The Anti-Muslim Machine
In the fall of 2007, New York’s first Arabic-language public school was slated to open in Brooklyn. For a namesake, organizers chose the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, a pacifist, an immigrant to New York, and a Christian so obsessed with Jesus he often said the Son of God visited him in his dreams. With a name like Khalil Gibran International Academy, they thought, surely no one would mistake it for a Muslim school.
“Imbuing pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism, proselytizing for Islam, and promoting Islamist sympathies will predictably make up the school’s true curriculum,” professional anti-Muslim Daniel Pipes wrote in a New York Sun op-ed, “A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn.” Later, he’d admit the claim was “a bit of a stretch.” No matter: Pipes’ rallying cry was heard by conservative activists, who founded a Stop the Madrassa Coalition, unleashing a vicious tarring of Khalil Gibran’s would-be principal, Debbie Almontaser. Three years later, those same activists would set upon the “Ground Zero mosque.” “All of these groups are connected and working on one thing,” Almontaser told a colleague and me recently, “to eliminate anything Arab or Muslim in the United States.”
A pillar of the local interfaith community and longtime educator, Debbie Almontaser worked with the Bloomberg administration to make Khalil Gibran a reality. The Times called Almontaser “arguably the city’s most visible Arab-American woman.” She carries herself tall and wears a simple, tightly-wrapped hijab that covers her hair but not her neck, making her high cheekbones all the more striking. Kind but authoritative, with a girlish lilt in her voice that puts one instantly at ease, “Principal Almontaser” would’ve suited her well.
The summer before Almontaser was to take the helm of Khalil Gibran, Stop the Madrassa spokeswoman Pamela Hall went trolling at New York’s annual Muslim Day Parade. Hall found a t-shirt that read “Intifada NYC” and snapped a picture. Gold mine: Almontaser was on the board of an organization that rented office space to the women’s group that made the t-shirt.
In our post-9/11 landscape of guilt-by-association, a time when every public American Muslim must prove their nonviolence by ritually denouncing radical Islam and Hamas, it was enough of a smoking gun. Department of Education officials pressured Almontaser to do an interview with the New York Post, the city’s preeminent tabloid. The next day, newsstands were plastered with the words “CITY PRINCIPAL IS ‘REVOLTING’: TIED TO ‘INTIFADA NYC’ SHIRTS.” The Bloomberg administration forced Almontaser to resign; in September, Khalil Gibran opened without her. Installed in her stead was an Orthodox Jewish woman who spoke no Arabic. Stop the Madrassa wanted more: specifically, Khalil Gibran’s closure. Staff took precautions not to give them fuel. “We cut pictures of mosques out of the Arabic books,” one teacher told Colorlines magazine as the school year began. “We are afraid that anything could be taken out of context.” But such measures would never be enough; the damage was done. Stop the Madrassa et al., triumphant, had caught a whiff of what they could accomplish.
Now that the fervor over Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” has died down somewhat, we can actually step back, take a look around, and consider: the shitstorm that just passed through town is a familiar one. The proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan is the Brooklyn “madrassa” all over again, with the same cast of conservative activists working to block the mainstreaming of Muslims in the public sphere. Imam Abdul Feisal Rauf wants to create essentially a Muslim YMCA in Lower Manhattan? They say he supports Hamas and has terrorist ties. Debbie Almontaser wanted to head a public school that’d specialize in Arabic? Also—you guessed it—a Hamas supporter with terrorist ties. And repeat.
The anti-Muslim voices in the echo chamber are the same now as they were three years ago. They never stopped; they talked amongst themselves, writing books and articles and blog posts, the in-crowd growing larger and more devoted—until another big, ambitious project spearheaded by Muslims came around. Suddenly a mass amplification took place, and we found ourselves asking a question traditionally under the purview of the Right: what is happening to our country?
Khalil Gibran was not the beginning; our local and national history can be read as a grand succession of shitstorms. Yes, nativism is the great American common denominator. And New York has its own specific tradition of reactionary backlashes, in which the majority sees both its safety and entire way of life threatened by minorities. Where to begin?
