How making a film to defend Muslims’ right to build a mosque in America changed my world view.
[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.
As a last attempt I showed them footage of the Imam in Murfreesboro condoning stoning, admitting that Mohammed had stoned someone to death, saying that women cannot be trusted with money because they are irrational. Then I pointed out that a board member of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was investigated after pictures from his MySpace page had surfaced indicating his strong sympathies for Hamas. I was reminded that Hamas was also a political party which was voted in Democratically and that I needed to make a choice – either stick with the original blueprint or else give the money back and go find myself another backer. So I did. I walked. If I can’t make an honest documentary then I’m in the wrong business. I didn’t want to add to more of the noise that’s out there – I wanted to make something that told the truth, even if that truth is hard to swallow.
It’s funny because I run a website called Global One TV, which has had about 23 million visitors so far, and the theme of this blog is that “Inward Revolution Creates Outward Revolution”. And here I was having to take my own medicine. My own inward revolution – the questioning of one’s conclusions in search of a deeper truth – had led me to a very strange place. I thought of the famous Nietzsche quote that says “When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you”. And with nothing left to lose, I used my position at Daily Kos to go about telling the truth.
In January of 2012 I wrote 3 consecutive articles for the Daily Kos. The first was entitled “Loowatch.com and Radical Islam”. Here I pointed out the how Loonwatch only deflects criticism of radical Islam. I was also critical of Islamic theology while noting over and over that most Muslims were peaceful. The comments section of Daily Kos made me feel like I was attending my own funeral. It was like a public stoning. There wasn’t much in the way of responding to any of the points laid out in my article but hundreds of comments accusing me of being “right wing” a “bigot” and an “lslamophobe”. This was disappointing.
The next day I received an email from Loonwatch.com with an article showing my name and a photograph of my face, going out to much of the Islamic world, calling me the “Loon at Large”. This article was picked up by IslamophobiaToday.com and TheAmericanMuslim.org – later being repurposed by numerous Islamic blogs around the world, including in places where we all know what happens to anyone who is perceived to be the enemy of Allah or who dares to “insult” Islam.
My next article sought to further substantiate my point with regard to these wolves in sheep’s clothing calling themselves “Islamophobia Watchdog sites” and their first line of defense, that being a blogosphere of liberal lemming infidels who are pre-programmed to blurt out the word “Islamophobe” on cue. That article was called “How and Why Loonwatch is a Terrorist Spin Control Network”. And as you might have guessed, this piece was met with the same mob mentality of those who, rather than read the article and criticize it on its merits, instead shot the messenger with charges of “Islamophobia”. There were also 2 Daily Kos articles written in response attacking me personally, another Loonwatch article where someone suggested I must be from TN and have no education, etc. And once again, my name was put out on the street through a network of Islamic Blogs, including the landing page for CAIR, using a form of Islamic double speak which translated to any serious Jihadist means “enemy of Allah” and “insulting Islam”.
Given the incredible density of the popular Liberal mind, how the readers of my articles were unable to see how the beliefs of Islam were in direct conflict with human rights, gay rights, women’s rights and basic Democratic Values, I wrote a final piece called, “Are You In Favor of Human Rights?” and that one of course got me banned from Daily Kos. It should be noted that in one of the Loonwatch.com articles the author, a person simply calling himself “Danios” demanded that DKOS silence me and provided a link for its readers to email the editors of the Daily Kos, demanding that this “Islamophobe” be censored. And it worked – once again proving the oil and water relationship between Islam and tolerance for free speech.
Things got even stranger from there. Robert Spencer himself wrote me an email and we had a rather interesting dialogue. It became apparent almost immediately that there was nothing about this man that was even remotely hateful. So when Robert Spencer asked if I minded if he reprint my email in response to his on Jihad Watch, I said “sure, why not?” Once that surfaced, the friend count on my Facebook fan page dropped suddenly. Friends and acquaintances told me I had become a hatemonger, a fear monger and an Islamophobe. I pointed out that an Islamophobe is someone with an irrational fear of Islam but there was no reasoning with anyone so deeply indoctrinated into the tyranny of political correctness.
And almost right on cue the news story broke about the NYPD using as a training video a documentary narrated by a devout Muslim who opposes terrorism and jihad, someone who has advised law enforcement and served in the military and as a physician to highly placed members of the United States government. That documentary was called “The Third Jihad” and the story surfaced that CAIR was calling this film “Islamophobic” and demanding that the NYPD pull it right away, which of course they did. CAIR demanded the removal of the head of the NYPD and the liberal blogosphere sang backup – most notably with articles on Huffington Post calling “The Third Jihad” propaganda, hate speech and of course more “Islamophobia”. When I posted a link to this documentary on my Facebook page I was met with more charges of being an Islamophobe by people who had only recently told me how much they had been inspired and influenced by my writings.
