Monday, September 25, 2017

Former PEGIDA Canada Supporter and RISE Canada Iraj Gardner Speaks to ARC

When ARC reported on the PEGIDA Canada rally in London, ON which was again dwarfed in number by comparison by counter-protesters this weekend, I also included information that was sent to me by someone who at one time had intimate knowledge about how PEGIDA functioned. She had that knowledge because at one time she was counted among them.

The current members of PEGIDA who follow ARC have figured out the name of this source though she didn't make any effort to hide her identity. While associated with PEGIDA and later (briefly) RISE Canada, Patti Gardner was one of the most vocal Islamophobes this writer had come across on social media. Her comments were often caustic and incredibly hateful, a characterization that I don't think she would disagree with now. Unlike others who's anti-Muslim and racist bigotry was confined primarily to social media, Patti was an active participant in anti-Muslim protests with PEGIDA and RISE Canada, including the now infamous protest outside the Masjid Toronto Mosque on February 17 this year.

But a lot can change in a few months.

Ms. Gardner, now going by the name Iraj, has not only rejected the hatred of groups like PEGIDA and RISE Canada, she has actually taken the steps to converting to Islam after having taken the time to examine her beliefs and biases and studying the religion she vilified. When she contacted me concerning Mark Vandermaas' involvement with PEGIDA and his complaint against the London city council, I immediately recognized the email as coming from someone who was on the radar but who's name hadn't come up in some time. Of course I had a number of questions and Ms. Gardner was kind enough to respond in a very thorough manner.

What follows is a lengthy discussion with Ms. Gardner regarding how and why her views changed so radically. Of course we understand that people may be skeptical since this really represents a 180° change, but if there's one thing that ARC has been consistent in is the view that most people can become better people so on that basis, and because of what seems to be her forthrightness regarding her past, I've decided to give Ms. Gardner the benefit of the doubt.

She respond to my question regarding her conversion as well as at one time being featured on the blog:

I did see your blog entries about me and was ashamed. What brought [her conversion] about? I started feeling sick of all the hate and anger I was carrying inside. The posts from other members of Pegida and other Islamophobes began to strike me as foolish and embarrassing. They started to look like real clowns and losers to me - unable to spell simple words, much less write a coherent sentence, willing to believe any nonsense as long as it fit their narrative of hate. At first I thought it was just Pegida. I never agreed with the autocratic and often wrongheaded decisions being made on behalf of the group, by a woman who refused to even trust her own group with her real name. I thought their monthly marches were dumb - nobody knew about them, nobody cared. We always met in the same place, as decreed by "Ms Hill", supposedly to avoid counter protesters. I realized the choice of venue was for her convenience, not because it was a good location to be seen by the public or avoid anyone. I thought perhaps things would get better if I tried a different group, so I made the mistake of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire of Rise Canada. 
I only attended two events with them. I very soon realized that Banerjee is a vicious crackpot. I also met Jennifer Bush, who was carrying an "all Muslims are terrorists" sign, and Sandra Solomon as well as Eric Brazau. I found their behaviour to be very distasteful, running up to people with their megaphones and screaming in their faces, repeating the same scripts over and over smearing Muslims. It was impossible to strike up a conversation with any of them, they were so obsessed with screaming their hatred. The last straw was the second event I attended, the famous downtown mosque protest. I was told beforehand that this was just a free speech gathering outside of a courthouse to support Eric Brazau who had a court appearance. But once he came out of the courthouse, I was then told we were going around the corner to picket a mosque. I was not comfortable with that idea at all. I've never believed in desecrating places of worship, even if their beliefs aren't the same as mine. Just before we left for the mosque, I saw an older African lady in a hijab passing by on the sidewalk. Suddenly Banerjee ran
up to her with his megaphone, shoved it right in her face and started screaming "WHY ARE YOU WEARING THAT SHIT? WHY ARE YOU WEARING THAT??" 
I started thinking what it must have been like for that poor woman. I thought about how I would feel if someone treated me like that. It occurred to me that as a Muslim her feelings wouldn't be the same as mine in that situation. I followed the protest group to the mosque but couldn't stop thinking about that woman. Once we were at the mosque, people were trying to get in to pray and having to be directed to a side door by police. I felt ashamed of this and the fact that we were violating a place of worship. The cops were clearly disgusted with us. Passersby cursed us. You may have pics of me in that crowd that day, but I only stayed for less than half an hour and had already thrown the sign I had been carrying into the garbage on the way to the mosque. 
On the transit ride home, I decided I wanted to know more about Muslims and Islam, like what their beliefs are and what their everyday lives are like. When I got home I went right on the computer and started doing research. I wasn't thinking of converting, I just wanted to know more about Muslims instead of just hating them based on ignorance and falsehoods. When I read of their beliefs and why they do certain things (like wearing hijab) it made more sense to me than I expected. I was surprised to find that they venerate many Biblical figures, the main difference being that they don't believe Jesus was/is God. I found I was attracted to many of their beliefs, and the frequent prayers (I was raised Catholic so I'm familiar with ritual and prayer). 
As expected, my former comrades at Pegida were less than thrilled to find out about my conversion. I posted an announcement on my Facebook wall and immediately the threats, curses and other harassment began. Jennifer Bush also joined in on the
harassment. I ended up deleting that old profile after Facebook refused to do anything when I complained about the harassment. (I've kept a few screenshots of their posts). 
There was an event "Muslims against M103" with Tarek Fatah and I was curious about the Muslim reaction to the motion, given that the haters all think we're in favour of M103. When I arrived (wearing hijab) I was surprised to see all of the usual Pegida and RISE suspects there. Most of the speeches were in Urdu so I left early. I stopped in the washroom on the way out, and encountered Lynn Redden there. She immediately demanded to know "why I had decided to be a terrorist" and when I started to say "I'm not a terrorist" she cut in with "don't tell me about what you are, I know everything there is to know about Islam!" She then proceeded (in front of two other women who had entered the washroom) to demand that I get down on my knees and beg Christ's forgiveness. I considered contacting the police to report a hate crime, but I decided that would only give Pegida the public attention that they're too inept to get for themselves. 
That should hopefully give you an idea why I decided to ditch those people. It's also why I'm determined to do what I can to make sure that Pegida's latest campaign to convince the public that they're not so bad, falls flat on its face. The last thing I want to see is that interloper Vandermaas cashing in on the pack of lies he and "Jenny Hill" are trying to sell to London city council and the public. 
I'm glad you asked about my conversion. I wasn't sure at first if you'd be interested to know about it. I certainly feel better now that I have purged my ignorant hatred and replaced it with empathy. I've had a few people tell me "something's changed about you, the expression on your face. You look happier and calmer." Hatred is like a cancer that eats you up inside.
I next asked about how social media has radicalized people inclined towards distrusting and hating Muslims, just as Islamic extremists are sometimes said to be radicalized online as well:
Having been part of the hate groups and now a Muslim, I can see many startling parallels between Islamic extremism and Islamophobic extremism. For starters, both types of extremist actually know very little about the causes they espouse. Daesh extremists have been shown to know almost nothing about Islam and the teachings of the Quran. Like Islamophobes, they rely on cherry picked, twisted information from hate sites. Islamophobes know next to nothing about the targets of their hatred or Islam, as I found when I started to study Islam on Islamic or neutral sites as opposed to the hate and fake news sites I had relied on for my information on Muslims. But ask a bigot and they will tell you they know "everything" about Islam. 
Both groups celebrate terrorist attacks, for similar reasons. Ironically, Muslim extremists celebrating a terror attack are decried by Islamophobes as proof that every Muslim is a
terrorist, meanwhile the bigots are themselves celebrating the same attack in the process. For the hate groups, a terror attack is a godsend because it confirms their hatred. The same occurs any time a Muslim commits a violent or sexual crime. If one Muslim commits a crime, all are guilty and it's all the more reason to hate us. If a Muslim is murdered, or killed in an accident, this is cause for raucous celebration. They don't view Muslims as human because they themselves have jettisoned their own humanity. This dehumanization is practiced by all extremists and terrorists towards their victims. It is what allows them to not only hate, but to kill with impunity. 
Social media acts to focus hatred in the same way a laser focuses light. Before the internet, in general the majority of "average" bigots mostly kept their racism to themselves, or among family and close friends. Usually the worst they'd do is tell a racist joke in front of others who held the same views, or insult someone with a racial slur if they did something to annoy the bigot like cutting them off in traffic. Racially motivated violence was rare unless the racists were acting as part of a group. 
Social media provides an echo chamber full of information and camaraderie that satisfies a bigot's confirmation bias, emboldens them, and intensifies their hatred. A bigot can create a hate bubble for themselves by joining "secret" groups of fellow haters, and only communicate with those who share their bias, excluding or attacking those who disagree. They don't have to socialize with non-bigots if they don't want to, thus they shelter themselves from exposure to any point of view but their own. Social media also allows bigots to network, form groups, advertise rallies and events, exchange tactical ideas, and disseminate and confirm hatred and fake news. They can openly exchange ideas and fantasies about committing hate crimes and violence against Muslims. There are bigots who do nothing all day but troll one mainstream news site after another, posting anti-Islam "comments" even for articles that have nothing to do with Islam. It's a form of proselytizing. Social media hatred is also fueled by fake news outlets, Quran cherry picking sites, and anti-Islam blogs, designed to whip up the haters even more by feeding them lies to intentionally intensify hatred. The fake articles are shared all over the hate pages, along with corresponding hateful comments and rhetoric. Hatred, especially against Muslims, has become a thriving industry - there's a lot of money to be made from haters. I suspect this is why Facebook openly ignores Islamophobia complaints and even punishes the complainants. There are more haters than Muslims on their network. 
The primary danger of radicalization (for any group) is the threat of violence. Almost all of the output of haters and hate sites can be classified as incitement to violence and incitement to murder. Along with violence comes hate speech, destruction or vandalism of property, and hate motivated attacks on citizens. Some groups like the 3%ers and the Soldiers of Odin types openly discuss violence, fighting, and weaponry. They meet in person to practice military tactics and firing weapons. They trade ideas about how to hurt without getting hurt in crowd situations. They seriously discuss patrolling neighbourhoods with a view to committing violence against Muslims. 
The trouble with these groups is that social media helps them to network and recruit members and sympathizers. For every full fledged member there are at least five sympathizers who are following the group. Most members of one hate group also participate with others. I was part of Pegida, JDL, RISE, WCAI (US and Canada) and a couple of 3%er groups, as well as political hate groups like anti-Trudeau groups. In all groups, violence towards enemies (including Trudeau himself) was discussed numerous times. And, as time goes on, these groups are becoming more militant and their plans, formerly idle talk, are now advancing towards fruition. Worse, some of the more militant armed groups are now starting to band together. I'm forced to wonder if CSIS or RCMP are taking them seriously and monitoring them. If not - they should be. I've seen photos posted on WCAI and 3%er pages of highly illegal assault rifles, grenades and other weaponry proudly displayed as people's "collections". 
Besides violence, other concerns are the spread of hate via disinformation, and the indoctrination and recruitment of new bigots. Bigots make a point of going on popular
mainstream news media pages and salting the comments with Islamophobic slurs containing falsehoods about Muslims or Islam, and linking to a favourite hate site as "proof". Invariably, sympathetic replies appear from so-called "normal" citizens, who say "Oh, I didn't realize those Muslims were so bad!" and anyone who objects to the comment is dogpiled and ridiculed. Recruitment is the purpose of their public hate rallies, and why it's so important to stop the likes of Mark Vandermaas. These rallies attract many bigots who don't use social media, as well as curious passersby. They also help the hate group look like victims when police interfere with their rallies or there are counter protesters. You can bet that if Vandermaas gets his way, Pegida will look like the victims of London politicians and the "mob" they supposedly raised, and a segment of the public will sympathize with and support them in future, as well as being more open to believing Pegida's message of hate. Pegida will hand out their innocuous looking pamphlets containing their social media contact info, and a new generation of bigots will make the leap from private slurs and jokes to full fledged participation in the hate industry.