Suzanne Wasserman of CUNY’s Gotham Center for New York City History points to colonial New York’s fears of slave rebellion. It was a time when 1/5th of Manhattanites were owned by another in what historian Jill Lepore has termed “a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom.” Accused of plotting to kill every single white person on the island, dozens of slaves were either burned at the stake or hanged in 1741. In the next century, Wasserman notes New York saw riots against Irish Catholics in the 1830s, the anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, and the draft riots during the Civil War, when angry mobs of resentful working class whites attacked African-Americans, carrying out lynchings in the West Village. Twentieth-century New York saw race riots, and lots of them: 1919, 1935, 1943, 1968, and more. Then there were the hard-hat riots against the New Left in 1970, when construction workers attacked anti-war protestors near City Hall. Lest we be lacking in sympathy for angry mobs, we’d do well to remember the Stonewall riots and the Tompkins Square Park riot, when gays and the homeless did battle with the cops—or rather, in the case of the latter, were outright attacked by NYPD’s finest.
Nowadays, we don’t lynch, and we riot rarely. The occasional individual will stab a Muslim cabbie in Manhattan, beat a Mexican on Staten Island, or kill an Ecuadorian on Long Island. Mostly, we blog. An angry, fearful mob, posting and commenting, commenting and posting, in a town square cobbled with pornography and hate speech: the internet.
And yet, Mayor Bloomberg offers an appealing narrative of progress. In a landmark speech on Governors Island in August, he declared his unwavering support for Park51, the Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. He termed New York “the freest city in the world,” a “hard-won” freedom thanks to a long line of struggles beginning in the 17th century with Jews and Quakers petitioning the Dutch—unsuccessfully—for the right to build a synagogue and hold meeting groups, respectively. “I do agree with Bloomberg that we are the most tolerant city in the entire universe,” Wasserman wrote me in an email—a proud New Yorker, backlashes and all.
From Khalil Gibran to Park51, these last three years can be read as a narrative of progress for Bloomberg as well: finally, some might sigh with relief, he has remembered his own people’s history of discrimination and, seeing the fate of the Jews as irrevocably tied with the fate of all oppressed peoples, seen the light. Not quite. For starters, Almontaser pointed out, Bloomberg still steadfastly refuses to include Muslim holidays in the New York public school calendar.
And then there’s Israel. Objectively speaking, Bloomberg and his administration threw Debbie Almontaser under the bus because of a t-shirt with the words “Intifada NYC.” Almontaser failed to denounce the word to the New York Post. Instead, she’d given the educator’s answer: a history lesson.
“We all know what a huge supporter of Israel Bloomberg is,” Almontaser told me. Exhibit A: the mayor’s trip to the Jewish state during the 2008-09 attack on Gaza. Israel, Almontaser says, is “the elephant in the room” of New York politics. It’s a force that can make the mayor demand a public school principal’s resignation. A force that can make Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, defend Israel’s blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, saying the goal is a honorable one: “to strangle them economically.” Such is the power of Zionism that it asks Jews, the majority of whom lean leftward, “to check their liberalism at [the] door,” as Peter Beinart put it.
Were Abdul Feisal Rauf to say a single critical word about Israel, Almontaser predicted Bloomberg would withdraw his support for Park51 in a heartbeat.
“Anything is possible,” she said.
“When it comes to Bloomberg and Israel?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she replied with a laugh.
It struck me as a very Jewish response, in a way: finding humor in the stuff of the world’s wrongs against you.
So: Mayor Bloomberg caved to Stop the Madrassa, and Debbie Almontaser lost her school. So what? In a state in which the mayor is the most powerful elected official, action counts. “Bloomberg has empowered them,” Almontaser said of the constellation of conservative activists who fought Khalil Gibran. It was an emboldening victory, a glimpse of the power of the blog. “His stance of not standing up to them gave them credence.”
Who is “them,” anyway? The dynamic duo of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer deserve an extended introduction, as they were vocal saber rattlers against Khalil Gibran and then emerged the leading voices against Park51—Geller in particular. She is an arch-conservative Upper East Side Zionist Jew, a Tea Partier, a conspiracy theorist, a supporter of the neo-fascist English Defense League, and proprietor of the website Atlas Shrugs, ranked the 16th most popular conservative blog by Compete Site Analytics. There, she Photoshopped a picture of Elena Kagan in Nazi regalia and infamously re-posted another blogger’s theory that Barack Obama could very well be Malcolm X’s lovechild. “I love Muslims,” Geller declares just about as often as she says, “Hitler was inspired by Islam.” With funding from David Horowitz’s Freedom Center and the ultra-right wing, pro-Israel philanthropists Aubrey and Joyce Chernick, Spencer runs a website called Jihad Watch and is the pseudo-academic of the two. A New York Times-bestselling author, he is a man Karen Armstrong once described as having “studied Islam for 20 years, largely, it seems, to prove that it is an evil, inherently violent religion.”
