Outraged, and Outrageous
Top row from left: RT America; Atlas Shrugs; ABC News; Atlas Shrugs. Second row: Fox News; Canadian Broadcasting Company; Atlas Shrugs; MSNBC. Third row: CNN; Atlas Shrugs (Three photos). Bottom Row: CBS NEWS; CNN; Atlas Shrugs (2 photos).
By ANNE BARNARD and ALAN FEUER
Published: October 8, 2010
PAMELA GELLER’S apartment, in the fashion of the blogosphere, doubles as her office. It is a modern full-floor unit in a high-rise on the East Side of Manhattan that could belong to a socialite or the editor of a lifestyle magazine. There is ample light and a tasteful lack of clutter. The kitchen appliances are made of brushed steel; the countertops are slate. In the earth-toned living room hangs a painting, in vibrant colors, of a woman in a swimsuit.
It is in this genteel setting that Ms. Geller, 52 and a single mother of four, wakes each morning shortly after 7, switches on her laptop and wages a form of holy war through Atlas Shrugs, a Web site that attacks Islam with a rhetoric venomous enough that PayPalat one point branded it a hate site. Working here — often in fuzzy slippers — she has called for the removal of the Dome of the Rock from atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; posted doctored pictures of Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court justice, in a Nazi helmet; suggested the State Department was run by “Islamic supremacists”; and referred to health care reform as an act of national rape.
Ms. Geller has been writing since 2005, but this summer she skyrocketed to national prominence as the firebrand in chief opposing Park51, the planned Muslim community center she denounces as “the ground zero mega-mosque.”
Operating largely outside traditional Washington power centers — and, for better or worse, without traditional academic, public-policy or journalism credentials — Ms. Geller, with a coterie of allies, has helped set the tone and shape the narrative for a divisive national debate over Park51 (she calls the developer a “thug” and a “lowlife”). In the process, she has helped bring into the mainstream a concept that after 9/11 percolated mainly on the fringes of American politics: that terrorism by Muslims springs not from perversions of Islam but from the religion itself. Her writings, rallies and television appearances have both offended and inspired, transforming Ms. Geller from an Internet obscurity, who once videotaped herself in a bikini as she denounced “Islamofascism,” into a media commodity who has been profiled on “60 Minutes” and whose phraseology has been adopted by Newt Gingrichand Sarah Palin.
FOR Ms. Geller, the battle against Park51 is only part of a much larger crusade in which she is joined by an influential if decentralized coalition that includes former generals,new-media polemicists, researchers and evangelicals who view Islam as a politically driven religion, barbaric at its core and expansionist by nature. Her closest partner is Robert Spencer, the proprietor of Jihadwatch.org.Incorporation papers for their American Freedom Defense Initiative list as founding members Anders Gravers, a Danish “anti-Islamization” activist (“Jihad is the knife slicing the salami of freedom”) and John Joseph Jay (“There are no innocents in Islam”). Their lawyer, David Yerushalmi, has sought to criminalize the practice of Islam,when defined as adherence to Shariah, Islamic religious law.
This loose-knit cadre’s vision of Islam in an age of terror is not unlike a cold war view of Communism: a stealthy global threat creeping into nodes of power that must be opposed at all cost. “In the war between the savage and the civilized man,” Ms. Geller says, “you side with the civilized man.”
It remains unclear how much Ms. Geller is driving opposition to the Islamic center and how much she reflects it — polls suggest most Americans oppose the project — but her involvement can hardly be ignored. Atlas Shrugs, which gets about 200,000 unique visitors a month, helped draw thousands to protests against Park51 on June 6 and Sept. 11. Ms. Geller, supported by a divorce settlement and blog advertisements, also played an important role in winning the resignation in 2007 of Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim principal who started an Arabic-language public school in Brooklyn; brought 200 people to Ohio last year to support Rifqa Bary, a Muslim girl who accused her parents of abuse; and helped draw vociferous objectors to a hearing this summer on a since-scrapped proposal for a mosque on Staten Island.
