The shootings in Garland, Texas this weekend have revived the debate over the tension between legitimate criticism of radical Islam and bigotry, as two gunmen were killed trying to carry out an attack on an event dedicated to cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that was sponsored by Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative.
While the media has been condemning the attack on what has been dubbed a “free speech event,” they have also been hosting the likes of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok to tell anyone who will listen that Geller’s organization is an anti-Muslim hate group. Here at The Daily Banter, we’ve had a roiling debate over the gradients of anti-Islam thought, and whether the likes of Sam Harris and Bill Maher are spreading bigotry in the guise of theological analysis, or are reasonable people whose words are being twisted, but I think we agree there are those who fall squarely on the wrong side of a bright line.
Geller and her group fall into that category, and if you think that’s just liberal PC capitulation, then don’t take my word for it. Take a look at what other hippie outfit found Geller’s AFDI to be so offensive, inflammatory, and “anti-Muslim” that they actually blurred out part of their billboard so as not to offend their Muslim overlords, and even forbade guests to speak its words:
Jaimie Colby: Posters using controversial language so inflammatory, we’re not going to show it to you.
Lis Wiehl: We can’t talk about exactly what was said in these ads…
Fox News Chyron: Anti-Muslim Posters Spark Subway Fears
That’s right, even Fox News, which frequently hosts Geller as a guest, agrees that she’s not some surgical critic of radical Islamic doctrine, she’s “anti-Muslim,” and would not allow the billboard to be shown, or quoted, on the air. The blurred word was “savages.”
On a day when we’re piecing together details of an attack that left two gunmen dead and one security guard wounded by gunfire, it’s fair to ask why it’s important to point this out. What difference does it make if Geller’s contest was an act of Charlie Hebdo-esque defiance of violent suppression of free speech, or a collection of bigots using their martyrdom as cover for their hate speech (an accusation that some have even leveled at the late Charlie cartoonists)?
There have been many attempts to analogize the Muhammad cartoon contest in order to illustrate, to non-Muslims, the level of offense that such a contest carries to ordinary, non-murdering Muslims. None are perfect, but a popular one is the comparison to a Ku Klux Klan contest to draw the funniest caricature of black people. Let’s focus that analogy a little bit more, though, and make it a contest to cartoon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the most stereotypical way possible. He’s just a historical figure, not an entire race or religion. Now if someone showed up at that contest and shot up the place, we’d still condemn that act, but I doubt anyone would be entertaining the idea that this was a “free speech event.”
The converse of that argument is that murderous terrorists created this act of defiance by attaching the threat of death to it. Fair enough, but I don’t know how that would play out if the offense inherent in it was something that the majority in this country could relate to. We think it’s stupid to be offended by cartoons of the prophet, so we don’t really care that people are offended, and we certainly care more that other people are willing to kill over it.
In this case, let’s say you’re able to discern the difference between the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Islam critics like Bill Maher, and the likes of Pamela Geller. It matters that they’re not the same precisely because Geller and her ilk are so much more virulent. This time, it looks like the right people got killed, but if police officers had been killed defending this group, or that hypothetical Klan contest, how would this debate be playing out? It wouldn’t be so simple to dismiss as a matter of principle over practical consequences.
What rankles me is the way Geller and company have tried to piggyback onto the martyrdom of Charlie Hebdo by calling their contest a “free speech event,” because this is America, where every event is a free speech event. What they were doing wasn’t important, that they were free to do it is. Pamela Geller isn’t the hero, our First Amendment is, and it is exactly this kind of event that reminds us for whom it exists. As another great American First Amendment crusader once said, “So all you right-wingers, left-wingers, bigots, Communists, there IS a place for you in this world! Because this is the land of the free, the home of the brave! And 2 Live is what we are!”