In May, Geller became the first person to write in opposition to what was then called Cordoba House (“Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction”). For months afterward, she led the anti-Muslim bloggers’ brigade against the Islamic center, a clamor amplified by conservative media—until Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich blew it up into a national issue.
Spencer told me their friendship began in 2006, when Geller introduced herself at a conference; they had a mutual friend, Dr. Andrew Bostom, a Brown University medical school professor and, as the author of The Legacy of Jihad and The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism, a semi-professional anti-Muslim. One of Spencer and Geller’s early partnerships was organizing a rally about Rifqa Bary, a teenage Muslim girl who converted to Christianity and ran away from her Ohio home, claiming her family threatened to kill her. The police found no evidence to support her allegations, but Bary’s case has become a focal point for those in the anti-Muslim cottage industry predicated on Islam’s doctrinal mandates to violence.
“There is no justification for so-called honor killing in Islamic law or religion,” Georgetown professor John Esposito emphasizes, calling it a “cultural phenomenon” found among Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and, yes, Muslims. Spencer and Geller are obsessed with the figure of the dead Muslim girl, killed by her family in the name of Islam. On Atlas Shrugs, Geller prominently features pictures of alleged honor killing victims, pretty girls in make-up without hijabs, killed—according to Geller and Spencer’s logic—for becoming Western. Spencer and Geller are interested only in dead Muslims or ex-Muslims: “I fight for the moderates,” Geller told Right Wing News, adding, “I fight for people that are leaving Islam.” At the same time, they cast themselves as “human rights activists,” Muslims’ saviors from the inherent violence of Islam—but what they offer in its stead is unclear.
Together Spencer and Geller now run Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), the stateside offshoot of Stop the Islamization of Europe (motto: “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense”). SIOA is under the banner of the Freedom Defense Initiative (on whose board sits John Joseph Jay, a retired lawyer who blogs in support of violence against Muslims: ‘There are no innocent muslims. islam is subject to killing on grounds of political expediency on the same basis as islam kills its victims” [sic]). SIOA is responsible for the MTA bus ads depicting the Twin Towers in flames beside an artist’s rendering of Park51 emblazoned with a star and crescent (SIOA’s addition), and the words “Why there?”
This spring, SIOA advertisements graced buses and taxis in major metropolitan cities across the country, asking, “Leaving Islam? Is your family threatening you?” and directed readers to refugefromislam.com, an empty shell of a website. The ads faced opposition in New York and elsewhere, and their lawyer was the inimitable David Yerushalmi, an ultra-right wing Zionist who advocates 20-year prison sentences for practicing Muslims. He once lamented that one gets unfairly termed a racist when telling the truth “of Islam as an evil religion, or of blacks as the most murderous of peoples (at least in New York City), or of illegal immigrants as deserving of no rights.” And in yet another sign of the Right’s mainstreaming of its fringe, three Republican members of the House recently endorsed “Sharia: The Threat to America,” a report Yerushalmi co-authored. Along with Daniel Pipes, Yerushalmi was a board member of Stop the Madrassa.
It would be much easier if we could write the Robert Spencers and Pamela Gellers of the world off as fringe racist crazies. But their books sell; their blogs get more traffic than Killing the Buddha ever will. Simon and Schuster gave Spencer and Geller a six-figure advance to write their book, The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, blurbed by Geert Wilders, the nativist Dutch MP who wants to ban the burqa and the Qur’an. Recently in Virginia, the FBI and the Tidewater Joint Terrorism Task Force even had Spencer teach law enforcement agents about the threats of Islam—an educator’s role he often plays for the Army and assorted intelligence agencies. Together, Spencer and Geller are shining examples of successful conservative activism via media punditry.
The thread that connects Khalil Gibran and Park51 is something we’ve been facing this whole post-9/11 decade: a sizeable swath of Americans is simply not okay with Muslims in the public sphere. It is an unease that lies dormant, not front page news, but quietly showing its symptoms. In 2002, the Council on American-Islamic Relations received 602 civil rights complaints from Muslims, ranging from hate crimes to mosque vandalism; by 2009, that number was up to 2,728. In explaining the recent outpouring of anti-Muslim hysteria, progressives have been quick to point to Obama’s blackness—a catalyst, to be sure, but let’s not forget who paved the path along which we’ve been traveling. It was the Bush administration who paid lip service to Islam as a “religion of peace” even while rounding up Arab-Americans for detention and questioning. To be Arab-American was and is to be suspect, a potential threat, and Americans believe in defensive offensives, after all.
