Sunday, February 20, 2011

Saturday at CPAC: The Workshops

One of the main speaker halls at CPAC

(Click here for commentary on the 2011 CPAC exhibit hall.)

On Saturday, February 12th, I attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C. to observe the various workshops and speakers. The first workshop I observed was entitled "Free Speech and Israel on Campus: How Students are Speaking Up," presented by two staff members from Christians United for Israel (CUFI). The workshop provided an introduction to CUFI's campus-based efforts and political leanings.

Jeremiah Nasiatka, CUFI's national campus director, described CUFI's pro-Israel lobbying efforts and campus events, including a two week advocacy trip to Israel each August. These events, he explained, are intended to help people recognize the value of a strong relationship between Israel and the U.S. Another CUFI supporter, John Winchester, described his own upbringing in a Christian home, which included teachings about the Jews as God's chosen people and their Biblical mandate to reside in Israel. Winchester emphasized that college and university campuses shape discussions on important issues, including political discussions surrounding Israel.

Winchester insisted that academia is often neglectful of Israel and Jewish studies. For example, he claimed that Arabic language courses often try to erase Israel from history by labeling it as "Palestine" on maps, and Middle Eastern studies programs often fail to include Jewish studies. (When I researched this claim, I found evidence to the contrary. Several Middle Eastern studies programs include courses in Hebrew language and Jewish studies, including University of Texas at Austin, New York University, Harvard University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and U.C. Santa Barbara, to name a few.) Winchester also criticized campus speakers such as Norman Finkelstein who cast Israel in negative terms.

On the subject of radical Islam, Winchester talked at length about the role of radical Islam in international politics. Arguing that the U.S. and Israel have a common enemy in radical Islam, Winchester claimed that the U.S. is seen as a "Christian nation" and an obstacle to Islamic expansion by observers in the Middle East.

The speakers described CUFI as a pro-Israel organization that includes members of multiple Christian denominations, mostly evangelicals. They advocated for what they felt was a more honest depiction of Israel in academia, and they encouraged college students to become leaders for the issue.

The most fascinating part of the workshop was the question and answer session, in which the two presenters provided in-depth information on CUFI and their own views. One man in the audience claimed that when anyone on a college campus tried to defend Israel, they're shot down, precluding any meaningful dialog. In response, Nasiatka told the story of a campus where a pro-Israel student came to visit. According to Nasiatka, someone hung posters on campus showing the student's picture splashed with blood. Winchester added that he and his colleagues do not engage with people whose minds cannot be changed. Rather, they seek to educate those in the middle.

Another man in the audience wondered out loud if most parents knew what their children were being exposed to in college. Winchester responded that campuses tend to be vacuums, compared to the communities that surround them. Faculty and administration want to keep campuses as vacuums, he claimed, because the surrounding communities would be "inflamed" if they found out what goes on at colleges and universities. Winchester bemoaned the fact that student funds were used to being Michael Moore to his school, and he expressed great dissatisfaction that Norman Finkelstein also came to his campus. Nasiatka chimed in, criticizing a campus boycott of Israel promoted by the Muslim Student Association. Winchester lambasted campus attempts to "sanction" Israel, which he saw as schools trying to create a system of autonomy outside of the U.S. government. Such sanctioning efforts were disingenuous, he argued, because computers and other campus technologies are manufactured in Israeli factories.

Another audience member asked about the role of faith in CUFI, as well as the denominational make-up of its members. The speakers replied that while CUFI consists mostly of evangelicals, it also sports student groups on two Catholic campuses, adding that a prominent student leader is Presbyterian. On matters of theology, they stated that their activism is rooted in a Biblical obligation to safeguard Israel. Israel is a spiritual as well as a political issue, Nasiatka said, insisting that the survival of the Jewish people is a testament to God's glory. When asked about converting Jews to Christianity, the two presenters replied that conversion is not part of CUFI's platform. CUFI focuses on present-day issues rather than eschatology, they said, adding that CUFI has no position on a two-state solution, settlements, or end-times beliefs.

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The next session I attended was a screening of the film The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks, produced by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. (SPLC's Hatewatch blog posted commentary on the film here.) The screening room was filled to capacity with eager viewers, leaving dozens more to stand in the back and pour out into the hallway.

Look at these numbers, I thought. Are all these people opposed to Cordoba House like Geller and Spencer?

Before the film began, Spencer and Geller spoke briefly to the audience. Spencer told listeners that in 1453, Constantinople fell to Mehmet the Conqueror, who had an imam convert the city's largest church into a mosque as a seal of his conquest. A proposed Islamic community center in New York is such as "triumphal mosque," he claimed, allegedly intended to send a message to the world about the September 11th attacks. Americans cannot allow the "mosque" to be built, Spencer argued, because it would supposedly be an encouraging symbol to jihadists.

Geller spoke at the podium next, warning the audience that the film contained graphic images from the September 11th attacks. She claimed that there is an "embargo" on speech or images related to the 9/11 attacks. As supposed evidence, she said that her bus campaign ran into trouble because she was using a photo of the attack that others deemed offensive.

