Imagine if Michael Moore, in the midst of making Fahrenheit 9/11, had suddenly decided he'd made a mistake, and President George W. Bush wasn't such a bad leader after all. That's something of the situation involving a filmmaker who started out directing a documentary in support of the so-called "Murfreesboro Mosque," but has now converted into one of its most ardent opponents.
On Sept. 27, 2010, documentarian Eric Allen Bell and his film crew packed into the Judicial Building, a blocky five-story edifice on Murfreesboro's courthouse square. They joined reporters and news crews camped out in Rutherford County Chancery Court, where the unfolding spectacle called to mind the media circus that surrounded the Scopes Monkey Trial a century earlier.
The occasion was a hearing in the then-ongoing lawsuit surrounding construction of the 53,000-square-foot Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which had already suffered an arson attempt. Six plaintiffs were alleging that the Rutherford County Planning Commission did not sufficiently notify residents about public hearings on the issue, which were held prior to the center's greenlighting by the county on May 24, 2010. Furthermore, they charged the center would seek to impose Islamic Shariah law on the city, and that Islam is not a religion.
With cameras rolling, Bell watched and listened as a balding, gray-bearded man took the stand. The man was Frank Gaffney, a former Defense Department staffer in the Reagan administration. As president of the neoconservative Center for Security Policy, Gaffney is frequently cited as an expert on Islam by anti-Muslim groups — and denounced just as frequently by pro-Muslim supporters, who consider him a fearmonger.
"I see several things that are red flags, from a security point of view," Gaffney testified. The Islamic Center, he claimed, is a "product" of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political movement, and that the group is inimical to the U.S. Constitution as well as U.S. security interests.
Gaffney didn't convince the presiding judge, Chancellor Robert Corlew, who denied the injunction on May 29 of this year and ruled that Islam is, in fact, a religion. (The mosque itself remains unoccupied in legal limbo.) But he impressed someone else in the room: director Bell, who was filming a documentary about the controversy with a sympathetic eye toward the mosque's supporters.
"I asked [Gaffney] a series of what I thought were reasonable questions," Bell tells the Scene, "and he wasn't giving me the answers I expected. He said I was asking the wrong questions."
After receiving threats on his life from mosque opponents, Bell retreated to his native Los Angeles to piece together the 300-plus hours of footage he had accumulated, under the working title Not Welcome. It was there, however, that Gaffney's words about the secret goals behind the mosque began to resonate. Watching Gaffney's interview over and over again in his editing room, the director began to question what his beliefs really were.
"When I first met Gaffney, I thought he was a lobbyist for war profiteers," Bell says. "So it's not like I was eager to accept what he was saying. I'm not a big fan of Reagan. I was going out of my way to want to prove him wrong, but I found that I can't, because the facts support what he's saying."
Many dispute Gaffney's credibility, to put it mildly. Gaffney had already attracted notoriety as a staunch birther, claiming that President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen. He raised more eyebrows when he accused reitred U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus of submitting to Islam when he condemned the 2010 burning of a Koran by a Florida pastor.
Gaffney then charged that Islamists had infiltrated the Obama administration. As evidence, he cited a proposed U.S. Missile Defense logo that he said reflected "a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star with the Obama campaign logo." To Gaffney's many critics, it sounded like the kind of "proof" once used to argue that the soap-sud moguls at Procter & Gamble were bedfellows of Beelzebub.
Despite that track record, however, Bell was listening. Back in Los Angeles, he tried to convince his financiers — whom he will not name — that his film should reflect concerns about Islam and the threat he now believed it poses to America. He implored them to read literature by Robert Spencer, a prominent anti-Islamic scholar whose work was cited in the manifesto written by confessed Christian terrorist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 children in a July 22, 2011, rampage in Norway.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bell says his backers told him to either make the documentary they had agreed upon or hit the bricks. After weighing his options, he ultimately decided to follow his new convictions and join what he refers to as the "counter-jihad" movement.
So Bell repurposed the website for the still-unfinished Not Welcome into Globalinfidel.tv. It's a blog dedicated to "exposing" the Murfreesboro mosque as yet another example of "stealth jihad," in which Islam aims to undermine the West from within. Bell says donations to the blog now constitute the majority of his income.
"Islam is the worst idea in the history of the world, and it's the defining issue of our time," Bell says.
Less than a year ago, though, Bell was regularly blogging the exact opposite views for the Daily Kos and Michael Moore's website. Interviewed in a Sept. 29, 2011, Scene cover story, Bell castigated the Murfreesboro publication The Rutherford Reader for hate speech and xenophobic ugliness. Back in the old days, The Reader's publisher, Pete Doughtie, threatened to shove Bell's camera up his ass.
