. They turned out to be fakes. Keith Olbermann has twice named her Worst Person in the World. In 2010, she led protests against the Islamic community center near Ground Zero and published a book with her openly anti-Muslim partner in crime, Robert Spencer, called The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America. She stops short of calling Obama a Muslim in public, though she tells me, “He clearly favors Islam.”
Looking at her now, though, she doesn’t seem like a monster. I know it’s all for show, of course, her beauty and her charm. They’re her main weapons in the war, along with her website, and how she has been able to navigate and thrive in the far-right, old-white-man-dominated world of the Tea Party and the American anti-Islam movement. When you’re a symbol, appearances matter. And her very appearance, the fact that someone like her—a pretty, secular, socially liberal New Yorker—would be on the front lines of the war, adds credibility to the cause.
"They say I’m a racist, Islamophobic, anti-Muslim bigot," she complains to me, about me, about the liberal media.
"So where would you consider yourself on that spectrum?" I start.
What I’ve always said,” she explains, bristling. “I’m anti-jihad.” Jihad is Arabic for “struggle,” though Muslim extremists and their enemies alike have taken its usage in the Koran to mean “holy war.”
"They’ve never described me that way. Ever. They’ve never described me as anti-jihad. They say I’m anti-Muslim. I’m not anti-Muslim.
"I don’t see how anyone could say I’m anti-Muslim," she says. "I love Muslims."
Geller’s war started on a Tuesday. It was beautiful outside, so, naturally, Geller, a rich housewife and a mother to four daughters, was on the beach on Long Island’s South Shore. She was staring to the west, toward Manhattan. A skyscraper was burning.
She ran inside her house and turned on the television. Anchors were reporting that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. She ran back outside, mouthing the same thing millions of Americans were echoing across the country. “What moronic …” Then she saw the second plane hit. That’s when she knew what was happening, when Geller’s world fell apart.
Before 9/11, Geller’s life was uneventful. She was the quintessential New York trophy wife: She grew up traveling to and from the city, moved there after dropping out of Hofstra, worked in the city, married rich, had kids, and retired to Long Island to raise her children. She passed the days reading Details and studying up on music, art, and fashion. A few years later, she would have been perfect material for The Real Housewives. (She would receive close to $10 million after divorcing her husband in 2007 and collecting life insurance from his death in 2008.)
The terrorist attacks traumatized her.
My premise was false,” Geller says. In a single morning, America’s façade of invincibility was shattered. Geller stood by, useless and helpless, as nearly 3,000 innocents were slaughtered. She was so out of touch she’d never heard of Osama bin Laden before.
Two planes hit the towers, and one hit the Pentagon. A fourth, United Airlines Flight 93from Newark to San Francisco, was hijacked as well and steered toward Washington, D.C. But the passengers fought the jihadi terrorists, and the plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Forty-four people died, including the four hijackers, but the passengers saved hundreds of lives in the process, maybe more.
"The idea that those passengers on that plane all got together—that was a distinctlyAmerican response,” Geller tells me. “They didn’t need anyone to save them. They tried to save themselves.”
"Do you think that was distinctly American?" I ask.
"Yes," she says. "I do."
"You don’t think someone in"—I pick a random country—"Brazil or something would have done the same?"
"I don’t know," Geller says. "But to me, it’s an exemplar of American exceptionalism. It’s not an elitist thing. American exceptionalism is individual exceptionalism. It’s the exaltation of the individual. If you give an individual the freedom to be free, this is what they will do.
"America was the first moral government in the history of the world based on individual rights," she says. "There were definitely mistakes made—the idea of slavery—but if you go back and read the establishment of the United States … the problem was you couldn’t get those Southern states to go along,” she says. “That’s why compromise is not necessarily a good thing. Because in any compromise between good and evil, evil profits.”
The 9/11 attack was the most evil thing Geller could imagine. She felt we were at war with a group of people who played by a different set of rules. Savages.
She had to do something. So she learned about Islam, jihad, and sharia, the religion’s code of law. Growing up, she was largely apolitical but always championed women’s rights. She was particularly disturbed by women under sharia who were treated as second-class citizens. She read about women and young girls alike being beaten, raped, murdered. But the more she studied the religion, the more social issues took a backseat to her belief that Islam itself needed to be defeated.
"All these other issues are luxuries. I mean, if you ain’t got your head," she says, "what’s abortion gonna do for you?"
America slowly healed, but Geller had fundamentally changed. She says she was reborn. Along with it came a visceral fear.
"It’s not some jingoism," she says. "It’s your country. Where you gonna go? You won’t like what comes after America."
She began to read and comment on conservative blogs, especially Robert Spencer’s. Spencer is an anti-Muslim author decried by many as a bigoted mudslinger. In 2004, a fellow commenter sent her a template for a blog.
"They said, ‘Start blogging.’ And I was like: ‘Blogging? I don’t know anything about blogging,’" Geller says. "Then I remembered this: ‘Shut up and start writing.’ That’s what I did. I shut up and started writing." A self-professed capitalist, Geller named it Atlas Shrugs after Ayn Rand's book. “And I've never stopped. I've literally never taken a day off.”
Her readership grew slowly, helped by her willingness to blog about news the mainstream media wasn’t covering. In 2008, she published cartoons of Muhammad from a Danish newspaper. Her readership increased tenfold, she says, because when the cartoons made international headlines, her blog was one of the only websites to run them.
