Demogogues and Controversy: Erick Stakelbeck on Islam and Israel at PSU

by Joel Sjerven

Man looking over the sea (Gaza) - Photo by Ahron de Leeuw

Erick Stakelbeck had gained much controversy before coming to speak at Portland State University on Monday, May 14. The week prior to his arrival Students United for Palestinian Rights (SUPER) had put out a call for “all students, faculty, staff, and members of the broader community to join us for a silent protest against hate and intolerance.” A few days later Erick’s blog reported that Christians United for Israel (CUFI) who sponsored the event had put up posters promoting the event. Several of these posters had been defaced with swastikas drawn over the Star of David. Several other posters were ripped down shortly after being posted.

In response to the controversy the presentation had been upgraded to a larger room, moving from a conference room into the much larger ballroom. Outside of the ballroom was a posted sign stating that all bags, purses, and backpacks would be searched.

Erick was scheduled to go on at 7:00pm. At 6:50 a single-file line of forty-five social activists poured into the ballroom. The group, ranging in age and ethnicity, entered filling the easternmost side of the room. The westernmost side was already filled. The activists came holding signs and with tape covering their mouths in a silent protest. The red, black, and white tape read, “peace”, “NOH8”, and “justice”. Their signs read, “Jews, Muslims, everyone unite against apartheid.”, “Pro-Israel against racism”, “No more war in the Middle-East”, and “Your bigotry is showing.”

Before Erick’s introduction was made the room sat uncomfortably – two groups sitting on opposite sides of the aisle like a wedding of feuding families. Erick’s supporters chatted idly on the bride’s side, while SUPER patiently sat comforted in their silence on the groom’s side. Two uniformed officers lounged in the back corner peering around the room, cautiously eying anyone who dared walk to a back table for a cookie or bottle of water. The stage remained empty except for a large blue backdrop with a golden emblem of the United States and Israel flags reading, “Christians United for Israel”.

A student walked up onto the stage and informed the audience of how the posters for the event had had swastikas drawn on them in the middle of the Star of David, clarifying, “This is hate speech – no different than burning a cross on the lawn of an African American.” Moving along to address the other public relations move made in anticipation of Erick’s arrival. “A student forwarded me a flier stating that our speaker is racist and Islamaphobic. If someone is telling you we’re racist or Islamaphobic you’re being manipulated.” He went on to introduce the speaker, “He is an expert on terrorism and extremism. You can often see him on the Glen Beck TV show.” The crowd feigns at muffling their laughter. “Don’t be afraid to take the tape off of your mouth and ask a question.”

Erick Stakelbeck hearing his cue takes the stage. Erick briefly reemphasizes the swastikas being etched on his posters. “Does everyone here condemn the swastika over the Star of David?” The entire audience bursts into applause denouncing this act of hate.

Erick then discussed how he had coped with the threats. “I will read from the Bible. I know it’s scary, I quote from the Bible.” Quoting Isiah 54:17 “’No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against you in judgment you shall condemn.’ So I went to bed in peace.”

Erick went on to talk about how Jews had lived in Israel thousands of years ago when they were killed, “were cleansed”, he corrected himself, “by the Roman empire.” How Israel had continued to be threatened today by fifty-thousands of missiles lined up by Hezbollah on Israel’s border.” Stakelbeck did not mention the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system which the United States is expected to announce they will fund with $680 million as part of $947 million aid package they plans to spend to support Israel’s missile defense.

“Free exchange of ideas and the truth will set you free.” It’s not clear if he’s being facetious or not. He continues, “Well the Bible, that pesky Bible again. Comparing Israelis to Nazis is the intellectual thing to do this day.” While humor often works as an effective way to defuse emotionally-charged situations, here Stakelbeck’s use of sarcasm is inappropriate. His reasoning continues to be full of simple and sarcastic one-liners.

“While Christians in Muslim nations are being cleansed. Christians in Israel have increased one-thousand percent.” Stakelbeck continues to paint Christians as the modern-day victim, never addressing the treatment that Muslims have received in the United States and around the world following September 11, 2001.

At 8:05 the collection of forty-five Students United for Palestinian Rights stand together and leave. The room tries not to notice, but can’t help but turn and watch them. Stakelbeck pleads, “Come back for the Q and A.” Other members of the bride’s side yell, “God bless you” as the activists file out mostly silent, mouths covered. They leave as they had arrived, and in leaving empty the bulk of the groom’s side. The void, immediately apparent in the seating, also become apparent in Stakelbeck’s ego. As if attacked, he becomes defensive. “That was real productive and enlightening. I’m a changed man. I’ve got nothing to hide. Read my book and watch my show.” Defense transitions in to an apparent fallback of marketing his media as a well-balanced truth.

Next, Stakelbeck introduces the Muslim Brotherhood – “Terrorists in suits, that’s what I call them, we’re in our White House… They are talking to al-Qaeda, ‘We have the same goal, but our methods are different.” He goes on to describe the Muslim Brotherhood as being nonviolent and moderate, working through education and the democratic medium. “Why be violent when you can get elected into office? And now they’re in our White House!”. He portrays this method as being more dangerous than violence, because it is effective.

Next Stakelbeck takes on Iran. “Iranian leaders say America is the Great Satan and Israel is the Little Satan, and they’re goose stepping – as the Nazis did – on American and Israeli flags… You see? They bunch us together like that. America and Israel, whether we like it or not. I don’t know about you, but I like it!… We are the ultimate prize to Iran. Do you think if they wiped Israel off the map they’d be satisfied there? Does anyone think they’d stop there?”

