Who is Pamela Geller? On the Danger of Not Holding Yourself in Suspicion

On December 21, 2009, Daisy Khan appeared on the Fox News program The O’Reilly Factor, where she was interviewed by guest host Laura Ingraham.  The wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Ms. Khan was speaking about her and her husband’s proposed plan for a mainstream Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan.  As if looking for a point of conflict but unable to find one, Ingraham said “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it.”  Daisy Khan told Ingraham that she “wanted to strike a blow against terrorism and extremist visions of Islam by building a mosque near Ground Zero that symbolized peace.”  At the end of the interview, Ingraham said: “I like what you’re trying to do and Ms. Khan we appreciate it.”

On August 10, 2010, Laura Ingraham appeared on Fox and Friends criticizing the Park51 project as a “slap in the face” to the United States “which has been so welcoming to Muslims” and calling Daisy Khan’s husband a “radical.”  Ingraham’s attitude, along with her Fox News colleagues’, had gone from condescending but accommodating to condescending and seethingly hostile.

What changed in those 8 months?  How did the Fox News script veer so sharply–from embracing a mosque designed to counteract perceptions of Muslims as terrorists in America as well as perceptions of America as anti-Muslim around the Muslim worlds, to describing the same project as “disturbing” and “insensitive”?

Who is Pamela Geller?

Conservative speaker and agent provocateur.  Ayn Rand aficianado.  Blogger at  “Atlas Shrugs.”  Co-founder of Stop Islamization of America.  Anti-Muslim activist.

It was Pamela Geller who initially coined the term “Ground Zero Mosque,” in a blog post entitled “Giving Thanks,” she wrote:

I don’t know what is more grotesque…jihad or the NY Times preening of it. The New York Times yet again misrepresents, obfuscates, and confuses infidels and kaffirs about Islam.

This clunky, poorly written article was the beginning of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy that has engulfed the entire country.  Somehow, this sole woman set the fireball rolling; it has since picked up Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin (“pls refudiate”), Glenn Beck (who applauded Imam Rauf in 2006 only to excoriate him in 2010) and scores of other Republican politicians and conservative activists (not to mention a few craven Democrats).

I have Ayn Rand on my mind lately.  She’s coming up more and more often on the right wing as a model for limited government (Rand Paul and Ron Paul, for instance, cite her as an inspiration, conveniently overlooking her radical atheism and her professed hatred of Libertarians, who she called “my enemies.”)  I believe that Ayn Rand’s work is exerting increasing influence on public debate, and I have become increasingly alarmed by the new seriousness afforded her ideas–ideas that, in my disciplines of philosophy and religion, are considered so fringe and so intellectually one-dimensional that they are completely ignored.

Also I just played through BioShock.

Ayn Rand’s signature philosophical system is “Objectivism.”  Rand believes that the true nature of reality is conveyed to us by our senses acting in concert with reason. It is a hallmark of Objectivism that we do not allow our emotions, our bodies, or the limitations of our perceptual faculties to interfere with our pursuit of Truth.  Reason conveys to us the Absolute nature of reality, and to doubt this is to betray reason itself.

This is the foundation for Rand’s famous philosophical formula, “A is A.”  For Rand, the enemy is self-doubt, self-questioning.  If you have found something to be true and have exercised your reason to come to that conclusion, it is true.  This is not even to say “we must act as if it were true”–a position that falls in line with my own lineage of Pragmatism and which can be confused with Rand’s model.  For her, it is totally, absolutely true.  A is A.

Atlas Shrugs, the blog, is a rogue’s gallery of Muslim violations of common decency: Threats, plots, tirades; so-called “honor killings,” female genital mutiliation–Geller is an aggregator of infamy in the Muslim worlds.  Reading through the articles posted on the site one walks away feeling queasy.  The Muslim worlds sound like truly awful places–to live or visit.  Except of course that they aren’t.  People live in peace and happiness throughout the Muslim worlds–today as always.  In the Middle Ages, while Europe was burning witches, dying in plagues, and sending children off on crusades, the Muslim worlds (including Muslim-ruled Spain, the site of Cordoba–the original name of Park51) were havens of interfaith tolerance, where science and culture advanced and flourished.