Geller’s activism didn’t begin until 2007, when she teamed up with Spencer and others to attempt to close Khalil Gibran International Academy, a Brooklyn dual-language middle school that planned to teach Arabic. The coalition saw it as a front to indoctrinate preteens in Islam. They didn’t close the school, but they were able to pressure the would-be school principal to resign. It was a small victory, but it was a victory nonetheless.
Geller, still largely unknown, was hungry for more. She saw evidence of “creeping sharia” everywhere. She was firmly a part of the war against what she called an Islamic “world takeover.” The only problem is, if you believe you’re in a war—an actual war—it’s easier when there’s a visible enemy to fight.
Then a brown guy whose parents had the lack of foresight to name him Barack Hussein Obama ran for president of the United States. Geller finally had her enemy.
In October 2008, when it was all but a lock that America would have its first African-American president, Geller took to Atlas Shrugs. “Conventional” birth certificate birtherism had already started a year before, but no one expected what came next. One of her readers, a conspiracy theorist named Rudy Schultz, had conjured a new claim that Malcolm X had impregnated Ann Dunham, a white woman.
She posted Schultz’s ludicrous theory. To date, the post has received nearly 10,000Facebook likes and drew a firestorm. The theory took off nationally, and because of that post, she was thrust into the public eye when Olbermann named her Worst Person in the World. Geller’s celebrity and readership jumped again.
"So you kind of indirectly started birtherism even though you weren’t the one peddling it," I say. "Kind of, right?"
Geller looks at me, smiles coyly, and nods.
It was her most successful jab at the president early on. She hated him, feared him. She’d dedicate the next four years to smearing him at every opportunity. She teamed up with Spencer to write a book, 2010’s The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, before the president was even inaugurated.
Geller looked at Obama and saw a man who loved America less than her, who had a Muslim name and held meetings with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom she saw as savages.
Obsessed, she blogged about the president nearly every day. At one point, she wrote on her blog: “One thing is for sure: Hussein [Obama] is a Muhammadan. He’s not insane … he wants jihad to win. That’s what he is doing. Of course, to the Western mind, the rational mind, the logical mind, the American mind, that is insane.”
It made juicy reading. More people subscribed. Then her popularity got another boost when a massive, right-wing grassroots movement called the Tea Party started making national news.
It started as a modest group of people who wanted to cut the deficit, balance the budget, and lower taxes. But it was sexy, and it exploded. The left reported more on the uglier fringe groups, like the birthers. Later, America would hear about the Southern evangelicals, the voter IDers, the anti-immigrationers. The Tea Party grew into a sort-of big-tent party. Geller was one of the first converts.
"It was just organic. People got up and said: ‘No. No way.’ And it didn’t have a leadership," Geller says. "I kinda liked that about the Tea Party. Because weak people need a strong leader. Strong people don’t need a strong leader."
Geller got gigs blogging for other sites. Fox News loved her. Halfway through Obama’s presidency, her blog was fielding 200,000 unique visitors a month. And then plans for theCordoba House, an Islamic community center since renamed Park51, were announced. Geller seized her opportunity.
"I thought it was deeply humiliating, wildly offensive. I didn’t say they couldn’t build it,” she says. “I appealed to them not to build it.”
Top Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, and Sarah Palin spoke out against the community center, which also had a mosque. Geller teamed with Spencer and other Southern Poverty Law Center–certified hate groups to denounce the $100 million project. She went as far as to say the “Ground Zero Mega-Mosque”—as she liked to call it—was a “victory mosque.”
It earned Geller her second Worst Person in the World award. Olbermann said Geller’s rhetoric helped stoke a paranoia that resulted in, among other things, a national spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a mosque firebombing in Jacksonville.
That November, she traveled to Sherman Oaks, California, to receive the Annie Taylor Award for Courage from the ultra-conservative, anti-Muslim David Horowitz Freedom Center. Spencer himself presented her with the award. “You have to understand that we’re in a war,” Geller said in her acceptance speech. “We are at war now. It’s not coming. It’s not around the corner. We’re at war now. The Ground Zero Mosque is the second wave of the 9/11 attack.
Eight months later, Anders Behring Breivikignited a bomb in Oslo, Norway. He killed eight people. A few hours later, dressed as a police officer, he traveled to a children’s summer camp. He pulled out a gun and slaughtered 69 teenagers.
Breivik wrote a manifesto in which he stated the purpose of the killings: to prevent a Muslim takeover. He quoted from Geller’s Atlas Shrugs. He also cited Spencer, her partner, dozens of times by name.
"O bama won," Geller’s blog read on November 6. "And America, land of the free, home of the brave, died tonight."
The president had just won re-election in a landslide. The Tea Party, doomed by the rise of flawed presidential candidates such asHerman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann, and “Rapey Republican” congressional candidates Todd Akin andRichard Mourdock, was on life support. Park51 was still on schedule to open steps away from Ground Zero.
War is lucrative, and Geller is seeing the dividends. Last year, she published a second book,Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance. She gets more than 1 million unique visitors to Atlas Shrugs every month, which attracts more advertising, which generates more revenue. It’s money she’ll use when the fighting reaches our shores.
The term “Islamophobia” became known to Americans after the September 11 attacks. Whether it was efforts on the left to combat anti-Muslim sentiment or efforts on the right to attack Muslim-Americans and deny that there was something called Islamophobia, the term was here to stay.
