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How an obscure conservative memo reveals the creeping Islamophobic threat to democracy

The following was originally published in Alternet.

The sudden rise of Islamophobia in the United States is alarming while the movement that advances anti-Muslim resentment seems bizarre and filled with eccentric, even dangerous characters. But when viewed in the context of a new, groundbreaking research document by the Center for American Progress and an obscure, decades-old political memorandum by a long-forgotten former Supreme Court Justice, the Islamophobic crusade raging across the country appears perfectly in line with longstanding goals and methods of conservative organizing, and is aimed at much more than demonizing Muslims.

In 1971, former US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell submitted a confidential memorandum to his friend, Eugene Sydnor, the chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce, an umbrella group representing American big business. Powell, who was serving on the boards of 11 corporations at the time, warned that America was suffering from a surplus of democratic freedom thanks to the legacy of the New Left and the countercultural revolt of the 1960′s. He declared, “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.” Powell warned that “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries” were joining forces with “perfectly respectable elements of society from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians” to bring down American capitalism.

To roll back the surge of democracy that supposedly threatened corporate predominance, Powell urged the Chamber of Commerce to finance the creation of a new political and cultural infrastructure — a “counter-establishment” capable of unraveling the liberal establishment. The infrastructure would consist of pseudo-scholarly journals, “experts” promoted through speakers bureaus, campus pressure groups, publishing houses, lobbyists and partisan idea factories masquerading as think tanks. He wrote that operatives of the network would have to affect a “more aggressive attitude,” leveling relentless personal attacks against the perceived enemies of big business. By the last days of the Nixon administration, Attorney General John Mitchell was boasting that his conservative friends were going to take the country “so far to the right we won’t recognize it.”

Though still obscure, the Powell’ memo is one of the most important documents in recent American history. It was a blueprint for the creation of the American conservative movement, a political contingent that now controls the Republican Party and influences mainstream American opinion in ways Powell could have never imagined. Powell’s vision came to life during the late 1970′s, when neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol and former Treasury Secretary William Simon gathered together a small group of business tycoons concerned willing to lay down millions in seed money necessary to raise up a network of conservative think tanks, talking heads, and magazines capable of flooding the media with right-wing opinions, capturing the courts and taking control of Congress. Chief among the right-wing sugardaddies was Richard Mellon Scaife, a reclusive billionaire from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who controlled much of the Mellon oil fortune.

Through his various foundations, Mellon Scaife helped finance the creation of the pillars of the conservative movement, from the Federalist Society, which spearheaded the right’s takeover of the federal court system, to the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that functions as the outsourced brain of the congressional Republicans, to the Media Research Center, a right-wing watchdog group that has helped manufacture the concept of “liberal media bias.” The Tea Party, a far-right constellation of pressure groups bankrolled by extraction industry barons like the Koch Brothers, is the latest incarnation of the corporate funded conservative counter-establishment.

Scaife’s name turned up again this month in connection with a familiar cabal of right-wing corporate moneymen financing a small and relatively new political network determined to promote Islamophobia throughout America. According to an authoritative 130-page report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington, Scaife and other conservative sugardaddies have pumped $42.6 million between 2001 and 2009 into the Islamophobic network. Most of the money has gone to five figures known for bigoted, extremist views on Muslims, Arabs, and people of color. They are: Daniel Pipes, a neoconservative academic who urged Israel to employ methods of terrorism against Palestinian civilians and “raze Palestinian villages;” Frank Gaffney, a rightist national security wonk who has called the practice of Shariah a form of “sedition;” Robert Spencer, a writer and activist who has said that “everyone knows” most or all terrorists are Muslims; Stephen Emerson, a self-styled terror “expert” who blamed Muslims for the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which turned out to have been conducted by a right-wing white nationalist terrorist; and David Yerushalmi, a far-right legal activist who has argued that whites are genetically superior to people of color. Behind these figures lies a cadre of equally vitriolic activists like Pamela Geller and Brigitte Gabriel who hype their work. (Read more about the Islamophobic network in my piece, “The Great Fear.”

