A look inside Pamela Geller’s 9/11 "Stop Islamization of Nations" conference reveals apocalyptic language, racial paranoia, and surprising links to the political mainstream.
Image from Flickr via Dan Nguyen @ New York City
By Aaron Labaree
The World Freedom Congress, a conference of “counter-jihadist” activists sponsored by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer’s group Stop Islamization of Nations, gathered on September 11th to commemorate the terrorist attacks of 2001. Geller and Spencer are known mostly for their blogs, Atlas Shrugs and Jihad Watch, respectively, and for their campaign against the “Ground Zero Mosque” in 2010, which brought them national attention. As it happened, their event coincided with other attacks against Americans. News that protesters had breached the walls of the U.S. embassy in Egypt was announced about an hour into the conference. The report was read from a cell phone by the speaker at the podium, David Yerushalmi, a lawyer influential in the anti-sharia legislation movement (more than twenty states have considered anti-sharia laws; Arizona, Louisiana, and Tennessee have passed them). According to Reuters, a mob incensed by an anti-Islamic film had attacked the U.S. embassy, torn down the American flag, and replaced it with a black one that read “There is no god but Allah.” The U.S. response, continued Yerushalmi, had been this statement:
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
There were groans, gasps, and boos from the audience. They were shocked but not surprised to hear that in the face of Muslim aggression, the Obama administration had offered a shameful apology; but this response was typical of a president who, in Spencer’s words, displays a “remarkable, unqualified and obvious affinity for Islam.”
Geller and Spencer’s writing inspires a kind of primal reaction in supporters and detractors alike. They share the view that Islam is by nature an aggressive political ideology incompatible with democracy–a view they express in blunt, not to say warlike, terms. Geller, with her well-coiffed hair and inch-long eyelashes, is the looks; Spencer, with twelve books under his belt, is the brains. This year’s event was billed as “D-Day in the Information Battle-Space,” and Geller, in her opening remarks, addressed the crowd like a general rallying the troops.
“No one is going to save you,” she warned an audience that filled the tables to the back wall. “You are going to save you. Every morning, rub the sleep from your eyes and say, ‘What am I going to do to save the republic?’ We will win,” she declared, “But every single one of you must be a soldier.”
We began right away, by practicing the soldierly virtue of endurance. For five hours, twelve speakers from nine countries expanded on Geller’s opening theme, describing the Islamic assault on Western values and the capitulation and collaboration of the media. Two women who had lost loved ones in the World Trade Center attacks spoke of their loss and their opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque. David Storobin, a New York State Senator, recounted how brutal Islamist violence forced his family to flee the former Soviet Union. Tommy Robinson, leader of the right-wing English Defence League, described how British soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had been cursed and spat on by Muslim demonstrators at a homecoming parade while the police stood by and did nothing.
The SION event reminded me, more than anything else, of a Peak Oil meeting I attended last year. Both hotel conference rooms were full of people who believed that they were the only ones who could see apocalypse just over the horizon.
The crowd was largely white and middle-aged but included a few families and young people, along with delegations from India, Malaysia, and Burma. Above the stage, lit for the cameras with the help of an incongruously jolly little umbrella, was one of Geller’s signature bus ads. In stark red-on-black, it read: “19,250 Deadly Islamic Attacks Since 9/11/01: It’s Not Islamophobia, It’s Islamorealism.” Geller’s newest ads hit New York subways this week. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage,” they read, “support the civilized man. Support Israel/Defeat Jihad.”
In print, Geller is unremittingly combative and vitriolic. Onstage, she is confident and a little disarming, cracking jokes in between harsh statements. She has the slim silhouette of a wealthy Upper East Side matron (which she is) and the badgering, down-to-earth voice of a Jewish mom (which she also is.) At the long table onstage beside the podium, she sat listening to the speakers with an icy, autocratic expression, as if posing for an official portrait. Spencer, on the other side of the podium, alternately glowered and burst into merry, silent laughter when a speaker said something funny. A few choice words by Dr. Babu Suseelan, a Hindu activist in Pennsylvania, provided one of these occasions.
“If we do not kill the bacteria,” the jowly Suseelan scolded the audience, “the bacteria will kill us.” Otherwise, he warned, “Muslims will breed like rats and they will be a majority.” Still, he concluded hopefully, “Islam can be stopped! And it can be wiped out.”
Spencer laughed, but Geller covered her face, as if witnessing the antics of a naughty child. Liberals tend to assume that her feelings are essentially the same as Suseelan’s and to see her group as little different in spirit from the KKK. She maintains that her problem is with “political Islam,” not Islam per se.
When I told a friend I was going to attend the SION conference she emailed me “Be careful,” with the skeptical-face emoticon.
