By Nathan Lean
Last Tuesday evening, anti-Muslim hate reared its ugly head on Hospitality Boulevard. At the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center, a group of several hundred gathered to protest a public forum on Muslim civil liberties sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council of Tennessee (AMAC). The demonstration, though, was not hospitable but characterized by vulgar outbursts, insults, and hostility towards a faith group that has increasingly come under fire in the Volunteer state and throughout the country.
Challenging what they perceived as an assault on their free-speech rights, hecklers that swarmed the event, entitled “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society,” were not afraid to show their aversion to either one of those things: intelligent public disclosure or societal diversity. Some verbally harassed police officers. Others interrupted the speaker, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian, by shouting “serpent” and “traitor.” And a few who had gathered outside distributed anti-Islam flyers. When the image of an American Muslim soldier was shown, the crowd booed and hissed. When the slide changed, showing the picture of a mosque that was firebombed and burned to the ground in 2009, members of the crowd cheered. One attendee said she feared the audience.
That toxic climate was not entirely surprising, though, given that the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA) organized much of the opposition. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies both groups, led by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, as hate groups, placing them in the company of odious white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations. The federal government even rejected SIOA’s trademark application on the grounds that the group disparages Muslims.
Spencer, a Catholic deacon and former homeschool teacher from New Hampshire, and Geller, a Jewish blogger from Long Island, were both present on Tuesday evening, fanning the flames of chaos. The duo has long ratcheted up similar nasty displays of anti-Muslim prejudice. They led the efforts against the Park51 Islamic community center in Manhattan and are behind the controversial anti-Muslim metro and bus ads in major metropolitan cities. And over the past decade, they’ve turned Muslim-bashing into a small cottage industry, replete with lucrative book deals, speaking engagements, advertising revenues, and, in the case of Spencer, a six-figure salary.
Their hate outfit, however, has also placed them in eerily close proximity to several dangerous figures. In 2010, the Norway terrorist Anders Breivik cited Spencer and Geller as inspiration dozens of times in his manifesto before slaughtering 77 youth at a Labor Party camp in Oslo. The pair regularly teams up with the English Defense League, a street gang of British skinheads whose violent protests against mosques in London have attracted the participation of Swastika-wielding supporters.
Geller, Spencer and their ilk cloak their animus towards Islam in narratives of “free speech.” They call themselves “freedom fighters” (seemingly unaware that Osama bin Laden described himself using precisely the same phrase) and insist that they have the right to criticize Islam and Muslims.
Indeed they do have that right. And no one on Tuesday evening was arguing against that. U.S. Attorney Bill Killian didn’t parse his words when he said: “Let me be clear, in this country, hateful speech is allowed. It is protected by the freedom of speech part of the first amendment.”
But what seems so difficult for Geller and Spencer and company to accept is what Killian said next: “If someone makes threats of violence, that is not protected speech and they will be prosecuted.” Given AFDI’s appeal to terrorists and close alliance with violent European street gangs, that must be a tough pill to swallow.
In a free society, distinctions are made between criminals and law-abiding citizens. In a free society, people are not persecuted because of their beliefs, and fears of a radical minority don’t trump the civil liberties of the peaceful majority. And in a free society, the Overton window — that narrow range of ideas that the public finds acceptable — should shift to shield the public from extremists of all stripes — violent religious believers and Internet hate group leaders alike.
Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of Aslan Media, the author of the award-winning book The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, and is a researcher at Georgetown University. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, the Washington Post, and several other major online and print outlets. He lives in Washington, D.C.