This is where Stakelbeck really hits his stride. Selling the idea of terror, that everyone is out to get us, and the bride’s section remains engaged, hanging on his every word. He goes on to talk about how Iran has nuclear tipped, ballistic missiles which are capable of striking the east coast. “Now you guys don’t have to worry about that. You’re safe out here, but you have to be careful of Korea.” He won’t be stopped, “The Iranians are planning a serious terror attack and apparently they’re not scared of the repercussions. A regime like that where it’s all about martyrdom… No, I’m not making this up. I’m not speaking out of ignorance. I’m not just making this up and speaking out of blind ignorance.” He peppers his speech with these phrases, prodding his audience along.

Stakelbeck goes on to speak of Iran’s growing number of embassies in Latin America and their interest to develop missile bases in Cuba. If this expert on terror and extremism hasn’t scared you yet, he cites a congressmen who reports that “Hezbollah has hundreds of operatives here on US soil. We suspect – these are members of Congress speaking here – not a raving, lunatic, racist, Islamaphobe Stakelbeck. These are members of a freely-elected congress. They’re here. It’s not alarmism. It’s a fact. Let’s not be caught blindsided again like we were in nine-eleven.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood’s creed is jihad – holy war. Jihad is our way – dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. They’ve never changed that creed and motto… The terrorist is here and the Muslim Brotherhood is here. They’re even guests at the White House. I encourage you to Google them. Apparently our leaders don’t have Google.”

Erick then turns plays a video of a Red Cross member who works in Palestine. He sums up her testimony, “She said in a very robotic, brainwashed way, ‘Israel is the occupier’, so we get the left. Where’s the left on woman’s rights in Islam? The burka is very liberating. Where is the feminists?”. Continual condescension, setting up an expert witness only to mock her and her views for not conforming to his.

Stakelbeck closes with a Bible verse from Isaiah 62:6. “’I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of the LORD, keep not silence.’ So speak out, be bold. Don’t let cowards intimidate you. What can they do? You have the truth on your side.” An “Amen” is belted from the crowd. “Anyone who doesn’t see what ‘s happening, there’s some nasty times coming. Instead of debating, call me Islamaphobe and a racist. I’m here to educate. We need to be bold and confident.”

By the time Stakelbeck finishes the educational Q and A he’s promised only has time for three questions. The first is by a woman who congratulates Stakelbeck, “You present yourself as someone who really believes what you’re saying, and you say you need to educate us, but I see many people watching you and became visibly upset with what you’re saying. You believe your side and they believe theirs. I don’t believe you were entirely respectful.”

What this woman is eluding to is Stakelbeck’s style. A true demagogue, Erick’s strength comes from appealing to prejudice over reason. He coaxes his audience – perhaps himself, that he can be trusted. He’s the expert on the situation, categorizing his opinions as “fact” and his hate-spinning as “education”. Like a skilled surgeon, he goes to work. First, applying the general anesthetic through Bible verses. The audience responds to hearing the Bible the way our analytical minds respond to comedic commercials – by shutting down, not questioning anything, just taking in the message. Then he continues, feeding them through the intravenous drip. Bits of how Christians, Israelis and Americans are clearly being targeted. Then, the only proper response is to target Muslims and Palestinians in a similar fashion.

He sarcastically demonizes himself, degrading his personal experience and knowledge. “But don’t worry. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just spouting off out of ignorance.” This is his one-two combo. Setting himself as the authority and then attacking straw men who would dare to challenge his opinion. “This rabble-rouser, he’s just a hater and a bigot, but he’s got all these facts – man!” His delivery drips with condescension.

His approach was particularly hypocritical while basing his monologue on othering Muslims as a separate, different, and lesser person than us, while simultaneously portraying Christianity as a persecuted religion – unjustly harassing one religion while commending his own religion for being unjustly harassed. If you need any more evidence that Stakelbeck’s career has been established on fear-mongering, look no further than his latest book, titled, “Terrorist Next Door”.

Whether it was intentional or not, Stakelbeck did not address that earlier that day Palestinian prisoners had ended a nearly month-long, twenty-four hour hunger strike. Over 2,000 political prisoners had united in the hunger strike to challenge Israel’s indefinite detention of Palestinians without charge. Their condition sounds very similar to a new law in the United States that Obama signed on New Years Eve 2011 – the National Defense Authorization Act. The Palestinians ended their hunger strike on agreement to terms that nineteen prisoners be released from solitary confinement, approval of family visits from relatives living in the Gaza Strip, and an agreement to no longer hold prisoners without charge once they complete their terms.

A member of Students United for Palestinian Rights was reached following the event for an interview on their direct action. He stated, “Religious intolerance towards the Muslim community is not OK. We forced him to hide his racism. He really curved what he would normally say and what he says in his interviews. We already had an effect and forced him to not be so blatant about it.” The activist went on record to distance himself and the group from the swastikas drawn on Stakelbeck’s posters. “We don’t want any part of racism or hatred. Actually, SUPER along with Jewish Voice for Peace will be hosting a discussion panel next week.” Al-Nakba Awareness Week will be held at PSU and includes a discussion on “Challenging anti-Jewish Oppression and the Misuse of Antisemitism”, spoken word by Remi Kanazi, and Keynote speakers Nora Barrows-Freidman and Neda Elia. In Palestine they will also be commemorating May 15 which marks Nakba, meaning “catastrophe”. Nakba is the day in 1948 when Israel declared statehood and exiled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Palestinians will have a day of action including a massive rally in the Gaza Strip with other actions scattered along the West Bank.

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