For those of us following Pamela Geller’s bombastic career over the course of the past decade, one of the most illuminating aspects of the aftermath of her otherwise tragic Texas Muhammad caricature contest, and its accompanying road show of anti-Muslim provocateurs, was how it revealed a fault line–however thin–over just how far the right should go in provoking Islamic fundamentalism.
Geller’s event was planned after 11 people at the magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed in January by Islamist attackers because of the magazine’s regular depictions of Muhammad and Islam. Two Muslim converts, Elton Simpson, 31, and Nadir Soofi, 34, whom police say have been communicating with ISIS over social media, attempted to storm the May 3 contest with assault rifles. They were killed when they exchanged fire with the two men providing security outside the event and a SWAT team that responded.
Such violence could have been expected, which was almost certainly the point. Geller and her associates “have the right to go there, but again, it’s stupid, it accomplishes nothing,” said Bill O’Reilly, whose brand of pop-conservative opinionating has kept him in the top seed of prime-time cable talk shows since he joined Fox News in 1996. “You don’t fish for [terrorists] by putting people in danger.”
O’Reilly was chatting with Laura Ingraham, the sharp-tongued doyenne of right-wing talk radio. Ingraham is the pillar of truth or a priestess of hate, depending on the eye of the beholder, but numbers don’t lie—she has successfully made a name for herself in a male-dominated field in which hosts generally hew to the hard-line orthodoxy on immigration, terrorism, and religion.
But when it comes to Geller’s stunt in Garland, Ingraham seemed to be calling for a time out: “The idea that this is going to be beneficial to us—and I come to it from a Catholic Christian conservative perspective—to rile an entire faith this way … to do what was done at this (contest) … it not only doesn’t accomplish anything, but I think it could actually make things worse for us.”
“Us” in this case means those who have made it their agenda to expose radical Islam as a tool of oppression and terror against non-believers. Taunting large numbers of Muslims over their belief that depictions Muhammad are tantamount to idolatry doesn’t help move “moderates” over to the side against extremism, she suggested.
“There is a line that is crossed if you attack someone’s religion,” offered Mike Lofgren, a retired Republican congressional staffer who in 2012 wrote, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted.
One of the first interviews granted by Geller after the May 3 incident was with Martha MacCallum at Fox. It did not go well. Kelleher flat-out asked Geller whether the conference was an appropriate way to combat extremism, citing criticism from billionaire gadfly Donald Trump and conservative Catholic ramrod Bill Donahue, both of whom said Geller’s event was “taunting” extremists and insulting all of Islam.
“When you embolden people, when you empower people, the haters, you’re going to get violence,” Donohue said in an earlier interview with Fox. “And so why would anybody who’s morally responsible want to intentionally incite other people? …We live in a sick society that some people think it’s good to taunt other people.”
Trump, who is no stranger to flamboyant publicity stunts, seemed scandalized by Geller’s tactics. “It looks like she’s actually taunting people,” Trump said. “It’s disgusting that [the shooting] happened and everything else, but what are they doing drawing Muhammad? Isn’t there something else they can draw?”
Fox’s MacCallum pointed to Pope Francis, who went into a Turkish mosque to pray for the end of the wars. “I understand where you are coming from, but I’m not sure you went about the right way,” she charged.
“You’re looking to restrict my speech,” shot back Geller, who has spent the last 10 years trying to shut down places of worship and keep al-Jazeera off the air. She retreated to her favorite defensive position, behind the 1st Amendment, where Geller knows no constitutionally minded conservatives or liberals will go.
“You’re asking me to abridge my speech so as not to offend savages,” she said, a line that was oft-repeated in the days after. “I’m not looking to denigrate anybody. I’m looking to rise everybody up.” She then compared herself to Rosa Parks, the black woman who sparked the end of the Jim Crow south by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1960.
A better comparison might be Sen. Joe McCarthy, who spent several years investigating, blacklisting, and destroying careers of citizens under the mantle of anti-Communism. Geller may be talking cartoons right now, but just a few years ago she was demanding loyalty tests and warning an audience at her unofficial 2010 CPAC event that Islamists had infiltrated every level of the U.S. government. At the same event, her Defense Initiative co-founder, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch proceeded to snicker at the prospect of Muslim women shrinking away from full-body airport security scanners because their faith demands modesty. Any move to accommodate them would be a “perversity,” he said, because Muslims “made [full-body scanners] necessary.”
This was just one in a string of several statements and innuendo showing how he and Geller really feel about Muslims, despite their flimsy public exhortations to the contrary. “Everyone knows Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority,” Spencer said acidly to a room of knowing guffaws. Like people who “believe in Santa Claus, though no one has ever seen it.”
Just two months later, Geller started the group Stop Islamicization of America and led a rally through the streets of downtown Manhattan in order to shut down the construction of an Islamic center she declared to be an affront to the victims of 9/11. The only connection between the center and the dead 9/11 hijackers, of course, was that they shared the same faith. Just like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a Christian, shared his religion with 173 million adult Americans. Nevertheless, the center became synonymous with terror, and the project appears forever on hold. That is how Geller and Spencer operate.