But if we only look at anti-Muslim sentiment post-9/11, we would miss a lot. In fact, asDeepa Kumar shows in her new bookIslamophobia and the Politics of Empire, set to be released next month, the production of Islamophobia has a long history. Generating anti-Muslim fervor was central to projects of empire-building in Europe and the United States. “This book is about the image of ‘Islam,’ that mythical creation conjured out of the needs of empire that has led even progressives to claim that Muslims are more violent than any other religious group,” Kumar writes in the introduction.
Deepa Kumar: The book is about the image of the “Muslim enemy” and the way that it has been used by elites in the West to forward their interests. In the US, Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism assumed a prominent place in the public sphere after the events of 9/11. But what I show is that this form of racism is not new. So what the book sets out to do is to locate this ideology within the context from which it emerges. This context, I argue, at the broadest level, is empire. That is, Islamophobia has always been useful to imperial societies. So, the book begins with the crusades and the ways in which the “Muslim enemy” image was mobilized in the 11th century in Europe to advance larger political goals, and goes right up to the Obama era. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, which was the high point of European colonization of the Middle East and North Africa, you see a new body of ideas come into being called “Orientalism” that became the basis from which to justify colonization. Many of these Orientalist myths still persist today.
AK: Reading the first chapter, I was struck by how, historically, Christian elites painted Islam as sexually deviant and perverse. That rhetoric is also heard today, with the “Muhammad is a pedophile” meme. I was also struck by Montesquieu writing that democracy is suited for the West and not for Muslims. Could you talk about these connections to modern day Islamophobia?
DK: Yes, this vilification of Islam and of the Prophet Muhammad has a long history. It goes back to the 11th century when the Papacy was trying to mobilize for the Crusades. The Vatican was horrified by the fact that Islam allowed men to take up to four wives, allowed for divorce, and even permitted divorced women to remarry! It was argued that it was this kind of promiscuity that allowed Islam to gain as many converts as it did (even among Christians). So the Church put forward the argument that Muhammad was a sexual deviant and therefore a false prophet preaching a false religion. These ideas have been resuscitated today by the far right.
An associated theme connected to sexuality, and one that gets taken up in 19th century Europe, is gender. Europeans circulated the notion that Muslim women are horribly oppressed (without actually consulting or talking to Muslim women) and that Muslim men are misogynistic. What followed from this was that Muslim women needed to be rescued by white men swooping in on their horses. And this is, of course, the justification that was given for the Afghan war—at least it was one of the justifications beyond the revenge motive.
And of course if you look at that narrative, it doesn’t begin in 2001. For instance, Lord Cromer, who oversaw the occupation of Egypt in the 1880s, claimed that Islam has completely stultified the lives of women and that he was therefore going to emancipate them. British colonization of Egypt was therefore an enlightened project. In reality this is not how things worked out. If anything things got worse for Egyptian women. And it’s not hard to tell why, because this supposed champion of Egyptian women’s rights worked tirelessly to deny British women the right to vote as a founding member and president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. If this justification was used by Cromer, an out and out sexist, over a century ago, George Bush who is no less of a sexist used the same argument again in the context of the Afghan war.
AK: Later in the book, in your discussions of Zionism, you note that Islamophobia is not necessarily embedded in Zionism. The early Zionist colonists spoke of Arabs and Muslims in derogatory terms. But it was more a general sense of disdain for non-Jews than specifically anti-Muslim sentiment. But that changed in the late 1970s. Could you expand on this?
DK: Israel saw the PLO and secular Arab nationalists as their main enemy, and the vocabulary of the “Arab terrorist” grew out of this context. But a couple of things happen in the late 1970s and 1980s that shifted the language from the “Arab terrorist” to the “Islamic terrorist.” Internally, this period saw the rise of the far right in Israel and an electoral victory for the right wing Likud party; this would then orchestrate a shift rightward in public discussion. Externally, in 1979, the Iranian revolution destabilized the carefully cultivated pro-US and pro-Israeli status quo. In the 1980s, the birth of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine lead the Zionist right to conclude that its struggle was now one against “Islam.” This is the context in which the “Arab terrorist” gets morphed into the “Islamic terrorist.”
There are two important conferences that Benjamin Netanyahu organized that brought together political figures from around the world, one in 1979 in Jerusalem and the other in 1984 in Washington DC. At the first conference Benzion Netanyahu [Benjamin Netanyahu’s father] in his opening speech tried to equate the enemies of Israel (the PLO) with the enemies of the West, saying that the “terrorists” are really like fascists, like Nazis even if they claim to be fighting for freedom. You see here one of the early sources of the development of a concept that would arrive much later— “Islamofascism.”
AK: This distinction between Arab terrorism and Muslim terrorism—what’s your sense of that distinction today? Is it blurry? Is there a separation in people’s imagination?
DK: Today, there is no such distinction. All Arabs are seen as Muslims and therefore automatically as terrorists. This distinction existed at a point when secular Arab nationalism (whether of the PLO kind or Nasserism) was seen a threat to the US’s agenda in the Middle East.
“Arab terrorism” had a particular resonance at that time. With the decline of Nasserism, and the rise of Islamism, the two got collapsed into one. Keep in mind of course that the US cultivated Islamists during the Cold War to act as bulwarks against secular nationalism and the left, but these former allies then became enemies. So the upshot is that today this distinction doesn’t exist as much. Certainly Hollywood has a long history of constructing Arabs as terrorists and it was a seamless transition to constructing Muslims as terrorists.