In conversation, Ms. Geller habitually refers to herself as a “racist-Islamophobic-anti-Muslim-bigot” — all one word in her pronunciation — which hints at her sense of humor and her evident frustration at her public persona. She wields a similarly broad brush against opponents, using terms like “diabolical” and “stealth jihadist” even for people likethe journalist Christiane Amanpour and the Republican operative Grover Norquist.
The outrageous and the solemn are deeply intertwined in her character. Ms. Geller admits to using Atlas Shrugs to test topics significant (the conflict in Sudan) and outlandish (that a young Barack Obama slept with “a crack whore”). She has taken up arms against “honor killings” as well as against a Disneyland employee who fought to wear a head scarf. She inspires laughs at sites like Loonwatch, but critics say her influence is serious: a spreading fear of Islam and a dehumanization of Muslims comparable to the sometimes-violent anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of earlier eras. Even some of her former right-wing allies say she has gone too far.
“I think she’s enabling a real bigotry — a lot of people are convinced by the propaganda she repeats like a mantra,” said Charles Johnson, who runs the blog Little Green Footballs, where Ms. Geller got her start as a frequent commenter. “Nine-eleven didn’t happen in a vacuum — it came from a long history. But when people like Pam Geller are the loudest voices out there talking about it, it drowns out everything else and makes everyone look crazy.”
Like many writers, Ms. Geller is fond of what she calls her “little darlings” — rhetorical flourishes, such as accusing the imam behind Park51 of “totalitarian Khomeinism.” Asked during an interview on Sept. 28 whether these extreme constructions undermine her credibility, Ms. Geller spontaneously erupted into song. “I gotta be me,” she sang, sounding not too bad, though not at all like someone who has opined extensively about the Mufti of Jerusalem and the Iranian revolution. “I gotta be free.”
“I’m serious,” she added, returning to her Long Island-accented voice. “I haven’t thought about that song in a million years. But it’s really true.”
THE day last December when The New York Times first reported plans to build a Muslim community center two blocks from ground zero, Atlas Shrugs immediately objected. “I don’t know which is more grotesque,” Ms. Geller wrote, “jihad or the NY Times preening of it.”
She dropped the topic until May 5, when the project — including a mosque, sports facilities and cultural programs to promote understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims — won unanimous approval from a committee of Community Board 1.
The next day, Atlas bristled with outrage. It was a “monster mosque.” It was “sort of like a victory lap” — analogous to Muslims’ reconsecrating the iconic Hagia Sophia cathedral as a mosque after conquering Constantinople in 1453. “Insulting and humiliating.” “A stab in the eye of America.”
“This is Islamic domination and expansionism,” Ms. Geller declared. The only Muslim center appropriate near ground zero, she said, would be devoted to “expunging the Koran” of “incitement to violence.” (Though, she added, such a center “probably wouldn’t last two minutes without being bombed by devout Muslims.”)
Two days later, Ms. Geller invited readers to protest the “9/11 monster mosque being built on hallowed ground zero,” in a post that was among the first to spread the misimpressions that the project was at the World Trade Center site and would solely house a prayer space. The next week, The New York Post took up the cause (“Mosque Madness at Ground Zero”). Fox News booked Ms. Geller on Mike Huckabee’s television program. Sean Hannityhosted her on the radio.
The community board received hundreds of letters and calls from across the country; Ms. Geller had posted its contact information. She advertised its May 25 hearing, which was packed and marked by heckling (“You’re building on a Christian cemetery!”).
Next, the organization she and Mr. Spencer took over in April, Stop Islamization of America, held a rally on the anniversary of D-Day, which Ms. Geller marks as the moment Park51 became a national sensation. A post about it by El Marco, a conservative blogger, “went viral,” she said, a rare instance of a big debate’s bursting on the scene without “the mainstream media telling people what to think.”
