Pamela Geller had had enough.
The right-wing blogger, whose vehement opposition to the planned Islamic community center near Ground Zero (a “mega-mosque” in her parlance) has earned Geller national headlines, rose from her seat at a Midtown diner last week and, fed up with the line of questioning, stormed out of a Jewish Week interview.
“Shame on you,” she shouted, “shame on you. Stop slamming the good guys.”
A journalist’s offense? Asking questions about her accuracy and her red-meat rhetoric.
The sense of drama seems, in part, to define Geller, who can be seen on the Internet frolicking in a bikini and posing in a skin-tight Superwoman outfit. Her blog “Atlas Shrugs” has referred to Democrats as “National Socialists,” has sided with Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian president charged with war crimes, and has claimed that Elena Kagan, the country’s newest Supreme Court justice and a Jew, admired “an architect” of Nazism. She has also likened President Barack Obama’s opposition to settlement growth on the West Bank to preparations for the Holocaust and has provided space to one writer’s view that Obama is Malcolm X’s love child.
Geller’s politics and tone have drawn a growing number of visitors to her blog, which she uses to promote other projects, including a provocatively named group, Stop Islamization of America, and her recently published book, “The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America.”
But it’s her opposition to the proposed Islamic center — an effort she helped fuel and now helps to lead — that has arguably won Geller the most attention. Recent articles in the Washington Post and on Salon.com have noted that Geller was among the handful of people calling attention to the project nine months ago, before it hit the national radar and when the host of a Fox News show could still interview Daisy Khan, wife of the center’s leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and wish her well.
Since then, Geller’s right-wing fans have hailed her as prophetic, especially for warning of the dangers posed by Muslims in this country, while progressives, moderates and at least some embarrassed conservatives see her as something entirely different: a radical activist who comes across as shrill, crude and offensive and who fails to distinguish between Islamic fanatics and the religion itself.
Those emotions are bound to escalate in the next week, as Geller plans a Sept. 11 rally in Lower Manhattan to protest the Islamic center, known as Park51.
But few people are likely to guess that the woman who has stirred so much passion is also a Jewish day school mom raised by a Yiddishkeit family in the Five Towns enclave of Hewlett, L.I.
For her part, Geller dismisses any suggestion that she put the whole story in motion as “nonsensical” and as “condescending to the American people, as if they don’t know their own minds. It’s an issue of common decency,” she said while sitting in the back of a Midtown diner. “And you can see that in the [polling] numbers,” which show 70 percent of Americans opposed to the project.
The one thing Geller does acknowledge is that “no one else was talking” about the center as she began addressing the issue on Atlas Shrugs. But no one should assume that Geller’s blog posts made the story the one it is today. Instead, as she sees it, awareness of the matter simply grew and, with it, opposition to the center.
But Geller has done more than simply write about the project. She has also organized much of the opposition, showing up at the May 25 community board meeting that heard public debate over the issue, convening the first rally against the center, in early June, and now, of course, planning next week’s rally. Geller attended the community board meeting with Robert Spencer, an author and fellow blogger with whom she often partners, where they and others often shouted down speakers in favor of the center, creating an atmosphere that reminded one board member, the son of a German Jewish refugee, of the Brown Shirt movement.
She has also debated the issue on Fox News, “The Joy Behar Show” and other TV programs, where she often raises her voice and talks over the other guests.
In person, though, the 51-year-old blogger comes across as charming, demure and even subdued, as long as she isn’t questioned or challenged too vigorously.
Like many New Yorkers, Geller appears to divide her life between “Before 9/11” and “After 9/11.” Before the terror attacks, she worked on the business side of the newspaper industry, spending the 1980s at the Daily News before moving to the New York Observer. She was mostly apolitical, although, if anything, she said, she leaned left, seeing everything “through the prism of abortion.”
All that changed after 9/11, Geller recalled, saying she “felt guilty that I didn’t know who attacked my country.” She began reading all the material she could about Islam, Geller said, citing such authors as Martin Gilbert, the British historian; Bat Ye’or, an Egyptian-born scholar whose politics are decidedly right wing; and Ibn Warraq, a former Muslim from Pakistan.