One telling example of this conflation in the popular imagination comes from the 2008 elections. In the run up to the elections candidate Obama was “accused” of being a “secret Muslim.” Now at one of McCain’s campaign stops a woman who was berating Obama saying she doesn’t trust him (which McCain agreed with) then went on to state that she didn’t trust him “because he’s an Arab.” And McCain replied, “no, no, he’s not an Arab. He’s a decent family man and a citizen.” Of course, the assumption there is that Arab men are not decent or family men or US citizens for that matter. Arabs are Muslims and Muslims are terrorists—that’s the logic here, and it’s a logic that popular culture has played no small role in shoring up. That said, I don’t want to downplay the attacks on South Asian Muslims. Since 9/11 they too have been detained, questioned, deported and otherwise treated very poorly (as have Muslims from certain African nations as well).
AK: Let’s move on to the Obama era. I hadn’t seen the term “liberal Islamophobia” before reading your book. Can you explain liberal Islamophobia and why you think the Obama era is characterized by it?
DK: I use the term “liberal Islamophobia” to make a distinction between the rhetoric of the right, which is more nakedly racist, and the rhetoric which emerges from the liberal establishment. At its core, liberal Islamophobia flows from the logic of liberal imperialism. As several scholars have argued liberal imperialism is based upon using liberal ideas to justify empire, and spans the gamut from the narrative about rescuing women and children from brutal dictators to fostering democracy. Liberal Islamophobia flows from this logic.
Towards the end of Bush’s second term the US had really sullied its image on the world stage, and particularly in the Middle East. It was clear to the elite in this country that the American image would have to be rehabilitated.
Now, most people can see and detect rabid racism against Muslims. So whenPeter King holds his routine hearings on Muslim American “radicalization,” which smacks of McCarthyism, he is roundly criticized by civil rights groups and by liberals. However, when Obama does the same people don’t recognize it as Islamophobia.
For instance, Obama released his own “counter-radicalization” strategy in 2011 which called for the formation of a McCarthyite type informant network involving Muslim American teachers, coaches, and other members of the community. No one said a peep. This is because if you read the document it is filled with praise for Muslim Americans who have cooperated with the government, and it lauds the US’s multiculturalism and religious plurality. But it then goes on to target Muslims because like King the Obama document too views Muslims as “potential terrorists” who can become “radicalized” and must therefore be monitored and put under surveillance. It is not an aberration that federal money was used for the infamous NYPD spying program. And to the best of my knowledge Obama has neither spoken out against it nor has he tried to shut this (or other similar programs run by the FBI) down. The way liberal Islamophobia works is that it roundly criticizes Islam-bashing, thereby preempting charges of racism, but then it goes on to champion programs that target and vilify Muslims.
AK: And you also say that liberal Islamophobia enabled the explosive rise of the anti-mosque movement, like the one against the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. Could you explain that?
DK: The dynamic is one where liberal Islamophobia at the top of society creates a greater opening for the more rabid racists. Since the events of 9/11 a network of Islamophobes, who I call the “new McCarthyites,” have been involved in a series of campaigns targeting Muslim schools, community centers and mosques. This Islamophobic network includes the Christian Right which works closely with the Zionist right (and the ex-Muslim right) and they are led intellectually by sections of the neoconservative camp (like Frank Gaffney and his group Center for Security Policy). Essentially, these Islamophobic warriors have tried to reproduce the kind of atmosphere in the US that we see in Europe where all symbols of Islam (mosques, veils, minarets) have come under attack. But up until the Obama era, their campaigns were largely failures.
The Obama presidency gave them an opening in several ways. First, they were able to accuse him of a being a “secret Muslim” whose agenda was to turn the US into a Muslim country. Sadly about 30% of the US population believes this nonsense. Instead of pushing back against this, Obama has always responded defensively. He has assiduously avoided visiting mosques, and during his campaign two Muslim women in hijabs were asked to move because his handlers didn’t want them to appear in the same frame as their candidate. Further, Obama has insisted again and again that he is a good Christian thereby giving ground to the implication that there is something wrong with being a Muslim.
The way it went down was this. A group called “Stop Islamization of America” created a big brouhaha around the proposed community center called “Park 51” or “Cordoba House.” They argued that this was a “monster mosque” and an insult to the memory of the victims of 9/11. Their rhetoric was extreme; Newt Gingrich even said that this community center was the equivalent of building a monument to the Nazis outside the Holocaust museum. In short, their argument was premised on the notion that any symbol of Islam close to the site of the former World Trade Center was offensive. The logic is that all Muslims are to blame for 9/11.
DK: Since the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy things have actually improved. The right has been pushed back thanks to the efforts of activists around the country. In NYC many of us were involved in a grassroots campaign to counter the hateful message coming from the far right. On September 11, 2010, we called a counter-demonstration to theirs and had twice the number of people at our rally. Our rally was diverse and multiracial with signs that read “Asalamu aleikum, Muslims are welcome here.” We pushed them back and they didn’t return; Park 51 opened. Similarly, progressive activists around the country have organized against the hate mongers.
Pamela Geller Calls for the Repeal of the Religious Land Use Act so Muslim-Americans Can't Use It | rightwingwatch.org
Back in 2010, Kyle noted that the American Center for Law and Justice was organizing a campaign to stop the construction of the Park 51 Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero while simultaneously championing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which they praised for making sure that never again will “our nation’s houses of faith have their freedom to worship where and how they choose violated by ignorant or hostile zoning officials.” Now it appears that Pamela Geller, who worked alongside ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow against the establishment of Park 51, wants to repeal the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act altogether because it might benefit Muslim worshipers.