While Ms. Gardner discussed the potential for violence in her response above, I asked specifically which groups based on her experience posed the greatest threat offline to persons or property?
That's a difficult question to answer, given that the most active people who are most likely to carry out violence or property damage tend to be members of multiple groups. I think there would be two main categories of dangerous bigots:
  • People with psychiatric illness or mental instability. They usually act alone. They tend to take hate speech more seriously than average people, and have fewer inhibitions about hate attacks and violence. Many of them believe that they're performing a public service, for example by warning the public of the "threat" of Islam, or intimidating a Muslim hoping they will leave Canada or become apostate. I was accosted in a woman's public washroom by Lynn Redden, and treated to Islamophobic slurs and religious bigotry. I've been at enough rallies with this woman to know that she's a loudmouthed narcissist who doesn't know when to shut up or back off. The first time I met her, I could see something was off kilter. Usually when the suspect in a hate crime is identified, it turns out that the person had some kind of mental illness. The same often goes for those who deface or try to burn down mosques.
  • Paramilitary style hate groups. These are becoming more active at hate rallies, providing "security" as an excuse to engage in violence, but this is just the start of their plans. They openly talk of killing Muslims, not just driving us out of the country, but they'd be happy to perform either or both tasks.They distrust the government, military and police, and they believe that if the cops and the military won't get rid of the Muslims, they have the right to step in and do it for them. They brag of spying on Muslims and Muslim groups as well as mosques. They host public and inter-group events to teach them military tactics and how to use firearms. There's a very good chance these people are stockpiling illegal weapons (as they accuse mosques of doing). It's only a matter of time before one or more of them decides to attack Muslims and/or destroy their property. In the meantime, like other hate groups they are trying to whitewash their image and present themselves as a trustworthy security force alongside the police and military, protecting citizens from "the Muslim threat".
  • A third group whose danger is immediate is the biased fake media websites like the Rebel, Pam Gellar, Jihad Watch etc. They provide hate groups with a voice by publicizing their hate rallies when mainstream media ignores them. They knowingly fill Islamophobic bigots' heads with falsehoods about Muslims and Islam, as well as spinning lurid tales of EU and third world Muslim atrocities. Without these sources of falsehood to fan their hate and brainwash them to believe that Muslims are an evil horde bent on world domination, a high percentage of active bigots would be far less dangerous.
Finally, I asked her how her own journey had changed her?
Becoming a Muslim and learning to let go of hate is a process. There's a lot to study in Islam, and a major cultural shift because Islam is not just a religion, it's a way of life. Hate is an addiction - and it's also a way of life. Haters can't get enough of it and spend endless hours on social media getting their "fix". That's what I used to do. Now I have a new way of life. Nowadays I spend a lot less time on social media, which frees up time for more productive things. I go out more and spend time doing things for myself (like walking in parks or running errands). I go to the mosque every week and pray with others, and I now attend Islamic events and seminars instead of picketing them. 
As with any other addiction, it takes time and hard work to let go of hate. It takes time to learn hateful thought patterns, so it takes time to unlearn. I'm a former alcoholic (5 years sober) and I'm finding that the skills I learned in rehab and group therapy are helping me to let go. One exercise I do is when I'm out somewhere, I look at random people and imagine what life must be like for them or how they might be feeling at the moment. If someone does something annoying, instead of dwelling on my anger I try to see things from their side (like "maybe they were in a hurry"). In general I feel calmer, happier and more accepting and forgiving of others. I'm also a lot less conscious of things like race or what someone chooses to wear. They're just people now, no better or worse than I am. It's about filling the hole in my soul that I used to fill with hatred. 
I think a lot of the people who join hate groups are also missing something in their lives and in their souls. In the process of relearning empathy, I've developed some for some of the people I used to know from Pegida and other groups. I believe that a few of them honestly believe they're raising awareness to the public of what they view as a threat, but they're so brainwashed to believe that Muslims are inhuman and mean them harm that they can't see the hatred and ignorance involved.
I asked Ms. Gardner if I could publish her response to my queries:
I don't mind if you publish my story. It's a good way to demonstrate that not everyone is the same, and even haters can turn their lives around and learn empathy for others. Haters exercise their hate by dehumanizing their targets, but what they don't realize is that they are dehumanizing themselves in the process. The fact that these people can post news articles about death or tragedy befalling other human beings, for the sole purpose of celebrating the misery and deaths suffered by those beings, is proof of this two-way street. They criticize Muslims for celebrating terror attacks or other crimes committed by Muslims, while they celebrate those crimes even more joyously and openly.
ARC would like to thank Iraj Gardner for her response.

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