The Islamophobic network has injected its paranoid vision of a Muslim plot to takeover the United States into the mainstream through the established conservative political apparatus, spreading anti-Muslim hysteria through right-wing radio and heavily trafficked websites like Andrew Breitbart’s Big Peace, which boasts Gaffney as a key contributor. This year’s Republican presidential primary campaign became a platform for Islamophobic conspiracy theories and attacks on Muslim-Americans in general, with candidates suggesting on national television that they might demand loyalty oaths for Muslims who want to serve in the federal government. But the Islamophobic crusade has had practical consequences as well. Mosque burnings are becoming a commonplace phenomenon and anti-Muslim attitudes have reached an all-time high among Americans; The most extreme byproduct of Islamophobic campaigning was, of course, the recent terrorist rampage by the Norwegian right-wing activist Anders Behring Breivik, who quoted Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes and other Islamophobic ideologues scores of times in his manifesto.

While the anti-Muslim crusaders are fairly new to most observers of American politics, they are no more than cogs in a well-honed conservative political operation that functions in the top-down style that Powell envisioned. And like Powell, behind their empty rhetoric of freedom lies a deep seated contempt for democracy. The words of Yerushalmi, the extremist legal activist, expose the real sensibility and goals of his movement: “While our constitutional republic was specifically designed to insulate our national leaders from the masses, democracy has seeped up through the cracks and corroded everything we once deemed sacred about our political order,” Yerushalmi wrote. “Prior to the Civil War, the electorate, essentially white Christian men, had access to local government. It was here, where men shared an intimacy born of family ties, shared religious beliefs, and common cultural signposts, that representative government was meant to touch our daily lives. With the social and cultural revolution which followed the emancipation, man’s relationship to political order was radically nationalized and democratized. Today, there is simply no basis to resist ‘democracy’ and the ‘open society.’”

The cadre of bigots bankrolled by corporate barons to stir fears of Islam may be focused on stigmatizing Muslims, but they are only a part of a much broader movement whose ultimate target is democracy itself.

Anders Behring Breivik, a perfect product of the Axis of Islamophobia

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store visits the Utoya Labor Youth camp a day before Breivik's killing spree. He earned loud cheers with an unapologetic call for Palestinian rights.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store visits the Utoya Labor Youth camp a day before Breivik's killing spree. He earned loud cheers with an unapologetic call for Palestinian rights.

When I wrote my analysis last December on the “Axis of Islamophobia,” laying out a new international political network of right-wing ultra-Zionists, Christian evangelicals, Tea Party activists and racist British soccer hooligans, I did not foresee a terrorist like Anders Behring Breivik emerging from the movement’s ranks. At the same time, I am not surprised that he did. The rhetoric of the characters who inspired Breivik, from Pam Geller to Robert Spencer to Daniel Pipes, was so eliminationist in its nature that it was perhaps only a matter of time before someone put words into action.

As horrific as Breivik’s actions were, he can not be dismissed as a “madman.” His writings contain the same themes and language as more prominent right-wing Islamophobes (or those who style themselves as “counter-Jihadists”) and many conservatives in general. What’s more, Breivik was articulate and coherent enough to offer a clear snapshot of his ideological motives. Ali Abunimah and Alex Kane have posted excellent summaries of Breivik’s writings here and here and a full English translation is here. It is also worth sitting through at least a portion of Breivik’s tedious video manifesto to get a sense of his thinking.

From a tactical perspective, Breivik was not a “lone wolf” terrorist. Instead, Breivik appeared to operate under a leaderless resistance model much like the Christian anti-abortion terrorists Scott Roeder and Eric Rudolph. Waagner and Rudolph organized around the Army of God, a nebulous group that was known only by its website and the pamphlets its members passed around in truck stops and private meetings. If they received material or tactical support, it occurred spontaneously. For the most part, they found encouragement from like-minded people and organizations like Operation Rescue, but rarely accepted direct assistance. Breivik, who emerged from the anti-immigrant Norwegian Progress Party (which built links with America’s Tea Party) and drifted into the English/Norwegian Defense League sphere of extremism, but who appeared to act without formal organizational support, reflects the same leaderless resistance style as America’s anti-abortion terrorists.

While in many ways Breivik shares core similarities with other right-wing anti-government terrorists, he is the product of a movement that is relatively new, increasingly dangerous, and poorly understood. I described the movement in detail in my “Axis of Islamophobia” piece, noting its simultaneous projection of anti-Semitic themes on Muslim immigrants and the appeal of Israel as a Fort Apache on the front lines of the war on terror, holding the line against the Eastern barbarian hordes. Breivik’s writings embody this seemingly novel fusion, particularly in his obsession with “Cultural Marxism,” an increasingly popular far-right concept that positions the (mostly Jewish) Frankfurt School as the originators of multiculturalism, combined with his call to “influence other cultural conservatives to come to our…pro-Israel line.”