While speaking with conservative radio host Janet Mefferd yesterday, Geller called for the repeal of RLUIPA because “it’s become a weapon in which to club small towns and cities” where Muslims are seeking to establish mosques, lamenting, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” She said that Muslims are “dishonest” with local governments by “circumventing the rules” on capacity requirements because they pray on their knees.
h/t: Brian Tashman at RWW
In August 2007 the New York Police Department released a report called “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” claiming that the looming danger to the United States was from “unremarkable” Muslim men under 35 who visit “extremist incubators.” The language sounds ominous, conjuring up Clockwork Orange–style laboratories of human reprogramming, twisting average Muslims into instruments of evil. And yet what are these “incubators”? The report states that they are mosques, “cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores”—in other words, precisely the places where ordinary life happens.
But the report wasn’t based on any independent social science research, and actual studies clearly refuted the very claims made by the NYPD. The Rand Corporation found that the number of homegrown radicals here is “tiny.” “There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, and few more than 100 have joined jihad—about one out of every 30,000—suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence,” Rand’s 2010 report found. “A mistrust of American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced,” it concluded. This year, an analysis by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security also described the number of American Muslims involved in domestic terrorism since 2001 as “tiny.” “This study’s findings challenge Americans to be vigilant against the threat of homegrown terrorism while maintaining a responsible sense of proportion,” it said. And a 2011 Gallup survey found that American Muslims were the least likely of any major US religious group to consider attacks on civilians justified.
Every group has its loonies. And yet the idea that American Muslim communities are foul nests of hatred, where dark-skinned men plot Arabic violence while combing one another’s beards, persists. In fact, it’s worse than that. In the past few years, another narrative about American Muslims has come along, which sows a different kind of paranoia. While the old story revolves around security, portraying American Muslims as potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, the new narrative operates more along the axis of culture. Simple acts of religious or cultural expression and the straightforward activities of Muslim daily life have become suspicious. Building a mosque in Lower Manhattan or in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, or in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, becomes an act of “stealth jihad.” Muslims filing for divorce invokes the bizarre charge of “creeping Sharia.” A dual-language Arabic-English high school in New York is demonized as a “madrassa.” The State Board of Education in Texas determines that reading about Islam is not education but indoctrination. Changing your Muslim-sounding name to one with a more Anglophone tenor triggers an NYPD investigation, according to the Associated Press. Even the fact that some Butterball turkeys are “halal” was enough to fire up the bigotry last Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in October 2001 found that 39 percent of Americans held unfavorable opinions of Islam. After dipping for a few years, the number rose to 46 percent in 2006 and reached 49 percent—basically half the population—in 2010, the last year the question was asked. (Other recent polls show similar results.) Such anti-Muslim attitudes are not merely absorbed by law enforcement and the military or reflected on the airwaves and in the words of our politicians. Rather, the idea that American Muslims are to be feared or loathed or excluded from the United States is being actively promoted.
This past September, Wired broke the story that the FBI tells its counterterrorism agents in training that mainstream American Muslims are probably terrorist sympathizers, that the Prophet Muhammad was a “cult leader” and that the religiously mandated practice of giving charity in Islam is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.” The training materials, which stated that FBI agents had the “ability to bend or suspend the law and impinge on freedoms of others,” identify other insidious techniques Muslims use for promoting jihad, including “immigration” and “law suits”—in other words, the ordinary uses of the American political system. The revelations forced the FBI to remove 876 pages from its manuals.
Another egregious example that recently came to light is that the NYPD, as part of its training, screened The Third Jihad, a film that claims “the true agenda of much of Islam in America” is “a strategy to infiltrate and dominate” the country. The film ran on a continuous loop for somewhere between three months and a year of training and was viewed by at least 1,489 officers. Yet another example involved Army Lt. Col. Matthew Dooley, who taught a course at the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Staff College that informed senior officers that the United States would have to fight a “total war” against the world’s Muslims, including abandoning the international laws of war that protect civilians (deemed “no longer relevant”), and possibly applying “the historical precedents of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki” to destroy Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Claiming “Islam is an ideology rather than solely a religion,” the class taught that the United States was “culturally vulnerable” to this threat because of its “‘judeo-christian’ [sic] ethic of reason and tolerance.” The Pentagon canceled the course in the wake of the revelations, and Dooley maintains a nonteaching position, pending an investigation.
The consequences of these efforts to promote anti-Muslim beliefs and sentiments influence how American Muslims practice their faith, engage with their neighbors, cooperate with law enforcement, work at their jobs and study at school. Anti-mosque activity, according to the ACLU, has taken place in more than half the states in the country. And American Muslims, who make up 1–2 percent of the population, account for more than 20 percent of religion-based filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Republican politicians, meanwhile, have been falling all over themselves to vilify Muslims, especially during the presidential primary. Herman Cain proclaimed that “a majority of Muslims share the extremist views,” initially vowing not to appoint any Muslims to his cabinet. Rick Santorum endorsed religious profiling, saying that “obviously Muslims would be someone [sic] you’d look at.” Newt Gingrich compared Muslims to Nazis in 2010, when he opposed building an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington,” he said. And, in 2007, Mitt Romney said, “Based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration.” Whatever happened to the matter of qualifications? But hey, if you’re a Muslim, that’s all you’ll ever be. Romney has hired Walid Phares, part of the active anti-Muslim network, as a foreign policy adviser, and GOP voters continue to consider that President Obama is a Muslim in large numbers (52 percent of Mississippi GOP members thought so in March).