After Jamie Glazov of Frontpagemag.com – part of the David Horowitz Freedom Center – reached out to me to ask me to be on his radio show (which I agreed to) I surfed the web a bit trying to get a better sense of who exactly David Hororwitz was. It became clear almost immediately that we do not share the same political views, but one thing Horowitz did say that came through with stunning clarity was an assertion that there was an unholy alliance between the Left and Islam, with radical Islam using the Liberal media to create a smoke screen for it – a place where radical can appear moderate and receive Liberal support. He also went on to say that in many universities across America that students were being radicalized, indoctrinated into the far Left. And I remembered something. Nearly all of the organizers for the college aged activist group who demonstrated in favor of the new mosque in Murfreesboro were either Socialists or Communists. These were kids and they all seemed to share one Professor in particular who was something of a mentor to them, a Socialist who always seemed to be hanging around their college parties, infiltrating into their social scene, taking the smarter and more articulate ones under his wing as their campus group called simply “Solidarity” grew in numbers – in fact recruiting quite a few students while organizing in favor of the mosque. Yikes.
So here we are today, as news that Kuwait goes Islamist and the NYPD answers to CAIR, an arm of a terrorist organization, out of concern for political correctness. Have I become a Conservative out of all of this? Not really. I still oppose the invasion of Iraq. I still feel that all wars should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. I still think that George W. Bush was one of the worst things to happen to America in my lifetime. I still support marriage equality. But I’m also still pro-life. Do you see a trend here? I support human rights and oppose anything which I perceive to be in violation of human rights.
Where do I stand on Islam? Let’s look at its founder – a man who raped a 9 year old girl, a slave owner, a leader who ordered people to be tortured, for adulterers to be stoned, for countless nonbelievers to be beheaded, a killer, a warmonger who spread his “religion of peace” by the sword, a man who suffered from hallucinations of voices telling him to do violent things, a tyrant, a homicidal maniac perhaps the equivalent of 100,000 Osama Bin Ladens. And this sadistic lunatic is considered to be the “ideal man” in Islam. What more needs to be said about Islam than that?
So in this climate where innocent people are killed when Korans are burned, when there are riots and bomb threats and killings over cartoons that offend Muslims, when a novelist such as Salman Rushdie is advised by Indian intelligence authorities that it is unsafe for him to enter the country to attend the world’s largest literary festival, when Muslims outside the festival threaten violence such that the festival organizers decide to cancel even patching in a video of Rushdie for the conference, in a world where a man, Theo Van Gough, was shot a couple dozen times in broad daylight, then stabbed, then had a sword rammed into his heart on the sidewalk of a European street simply for making a 10 minute film about the mistreatment of Muslim women – in such a world that is constantly terrorized by Islamic militants whose insanity is co-opted by an army of Liberal bloggers who make excuses for them – who tell us that 911 was probably our fault - what will become of my documentary when I finish it?
How will “Not Welcome” be received? Will movie theaters refuse to show it, just like those many bookstores who removed the Danish cartoons from their shelves? Will film festivals be afraid to screen it? Will my life be in danger? Will some lunatic Islamic cleric issue a Fatwa ordering my death? Will CAIR gain even more political influence and work within the system to get it banned as “hate speech”? Will critics fear for their lives and thus refuse to review it?
Is the Liberal view that Stealth Jihad is just some whacky conspiracy theory really true? Who will win – free speech or the savagery of a growing mob hell bent on Jihad? I can only tell you this. I will not back down. I will not be bullied, threatened, coerced or terrorized by the “religion of peace”.
We each have a responsibility to the other people on this planet, and especially to those whom we will leave this planet to after we are gone. And this sometimes means taking an unpopular stand in order to protect the rights of innocent people. Loonwatch, CAIR and the other numerous terrorist spin control networks – you’ve not seen the end of me. Not by a long shot. As the saying goes, “You have a right to swing your fists, but that right ends when your fist connects with my nose”.
And by the way, I still believe that unless they break the law, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has a legal right to build their house of worship. We don’t have to like it, but then again the First Amendment was designed not to protect popular ideas – as they don’t need protecting – but to protect unpopular ideas as well. This is something you won’t find in any Islamic country and it is also something worth protecting - even when the so-called “religion of peace” tries to shut you down.
Eric Allen Bell
Eric Allen Bell is a writer and filmmaker. His directorial debut, a short film entitled "Missing Sock" was placed on Film Threat's prestigious "Top 10 Short Films" of 2004. He went on to direct his first full length feature, "The Bondage" which premiered at the South By South West Film Festival, receiving multiple offers and securing full theatrical distribution. His current project, a documentary entitled "Not Welcome" chronicles the backlash concerning the building of a 53,000 square foot mega-mosque in the middle of America's Bible Belt. He can be reached at: [email protected].
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