“I’m pleased you’re infiltrating their party,” wrote another.
In fact, no infiltration was necessary. The “leftist, yellow, cowardly, apologist media,” (in another EDL member’s words) were welcome at the event, and the atmosphere, during short breaks for socializing, was collegial and slightly shy, as it is at most gatherings of like-minded strangers. The SION event reminded me, more than anything else, of a Peak Oil meeting I attended last year. Both hotel conference rooms were full of people who believed that they were the only ones who could see apocalypse just over the horizon; at both, attendees lamented the blindness of the media and munched snacks while discussing the end of civilization.
Of course, Peak Oil does not have human enemies, and counter-jihadists do. One can debate their designation as a hate group (they don’t preach violence), but the harsh language is impossible to miss; the harsh language often seems to be the point. Geller has a knack for neologisms (“enemedia,” “gendercide,” “leftards”) and a fondness for older terms as well: lapdog, quisling, brownshirt, traitor. The oratory sometimes has a retro feel.
“They’re using the first amendment to destroy us from within!” thundered Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, of news outlets like PressTV and Al Jazeera. “They undermine our will to resist.”
“I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees!” cried one EDL member.
Grandiosity, lurid imaginings, apocalyptic language: the SION conference had all the hallmarks of a fringe movement, long on brimstone, short on influence. But it’s not that simple.
Less quaint is the near-physical revulsion at Islam and Muslims you hear when talking to the movement’s rank and file.
“The most dangerous thing,” one man told me, “is the attitude of putting our head in the sand and pretending young women aren’t being raped or sold into prostitution” by Muslims.
“People don’t know how perverted a religion Islam is,” a mild-looking woman at one of the back tables told me as the conference was winding down. “Did you know—Islamic law allows grown men to take out their penises and rub them on babies’ thighs? It also allows them,” she continued as I inched away, “to have sex with animals under certain circumstances.”
Grandiosity, lurid imaginings, apocalyptic language: the SION conference had all the hallmarks of a fringe movement, long on brimstone, short on influence. But it’s not that simple. The bland response to the Cairo protests that stirred such anger at the Freedom Congress was in fact a tweet made before protesters had breached the embassy walls and soon disavowed by the White House. But this didn’t prevent Mitt Romney from echoing the sentiments expressed at the SION conference. “It’s disgraceful,” he said in a statement the next day, “that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
National politicians generally don’t get photographed with anyone who talks like Geller or Spencer, but they are happy to be associated with them at just one level of remove.
Some of Romney’s fellow Republicans saw his response as an unstatesmanlike blunder, but he was backed up by his foreign-policy advisor John Bolton, who was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush, and who wrote the forward to Geller’s book The Post-American Presidency: the Obama administration’s attack on America. “The press criticism of Romney’s statement,” Bolton stated, “is so clearly at the administration’s behest that they are giving lapdogs a bad name.” Bolton was the scheduled headliner on the Freedom Congress before canceling on short notice.
National politicians generally don’t get photographed with anyone who talks like Geller or Spencer, but they are happy to be associated with them at just one level of remove. Last weekend, the Family Research Council held its annual conference in Washington, D.C. The FRC’s Executive Vice President, retired General Jerry Boykin, has gained notoriety for his paranoid rants against Islam, which he has called “the religion of Satan.” The FRC conference’s featured speaker this year was Paul Ryan. And the Ground Zero Mosque affair of 2010 drew plenty of politicians of national stature, including Newt Gingrich and Rep. Peter King, of New York, who made opposition to the “mosque” his signature issue.
These politicians take SION’s position because it’s popular. Most Americans don’t get high on outrage the way Geller and Spencer do, but many are receptive to their ideas about Islam. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that almost half of Americans surveyed believe the values of Islam are incompatible with American values; the same percentage would be uncomfortable with a mosque being built in their neighborhood. This is theoretical, of course. Most people don’t have a mosque in their neighborhood: as of 2011, Muslims made up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population (Jews account for 1.6 percent, Mormons 1.9 percent, atheists and agnostics 15 percent). So far, the struggle in which SION attendees are supposed to be soldiers is a fantasy. But if Israel and Iran go to war, if there’s a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil—counter-jihadists and their allies will likely see their star rise. Meanwhile, Geller instructed the troops assembled to keep on blogging.
“Be on the offense!” she urged. “You are righteous in this cause.”
Geller recently posted a news story on her own blog about a Muslim cleric who tore up a bible in front of a crowd of protesters at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
“Before leaving the demonstration and getting into his car,” the article stated, “he told the crowds, ‘next time I will urinate on it.’” He was defending the honor of the prophet, presumably, just as Geller and her friends are defending the Republic. The war in the great information battle-space rages on.
Aaron Labaree lives in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared here.