It gets stranger still. When media portrayals of everyday American Muslim life are produced, the very ordinariness is attacked as a lie. TLC’s show All-American Muslim premiered in November to favorable reviews. The show, which focused on five Lebanese-American Shiite Muslim families in the Dearborn, Michigan, area, was a bit of a yawner for racy reality TV, but it was a useful kind of ethnography for Americans unfamiliar with the stuff of daily American Muslim life. Immediately, the organized anti-Muslim network kicked into gear. The Florida Family Association, basically a one-man show run by David Caton, led a boycott of the show via e-mail that was quickly picked up by the extreme right-wing anti-Islamic blogosphere, and led to Lowe’s and Kayak.com pulling their ads. Caton’s e-mail read, “The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.”
Follow the logic. The only thing accepted as “normal” for a Muslim is to act like an extremist. Ordinary Muslim folk appearing to live ordinary Muslim lives? That’s just plain suspicious.
Does this mean that the United States is an Islamophobic country? Of course not. Large support for American Muslims exists in many quarters [see Laila Al-Arian’s essay in this issue, page 31]. Polls may suggest that about half the population is anti-Muslim, but that leaves half that isn’t. In many quarters of the country, there is genuine, not suspicious, interest in American Muslims and the realities they face, as evidenced by the fact that TLC produced All-American Muslim. Aasif Mandvi’s contributions to The Daily Show routinely deflate the power of this contemporary prejudice, and libraries, museums, classrooms and houses of worship across the country now regularly include Muslims and Islam in their programming in an attempt to further understanding and combat bigotry.
American Muslims have responded to events over the past decade and the expansion of an anti-Muslim network largely by being more, not less, visible. The number of mosques grew 74 percent over the past decade, despite the opposition Muslims sometimes confront in their construction. Even if a 2011 poll found that 48 percent of American Muslims reported experiencing discrimination in the previous twelve months, they also showed more optimism than other Americans in the poll that their lives would be better in five years (perhaps, in part, because of today’s discrimination). The guiding belief in the American Muslim community today is that the country will recognize that Muslims have always been and will continue to be a part of America.
Jack Shaheen, “How the Media Created the Muslim Monster Myth”
Petra Bartosiewicz, “Deploying Informants, the FBI Stings Muslims”
Laila Lalami, “Islamophobia and Its Discontents”
Abed Awad, “The True Story of Sharia in American Courts”
Ramzi Kassem, “The Long Roots of the NYPD Spying Program”
Max Blumenthal, “The Sugar Mama of Anti-Muslim Hate”
Laila Al-Arian, “When Your Father Is Accused of Terrorism”
Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.
People who believe that Islamophobia is a fiction are fond of pointing out that Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity. Islam is a set of beliefs and customs. And in a free society, one ought to be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without fear of being labeled hateful toward Muslims. The late Christopher Hitchens declared that “Islamophobia” was a “stupid neologism” because it “aims to promote criticism of Islam to the gallery of special offenses associated with racism.” Sam Harris, the bestselling author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, wrote that “apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as ‘Islamophobia.’” He continued, “There is no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”
The fact that Islamophobia is a recently coined term—or an “invention,” to use Harris’s language—should not be taken as evidence that it refers to a nonexistent pathology. The word “homophobia” was coined in the 1950s, but I doubt anyone would seriously claim that antipathy toward—and discrimination against—gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people did not exist before then. It seems to me that as Muslims have become more visible in American society, the fear and contempt for them, which used to be expressed in private, are now being promoted on the front pages of newspapers and on cable news talk-shows. Perhaps that was why a neologism was needed.
But I suspect that Harris and others would still insist that what is often called “Islamophobia” is nothing more than a vigorous intellectual debate about the merits of Islamic beliefs or practices and denotes neither hatred of Muslims nor any kind of discrimination against them. And I might be inclined to believe in this neatly theoretical distinction if I had not had experiences that contradicted it.
Although the anti-Muslim backlash is frequently called a myth, the numbers tell a different story. Muslims in the United States make up less than 1 percent of the population, but they were nearly 13 percent of victims of religious-based hate crimes in 2010. It is true that this number is down from the historic high of 27 percent in 2001, the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but almost double what it was in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. These crimes include intimidation, burglary, arson, vandalism and aggravated assault. And they target not just Muslims but also people who are mistaken for Muslims—Sikh men, for instance.
Furthermore, this rise in hate crimes is taking place in the context of a highly virulent debate about the visibility of Muslims in America. Two years ago, a huge controversy broke out about building Park51, an interfaith community center and mosque planned to be two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. Nearly everyone with political ambitions jumped into the fray. Mitt Romney declared that Park51 had “the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda.” Rudy Giuliani called it “a desecration.” And Sarah Palin famously tweeted, “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate [sic].” A month later, a cabdriver in New York was asked, “Are you Muslim?” When he said yes, he was stabbed in the neck.
Despite the accusations and the calls for investigations, no one turned up any evidence that Park51 was a recruiting center for terrorists. But the tone was set. Campaigns against the building of mosques erupted in several cities around the country, many of them premised on unproven claims that the mosques would serve a terrorist agenda. In Temecula, California, protest organizers urged demonstrators to bring dogs to the Friday prayers at the Islamic Center, which was in the process of getting permits for a mosque. One woman who opposed the mosque said, “Right now we’re at war with the Taliban and the Muslims, and our boys are over there fighting and dying for our freedom. What would it be like if they come home and found out we just let them in the front door?” Thus the mosque was seen as a temple for foreign terrorists and not for Americans with the same freedom of worship as everyone else.