Ms. Geller, though, had some suggestions. She and other bloggers quoted selectively from the imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, stressing his description of United States policy as partly responsible for 9/11. They branded him a “radical Islamist.” They declared that his talks against extremism and violence were “taqiyya” — the hiding of true beliefs, religiously sanctioned for Muslims, usually minority Shiites, under hostile rule. And Ms. Geller said, without evidence, that the center’s financing might be tied to terrorists.
Her assertions became common talking points for Republican leaders and other opponents. Soon, Rick A. Lazio, running for governor of New York, was calling the imam a “terrorist sympathizer.” Rush Limbaugh was describing Park51 as a “victory mosque.” Mr. Gingrich was talking about fighting “stealth jihad,” a favorite Geller phrase and the title of a book by Mr. Spencer.
Over the summer, Ms. Geller, irresistibly appealing to television bookers, appeared onprograms across the political spectrum as the face of opposition to the Muslim center. Her claims were disputed often enough that the liberal media-tracking group Media Matterscalled on stations (ineffectually) to stop presenting her as an expert.
Opposition to Park51 grew — and with it, antipathy for Islam. A New York Times poll last month found that two-thirds of city residents thought the project should be relocated. AQuinnipiac University poll of likely New York State voters showed that 90 percent of Republicans — compared to 34 percent of Democrats — thought that a mosque near ground zero was wrong. And the portion of Americans with a favorable view of Islam reached its lowest ebb since 9/11 — 37 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Ms. Geller said in the interview that it was “insulting to the American people” to suggest that she and her allies inspired the anger over the project. But if many people have a general unease over the idea of a mosque downtown, Ms. Geller has provided a vocabulary to express it and a framework to understand it: worries about Islam.
“I have an interesting play on words sometimes,” she said. “If people like it, I think that’s great.”
Mr. Spencer says Ms. Geller’s “genius” is translating his sometimes-obscure concepts into vernacular, plus a “charm and appeal” that motivates people to take action. Rich Davis, a founding member of their group, likened her to the lead singer who made the Who’s challenging music popular.
“I think of her like Roger Daltrey,” said Mr. Davis, a Navy veteran from Pennsylvania. “He had a good look, a strong personality, and that’s how I think of her. She’s the front man for so many of us who feel the same way.”
PAMELA GELLER was born in 1958, the third of four girls. She grew up in Hewlett Harbor, one of Long Island’s Five Towns, an affluent, heavily Jewish enclave that spawned notables like the fashion designer Donna Karan. Her father, Reuben, owned a textile mill in Brooklyn and often worked 16 hours a day; he died in 1996. “I was closer to my dad than anyone,” Ms. Geller has written. “There was no one like him. He came up the hard way and made a success of his life the hard way.”
Her mother, Lillian, who died in 2006, was often in the kitchen when Pamela and her sisters — two became doctors, one a teacher — returned from school for lunch. Pamela was the most adventuresome and the most enthralled by New York, said Jessica Geller, the eldest. “She was the girl who couldn’t wait to drive,” Jessica added. “She loved everything about the city, the buzz, the excitement, the vibrancy.”
Theirs was, Jessica Geller said, an “unremarkable” postwar suburban household — mom, dad, school, work, cars, boys. The sisters went to Hebrew school, but attended synagogue mainly on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. (“It was more of a fashion show in many respects,” Jessica Geller recalled.)
Israel, which now forms a crucial piece of Pamela Geller’s politics, was not frequently discussed. Both parents were Democrats, but, in Jessica Geller’s view, “the liberal moms and dads of the ’60s and ’70s would be considered right-wing nuts by today’s standards.”
Pamela Geller said her early years were imbued with a sense of American power and rectitude, so pervasive that it need not be articulated. Many of her current concerns — political correctness, media cowardice, changing national identity, eroding individual rights — can be connected to those times.
“Growing up as the sort of tail end of the baby boomers, there was this feeling of invincibility in America,” she said. “We were free. The good guys won. The good cop is on the beat. I certainly don’t get a sense of that anymore.” (Jessica Geller put it this way: “What my sister really wants is for everything to get back to normal in America.”)