Breivik and other members of Europe’s new extreme right are fixated on the fear of the “demographic Jihad,” or being out-populated by overly fertile Muslim immigrants. They see themselves as Crusader warriors fighting a racial/religious holy war to preserve Western Civilization. Thus they turn for inspiration to Israel, the only ethnocracy in the world, a country that substantially bases its policies towards the Palestinians on what its leaders call “demographic considerations.” This is why Israeli flags invariably fly above black-masked English Defense League mobs, and why Geert Wilders, the most prominent Islamophobic politician in the world, routinely travels to Israel to demand the forced transfer of Palestinians.

Judging from Breivik’s writings, his hysterical hatred of the Labor Party’s immigration policies and tolerance of Muslim immigrants likely led him target the government-operated summer camp at Utoya. For years, the far-right has singled Norway out as a special hotbed of pro-Islam, pro-Palestinian sentiment, thanks largely to its ruling Labor Party. In 2010, for instance, the English Defense League called Norway a future site of “Islamohell,” “where unadulterated political correctness has ruled the roost, with sharp talons, for decades.” Yesterday, when the Wall Street Journal editorial page rushed to blame Muslim terrorists for what turned out to be Breivik’s killing spree, it slammed the Norwegian government for pulling troops from Afghanistan and demanding that Israel end its siege of Gaza. For his part, Breivik branded the Labor Party as “traitors.”

There is no clear evidence that Breivik’s support for the Israeli right played any part in his killing spree. Nor does he appear to have any connection with the Israeli government. However, it is worth noting that in November 2010, the Israeli government joined the right-wing pile on, accusing the Norwegian government of “anti-Israel incitement” for funding a trip for students to New York to see the “Gaza Monologues” play. Then, the day before Breivik’s terror attack, which he planned long in advance, Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stor visited the Labor Youth camp at Utoya. There, he was met with demands to support the global BDS movement and to support the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral statehood bid. “The Palestinians must have their own state, the occupation must end, the wall must be demolished and it must happen now,” the Foreign Minister declared, earning cheers from the audience.

Breivik’s writings offer much more than a window into the motives that led him to commit terror. They can also be read as an embodiment of the mentality of a new and internationalized far-right movement that not only mobilizes hatred against Muslims, but is also able to produce figures who will kill innocent non-Muslims to save the Western way of life.

The Great Islamophobic Crusade

Crossposted with TomDispatch.com.

Nine years after 9/11, hysteria about Muslims in American life has gripped the country. With it has gone an outburst of arson attacks on mosques, campaigns to stop their construction, and the branding of the Muslim-American community, overwhelmingly moderate, as a hotbed of potential terrorist recruits. The frenzy has raged from rural Tennessee to New York City, while in Oklahoma, voters even overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure banning the implementation of Sharia law in American courts (not that such a prospect existed). This campaign of Islamophobia wounded President Obama politically, as one out of five Americans have bought into a sustained chorus of false rumors about his secret Muslim faith. And it may have tainted views of Muslims in general; an August 2010 Pew Research Center poll revealed that, among Americans, the favorability rating of Muslims had dropped by 11 points since 2005.

Erupting so many years after the September 11th trauma, this spasm of anti-Muslim bigotry might seem oddly timed and unexpectedly spontaneous. But think again: it’s the fruit of an organized, long-term campaign by a tight confederation of right-wing activists and operatives who first focused on Islamophobia soon after the September 11th attacks, but only attained critical mass during the Obama era. It was then that embittered conservative forces, voted out of power in 2008, sought with remarkable success to leverage cultural resentment into political and partisan gain.

This network is obsessively fixated on the supposed spread of Muslim influence in America. Its apparatus spans continents, extending from Tea Party activists here to the European far right. It brings together in common cause right-wing ultra-Zionists, Christian evangelicals, and racist British soccer hooligans. It reflects an aggressively pro-Israel sensibility, with its key figures venerating the Jewish state as a Middle Eastern Fort Apache on the front lines of the Global War on Terror and urging the U.S. and various European powers to emulate its heavy-handed methods.

Little of recent American Islamophobia (with a strong emphasis on the “phobia”) is sheer happenstance. Years before Tea Party shock troops massed for angry protests outside the proposed site of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, representatives of the Israel lobby and the Jewish-American establishment launched a campaign against pro-Palestinian campus activism that would prove a seedbed for everything to come. That campaign quickly — and perhaps predictably — morphed into a series of crusades against mosques and Islamic schools which, in turn, attracted an assortment of shady but exceptionally energetic militants into the network’s ranks.