“I spent years studying the matter before I started blogging,” Geller said, adding that the more she read, the more she realized that journalists and historians were “whitewashing Islam.”
Today, Geller describes herself as a keen believer in individual rights — “the well from which all things spring” — and says the name of her blog, launched in 2004, reflects that. The name refers to the title of Ayn Rand’s most famous book, which is an inspiration for Geller. She also calls herself an ardent Zionist.
Much of her blog’s focus, though, springs from Geller’s view of Islam, which, is portrayed as a monolithic religion that can only be interpreted in a single way — the one most scholars associate with radical, Wahhabi Muslims.
“It’s not like Judaism, where you have these different levels of observance,” Geller said. “Islam is Islam. … There’s no way you can be a devout Muslim and not support jihad.”
The only moderate Muslims are those who are secular, Geller said. And she dismisses any Muslim who claims otherwise by insisting that he’s a liar — a follower of taqiyya, the Islamic principle that allows Muslims to mislead their enemies, according to Geller.
Comments such as those, by Geller and others, leave at least one local Muslim in disbelief.
“They talk about Islam as if it’s monolithic,” said Qanta Ahmed, a British-born physician who often writes about religion for the Huffington Post and other sites. “We’re 1.5 billion individuals from 57 countries and countless cultures.”
“‘Devout’ means devotion to one’s faith, and you can be very devout without being radical,” said Ahmed, whose articles have concerned such topics as the friendship and inspiration she has drawn from a number of Jews, including a rabbi; the admiration she often feels for Israel; and the hatred toward Jews conveyed in Palestinian textbooks and TV shows.
Discussing jihad, a word that means “struggle,” Ahmed said it’s not even mentioned in the five pillars of Islam, “the absolute basis of being a Muslim,” and there are three kinds of jihad to which Muslims refer. The most important, known as the “greater jihad,” is the internal struggle within each individual to be good, while the “lesser jihad” concerns the religious permission Muslims need to defend themselves against military attack.
“There is no such thing as a holy war in Islam,”Ahmed continued. “There are only just and unjust wars, and Islam is very clear about that.”
On the matter of faith, Geller herself is not especially observant, calling her children far more religious than she is. She sends two of her children to Jewish day school, although she prefers that any further information about her kids remain private — a consequence, she added, of the death threats she says she has received.
She grew up in a Conservative Jewish home — “more Yiddishkeit than by the book,” she said — and has visited Israel twice: once during college and, again, in 2006, when she blogged about Israel’s war with Hezbollah. But her views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are just as right-wing as her views on American politics.
In Geller’s eyes, Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] are Jewish land; there are no settlers, only Jews living in the Jewish homeland; and the area’s Muslims should return the Temple Mount to Jewish hands.
Geller has also taken aim at Jewish leaders in the United States, comparing mainstream organizations to Jews before the Holocaust who ignored all the danger signs. She has also called J Street and the National Jewish Democratic Council “kapos,” a reference to the Jews in Europe who aided the Nazis.
Geller’s fans include Lori Lowenthal Marcus, founder of the right-wing, pro-Israel Z Street, who said “she’s definitely serving a need. She’s an indefatigable fighter and very brazen, which is necessary to raise the profile of the issues.”
Another view comes from Todd Gitlin, a progressive scholar who teaches journalism and sociology at Columbia University, who considers Geller part of “a long history” of firebrands devoted to “this sort of agitation. … These are people who have a fixation on some paranoid scenario,” he said, and they often become a focal point for wider passions.
While not discussing Geller specifically, Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a neoconservative think tank, said the tenor of the conversation regarding Islam in recent months has distressed him. The “good part” is that Americans are now pushing back against Islamacists, or radical Muslims, but the “bad part” is that many are now doing so “in a crude way,” calling Mohammed a pedophile and referring to all Muslims as terrorists.
Many of today’s bloggers, Pipes said, “came of age on 9/11” and haven’t done the serious study of Islam that he and others have. As a result, he added, much of what they write is based on ignorance.
For her part, Geller defends the tone of her blog, calling Atlas Shrugs “my living room and kitchen” — a place where she can kick back and yell, like some people shout at their TV. Her book and opinion pieces “are more studied and more measured.”
“There’s no gray area with me,” Geller said. “I know why I think what I think.”