Over the summer, an internet meme spread: “This is NYC on Madison Ave,” read the subject line, followed by photos of Muslims bowing in prayer in the streets. And a warning: “they are claiming America for allah.” That the pictures were taken at the 2009 Muslim Day Parade was beside the point. They want to take over, and they’re doing it via legal means. They’re using the system against us. Their freedom of religion means we lose control of our country. “They plan this event so we can watch them praying on Madison avenue [sic],” Pamela Hall, the “Intifada NYC” t-shirt photographer, wrote of this fall’s 2010 Muslim Day Parade. It’s the kind of reactionary logic of the Christian Right, complaining about having to suffer the indignity of seeing a gay couple holding hands in public—or worse, a gay teacher (who must surely be recruiting children). And even worse than that, a Muslim principal (who must surely be converting them).
The Madison Avenue meme has been used to rationalize conservative activism. “Synagogues and churches, people do not pray in the streets. They do not take their little carpets out and pray in the street,” a Sheepshead Bay woman named Susan Gerber told me—adding emphatically, “We have pictures.” A former public school teacher, Gerber is a member of a group called Bay People, which is fighting the construction of a local mosque. “I envision people praying all along Voorhies Avenue, like practically in front of my house a block and a half down.” Others express their opposition more forcefully. “If they build a mosque there, I’m going to bomb the mosque,” one man told the Brooklyn Paper at a Bay People rally in June.
In July, Tennessee Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey described Islam as a “cult” unworthy of First Amendment rights. The national atmosphere was such that he seemed less like an unhinged politician and more a representative of the unhinged populace, professing to be “all about the freedom of religion,” but “you cross the line when they start trying to bring Sharia law into the United States.” Yes, it’s come to this, and who knows where it’s going.
A week before this year’s 9/11 anniversary, a new protest against Park51 began. A car circled the block, towing a decommissioned missile aimed skyward, toward the thirteen stories that would eventually—hopefully, maybe, if they do indeed raise the funds—comprise the so-called “megamosque.” Along the side, an inscription: “Religion preying on freedom.” After the summer we’d had, was it much of a shocker?
Organized by Stop the Islamization of America, the first rally against the “Ground Zero mosque” was held in a plaza near the site of the Twin Towers on June 6th—D-Day. “We are not hatemongerers!” Pamela Hall proclaimed from the podium. “We just want our families and our future to be safe from the racist, bigoted ideology that murdered 3,000 people.” In the crowd, signs ranged from “Everything I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11” to crude drawings of Mohammed with the label “beast.”
Toward the end of the rally, two dark-skinned men were overheard speaking Arabic. The crowd transformed into an angry mob, surrounded the men, and shouted, “go home” and “get out.” The Bergen Record reported that the two scared men, Joseph Nasralla and Karam El Masry, had to be extricated by police. It turned out they weren’t even Muslim. They were Egyptian Coptic Christians who’d trekked cross-country from California to join the cause against the “Ground Zero mosque.” Nasralla later told John Hawkins of Right Wing News that the Record coverage was indeed accurate, adding that he’d been shoved and his camera knocked to the ground. “He said he was worried that things might have really gotten out of hand if the police hadn’t escorted him and Karam El Masry away,” Hawkins wrote.
“I actually caused that by accident,” an evangelical pastor named David Wood told me with a chuckle. He meant the near race riot. Wood is a PhD student in philosophy at a respectable New York institution whose name he didn’t want me to use. Passionate about proselytizing to Muslims, Wood’s expertise is Christian apologetics, the practice of arguing unbelievers into faith. He is best known as the creator of a viral video “Of Mosques and Men,” which argues all Muslims—even those who seem “peaceful,” like “good citizens in public”—had an urge to “smile when there were terrorist attacks.” But Wood allows himself a little laugh about violence when Muslims are on the receiving end.
As he tells the story of that day, “[The Copts] were complaining about not having anything to hand out. And I said, ‘I’ve got some pamphlets on Islam, specifically on whether Islam is a religion of peace.” The pamphlets contained passages of the Qur’an selected to suggest the answer is no. “People thought they were there to defend the mosque and promote Islam,” Wood explained. “Lots of people were fired up about that.” But it was a goofy case of mistaken identity, a funny little mix-up. “The guys who were doing it were actually Christians,” Wood told me as if clearing up the whole matter. “They weren’t Muslims.” In other words: the mob’s anger and actions were justified, but misdirected. Aim better next time?
On Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer winkingly termed the Copt incident a “kerfuffle” and posted a statement from Nasralla. The mob’s violence and his own fear were both magically absent from Nasralla’s statement. “We Coptic Christians wanted to express our full support to your initiative and to this important rally,” Nasrallah wrote in a letter addressed to Spencer and Geller, adding that the confrontation was “blown out of proportion” and the crowd had simply “mistaken” them as “Muslims infiltrators trying to disrupt the event.”
When I asked Spencer about the June 6th rally, he insisted on reading Nasrallah’s statement from start to finish over the phone. Irritation was palpable in his voice, rising as he went along. Reaching the final line, Spencer trilled the letters in the Copt’s last name with a disdainful flourish. “Yours truly, Joseph Nassss-RRRALLL-ahhh,” he said, exasperated.
I invited Spencer to explain how he and Geller are not stirring up anti-Muslim violence. “There isn’t any anti-Muslim violence,” he shot back. “Where is it? Tell me an incident.” The CAIR reports? Those are “false hate crimes, often done by Muslims themselves”—a point Daniel Pipes has been harping on for years. The perpetrators’ motivation, Spencer says, is to “bamboozle people into thinking that Muslims are being victimized.”
Among Pamela Geller’s more incendiary writings on Atlas Shrugs was a piece in which she called for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock. “The dome has got to go,” Geller wrote not once but twice. Definitely not incitement, said Spencer, and here he grew jovial. “If Ms. Geller were leading an army, and they had bulldozers, and they were about to knock over the Dome of the Rock, then you might have a point.” He was clearly amused that I could conceive of such a thing. “It isn’t as if Pamela Geller is the IDF.”
But then he grew serious, concerned for my political salvation. “I’m talking to you as a human being,” he implored, trying to reach some inner part of me that would be receptive. “You keep talking to me as a reporter,” Spencer lamented. (After the interview Spencer devoted a Jihad Watch post to our exchange, calling me “beneath contempt.”) He thought I was missing the point by focusing on hyperbolic rhetoric—that my heart had grown callous to the plight of female Muslim apostates, killed according to the laws inscribed in all Islam.
“I know there’s a soul in there,” Spencer told me solemnly. Our conversation was wrapping up. “I know that you must have some sense of justice.”
Debbie Almontaser is now a PhD student at Fordham University, where she studies education policy. Perhaps, she says, she’ll help other educators launch multicultural schools of their own. “At this point, I have chosen to move on,” she explains. But not if the anti-Muslim machine has anything to do with it: Pamela Hall and two other Stop the Madrassa members filed a defamation suit against Almontaser after she delivered a statement on the steps of City Hall saying, “Members of the coalition stalked me wherever I went and verbally assaulted me.” Litigation is ongoing.
In March, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that New York City’s Department of Education had discriminated against Almontaser in forcing her to resign. “It was an absolute vindication for me and others who faced such scrutiny within the Arab and Muslim community,” she concludes. And yet: the ruling only ceded Almontaser the moral high ground, not a just resolution. The Bloomberg administration didn’t offer to reinstate her as Khalil Gibran’s principal. Or even to apologize.
On the eve of September 11th, not an angry mob but rather a vigil formed in Lower Manhattan, organized by a broad coalition that teamed up in support of Park51. Volunteers passed out tall candlesticks with paper cups at the top to catch the wax. A thousand New Yorkers filled up a block on Park Place, each holding a glowing orb on a stick. Behind us, the beams from “Tribute to Light” formed the Twin Towers in the night sky.
A group began singing “Happy Birthday” to their friend who had just turned 80, and everyone nearby joined in merrily. “I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate my birthday,” the woman said as she looked around smiling, holding hands with her white-haired husband. At one point, a friend accidentally set her paper cup aflame, and we all had a laugh as she waved it out like a campfire marshmallow. We were a we. No one was really listening to the speeches, it seemed to me, but a warm feeling of belonging had settled in—a sense of being among kindred spirits who could commiserate silently about the madness taking over this country, briefly escaping it. This was the night before Geert Wilders joined Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller for a rally against the “megamosque” blocks away; no doubt its attendees had similar feelings.
Pamela Hall, the “Intifada NYC” t-shirt photographer, was there with her camera at the vigil, too. Always on the prowl for more fodder for the online mill, Hall planted herself in front of the stage and began snapping photos. Nearby, the “intifada principal” chatted with the other vigil organizers. By now, they recognize one another, of course. Debbie Almontaser looked into the lens and smiled for the camera, weary but defiant.