Likewise, protests were organized against building a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Signs on the mosque were vandalized and construction equipment set on fire. Herman Cain, the pizza magnate running for the GOP nomination, bluntly declared that communities should have the right to ban mosques—in direct violation of the First Amendment. His reasoning? “Our Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. Islam combines church and state. They’re using the church part of our First Amendment to infuse their morals into that community.”
Last year, Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, held a hearing to determine whether American Muslims are law-abiding people and whether they ignored radicals among them. (Replace the word “Muslims” with “Jews” or “Hindus” or “blacks” or “gays” in that sentence and see how that hearing sounds to you.) King once declared, without evidence, that more than 80 percent of mosques in America are run by extremists. He has also consistently maintained that American Muslims ignore radicals among them, when in fact studies have shown they are the single largest source of tips on terrorist suspects.
What this means is that even though American Muslims are reporting suspicious activity to the police, they are being spied on by law enforcement agencies and subjected to hearings questioning their loyalty. When a Muslim runs the CIA Counterterrorism Center, he is not immune to accusations of being an infiltrator. When a Muslim starts an Arabic language academy, as Debbie Almontaser did in Brooklyn, she must be prepared for accusations that she is running a “madrassa” and expect to be fired from her job. When a Muslim is elected to Congress, he is not above being asked, as Keith Ellison was by Glenn Beck, “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” When a Muslim beauty queen walks down the catwalk in a tiny bikini, she risks being labeled, as Rima Fakih was by talk-show host Debbie Schlussel, “Miss Hezbollah.”
So it’s fair to say that we have in America today two systems of citizenship: one for Muslims and one for non-Muslims. Muslim citizens live under a cloud of suspicion, no matter what they do and no matter what they say. Imagine for a moment what this must do to a high school senior in Dallas, a researcher in Durham, a schoolchild in Portland, a social worker in Dearborn. The biggest mistake they can make is to believe the stories that are being told about them in the media—to believe that they are the Other, that they are dangerous or suspicious or different or strange, rather than what they really are, which is ordinary human beings.
Moustafa Bayoumi, “Fear and Loathing of Islam”
Jack Shaheen, “How the Media Created the Muslim Monster Myth”
Petra Bartosiewicz, “Deploying Informants, the FBI Stings Muslims”
Abed Awad, “The True Story of Sharia in American Courts”
Ramzi Kassem, “The Long Roots of the NYPD Spying Program”
Max Blumenthal, “The Sugar Mama of Anti-Muslim Hate”
Laila Al-Arian, “When Your Father Is Accused of Terrorism”
Those who fervently believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim generally practice their furtive religion in obscure recesses of the Internet. Once in a while, they’ll surface in public to remind the news media that no amount of evidence can undermine their convictions.
In October 2008, at a town hall meeting in Minnesota for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a woman called Obama “an Arab.” McCain responded, incongruously enough, that Obama was, in fact, “a decent family man” and not an Arab at all. In an echo of this, a woman recently stood up at a town hall in Florida and began a question for Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum by asserting that the president “is an avowed Muslim.” The audience cheered, and Santorum didn’t bother to correct her.
Though they belong to a largely underground cult, the members of the Obama-is-Muslim congregation number as many as one third of all Republicans. A recent poll found that only 14 percent of Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi believe that the president is Christian.
These true believers treat their scraps of evidence like holy relics: the president’s middle name, his grandfather’s religion, a widely circulated photo of Obama in a turban. They occasionally traffic in outright fabrications: that he attended a radical madrasa in Indonesia as a child or that he put his hand on the Qur’an to be sworn in as president. An even more apocalyptic subset believes Obama to be nothing short of the anti-Christ.
By and large, however, this cult doesn’t attract mainstream support from the larger church of Obama haters. Indeed, these more orthodox faithful have carefully shifted the debate from Obama being Muslim to Obama acting Muslim. Evangelical pundits, presidential candidates and the right-wing media have all ramped up their attacks on the president for, as Baptist preacher Franklin Graham put it recently on MSNBC, “giving Islam a pass.”
A succession of Republican candidates have attempted to run to the right of party favorite Mitt Romney by asserting that only a true conservative can defeat Obama in November. Most of them boasted of the same powerful backer. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum all declared that God asked them to run for higher office. Together with Newt Gingrich, they have deployed various methods of appealing to their constituencies, but none is more potent than religion.
Rick Santorum, a Catholic and the favorite of the evangelical community, has been particularly adept at using his soapbox as a pulpit. The president subscribes to a “phony theology,” Santorum has claimed, “not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.” Although he occasionally asserts that “Obama’s personal faith is none of my concern,” he nonetheless speaks of the president’s attempt to “impose values on people of faith”—implying that the president is certainly no member of that community.
In his attacks on the president’s spirituality, Santorum is cleverly attacking Mitt Romney’s Mormonism as well (a theology also based on text other than the Bible). At the same time, the suggestion that Obama is somehow “other” operates as a code word for “Black” in a race in which race goes largely unmentioned.
It’s an odd set of charges. Obama, after all, did everything possible during his first presidential campaign to foreground his Christianity. He was repeatedly seen praying in churches and assiduously avoided mosques. He never made a campaign appearance with a prominent Muslim. He talked about his “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ.
