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In flap over mosque near Ground Zero, conservative bloggers gaining influence

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; C01

Long before President Obama waded into the vociferous debate over a mosque near Ground Zero, a group of conservative writers and bloggers critical of Islam had seized on the issue and helped transform it into a national political spectacle.

While some have dismissed them as bigoted attention-seekers, their attacks on the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan have gained currency in recent weeks among some Republican leaders. And their influence appears to be growing.

They are organizing a Sept. 11 rally against the mosque that will feature former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich. They advise the FBI and other government security agencies on the threats posed by Islamic radicalism, headline "tea party" events and attract millions of readers concerned or curious about Islam to Web sites with names such as Jihad Watch, Creeping Sharia and Stop Islamization of America.

"People on the Hill, their staff read these sites, they show their bosses. . . . They push these subjects into the spotlight, often at a time when major media isn't doing that," said Cliff May, a columnist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee who runs a think tank focused on religious extremism and religious freedom.

The most colorful -- and perhaps most visible -- activist at the moment is Pam Geller, a former New York Observer publisher who has appeared in a bikini and a super-tight Superman costume challenging Islam.

Through her blog, Atlas Shrugs, television interviews and appearances at political rallies, Geller has become one of the chief organizers of opposition to the so-called Ground Zero mosque as well as efforts to build other Muslim prayer centers across the country.

Republican leaders including Sarah Palin, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Gingrich have condemned the $100 million Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center, while Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) have defended it. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added more fuel to the fire by saying she supports an investigation into how opposition to the mosque is being funded.

Geller has become a prominent voice in the debate despite the fact that she once promoted the view that Obama is Malcolm X's love child. She frequently warns that Muslims are trying to impose repressive sharia law on the United States, refers to the president's holiday message to Muslims as "Obama Ramadamadingdong" and promotes a Web site, Religion of Peace, that claims to tally the number of people killed around the world by Muslim extremists.

In Washington, New York and other cities, she has helped fund controversial taxi ads asking: "Is your family threatening you? leaveislamsafely.com."

Geller often partners with Robert Spencer, a best-selling writer who is less flamboyant but perhaps more influential.

Spencer, the author of "Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam Is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs" and "The Complete Infidel's Guide to the Koran," has consulted on Islamic extremism with government security officials, including the U.S. Central Command, the U.S. Army Command, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, according to his Web site, Jihad Watch.

The site, which was launched in 2003, had its busiest month ever in July, with 2.9 million visitors, up from 665,000 a year ago, Spencer said.

Jihad Watch is widely read in many quarters in Washington, particularly among conservatives.

Daniel Pipes, perhaps the most prominent U.S. scholar on radical Islam, said he considers Spencer a "serious scholar."

"I learn from him," said Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank.

When Spencer lavished praise on Gingrich this month, the Republican posted it on his Web site.

Gingrich is scheduled to speak at an anti-mosque rally on Sept. 11 being organized by Spencer and Geller. Also scheduled to speak is former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, who wrote the foreword for the pair's new book about Obama, "The Post-American Presidency."

Charles Johnson, creator of the national security blog Little Green Footballs, called Spencer and Geller "very influential." Listening to Gingrich's comments about Islamic law, he said, "Newt sounded a lot like he got it from Pam Geller."

Impact in polls

Their efforts to rally public opinion against the mosque appear to have had an impact.

A Time magazine poll being released Thursday found that nearly seven in 10 Americans are following the story closely and that 61 percent oppose the mosque. The poll also found that 43 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of Muslims, far outpacing the numbers for Mormons (29 percent), Catholics (17 percent), Jews (13 percent) and Protestants (13 percent). In the poll, 25 percent say most Muslims in the United States are not patriotic Americans.

While the amount of anti-Muslim sentiment hasn't shifted much since a spate of homegrown terror attacks and the furor over the mosque, Muslim American leaders worry that it could. They accuse the bloggers of fueling religious hatred.

Muslim Americans "are becoming fearful, uncertain, asking, 'What is the future?' " said Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat and current American University professor.

Ahmed believes the shaky economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tension over immigration, combined with the election of the first nonwhite president, have left Americans anxious. "Islam at this moment in time focuses all the intensity and passion," he said.

Brian Levin, a hate-crimes expert who used to work with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the bloggers gain traction partially because they make points about American Muslim extremism that "the mainstream media consistently ignore."

In addition to Geller and Spencer, other conservative bloggers who focus on Islam include Debbie Schlussel and Brigitte Gabriel.

In recent months, traffic to their Web sites has spiked. They've made more media appearances and have been active in organizing opposition to smaller mosque projects across the country.

Video from June of a rowdy town meeting in Staten Island, N.Y., about a proposed mosque shows Spencer being cheered when he states his name. Those who turned out to oppose the mosque said they heard about the meeting through Geller's Facebook page.

Asked if his ability to make money -- through Web site donations, book sales and speaking appearances -- has improved, Spencer said, "It's changed a lot" but wouldn't elaborate. He said only that he and Geller were able to raise $50,000 in recent months for their bus and taxi ad campaign.

The topic may be heavy (violent religious extremism, a conspiracy to take down the Constitution), but the tone among the activists and their critics teeters on satire.

A site monitoring the Muslim critics is called Loonwatch. Coblognspiracy theories about murder attempts and bestiality are common on the blogs. People on both sides say they get death threats and can't disclose where they live.

Asked if he was being deliberately combative and provocative, Spencer chuckled.

"Why not?" he asked. "It's fun."

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