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[Editor's note: The article below is written by Eric Allen Bell, a filmmaker who was recently banned from blogging at the “Daily Kos” because he wrote three articles that ran afoul of the mindset there, specifically naming “Loonwatch.com” as a “terrorist spin control network.” Frontpage invited him to tell his story, which he does below.]
A strange thing happened to me the other day when I was driving past the Federal Building in Los Angeles. There were a crowd of people assembled there with signs which said that Israel is an aggressive force in the Middle East and that Iran is being picked on. As I stopped at a red light I heard a man with a mega phone lead the protesters in a chant charging Obama with genocide. I saw many young people and several Muslim women with their heads covered. It was an anti-war demonstration that probably a year ago I would have supported. But although I am not in favor of military action, I know that Iran is not another Iraq, and that in fact there is more going on here than the overly-simplified picture that the protestors were painting, as cars drove by honking in support. As the light turned green another sign caught my eye – a picture of the Twin Towers burning which read “911 Was an Inside Job”. As I looked at a sea of Palestinian flags and college kids banging on drums I felt a certain frustration – frustration based on a series of events that have changed my world view.
In the Summer of 2010, having recently escaped Hollywood, CA to take a much needed break from my profession as a film maker, I was driving in my car listening to a story on NPR. It seems the people in my new home of Murfreesboro, TN were up in arms over the proposed construction of a 53,000 square foot mega mosque, to be built in their small town in the middle of the American Bible Belt.
I listened carefully, to the sound bytes, of those who had shown up to a town hall meeting to voice their opposition and, as someone who was rather new to the South, I was surprised by what I was hearing. “America is a Christian nation and there is only one God and his name is not Allah and his son is Jesus Christ” and “America is a Christian Nation” and “These Muslims do not share my values and I don’t want them in my backyard”. Growing up in Southern California, I had never heard anything like this before in my life. And I started to follow the story with great interest.
On the outer edge of town, off a small country road, there was a large parcel of land, right next door to a Baptist church, with a big sign that read, “Future Home of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro”. Over the past 6 months that sign had been defaced twice. Once it was broken in half and another time the words “Not Welcome” were spray painted over it.
Rutherford County, which includes Murfreesboro, only has a little over 100,000 residents and yet the area boasts nearly 200 Christian churches. Having not been much of a fan of Islam or Christianity or religion in general (and that’s putting it mildly) I saw this as something of a David vs. Goliath story – with fanatical Evangelicals bullying a peaceful Muslim population, which had been in the community for over 30 years without there ever being any trouble. And, after learning that in July there was to be a big parade down Main Street to the town square, protesting the construction of this new mosque, I decided someone really needed to make a documentary about this. And even though I had gone to Murfreesboro to escape the film world for a while, it seemed pretty clear that if I did not document this in a movie, no one else would. I wanted to show the world what I was seeing. So I put together a small film crew and began production on a documentary I would title, “Not Welcome”.
I had never seen more American flags assembled together in one place than I had on that hot July morning as the anti-mosque crowd gathered at the base camp to prepare for the parade. Many of the marchers showed up wearing red, white and blue. I had 4 cameras covering the event with one crew embedded with the Liberal activists who were going to counter-demonstrate and the rest of the cameras with me, embedded with those who were to march against the mosque. I conducted several interviews in the school parking lot where locals and those who had driven for hours gathered, prepared to march against what they perceived to be not only a threat to their way of life, but also something of an insult given the events of September 11, 2001. Two Congressional candidates, both promising to “stop the Islamic training camp” showed up and used this opportunity to campaign, one of whom even gave a speech through a mega phone reminding folks to vote for him if they wanted to stop Sharia Law from coming to Murfreesboro. The pastor of Baptist church gathered everyone together in prayer, and the parade took off down Main Street with signs that read “Google the Koran” and “Stop Homegrown Terrorism” and someone in the crowd handed out hundreds of small Israeli flags as several hundred Southerners marched against the mosque.
About six months later I had accumulated over 300 hours of footage, interviewing the parade organizer, both Congressional candidates, the Mayor, the Imam at the mosque and several of its board members, numerous concerned residents on both sides of the issue, Muslim residents, city council members, a Christian Zionist lobbyist who was organizing the opposition to the mosque – and I had even filmed weeks of court proceedings, as a local group had filed suit against the County to stop them from issuing any construction permits to the Islamic Center. The court proceedings were truly a circus with a country lawyer in loud suit with a bow tie argued that Islam is not a religion and that he was prepared to take this matter to the Supreme Court if necessary. That legal action had failed and failed miserably. And although many of the townspeople did in fact have a number of very valid concerns, I felt that those whom they had chosen to represent them were not their best foot forward. In many ways, for the people of Murfreesboro, TN this turned out to be an international embarrassment – given the level of interest from the press.