It is difficult for Geller, 58, not to tip her anti-Muslim hand. A wealthy socialite who loves the spotlight and the camera, she often lapses into her real feelings during press interviews, such as this one with The Times of Israel. After calling herself a “human rights activist,” Geller all but declares that the only path for a Muslim to become moderate is to stop being so Muslim.
Later on in the interview, she declared that “all of the major Muslim organizations in the U.S. are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. That is not a conspiracy theory, that is conspiracy fact.” Since Geller and her friends believe that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists-in-waiting, is she not saying all major Islamic organizations in the U.S. (representing more than 5 million Muslim-Americans today) are linked to terrorism and should therefore be investigated and/or shuttered?
Then there is her association with Geert Wilders, who joined her event in Texas. The Dutch parliamentarian and frequent guest on the Geller train is known for calling for a ban on the Koran and for staunching the flow of Muslims into Europe. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday that he wanted to plan a Muhammad cartoon expo in the parliament to show that they weren’t intimidated. When asked if he was “anti-Islam,” Wilders said simply, “Well, I’m certainly not anti-Muslim, but indeed I believe Islam is a threat to our civilization.”
Geller’s approach has gotten her into trouble with conservatives before. There is a reason her group is never allowed an official presence at CPAC, which is one of the biggest grassroots right-wing convocations of the year. Some of its attendees might agree with much of what Jihad Watch and Geller’s longtime blog, Atlas Shrugs, dish out, but organizers apparently won’t take any chances with having what the Anti-Defamation League has called Geller’s “anti-Muslim bigotry” bringing a lot of unwelcome press onto their annual confab.
It doesn’t help that Geller, Spencer, and their pal Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy have accused CPAC of treating with terrorists, particularly targeting organizer Suhail Kahn and long-time conservative power-broker and CPAC board member Grover Norquist. Not only have all three attacked Norquist for allegedly hanging out with “radicals” and accused Kahn of being one but they have also charged the popular Americans for Tax Reform president with bringing jihadists into the Bush White House, and they have repeatedly assailed Norquist’s wife.
“Grover Norquist’s ties to Islamic supremacists and jihadists have been known for years. He and his Palestinian wife, Samah Alrayyes—who was director of communications for his Islamic Free Market Institute until they married in 2005—are very active in ‘Muslim Outreach,’” Geller wrote in 2010. She goes on to elaborately connect-the-dots between the “silver tongued jihadists” he supposedly introduced to President Bush with card-carrying terrorist sympathizers, saying Norquist “had given Muslims with jihad terror links access to the highest levels of the U.S. government.”
Even Joe McCarthy could hardly make such guilt-by-association charges and call it a fight for America’s freedom. When the same tactics are turned on Geller, however, she calls it an affront to her own freedom of speech, such as when intrepid writers pointed out that Norwegian white nationalist, Islamophobe, and mass murderer Anders Breivik was a big fan of Geller and Spencer, calling her, in his 5,000-page manifesto, one of the “decent human beings” under attack for speaking truth to power. He went on to cite her blog 12 times and Spencer’s Jihad Watch 116 times. From Slate, shortly after the killings:
He cited [Geller’s] blog, Atlas Shrugs, and the writings of her friends, allies, and collaborators—Robert Spencer, Jihad Watch, Islam Watch, and Front Page magazine—more than 250 times. And he echoed their tactics, tarring peaceful Muslims with the crimes of violent Muslims. He wrote that all Muslims sought to impose “sharia laws” and that “there are no important theological differences between jihadists and so-called ‘peaceful’ or ‘moderate’ Muslims.”
Still right-wing writers like NRO’s Rich Lowry and the daddy of the radio demagogues, Rush Limbaugh, defend her, mostly against her liberal detractors. They know their audience: the same sort of people who supported ill-fated presidential candidate Herman Cain, who said he would institute loyalty tests for all incoming staff at the White House, and Newt Gingrich, who likened the fight against Sharia in the U.S. to the American Revolution.
Perhaps, however, the comments by Ingraham, O’Reilly, and other conservatives indicate Geller can no longer take their tolerance of her for granted. Does she care? Never. As she told Breitbart.com, her conservatives critics are weak sisters, “desperately afraid that the leftist media will smear them by association with me,” she said. “It is an act of sheer cowardice.”
Everyone–even neoconservative critics who call her “shameful”–insists that Geller’s free speech is sacrosanct. But what makes some conservatives especially uneasy is that her rigid stance against Islam raises implications for their own religious freedom movement, not to mention that it’s unclear whether her “free speech” is primarily about denying someone else’s. She is also drawing fire, literally. Even the mayor of the unfortunate town where the attack happened said she invited the attack.
“That’s the price we pay for living in a relatively free society,” said Mike Lofgren. “But if someone ends up getting killed as a result of her shenanigans, she really might want to rethink this stuff.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.