The international gathering of wingnuts, far-right ideologues, Euro-fascists, and anti-Muslim hate groups that will gather at ground zero Saturday should dispel any illusion that the fury over the Park51 Project, otherwise known as the “ground zero mosque,” was ever a controversy solely about location.
On the ninth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, a group calling itself Stop Islamization of America is planning an anti-Islam rally at that hallowed ground, hijacking a day that is supposed to be reserved for mourning and reflection and instead using it to spread their bigotry and hate.
Stop Islamization of America is an offshoot of a European neo-Nazi organization called Stop Islamization of Europe, whose motto is “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.” The American wing of the organization, which is also behind some of the mosque protests taking place all across the country, is headed by two fringe figures, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.
• John Avlon: Terry Jones Hijacked the MediaGeller is the real face of the organization—the queen nut of the wingnuts, if you will. Before gaining international fame as the person who almost single-handedly turned the Park51 Project into the mosque at ground zero, Geller was a journalist for the New York Daily News and former associate publisher of The New York Observer. After 9/11, she says she dedicated her life to stopping the spread of Islam in America. Her blog, Atlas Shrugs, is a mishmash of her inane views on a wide range of social and political issues. However, a quick read of the blog reveals that one of her favorite topics of discussion is the "Muslim in the White House." I'm not exaggerating. The nonpartisan media watchdog group Media Matters for America has counted 267 posts on her blog with that exact phrase.
That's right. Geller is one of the 20 percent of Americans who believe that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim out to destroy America from inside the White House. "Hussein is a Muhammadan," Geller writes in one post about the president, using his middle name. Another post warns Americans that "The president of the United States is advancing jihad against the oath of office that he took." It should be noted that Geller is an equal-opportunity bigot, having spread her venom to her Jewish enemies as well. She has referred to Abraham Foxman, the extremely conservative, extremely pro-Israel president of the Anti-Defamation League, as "a self-hating wretch," called the pro-Israel/pro-peace political action committee J-Street "Kapos" (the term for Jews who helped Nazis during the Holocaust), and Photoshopped a picture of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (who is Jewish) in a Nazi uniform on her blog.
That is exactly the playbook of anti-Muslim groups: Link fear of the recession to fear of Islam. Link fear of terrorism to fear of Islam. More security = Less Islam.
Perhaps this pedigree is why the scheduled keynote speaker for the anti-Islam rally at ground zero, GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, suddenly backed out of his commitment, citing a "scheduling conflict." Having repeatedly and unapologetically associated American Muslims with al Qaeda in his media discussions about the Park51 Project, and then having gone one step further by ratcheting his anti-Islam discourse to "the Hitler level," as Jim Galloway put it in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gingrich decided that it may not be the best idea for him to stand side by side with the likes of Geller and Spencer. But, if I may be allowed to conjuncture, it may be that the person Gingrich wanted most to avoid is the guest of honor at Saturday's event—the flamboyantly fascist, anti-Muslim Dutch politician and professional provocateur Geert Wilders.
Wilders has made a name for himself throughout Europe both for his extreme anti-immigration policies (ironically, Wilders’ mother was born in modern day Indonesia, making him a second-generation immigrant) and his outrageous statements against Muslims. While some brand Wilders as a lunatic for his more ridiculous policies, like taxing Muslim women for the headscarf or banning the Quran from the Netherlands, his use of Islam as a scapegoat for Dutch issues—particularly the flailing economy and rising crime rate—has actually been quite successful. His political platform is a simple one: “More security, less crime, less immigration, less Islam.”
Wilders' success in Dutch politics comes from his ability to exploit Dutch fears of economic uncertainty to make his case against Islam and Muslims. His method, as Ian Buruma pointed out in an op-ed for The New York Times, “is to expose the intolerance of Muslims by provoking them. If they react to his insults, he can claim that they are a threat to our native liberties. And if anyone should point out that deliberately giving offense to Muslims is neither the best way to lower social tensions nor to protect our freedoms, Wilders will denounce him as a typical cultural elitist collaborating with “ Islamo-fascism.”
That is exactly the playbook of anti-Muslim groups like Stop Islamization of America: Link fear of the recession to fear of Islam. Link fear of terrorism to fear of Islam. More security = Less Islam. In fact, Geller and Spencer together also run the group Freedom Defense Initiative, which, in its own words, is focused on stopping "specific Islamic supremacist initiatives in American cities" and finding " infiltrators of our federal agencies.” As one can imagine, this is a huge project: weeding out Muslim infiltrators in the U.S. government. After all, as FDI board member Joseph Kay has said, “Every person in Islam, from man to woman to child, may be our executioner. In short, that there are no innocents in Islam ... all of Islam is at war with us, and that all of Islam is/are combatant(s).[sic]"
Therein lies the crux of the Stop Islamization argument. For Geller, Spencer, Wilders, and a growing number of Americans, there is absolutely no difference between what they term "Islamist supremacists" and any other Muslim. That is the definition of bigotry: painting 1.5 billion people across the planet with the exact same brush.
These are the people we're to believe are so concerned with the sanctity of ground zero that they cannot abide by the construction two blocks away of a community center dedicated to inter-religious cooperation. Yet they are willing to hijack the anniversary of a day in which inter-religious cooperation should be foremost on our minds in order to spout their vile, bigoted, and yes, un-American ideology. I can think of no greater desecration to the victims of 9/11.
Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.