Also, someone tried to set fire to some construction equipment at the site of the new mosque and the student activist group, calling themselves “Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom” put together a candle light vigil where hundreds of townspeople showed up in support of tolerance. A few young men showed up in a pickup truck and honked their horn repeatedly throughout the vigil. Their clothes seemed to indicate they had spent the work day hanging drywall. And when they put up a huge sign in the back of their truck which read “No Mosque” while misspelling the word mosque, I did not hesitate to film them but to also sort of taunt them, in order to provoke a good response on camera. And I got it. One of them said we should suspend the Constitution and went on to say that “All them Mooslums should be shipped home” even the ones who were born here.
Adding more fuel to that fire was an incident that took place when I attempted to interview Kevin Fisher at a Tea Party event on the town square. It was my opinion that in order to avoid accusations of being bigoted, the money interests (a Christian Zionist organization called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations) chose the only person of color, already involved in this issue, to lead the parade and to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Kevin Fisher was an African American college dropout, who worked as a prison guard and became a passionate opponent of the new mosque, after his wife divorced him and became, you guessed it, a Muslim convert. When I approached him on the square with a crew that included 4 cameras, saying only “Hi, Kevin” he dialed his cell phone and called 9-1-1 saying that he was being “racially harassed”. This not only made the headlines of the local paper but the incident, including audio from the 9-1-1 call was played over and over that night on the local evening news. This became something of a running joke, when I was recognized at the grocery store in Murfreesboro for instance, people would often point at me and say, “Hey, stop racially harassing me” and then we would all have a big laugh. And Islamic blogs such as Loonwatch.com were only too happy to run an article about how an opponent of the mosque was “playing the race card” against a filmmaker who was just trying to ask questions.
CNN breezed through town and produced a quick hit piece painting all of the mosque opponents as uneducated rednecks and the Islamic community as everyday people who were being wrongly persecuted. Soledad O’Brien’s producer offered to buy some of my footage from me with the explicit promise that their piece was going to be called “Islam: In America” and would not focus more than a few minutes on Murfreesboro. After an inside tip that this producer was lying to me, I confronted him and got some rather vague answers. So I declined to license him any of my material. And sure enough, the CNN documentary did in fact focus exclusively on Mufreesboro and was called “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door”. Somehow Hollywood, with its usual backstabbing tricks, had managed to find me hiding out in Tennessee.
I had accumulated a lot of good quality footage. That, combined with the increasing number of physical threats to me personally while filming in large crowds, and death threats that had arrived via email (causing me to look over my shoulder everywhere I went and making it necessary to spend a small fortune on private security) told me it was time. The writing was on the wall. It was time for me to leave Murfreesboro, hire a professional Editor and get to work on assembling my footage to create a feature length documentary for theatrical distribution.
Before I go any further, I should mention that, while all of this was happening, I had become involved in the story itself. I took sides. I sided with the Islamic community in their legal right to build a house of worship and when I was interviewed by the local papers (it’s not every day that a small town like this has someone shooting a documentary there) when I was asked where I stood on the issue I never hesitated to give my point of view. And after a time my point of view was sought out by larger newspapers and several local and syndicated radio programs – mostly Conservative and mostly taking issue with my stance. And I was also invited to write several pieces for Michael Moore’s blog as well.
Although I had left town to edit, there continued to be letters to the editor on a few of the local papers saying that I should leave TN and go back to where I came from. I could not believe the cartoonish way in which those who opposed the mosque were making their case. I felt like I was on the right side of this thing – absolutely certain. But in fact, I was wrong.
Everything I have told you up until now – this version of my story – is exactly how I was seeing things up until something changed. I went home to Los Angeles, showed my 25 minute short version of the documentary to some distributors and backers, and did the usual dog and pony show that had worked so well to raise funds, for other motion picture projects I had been involved with in the past. And sure enough someone said they would back the completion of the movie. It was decided that the focus would be on “the enemy at home” that being what we were calling “Apocalyptic Christianity” (as there was concern about using the word “Zionism” in “Christian Zionism”). The Murfreesboro issue was to be used as something of a jumping off point to take a look at the expanding influence of the End Times Evangelical lobby in the United States and how they use their influence to manufacture consent for the bombing of oil rich Islamic countries and to influence policy on social issues. The theme would focus on the problems we have in America, with our own religious lunatic fringe, rather than on a peaceful group of non-Christians who just wanted to build a place of worship.
After writing a few articles for Michael Moore, I also wrote for a liberal blog called Common Dreams and I wrote over a hundred articles for the Daily Kos, a liberal blog so popular that they receive over one million visitors a day. I felt I was protecting the underdog, going after the bullies. I really believed that I was on the right side of this thing.