But Bell now regrets the tongue-lashing he gave Doughtie. In fact, he says he's teamed up with Doughtie to publish "smoking gun" material on the allegedly nefarious actions of the Islamic Center and the Rutherford County School Board, which he accuses of lying about a meeting between school officials.
Bell now writes for a handful of anti-Islamic websites aside from his own, including JihadWatch, Frontpage Magazine and others. He has joined a network of "Islamophobic" talking heads like Gaffney and Spencer in what the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress characterizes as a multimillion-dollar fear machine funded by far-right donors.
But the shift in views hasn't hurt Bell's visibility. He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends. In his most recent appearance, he called the Islamic Center's vice president, Abdou Kattih, "a Muslim Brotherhood operative," and denounced the faith's central figure, the prophet Muhammad, as a child rapist and mass murderer.
Mosque advocates say they do not understand why Bell has turned from an ally into an opponent. Saleh Sbenaty, a spokesman for the Islamic Center, firmly rejects Bell's claims that the mosque is receiving funding from organizations with ties to radical Islam.
"Let me make it very clear that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is not affiliated with any groups or organizations local, national, or international," Sbenaty says. "And that we do not receive nor accept any funding from any groups or individuals who do not comply with all federal, state and local laws. Eric is in the business of providing false claims and we challenge him to produce any evidence to any of his claims."
If Bell has any smoking guns, he didn't unholster them during an exhaustive 100-minute interview with the Scene. Bell says "there's an unwillingness to look at the facts" when he speaks to "media that's not conservative," but when pressed for documents, records and other concrete evidence that would back up his claims of the mosque's sinister intent, he was empty-handed.
Many of his charges boil down to a matter of interpretation. On his blog, for example, Bell insinuates that the Islamic Center demanded the Rutherford County School Board kneel before Shariah law in assembling its curriculum. The "proof," however, seems to be a written request from Muslim advocates that teachers "should consult" with them about using texts that don't depict Muslims in a prejudiced light, and that the district teach Arabic in addition to a half-dozen other languages.
Bell seizes upon supposed semantic giveaways of the creeping Shariah threat, which he says have been expunged from the Islamic Center's website. But he claims that a passage from the website referring to the new center's creation of a "stronghold on our community and to expand beyond religious teachings" is a clear example of their goals of indoctrination. On his own website, he offers an excised passage from the mosque's site highlighted in bold red digital ink as the coup de grace: "We must work hard so that the ICM have a prominent role in the development and progression of not only Mufreesboro [sic], but of Middle Tennessee."
But that sounds more like an economic development appeal from a local chamber of commerce than a statement of terrorist endgame. So the Scene asked if he had direct proof that the Islamic Center is connected with Muslim terror networks. Bell responded by citing the ownership of a plot of land in Chattanooga by Kattih that is adjacent to another plot of land that is owned by a nonprofit with ostensible ties to another group that maybe has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Bell said he didn't have any evidence other than this, despite his website's insinuations to the contrary.
Stephen Heyneman, editor of the book Islam and Social Policy and a professor of leadership, policy and organizations at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, compared this line of thinking with McCarthy-era witch-hunting. Having lived in many Muslim countries and studied the cultures, Heyneman says it's irresponsible to tar an entire religion with a clumsy paint roller. While stressing that radical Islam is indeed a threat, Heyneman laughs off what he considers Bell's false assumptions about the faith and calls the religion "one of the greatest in the world, one of the most beautiful in the world."
"It's really sad. What [the Muslims in Murfreesboro] want is a place of worship and social service, just like I do every Sunday and you do every Sunday," Heyneman says. "[Bell] may have fallen down the rabbit hole, but that doesn't change the facts, which is that whole debate and [arson] is an embarrassment to Tennessee."
But Bell says he's used to getting the brush-off from the liberal media. He'll find receptive ears for his message of the evils of Islam. And when he does, he'll address them with the same fervor he once mustered for the cause of religious tolerance.
"I'll go where I'm invited, within limits," Bell says. "I'm not going to a KKK rally or something absurd, but it's unfortunate that Pat Robertson will tell the truth about Islam and follow it with some looniness about the Haitians had the earthquake coming because they're devil worshippers." He laughs.
"Why is it that the people who are telling the truth about this also have to be part of our lunatic fringe, you know? I guess I think that's part of why I stepped up to the plate here. I think we need more voices of reason."