Besides providing the initial energy for the Islamophobic crusade, conservative elements from within the pro-Israel lobby bankrolled the network’s apparatus, enabling it to influence the national debate. One philanthropist in particular has provided the beneficence to propel the campaign ahead. He is a little-known Los Angeles-area software security entrepreneur named Aubrey Chernick, who operates out of a security consulting firm blandly named the National Center for Crisis and Continuity Coordination. A former trustee of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has served as a think tank for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a frontline lobbying group for Israel, Chernick is said to be worth $750 million.

Chernick’s fortune is puny compared to that of the billionaire Koch Brothers, extraction industry titans who fund Tea Party-related groups like Americans for Prosperity, and it is dwarfed by the financial empire of Haim Saban, the Israeli-American media baron who is one of the largest private donors to the Democratic party and recently matched $9 million raised for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces in a single night. However, by injecting his money into a small but influential constellation of groups and individuals with a narrow agenda, Chernick has had a considerable impact.

Through the Fairbrook Foundation, a private entity he and his wife Joyce control, Chernick has provided funding to groups ranging from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and CAMERA, a right-wing, pro-Israel, media-watchdog outfit, to violent Israeli settlers living on Palestinian lands and figures like the pseudo-academic author Robert Spencer, who is largely responsible for popularizing conspiracy theories about the coming conquest of the West by Muslim fanatics seeking to establish a worldwide caliphate. Together, these groups spread hysteria about Muslims into Middle American communities where immigrants from the Middle East have recently settled, and they watched with glee as likely Republican presidential frontrunners from Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin promoted their cause and parroted their tropes. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the increasingly widespread appeal of Islamophobia is that, just a few years ago, the phenomenon was confined to a few college campuses and an inner city neighborhood, and that it seemed like a fleeting fad that would soon pass from the American political landscape.

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The Rally To Restore Sanity and The Campaign To Restore The Radical Right

On my way to the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, I got a text from John Legend, who has been my friend since our college days. He told me he had decided at the last second to fly into to DC to perform with The Roots on the National Mall. So within a few minutes I was backstage with John and the rest of the performers.

John Legend, Tony Bennett and some random guy

John Legend, Tony Bennett and some random guy

As I stood beside the stage watching John and The Roots play Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” before a huge and relatively diverse crowd, it occurred to me that this was the first time in a long time I had witnessed a rally on the Mall that wasn’t filled with troglodytic racists and anti-abortion fanatics. The Sanity/Fear rally was calculated as the mirror opposite of the rallies I have grown accustomed to reporting on for the past six years: Blind rage and cultural despair was replaced with irony and high-minded humor, while the Tea Party was mocked not as a dangerous movement comprised of pathological bigots but as a stupid and uncool endeavor. One sign read: “Tea Parties Are For Little Girls and Imaginary Friends.”

Most of the performers had to watch the rally on a big screen TV in a tent that was set up behind the stage. I watched with them, except for the moments when Father Guido Sarducci stood in my way (his tattered cape was hard to see around). Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam, who now lives in Dubai, told me that he wanted his appearance at the rally to represent his return to the US since being denied entry to the country by the Bush administration for specious reasons. I talked to Tony Bennett about the influence of Yiddish Theater on Irving Berlin. “That guy knew what he was doing,” Bennett remarked. The crooner spent most of his time writing down song lyrics on a small pad of paper and quietly rehearsing them to himself. At one point, a security guard asked Kareem Abdul Jabbar to take a picture of him standing beside John Legend — a weird spectacle. When Jabbar excused himself as he nudged past me, I asked him if I was blocking his view (I wasn’t). Later, Ozzy Osbourne rushed in and out of the tent with glasses of water for himself and Sharon, while I talked to Jacob “Dude, you have no Quran” Isom about his theory on why God created gays.

As much as I enjoyed the uplifting rally, the backstage fun and clever street theater on the Mall, I was disturbed by John Stewart’s constant drawing of false equivalencies between the extremist Tea Party and mainstream liberals, which he employed again and again to supposedly reveal how the political debate has careened out of control. In Stewart’s presentation, open racist conspiracists like Glenn Beck, Pam Geller and the Fox News grotesque gallery of pundits were likened to center-left figures like Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz simply because they all broadcast their opinions at maximum volume and rely on emotional manipulation. It was like comparing the Klan to the Shriners because members of both groups wear funny costumes.

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Neocon Pogromist Pam Geller Attacks Her Allies And Supporters. Why?

