On Monday's New Day, CNN's Alisyn Camerota played up how the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center labeled the group targeted by two suspected Islamists in Texas a "hate group." Camerota underlined that "other people say" that Pamela Geller's American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) is "even a hate group, and that they're vehemently anti-Islam....They talk about Islam, and they talk about it with, sort of, real repugnance, quite frankly." [video below]
The anchor later took a confrontational stance towards Geller herself as she interviewed the AFDI leader, and took the side of her critics: "I do think that your critics have a point when they say that you paint with a broad brush stroke, and it sounds like you're anti-Islam."
During a segment with conservative talk show host Ben Ferguson, Camerota noted that AFDI "say that they are protecting freedom of speech, and that they should be able to depict the prophet Mohammed – even lambaste him. That's what our constitution says." She continued with her "other people say that this is even a hate group, and that they're vehemently anti-Islam" claim about the organization.
Ferguson replied with an anecdote about an interview he did with another member of the group. However, the CNN anchor interrupted with her "real repugnance" term, and cited the keynote speaker at the conference in Texas which was attacked by the two would-be mass murderers:
ALISYN CAMEROTA: ...But of course, other people say that this is even a hate group, and that they're vehemently anti-Islam. What do you make of this group?
BEN FERGUSON, HOST, THE BEN FERGUSON SHOW: I think this group definitely hates al Qaeda, ISIS, ISIS-like extremist groups, and those that do things like the Charlie Hebdo shooting – and that they are very proud of that. They're not going to back down. And they're argument – I had one person who's in this group on my show. He said, look, we are in America. We are not going to cower to al Qaeda or ISIS or anyone that wants to come after freedom of speech. And they held their rally. We believe it was to help – you know, actually find lone wolfs (sic) in January. We're going to have our rally in response, in the same building – the same place – to let them know that we stand by free speech, and we are not going cancel events because we're afraid of al Qaeda-like attacks or terrorist attacks, like they say, is exactly what America saw last night. And we should not back down from these people-
CAMEROTA: But Ben – I mean, look – look, there are a lot – a lot of Americans hate ISIS and hate everything that they stand for, but this group takes it a step further. I mean, they talk about Islam. They just don't talk about al Qaeda and ISIS. They talk about Islam, and they talk about it with, sort of, real repugnance, quite frankly. They say Islam – I mean, I'm quoting what the keynote speaker, Geert Wilders, said. He said, 'Islam wants to rob us of our freedom and our liberties. Islam and freedom are totally incompatible. Our Judeo-Christian culture is far superior to the Islamic one.' I mean, this is why there are critics of this group, because they don't just talk about terrorists. They talk about Islam.
Over an hour and a half later, Camerota read an extended version of the Wilders quote during the interview with Geller, and hounded her about what he said:
CAMEROTA: I mean, what your critics say about this, is that you weren't just going after – say, al Qaeda, or ISIS or extremism – but even just Islam. I mean, let me read to you a portion – an excerpt from your keynote speaker, Geert Wilders, who said this to the crowd before the attack broke out – he said, 'Our Judeo-Christian culture is far superior to the Islamic one. I can give you a million reasons. But here is an important one. We've got humor and they don't. Islam does not allow free speech, because free speech shows how evil and wrong Islam is. And Islam does not allow humor, because humor shows how foolish and ridiculous it is.'
Now, of course, that's not about extremism. He's talking about a religion of which there are three million Muslims – even here in the United States.
PAMELA GELLER, EXECUTIVE DIR., AMERICAN FREEDEDOM DEFENSE INITIATIVE: First of all, he's entitled to his opinion – end of story. So what? So he said that. And frankly, what he said was true. There is no humor. Khomeini, when he took over in 1979, said there is no humor.
The fact is that we need to have this discussion. Alisyn, there's a problem in Islam, and the problem is, we can't talk about the problem. We are seeing the wholesale slaughter of Christians in Iraq and in Syria; in Nigeria; in the Congo – Central African Republic. The jihad is raging, and all we can talk about is backlash of phobia. It's nonsense. We have to be able to discuss. And when you say I'm anti-Muslim – excuse me, I'm anti-jihad. And anyone that says that I'm anti-Muslim is implying that all Muslims support jihad. That sounds Islamophobic to me. That sounds Islamophobic to me.
CAMEROTA: But the reason that people believe your group is anti-Islam is because of quotes like that from the keynote speaker, where he was just talking about Islam. He wasn't talk – what you're mentioning – I mean, the things that you're citing are the extremism; the violence; the terrorism. But he's just talking about Islam. I mean, how can you say that three million Muslims here in the United States are humorless? How can you say that they don't believe in peace?
GELLER: He did not say that. He did not say that. We're talking about the ideology. Under the sharia, there is creed apartheid. There is gender apartheid. There is Islamic anti-Semitism and misogyny. These are very real. And who gives voice to the voiceless? Where are the victims – get to speak? Every time a victim speaks out, they're accused of Islamophobia. It's absurd on its face.
Later in the segment, the former Fox News journalist boosted a Muslim leader's "bigot" insult about Geller, even as she was supposedly defending her free speech rights:
CAMEROTA: ...There's this piece in The Daily Beast right now that talks about that there were scores of Muslim leaders who supported your right to have this event. They didn't like it, but they supported your right to freedom of speech. Let me read to you a quote from one of them. This was a New York City Muslim community leader. She says, 'Pamela Geller can draw any damn cartoon she wants, and I defend her right to do so. I have always fought for her right to be a bigot, and I have the right to counter her bigotry with my own free speech.' I mean, this is a Muslim leader saying you have the right to have an event like that. But again, the point is that-
GELLER: Yes. This is a Muslim leader who is – this is a Muslim leader who is attacking me and insulting me – and ad hominim attacks – and isn't that generous of her? Look, she's not the problem, okay? The problem is that a group – and we don't know how many others were involved – attempted to open fire on a gathering of free speech. That's the problem, Alisyn.