Geller claimed that she made The Ground Zero Mosque film as a historical record of opposition to Cordoba House, which the media is allegedly ignoring. The "mosque" is deliberately provocative, she insisted, and constitutes a second victimization for families that lost loved ones on September 11th. She lamented that those fighting Cordoba House have been allegedly demonized, including herself, claiming that critics are frequently subjected to character assassination. Geller spoke warmly of Dutch MP Geert Wilders for his statements about Islam, and also spoke ill of Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and wife of Feisal Abdul Rauf (the imam behind plans for Cordoba House). She also praised Citizens United for promoting The Ground Zero Mosque film.

Geller lambasted the media for supposedly "enforcing Islamic law" due to its alleged refusal to speak ill of Islam. No matter what imam is in charge of Cordoba House, she insisted, they would be "radical" because the idea of the building is "radical."

The film itself made every effort to sway the emotions of the audience. The Ground Zero Mosque began with a montage of images from the September 11th attacks, Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, radical imams, angry crowds, and a mushroom cloud. After a painful segment showing the devastation of the Twin Towers (including people plummeting to their deaths from the burning upper floors), the film stated that the September 11th attackers learned radicalism in a mosque.

The Ground Zero Mosque stressed three points: (1) Cordoba House is allegedly a "triumphal mosque", (2) debris from one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center on September 11th crashed through what is now the intended site for the "Ground Zero mosque", making it part of Ground Zero, and (3) many media and political figures have supposedly aligned themselves with Cordoba House supporters.

In the film, Geller claimed that most Americans oppose the proposed Islamic community center, and that her views do not constitute Islamophobia but rather "Islamorealism." "Truth is the new hate speech," she said, and "candorphobia" is rampant, to which the audience responded with applause.

The film featured several scenes from an anti-Cordoba House rally in New York, including speeches from Geller and Spencer. When the audience watched a scene in which Steve Malzberg claimed that rampant hate crimes against Muslims were a myth, the audience erupted in applause.

I left the film screening early to catch another workshop, "The Sharia Challenge in the West." After watching such an angry, anxiety-filled film, I needed a breath of fresh air anyway.

For additional commentary on Pamela Geller at CPAC, visit these links:

Salon: Pamela Geller versus CPAC

Talking Points Memo: Pamela Geller: CPAC "Compromised by Muslim Brotherhood Activists"

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My final workshop for the day was "The Sharia Challenge to the West," moderated by Cliff May from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The three panelists included Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a Somali-born author and former Dutch MP), former CIA director Jim Woolsey, and National Review contributor Andrew McCarthy.

The first question presented to the panel was "What is sharia?" Woolsey linked sharia with political Islam, stating that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's goal is the creation of a society based on Islamic law. Sharia, he argued, would entail the establishment of a theocratic global caliphate, subversion of democracy, and violence against women and LGBT people. Woolsey likened radical Islamic groups to the American Communist Party in the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s, adding that the U.S. is at war with radical groups that want to establish sharia.

The next issue on the table was whether or not it was anyone else business if someone wanted to privately follow sharia. McCarthy distinguished private faith from political sharia and jihad, noting that implementing a sharia-based political system is a prerequisite for creating an Islamic society. While respectful of reformist Muslims, McCarthy believed that those who think sharia must be implemented in society have a more accurate interpretation of Islam.

Next, May asked Ayaan Hirsi Ali what is was like to live under sharia. Ali spoke of her youth in various Muslim-majority countries, discussing "inner jihad" (prayer, modesty, and urging God to destroy the enemy) as well as "grand jihad" (jihad on a large societal scale). Young people were recruited as part of grassroots movements for Islamic activism, she recalled, warning the audience that the longer they ignored this, the more opportunities radical Islam would have to grow worldwide.

Ali also discussed smaller Islamic groups, such as the Ahmadiyyas, Alawis, and Ismaelis, that have found ways of reconciling Islam and modernity. What distinguishes these groups, she argued, is that they lack the desire to establish political dominance. Unfortunately, these groups have often endured persecution in mainstream Muslim-majority countries.

During a question and answer session with the audience, Ali mused that radical Islam has penetrated some prisons and campuses. She encouraged these institutions to set up competing narratives aimed at Muslim students before they come into contact with radical Islam. This way, communities can offer Muslim students something better than what radical Islam offers, she claimed.

McCarthy and Wooley were careful to distinguish law-abiding Muslims from radicals. At one point in the session, May claimed that while there are moderate Islamic groups in the U.S., some of the best-funded ones are affiliated with radical groups. McCarthy chimed in, stating that while the leaders of such organizations tend to be tied to Islamic radical groups overseas, most of the rank-and-file members are pro-American. Wooley added that many Muslims in the U.S. are professionals who came here seeking religious freedom, and find the "sharia business" of radical Muslims to be distasteful.

To read additional commentary on this session, visit the following link.

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