The day after he clinched the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, he gave a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in which he reaffirmed that he was “a true friend of Israel.” Although he would occasionally mention his Muslim relatives and the time he spent in Indonesia as a child, he generally did whatever he could to emphasize only two out of the three major monotheisms.
As president, Obama has certainly “reached out” to the Muslim world. In Cairo, in June 2009, he spoke of seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”
That new beginning, however, has yet to come. At home, for example, the Obama administration provided federal funds that the New York City Police Department then used to expand its surveillance of Muslim American neighborhoods. (Even the CIA was involved in this “human mapping” project.) The FBI has spent the Obama years rounding up suspected Muslim terrorists in operations that flirt dangerously with entrapment. The administration has expanded the no-fly list, though because the list is secret it’s difficult to know whether Muslim-Americans are specifically profiled. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that they are.
Despite right-wing charges, Obama has maintained a tight relationship with Israel and the Israeli leadership. As former New Republic editor Peter Beinart concludes, “The story of Obama’s relationship to [Prime Minister] Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies is, fundamentally, a story of acquiescence.”
It’s no surprise, then, that surveys in six Middle East countries taken just before and two months after the Cairo speech in 2009, the Brookings Institution and Zogby International discovered that the number of respondents optimistic about the president’s approach to the region had suffered a dramatic drop: from 51 percent to 16 percent. A 2011 Pew poll found that US favorability ratings had continued their slide in Jordan (to 13 percent), Pakistan (12 percent) and Turkey (10 percent).
And yet, perversely, the hard right in the United States maintains that the Obama administration has behaved in quite the opposite manner. “There’s something sick about an administration which is so pro-Islamic that it can’t even tell the truth about the people who are trying to kill us,” Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich typically said while campaigning in Georgia.
Pro-Islamic? That’s news to the Islamic world.
But it’s nothing new to the world of the US right wing, which portrays Obama as anti-Israel and weak in the face of Islamic terrorism. At best, the president emerges from these attacks as a booster of Islam; at worst, he is the leader of a genuine fifth column.
The 2010 midterm elections witnessed a sharp uptick in anti-Islamic sentiment. In addition to the concocted “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, Florida preacher Terry Jones threatened to burn the Qur’an in front of the world’s cameras; a group called Stop Islamization of America bought anti-Islamic ads on buses in major cities; and a movement to pass anti-Sharia legislation at a state level began in Oklahoma. In response to this brushfire of hatred, Time magazine devoted a cover story to Islamophobia that year. On the right at least, Islam seemed on the way to becoming a litmus test in the way communism was during the Cold War.
Two years later, the hysteria seems to have subsided. The Islamophobes haven’t gone into hiding. They tried to organize an advertising boycott of the TV show All-American Muslim; they campaigned against halal meats. But these efforts didn’t get much traction.
Meanwhile, Park51—the real name of the cultural center inaccurately dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque”—opened in its original Park Street location with an exhibition by a Jewish photographer. Terry Jones is pursuing a quixotic bid for the presidency far from the media spotlight. Time has returned several times to the topic of Islamophobia, particularly after Anders Breivik’s bombing and shooting rampage in Norway in July 2011, but with none of the intensity of the summer of 2010. The anti-Sharia campaign has passed legislation in several states, and laws are pending in more than a dozen more. But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Oklahoma anti-Sharia statute unconstitutional, and the anti-Sharia crowd has been unable to provide a single piece of evidence that Islamic law poses any challenge to the US legal system.
New York GOP Exploits 9/11 Anniversary, Sends Islamophobic Mailer To Voters In NY Special Election | ThinkProgress
Today, the nation gathers together in memorium of the countless Americans from all walks of life who lost and gave their lives on — and after — 9/11. In anticipation of this somber day, the New York GOP sent out “a kitchen-sink mailer in the hotly-contested Queens congressional special election depicting a mosque superimposed over the scarred Ground Zero site on one side, and Democrat David Weprin alongside President Barack Obama on the other.”
The incendiary flier was sent out on behalf of Republican businessman Bob Turner who is seeking to take former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D) seat. As seen below, the front of the flier features a gold-domed mosque rising out of the ruins of the World Trade Center site with a quote from Weprin stating “I support the right of the mosque to build.” The other side places Weprin next to Obama and reads “Weprin stands with Obama — and they stand together in support of the mosque at Ground Zero”:
Registered voters in New York congressional district 9 received the mailer “in the past week, landing in the days leading up to the 10th anniversary” of the attacks. It was intended as a “chaser” piece to Turner’s TV ad that blasts Weprin for his support of Park51. Calling it “a purposeful and confrontational act of provocation,” the TV narrator says, “It’s been 10 short years. Everyone remembers. Some, though, want to commemorate the tragedy by building a mosque on Ground Zero.”
It is important to note that several Republicans like Gen. Colin Powell, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Ted Olson — whose wife died in the attacks — support the construction of the Islamic Center. They join most religious leaders, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and families of the 9/11 victims in support.
If you thought the controversy over New York City’s Cordoba House Islamic Center was long over, Republican NY-09 candidate Bob Turner wants you to think again.
On Thursday Turner released his first TV ad in the special election to replace former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D), who resigned over inappropriate photos sent over Twitter. Turner’s ad references the September 11th attacks, and accuses his Democratic opponent David Weprin of being among those who “want to commemorate the tragedy by building a mosque on Ground Zero.”