But something kept nagging at me on a gut level. Something about all of this didn’t quite feel right. The Arab Spring, which I supported, started to degenerate into the Islamist Winter, and I grew more and more concerned. I flew back to Nashville to shoot a conference on whether or not Islam was conducive with Democratic Values and on the way to my hotel room I learned that my cab driver was from Egypt. I asked him how he felt about the fall of Mubarak, a dictator worth over $70 billion dollars while so much of his country was living in poverty and he told me he was concerned. Concerned? Wasn’t this good news? The cab driver was a Coptic Christian and he told me that he feared for his family back home. “If the Muslims take control, and they will, it will be very dangerous for my parents and my sisters. I’m scared for them right now”. After that conversation, I started to pay more attention to the news coming from the Islamic world in the Middle East.
Over the coming months I watched as the Muslim Brotherhood gained political power in Egypt. I saw that cab driver’s worst fears come true as Coptic Christians were attacked by Islamic mobs. I saw Tunisia institute Sharia, the brutal Islamic Law. After Libya fell, the Transitional Council also instituted Islamic Law. The nuclear armed Islamic government of Pakistan arrested and punished those who cooperated with the United States in killing Osama Bin Laden. A woman under the Islamic government of Afghanistan faced execution for the crime of being raped. Similar news stories emerged from Iran. A man who typed “there is no god” as his Facebook status in Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world, was arrested for blasphemy.
Several Muslim men in England were arrested for handing out leaflets to Londoners demanding that homosexuals be executed by hanging for violating Islamic Law with their lifestyle.
And it struck me. Even though these angry townspeople in Mufreesboro, TN had not articulated their concerns very well, they were only half wrong. I remember meeting Frank Gaffney and interviewing him in front of the courthouse and asking him if he really thought that the peaceful Muslims here actually presented a real threat to America and he said no. That caught me off guard so I asked if he really thought it was a credible threat that a community that makes up about one percent of the United States population was just going to suddenly rise up one day and try to take over the country and force Sharia Law onto all of us. Again he said no. Then he told me I was asking the wrong questions. He suggested that I was only looking for answers that would support the conclusions I had already arrived at. He said he had, after much research, arrived at a different set of conclusions and he challenged me to look a little deeper. He gave me a report to look at and many, many months later I did look at his report.
It was at this time that I went to my backers and told them that we were not making an honest documentary. I felt that everything I had put into the 25 minute short version (the one I used to raise the completion funds) was true, but only half true. It was critical that we also show the very real threats that exist within Islam. We needed to show that what is happening to these small communities of peaceful Muslims in America are the exception to the rule. I wanted to show what happens to countries when they gain a Muslim majority, how women are treated, that homosexuals were executed, that free speech did not exist, that the forced Islamic Law was not consistent with Democratic Values – anything and everything I could think of that ought to strike a chord with the Liberal mindset. And the response I received was, “Eric you are starting to sound like an Islamophobe. We don’t want to make a movie that promotes fear. Let’s just stick with the existing plan, okay?”
I fought and I fought. I showed them a book called “The Truth About Mohammed” but was struck down since the author was a man named Robert Spencer and my backers pointed out that the Southern Poverty Law Center named his “Jihad Watch” site as part of a hate group. I asked them to watch a documentary called “Islam: What the West Needs to Know” and pointed out that I had researched independently and verified the truth of what was being presented there, but they would not even watch this documentary as they were sure in advance that it was “hate speech” and “propaganda designed to spread fear”. It probably goes without saying that by now I was very frustrated. I showed my new backers several verses from the Koran that call for the killing of infidels and was told that these verses were probably being taken out of context. I showed them a video clip from MEMRI TV of a young Egyptian child reciting a Hadith that calls for the killing of Jews and was told that “you can’t trust MEMRI because they have an agenda”.
I mentioned the popular Islamophobia watchdog site “Loonwatch” and how I had noticed a pattern of deflection all criticisms of radical and violent Islam by calling anyone who publicly raises these concerns a “Loon” and how I felt this was an intentional effort to provide a smoke screen for the terrorists. I also noted that everything Loonwatch said was in lockstep with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and now CAIR was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation – the largest Islamic charity at one time, which was found to be funneling monies to Islamic terrorist organizations. I also noted that CAIR had ties to both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and that Al Qeada had come out of the Muslim Brotherhood. I expressed my concerns that the Egyptian Imam of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro might have ties to the MB, something I had failed to properly investigate. But since CAIR had the support of Glenn Greenwald and Amy Goodman’s show, Democracy Now, I was told that I had my facts all wrong. It was also pointed out to me that if CAIR was allegedly some kind of terrorist front then why do they still have a special tax status and why are they still around? When I said I do not know but it was possible that the government might prefer to watch them out in the open rather than risk them going underground I was told that my judgment was sounding less and less clear and that maybe I needed to take a step back from the project for a while.
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