Moments after Camerota made it clear that she sided with the "critics [who] have a point when they say that you paint with a broad brush stroke, and it sounds like you're anti-Islam," Geller blasted back with an attack on the media:
GELLER: ...I'm not concerned with Muslims, especially peaceful Muslims. I am concerned with the 25 percent that support sharia. I am concerned with the amputations and the female genital mutilation and the honor violence. I am concerned that the media whitewashes and scrubs this. I am concerned for the victims, and if I have to take this kind of abuse to speak up for the victims, it seems like a small price to pay.
CAMEROTA: Listen. Of course, everyone's concerned about the violence, but let's face it: your – your event wasn't just about the violence. It was about-
GELLER: My event was about freedom of speech, period. Freedom of speech is the First Amendment. It's the first and most protected – political speech – the most protected, because who would decide what's good and what's forbidden – these arbitrary voices? You? (laughs) The Muslim Brotherhood?
We need to have this conversation, and the fact that we have to spend upwards of $50,000 in security speaks to how dangerous and how in trouble freedom of speech is in this country. And then, we have to get on these news shows, and somehow, we are – those that are targeted, those that were going to be slaughtered – are the ones who get attacked – speaks to how morally inverted this conversation is.
It should be pointed out that later in the morning, on the @ This Hour program, CNN actually brought on the Southern Poverty Law Center's Mark Potok to boost his "hate group" designation of AFDI:
JOHN BERMAN: I want talk more about this group that was targeted, the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Some people believe they're anti-Muslim. They have been labeled an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group said it intentionally picked this Texas venue because another group had held an event denouncing Islamophobia at the same venue in January. Its leader, Pamela Geller, is also president of the group, Stop Islamization of America.
Joining us now is Mark Potok with the Southern Poverty Law Center. You know, Mark, I actually want to start with a question. This group has spoken out against what they call Islamization of America. They spoke in favor, they say, of free speech. They spoke about the threat of Islamic terror. Does the fact that they were attacked when they were trying to hold this meeting make their case?
MARK POTOK, SR. FELLOW, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: Well, I'm not sure it makes their case, but it will certainly give a little boost to Pam Geller and her friends. I mean, look, let me start out by saying that absolutely nothing justifies this attack at all. That said, Pam Geller – I mean, to describe her as anti-Islam, and her groups as being anti-Islam barely covers it. I mean, you know, this is a woman who once put a video on her website depicting – suggesting that Muslims commit bestiality, as a matter of course. She once ran a picture on her website of the prophet Muhammad with the face of a pig. You know, she describes Islam as the most radical ideology in the world – and she's not merely talking about radical Islamists, but Islam in general.
You know, she's also a person that traffics in conspiracy theories. She has said – or she's promulgated the idea on her website – that Barack Obama is the love child of Malcolm X – that Barack Obama's mother posed for a pornographic magazine. And it goes on and on and on. So Pam Geller is a provocateur – I'm sorry?
KATE BOLDUAN: Now, while controversial, though – while controversial, Mark, I think we need to reiterate the point – you said it – but I really think we need to reiterate this point, as we're just learning more about this shooting – that regardless of how distasteful, or how much one disagrees with something that, maybe, Pamela Geller says, or her group supports, that in no way says they deserve to be shot at or targeted, as they were last night.
POTOK: I couldn't agree more. I think that is absolutely, undeniably true. I also think – you know, I, as an individual, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as an institution, are very much defenders of the First Amendment. But it is possible to hold those two ideas in one set at the same time. You know, the First Amendment should be defended. Free speech is a good thing. It's integral to democracy. But Pam Geller and her organization is a hate group today, just as they were the day before yesterday. So I think that is important to remember. She really does specialize in this kinds of event.
You know, it seems to me it's rather similar to the Reverend Terry Jones burning Korans in Florida. Certainly, that was protected activity under the First Amendment, but it also led, fairly directly, to the killing of 10 or 15 people abroad. You know, we can't say that Terry Jones was criminally responsible for that – he most certainly was not. But these are provocations that are aimed at stirring the pot, and it doesn't seem terribly surprising that, in fact, they get the response that, in a sense, they're seeking.
BERMAN: Where is the line – and it is a hard one – where is the line between free speech and what you consider to be hate speech? I mean, after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there was a great deal of solidarity around that magazine, which drew cartoons not dissimilar to the ones you just described of the prophet Muhammad.
POTOK: Well, I don't think there is a line. I mean, hate, in the sense – and hate speech is not forbidden speech. So, you know, hate speech – as a pejorative, in a sense – is simply an adjective describing what the speech sounds like to many ears. I am not suggesting that hate speech should be made illegal. You know, of course, there are matters like criminal incitement, but this had clearly nothing to do with that. So, I see it almost as a false dichotomy. You know, the fact that Pamela Geller and her friends have the right – the absolute right – to make these kinds of presentations and speeches – to hold contests lampooning the prophet Muhammad and so on – is not a contradiction of the principle of free speech. It's something – it's essentially the cost of democracy.
BOLDUAN: Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, thank you so much for your time.