Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, jazz musician and Web designer Charles Johnson has devoted his blog, Little Green Footballs, to exposing Muslim extremism in and outside the United States. His targets have included the Council on American-Islamic Relations, filmmaker Michael Moore, Reuters, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Dan Rather, and the late pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie — who some LGF commenters (not Johnson) call “St. Pancake,” a tribute to the Israeli steamroller that killed her. LGF helped write the lexicon of the self-styled “anti-Jihadist” blogosphere — from “moonbat” (“an unthinking or insane leftist”) to “anti-idiotarian” (“anyone who grasps the significance of and does his or her best to combat the post-9/11 political alliance between the ‘Old Left’ and militant Islam”).
But in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, LGF has become better known for the various fights it picks with many on the right — including conservative bloggers, critics of Islamic extremism, and critics of Islam in general who used to be Johnson’s fellow travelers.
Johnson has blasted Fox News host Glenn Beck, promoting a video from a Beck-inspired party that shows conservatives ranting about evolution and arguing that “this turn toward the extreme right on the part of Fox News is troubling, and will achieve nothing in the long run except further marginalization of the GOP.” In response to the news that the Department of Homeland Security was watching for increased right-wing extremism — something that most of the conservative blogosphere, like most Republicans, responded to with angry ridicule — Johnson pointed to the recent arrests of right-wing terrorists and criticized bloggers for buying into “distorted claims” about the DHS report. When Obama genuflected before King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Johnson found archival video of President Bush bowing to take a medal from the King and urged conservatives to turn down their “hyperventilating nonsense.”
This has the blogger’s peers asking themselves the same question, over and over: What the heck happened to Charles Johnson?
“I don’t think I’ve changed,” Johnson said. “I’ve always been pretty independent. This is something I’ve really tried to put out there on my blog. I don’t consider myself right-wing.”
It sounds strange coming from a blogger who played an underrated role in forcing CBS News to back down from its 2004 story on President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, and whose first reaction to Obama’s election in November — after a quick post congratulating him — was to note that the Muslim Brotherhood, “the world’s largest jihadist organization,” was pleased.
Johnson supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, but he spent some of the campaign attacking anti-Obama conspiracy theorists, and he rejected the idea designs were malicious, rather than merely naive. Johnson worries, in conversation and on his blog, that his old allies have been duped by far-right European political parties and have bought into wild attacks on the president that discredit their own causes.
“I don’t think there is an anti-jihadist movement anymore,” Johnson said. “It’s all a bunch of kooks. I’ve watched some people who I thought were reputable, and who I trusted, hook up with racists and Nazis. I see a lot of them promoting stories and causes that I think are completely nuts.”
Johnson’s disgust with the terrorism-focused conservative blogosphere has had a traumatic effect on a dogged and dogmatic community of bloggers and scholars. When Johnson began blogging about Islam and terrorism after 9/11, he inspired untold other supporters of an aggressive war on terror to start their own Websites, link up, and push back against “Dhimmitude” — organizations and foreign policy decision makers that were “soft” on terrorism. Now, some of his followers have started blogs that track Johnson’s “madness,” while a video that portrays Johnson as Adolf Hitler going mad in his bunker makes the rounds.
“He’s the reason I started blogging,” said Atlas Shrugs editor Pamela Geller, a New Yorker who says she was “mugged by Sept. 11″ and started reading LGF for news and fellowship. “I wrote birthday messages to him. I respected and admired him.”
Robert Spencer, the director of JihadWatch and the author of the bestselling, “Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam,” had an established career as a critic of militant Islam before he met Johnson. “But right after 9/11, he was the only one out there reporting on this,” Spencer said. “He built my Website. I learned how to blog from reading his stuff.”
Johnson has turned hard against Spencer and Geller, attacking the former for joining a “genocidal Facebook group,” while referring to the latter as a “shrieking lunatic,” and labeling both of them “hatebloggers.” Johnson now points to Geller’s posts about Barack Obama’s heritage and her quest to fund a headstone for the victim of a Muslim honor killing as proof that “the woman is deranged.” Other bloggers in the movement have been purged from Johnson’s blogroll or pilloried on the site, never to be mentioned again. The most successful sites that arose in LGF’s wake, including Gateway Pundit, Gates of Vienna, and Brussels Journal, are also on the outs.
