A panel discussion on the threat posed by "Islamic supremacism," Shariah and political correctness has been scheduled for this week's Conservative Political Action Conference, stirring complaints from some American Muslims that the exercise amounts to Muslim-bashing.
The two-hour session, titled "Jihad: The Political Third Rail," is set for Friday morning, right in the middle of the three-day annual summit of conservative icons and activists in Washington, D.C.
Scheduled to speak are Steve Coughlin, a former Pentagon specialist on Islamic law who was fired two years ago, allegedly under pressure from pro-Muslim officials, and Wafa Sultan, an author and prominent critic of Islam. The discussion is billed as a window into Islam's "war on free speech," the "encroachment" of Shariah -- or Islamic law -- in the West and efforts by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate American society.
Overall, CPAC is attuned more to political strategy and domestic issues, but organizers of the "Jihad" session have been trying to stir the pot with what they call a blunt and objective discussion of Muslims' attempts to harm the West while silencing criticism.
Mission accomplished. The pot has been stirred.
"It's unfortunate that a conservative conference would be in any way associated with Muslim bashers and Islamophobes," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It's a free country. They're free to be anti-Muslim bigots if they like, but it's really up to the organizers of CPAC to determine if they're going to allow their conference to be associated with the hate-filled views of those who will be speaking."
The session appears to be attracting attention on both sides of the issue. While CAIR and a few blogs have blasted CPAC for putting on the event, co-host Pamela Geller said she's already gotten hundreds of RSVPs.
"It really will be enormously informative," she said. "Conservatives want to know."
Geller, publisher of the AtlasShrugs.com blog, is putting on the talk with Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer. Both are fierce critics of Islam.
Geller said CPAC and the American Conservative Union, which sponsors it, do not do enough to draw attention to the issues being discussed and have tried to avoid such topics in the past.
Referring to a Saturday session titled, "You've Been Lied To: Why Real Conservatives are Against the War on Terror," she said it was "incredible" that the only other related session at CPAC was taking the opposite approach.
Arguing that self-imposed censorship is crippling U.S. understanding of the wars it is in, she noted that the Pentagon's recent report into the Fort Hood shooting did not mention possible religious motivations behind the attack.
"When nowhere in that document was Islam or Jihad mentioned, then Houston, we have a problem," Geller said. "People need to understand what is the motivation."
Geller is a lightning rod for controversy, even without a forum on Islamic Jihad. Her Web site ranges in content from critiques of the Obama administration to alerts about Muslim terror attacks to more conspiratorial and outrageous postings. One blog last August questioned why the media were not reporting President Obama's "strange sexual predilections" and suggested that Obama traveled to Pakistan in the 1980s "for the drugs and came back with Jihad."
Geller said she anticipated being depicted as anti-Muslim for the CPAC session, but was not concerned about the event drifting over the line from thoughtful discussion on political correctness to virulent tirade on Islam as a whole.
"I'm not worried, because if everything is racism, then nothing is racism," she said.
Geller stirred a bit of a controversy at CPAC last year by trying to bring in Dutch anti-Islamic activist and lawmaker Geert Wilders -- though details of the dust-up are unclear and conflicting.
Wilders, who is now facing hate speech charges in Europe, was apparently supposed to be honored with an award, but that was nixed shortly before the conference started -- a decision that coincided with the publication of a Newsweek article in which Spencer was quoted criticizing CPAC for not scheduling a panel on "the threat from radical Islam."
Though Spencer and Geller point to that article as the breaking point, CPAC Director Lisa De Pasquale said it was much ado about nothing.
She attributed what she called the "miscommunication" to a scheduling conflict and said it "all worked out for the best," since Wilders spoke in a side room at the conference anyway.
This time around, De Pasquale said she's not concerned about any controversy generated by the Jihad panel event. She said that while the discussion is a part of CPAC, "it is not an official CPAC event." Rather, it's hosted by one of the CPAC co-sponsors, David Horowitz' Freedom Center.
"We have different perspectives among the co-sponsor events and we don't want to censor any group from being able to invite people to attend their forums," De Pasquale said.