Pamela went to Lynbrook High School and Hofstra University, but left without a degree. She worked on the business side of The New York Daily News through the 1980s, then became the associate publisher at The New York Observer.
Colleagues at The Observer remembered her as brassy and vulgar — not an easy fit with the salmon-colored broadsheet’s effete ethos. Ms. Geller recalled pushing the publisher to endorse Rudolph W. Giuliani in his first mayoral bid, and being satisfied when the paper issued no endorsement. Married in 1990 to Michael H. Oshry, a wealthy car dealer from the Five Towns who was himself the son of a wealthy car dealer from the Five Towns, she quit in 1994 to stay home with her daughters.
Ms. Geller got nearly $4 million when the couple divorced in 2007, and when Mr. Oshry died in 2008, there was a $5 million life-insurance policy benefiting her four daughters, said Alex Potruch, Mr. Oshry’s lawyer. She also kept some proceeds from the sale of Mr. Oshry’s $1.8 million house in Hewlett Harbor.
“Pamela wanted to live in the city,” Mr. Potruch said. “He made certain that she had sufficient support to buy a co-op in the city and survive there without having to work.
“He supported her blogging,” the lawyer added, “even though he didn’t always agree with what she was saying.”
IT was 9/11 that drove Ms. Geller to her keyboard. She had barely heard of Osama bin Laden, she said, and “felt guilty that I didn’t know who had attacked my country.”
She spent the next year educating herself about Islam, reading Bat Ye’or, a French writer who focuses on tensions over Muslim immigrants in Europe; Ibn Warraq, the pseudonym for a Pakistani who writes about his rejection of Islam; and Daniel Pipes, whom she ultimately rejected because he believes in the existence of a moderate Islam.
Ms. Geller commented prolifically on Web sites focused on Islamic militancy, like Little Green Footballs. “She was always one of the first ones to start going way out there,” said Mr. Johnson. (Ms. Geller, in turn, dismissed him as “a reviled figure” who had abandoned his principles.) A fellow commenter called Pookleblinky urged Ms. Geller to start her own blog. She named it in homage to Ayn Rand’s championing of individual rights — Ms. Geller, unlike some of her allies, favors abortion rights — and, perhaps, to conjure the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Readership grew steadily, and spiked whenever she took on hot-button issues. In early 2006, when Muslims rioted over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper, Atlas — unlike much of the news media — posted the cartoons, and hits leaped from scores to tens of thousands.
During the Lebanon-Israel war later that year, Ms. Geller traveled to Israel, then video-blogged about it from a Florida beach, flicking water at the camera, arching her bikini-bared back provocatively and equating Palestinians with Hamas.
In 2007, she wrote often about Ms. Almontaser, the teacher who founded the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn — Ms. Geller called Arabic-language instruction a front for Islamist indoctrination. She joined Stop the Madrassa, an organization formed to fight the school, which later thanked her for speeding Ms. Almontaser’s ouster. It was this victory, critics say, that emboldened Ms. Geller’s circle and set it on a path to national influence.
“New York is the cosmopolitan city of the world,” Ms. Almontaser said last week. “They figured that if they could do it here, they could do it anywhere. And sadly, they did.”
The next turning point for Ms. Geller, a few months later, was a “counter-jihad”conference in Brussels. It threw her — and Mr. Spencer of Jihad Watch — together with anti-Islamic Europeans whom even some allies considered too extreme, like Filip Dewinter of Vlaams Belang, an offshoot of a Belgian party that was banned for racism and was allegedly founded by Nazi sympathizers.
Mr. Johnson of Little Green Footballs, a former comrade, attacked Ms. Geller and Mr. Spencer — whose interest in Islam began with family lore about a Greek great-grandfather killed by Turks — for meeting with “neo-Nazis.” They insisted they were not responsible for the views of everyone who stands in a room with them (though they have lobbed similar guilt-by-association accusations at Muslims, including the people behind Park51).