Today the Muslim worlds are “known” for dictatorships, poverty, radical politics, and sexism–a regime of images and discourses produced, in the US, by extrapolating from Saudi Arabia and Iran to the other 95% of Muslims who do not live in those countries.  That’s a mistake, but the bigger mistake is to assume that “Islam” itself is responsible for this.  Islam, like all religions, has a history.  It changes with the succession of generations; it fuses with local cultures and creates new forms and practices (the atrocity of FGM originated in Egypt long before Islam, where it remains prevalent in spite of the best efforts of Muslim clerics to prohibit it).  Islam in Saudi Arabia is very, very different from Islam in Saudi Arabia’s most powerful rival, Iran.  Just as it is very, very different in Egypt, in Somalia, in Nigeria, in Indonesia, in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Of course a follower of Ayn Rand would see Islam as no more than a book, a timeless set of beliefs set in stone.  Ayn Rand took the western emphasis on texts and beliefs to an extreme and reduced all beliefs, all practices, to a set of unchanging ideas.  Religions are more than that.  100 years ago, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam all looked very different than they do today.  And it is a certainty that they will look different again 100 years hence.  (In my opinion, the Progressive Islam movement in the United States will be one of the engines of that change.  Providing cover and assistance to that group, rather than preventing them from building mosques, is one of the best things Americans can do if they’re concerned about Saudi Arabia and Iran.)

But these complexities have no traction in the perfectly smooth world of Ayn Rand–or of Pamela Gellert.  For Gellert, there is no question that she is right, that the evidence she has amassed is irrefutable proof of the Timeless Evil that is Islam.  If she can see it, if she can believe it, it must be true.  There is no room for doubt, for self-questioning, for self-correction.  A is A.

So when I went to Atlas Shrugs to see what Gellert had written about the slashing of New York City cab driver Ahmed Sharif, I expected her to ignore it; but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I read this:

How deranged is the left?  The slasher of Muslims works for the Cordoba/Park51. …

Clearly this leftwing loon hoped to slash this poor man in pieces, get away, and have the opposition blamed for this heinous and vile crime. This is how low the mentally ill left will go.

I don’t know what is going on in this case.  I’m withholding comment.  But it is neither “clear” nor “obvious” that this attempted murder was an elaborate ruse on the part of a deeply disturbed left-winger–a version of the Republican woman who in fall 2008 claimed supporters of Barack Obama carved a backwards “B” into her face.  But in Gellert’s world, it is clear, it is obvious–just as the uniform criminality of Muslims is obvious.  She has seen it.  Here’s her proof.  A is A.

Any information that doesn’t fit this understanding must be bent, twisted, hammered into shape until they fit her pre-existing belief systems.  This is why she continually defends Slobodan Milosevic and denies the existence of Muslim-killing extermination camps in the Balkans during the wars of the 1990s, why she defends Ann Coulter and attacks 9/11 widows who “opportunistically” used their loved ones’ deaths to further their political cause, why she just can’t concede even the possibility that she might be wrong, that the scraps of information she picks up on about Islam are no more an indicator of what Islam “is” than the Westboro Baptist Church or the American Nationalist Brotherhood, which vandalized a mosque in California yesterday, or the Ugandan parliament who support life imprisonment or execution for gays, inspired by a visit from members of three American Christian evangelical organizations–any more than any of these individuals can be taken as emblematic of all Christians.  It’s easy when you have a pool of billions and billions of individuals to draw your examples from.  It is exactly how an emphasis on “reason” and “Truth” distorts the texture and complexity of real experience.

What Geller wants is not just No Mosque at Ground Zero.  She wants No Mosque Anywhere.  For her, Islam is a monolith, and it is uniformly, unchangingly evil.  Every single one of the 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet is out to get you.  Whereas the anti-Mosque movement started out as at least partly motivated by the concerns of victims of 9/11, it has been taken over completely by political opportunists who see in it a flashpoint to harden opposition to Islam itself.  They do not want peace.  They want the rush of war.

Ayn Rand was ahead of her time on race issues in the US (though because of her extreme emphasis on individual agency she was unable to articulate a critique of how poverty and oppression create a particular culture that is difficult to escape from).  Many people pick up Ayn Rand as teenagers or in college and find in her an index of a life outside their homes, a passionate mind that affirms for them their right to seek their own pleasures and choose their own destinies.  That’s fine.  Very few of those people actually take Ayn Rand to where she herself wanted them to go–to the logical end of her philosophy, the black and white world of A is A, of honest heroes and slimy villains.

Unfortunately for us, for my loved ones, my friends, and one day, perhaps, my children–who will have to live in the world created by the Gellers, the Palins, the Gingriches and Becks–Pamela Geller did.  She lives this fantasy that she is fighting against a cosmic evil (Muslims) every single day.  It is a fun world, a playground world, filled with bright colors and simple shapes.  It is a fantasy world with knights, princesses, and wicked dragons with names like Ali and Zain.  Watch Geller’s videos–her dynamism, her energy, her profound sense of purpose.  She lives on the brink of Absolute Certainty, driven by a Crusader’s zeal.  When confronted with dissent, with voices raised in opposition to her, she follows Rand’s advice: “Do not respond.”  When confronted with the complexity of the world, with texture, ambiguity, change, complicated problems requiring ambiguous solutions, she takes her cue from Atlas, and shrugs.

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