While Johnson’s own blog was a launchpad for the movement and his comment sections have often been a place for anti-Muslim and anti-liberal rage — one Web quiz lets users guess whether a quote comes from “Little Green Footballs or Late German Fascists” — Johnson believes that LGF is now policed for fringe activity. “A lot of the people most responsible for causing our bad reputation are now gone,” he said. “I wrote all the backend software, and I have ways of cleaning up the site.”
Johnson’s former allies can pinpoint the month, if not the moment, when he started to turn on them. In October 2007, some of the leading terrorism-focused conservative bloggers flew to Belgium for a Counterjihad Summit sponsored in part by the Center for Vigilant Freedom (now the International Civil Liberties Alliance), an outgrowth of the LGF-inspired blog Gates of Vienna.
“It was the best conference I ever went to,” remembered Geller. But the summit included members of Vlaams Belang, a controversial Belgian political party that criticizes Islam and Shariah law, and had been attacked within the Netherlands for its connections to extremism and racism. Johnson went to work exposing this, and the attendees reeled from the negative attention.
“He chose to portray the Brussels Conference as evil and he unconscionably slandered the people who attended,” said Dymphna, one of the editors of Gates of Vienna. Baron Bodissey, the other site editor (both editors use pen names), worries that Johnson “did serious damage to the American blogosphere’s view of European nationalists who oppose the EU, even those who have no anti-Semitic tendencies.”
“Not only that,” said Bodissey, “he made it harder for certain American anti-jihad groups to raise funds if they failed to repudiate his designated ‘fascist-enablers’ like us.”
Johnson is unapologetic about his actions. While he was attacking the attendees of the Counterjihad Summit, he was also blasting Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) for taking money from, and being photographed with, the owner of the extremist Web site Stormfront.org.
“Some people at that summit in Belgium were not people we should have been associated with,” Johnson said, pointing out that since 2007 the terrorism-focused conservative bloggers have become supporters of Dutch politician Geert Wilders , who wants to outlaw Islam in his country. “Some of these people outright want to ban Islam from the United States, which I think is crazy, completely nuts. That’s not something we do in this country. These people will outright defend banning the Koran or deporting Muslims. That’s popular with the Geller/Spencer crowd.”
When they talk about Johnson today, the rest of the terrorism-focused bloggers alternate between anger and regret. He has smeared them, they say, and according to Dymphna he’s “destroyed a lot of networking that was beginning to emerge” between American and European critics of Islamic extremism. “He’s really gone off the deep end,” Geller said, pointing to Johnson’s more and more frequent criticisms of creationists, such as the attack on the anti-evolution, Glenn Beck-inspired event, which made the host angry enough to lash out at LGF on his show. “He’s a leftist blogger now.”
Johnson brushes that criticism aside. “A lot of people think I discovered this creationism thing overnight,” he said, “but that’s not true. I was posting about this before 9/11. After 9/11 I had other things on my mind. And now I’ve come back to it.” But Spencer accuses Johnson of losing sight of the threat of extremist Islam by obsessing over the American religious right and equating the two faiths.
“There is no global movement of Christians trying to subjugate the world,” Spencer said. “There is such a movement on the extreme of Islam. I wrote a book called ‘Religion of Peace’ — which Johnson wrote a favorable review of — and I looked, and didn’t find, Christian extremists who were trying to replace the Constitution with Biblical law. They’re a myth. They’re the Santa Claus of the left.”
Some of Johnson’s former allies experienced a decrease in traffic numbers when he started attacking them, but they all now feel they’ve recovered from the break. “LGF tried to destroy my reputation so I wouldn’t have the access I have to my sources in law enforcement and academia,” said Spencer, “but that hasn’t happened.”
Geller has rebounded with increased prominence — she was a guest on the Fox News show “Red Eye” last week — and she said she has survived the “besmirching” of her reputation and she now fills the information-spreading role that Johnson once did. “I get my stuff from people on the inside,” she said, “from people in Europe. I field 800-900 emails a day. We all depend on our readers for these tips. That’s where Charles was getting his stuff. And now he’s cracked and he’s not getting that anymore.”
Johnson brushes off that kind of criticism. LGF is his site, and if it has to name names and shame the people who are debasing the movement against extremist Islam, he’ll do it. “I’ve definitely seen an uptick in craziness since the election,” he sighs. “Well, I don’t know if Geller got crazier. She always was nuts.”