Ms. Geller went on to champion as patriotic the English Defense League, which opposes the building of mosques in Britain and whose members have been photographed wearingswastikas. (In the interview, Ms. Geller said the swastika-wearers must have been “infiltrators” trying to discredit the group.) And she formed a lasting partnership with Mr. Spencer.
It is partly philosophical: They and the anti-Islam movement in Europe share a fear of Muslim takeover. And it is partly practical: He helps her raise money and source some assertions; she helps him spread his ideas and, he said, “get results.”
THEIR first collaboration was informal. In 2008, Mr. Spencer posted Ms. Geller’s appeal to raise $4,000 for a headstone for Aqsa Parvez, a Muslim-Canadian immigrant killed by her father and brother for not wearing a head scarf. More recently, Mr. Spencer worked with Ms. Geller on her book “The Post-American Presidency,” published this summer by Simon & Schuster for what she described as a six-figure advance. He helped her sober up her tone, she said, by removing those “little darlings,” in hopes of bolstering the credibility of her argument that Mr. Obama is “not only presiding over but actively promoting the decline of America.”
The pair populated the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference with anti-Islam sympathizers by renting a room in the same hotel and hosting a talk by Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-Islam activist who has tried to ban the Koran in his country. At this year’s conference, they hosted Mr. Gravers, head of Stop Islamization of Europe, whose motto is “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.” Mr. Gravers then asked Ms. Geller and Mr. Spencer to take over his group’s American affiliate, and turn it from a staid Web site into a political force.
They delivered. In April, they founded a nonprofit group called American Freedom Defense Initiative, which also uses the name Stop Islamization of America. They took out bus ads offering to help Muslims who wanted to leave the religion but were afraid of violent reprisals — and won in court when cities tried to suppress the ads. They brought crowds to support Rifqa Bary in Ohio and urged people to oppose the mosque on Staten Island.
Then Park51 emerged.
Mr. Spencer and Ms. Geller said they would rather have galvanized the nation with accounts of Muslim girls killed by male relatives over violations of family “honor.” But, Mr. Spencer said, to many Americans the plight of a Muslim immigrant girl is too abstract. “Most people are only concerned with their families and friends and their immediate circle,” he said. “There is a visceral connection that Americans have with 9/11 that is not felt about other issues.”
It is difficult to determine who finances their movement, since their new organization has yet to win tax-free status requiring documentation of donations. Mr. Spencer estimated that since 2009, the two have raised and spent about $150,000 for things like the bus ads and giant television screens for the 9/11 rally, some of it donated through Mr. Spencer’s Jihad Watch, a 501(c)3 nonprofit agency. In recent years, Jihad Watch has been a program of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which pays him a $132,000 salary and, as Politico.com has reported, has received significant contributions from philanthropistswho back the Israeli right.
Asked how much her blog collects in reader donations and advertisements (one promotes a creationist Web site), Ms. Geller said only that it was enough to live on.
She is barreling ahead. Just last week, Atlas called on readers to boycott Campbell’s soupafter the company announced that it planned to certify some products as halal — the Muslim equivalent of kosher — with the supervision of a group that Ms. Geller considers a front for terrorists.
“Warhol,” she wrote, “is spinning in his grave.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 17, 2010
An article last Sunday about Pamela Geller, a blogger who attacks Islam, misidentified the location of a beach from which she video-blogged about her visit to Israel during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006. She was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the time of her reports, not at a beach in Israel. The article also overstated the number of monthly unique visitors to Ms. Geller’s Web site, Atlas Shrugs. The site attracts 194,000 such visitors, according to Quantcast statistics — not one million. (The Nielsen Company estimated 184,000 in September.) And because of an editing error, the article misspelled the surname of the lead singer of the Who whom Ms. Geller was likened to for being the “front man” in the attack on Islam. He is Roger Daltrey, not Daltry.