From the Facebook page of Pam Geller's Stop The Islamization Of America (SIOA)

From the Facebook page of Pam Geller's Stop The Islamization Of America (SIOA)

After working tirelessly to inspire a nationwide pogrom against Muslim citizens of the United States, the leading online race hustler Pam Geller is pantomiming outrage about a video showing her supporters harassing and nearly assaulting a black man they mistook for a Muslim at the rally against the construction of the Cordoba House Islamic center on August 22. Geller’s reaction to the video was couched in a typically unhinged tirade against me; she described me as a “kapo” and “notorious Jew hater.” Geller then claimed, “I have no idea what this rally is,” and went on to attack the heavily-promoted, well-publicized demonstration as a “half-assed effort,” calling it, “harmful to the cause of freedom of expression.”

It is always amusing when leaders of groups that openly promote genocide against religious minorities and other out-class members accuse their followers of crossing a red line, as though there is any threshold they will not cross. Usually these moments arise from the kind of ugly leadership struggles that are common to proto-fascist movements comprised of neurotic and otherwise psychologically dysfunctional individuals (see the demise of the Minutemen for an example). Such a scenario appears to have prompted Geller’s screed.

As a stereotypical, shrieking figure who exhibits the classically sadomasochistic pathology of authoritarian demagogues — the simultaneous drive to destroy the weak and worship power — Geller is utterly incapable of summoning any moral opposition to the raw racism that was on display at Park51. After all, she played a central role in inciting the ugly spectacle.

More genocidal propaganda from Geller's SIOA

More genocidal propaganda from Geller's SIOA

Thus it appears Geller’s attempt to distance herself from the rally is purely cynical, the result of a row between her and the group that organized the rally, The Coalition To Honor Ground Zero. Richard Bartholomew speculated that Geller may have flown into a petulant frenzy over the pointed exclusion of her outfit, Stop The Islamization Of America, from the protest. Acrimony between her and Tom Trento of the Florida Security Council over the handling of a past anti-Muslim initiative may have also provoked her snit. Whatever the reason, it is increasingly clear that Geller is going to extreme lengths to keep the movement under her heel; any event planned outside the purview of her organization presents a direct threat to her celebrity and paycheck.

Geller’s claim that she had “no idea” about the August 22 rally is ridiculous. According to the Daily Caller, “Beth Gilinsky, an organizer for The Coalition to Honor Ground Zero and founder of the Jewish Action Alliance, is coordinating the rally.” And Gilinsky and Geller have worked hand-in-glove for years. At the April 25 Stand With Israel rally in New York City, Gilinsky introduced Geller as “a very dear friend” for whom she holds “enormous admiration.” (Geller proceeded to wave a scarf reading “Yid Army” before the crowd, making a cartoonish attempt at Jewish ethnic identification while at the same time expressing her admiration for violent British football hooligans.) Geller has also lavished praise on Gilinsky, hailing her as one of the “warriors” who attempted to stop the Khalil Gibran Academy from opening in Brooklyn.

The Facebook page of SIOA is a window into the mentality of Geller and her allies

The Facebook page of SIOA is a window into the mentality of Geller and her allies

Considering that Geller and Gilinsky spearheaded the campaign against the Girban Academy and that they at least claim to be “very dear” friends, it is hard to imagine that Geller had “no idea” that Gilinsky and company were planning a major rally on August 22. So Geller is simply deceiving her readers. And given that many of those on the list of organizations and individual racists supporting The Coalition To Honor Ground Zero are scheduled to appear at the rally Geller is planning on 9-11 against Cordoba House, Geller appears to be disparaging her own allies as well, conceding that they are in fact a bunch of deranged, potentially violent bigots whose actions are “harmful to the cause of freedom of expression.”

It is up to Geller to explain to her readers why she is lying to them and why she holds her confederates in such contempt. Until then, she can respond to the following questions:

1. Does Geller condemn the August 22 Park 51 rally or not? Put up or shut up.

2. Does Geller condemn the groups and individuals associated with the “half-assed” and “harmful” effort?

3. If Barack Obama is Malcolm X’s illegitimate child as Geller has claimed, is Geller the mistress of Mel Gibson?

4. If Geller is such a good Jew, why does she endorse a British fascist group that is led by anti-Semitic skinheads and is connected to the whites-only British National Party?

5. Does Geller condemn Glenn Beck as an anti-Semite for saying the Jews killed Jesus? Yes or no. Anti-semitism, yes or no.

6. If Geller is such a good Jew, why does she so brazenly violate established halachic guidelines against cosmetic surgery?