The American religious right loves to play-act as martyrs: bemoaning how cruelly the government oppresses them, fantasizing about how they’re on the verge of being imprisoned or killed for their beliefs. Usually, these claims are pure fiction. But this weekend in Texas, for once, the pretense became reality.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative, a religious right group run by the flamboyant anti-Muslim activist and Ayn Rand devotee Pamela Geller, held a contest for cartoonists to draw the Prophet Mohammed, with a $10,000 prize for the winner. Just as the event was ending, a car pulled up and two men armed with assault rifles opened fire, lightly wounding one security guard, before they were both shot and killed by a police officer. The gunmen proved to be local Muslims, apparently radicalized by Internet jihad rhetoric (and most shockingly, one of them had a 9-year-old son!).
Geller wasted no time in taking a victory lap, and I grudgingly have to admit she has the right. If the cartoon contest had simply been ignored (as many Muslim community leaders urged people to do), she and her group would simply have looked ridiculous. Instead, the fanatics who waged this failed murder plot have accomplished the feat of making Geller’s group look like the reasonable ones – as well as boosting their reach and visibility.
To be clear, Geller and her followers are one-note bigots. They consistently treat Muslims as an undifferentiated mass of evil and try to deny them their civil rights. Among other things, Geller led the charge to ban a Muslim community center from lower Manhattan (stirring up hysteria with the inflammatory and inaccurate phrase “ground zero mosque“). There seems to be no anti-Islam conspiracy theory that’s too absurd or fantastical for her to push: she’s ludicrously claimed that President Obama is a secret Muslim, or that “creeping sharia” is on the verge of conquering the United States. She’s also rubbed elbows with unreformed racists and fascists on more than one occasion.
But like the proverbial stopped clock, she’s right about one thing. In this case, it’s the threat posed by violent jihadists, who demand that all people bow to their harsh and austere interpretation of Islam and eagerly resort to violence and terror to get their way. That danger is very real, as we saw with the bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo or the shooting in Copenhagen earlier this year.
The Mohammed cartoon contest was hardly a high-minded defense of artistic freedom. At best, it was a crude attempt at provocation, but that doesn’t matter. In a free society, people have the right to express ideas, even if others find them offensive, hurtful or blasphemous. That principle deserves to be defended, even if it sometimes puts us in noxious company. And as atheists and freethinkers, we ought to be especially alert to the danger of a religious sect trying to declare its ideas off-limits to mockery or criticism. There’s value in openly defying a taboo to show it has no power over us.
In the wake of this, one thing I’m concerned about is the possibility of random revenge attacks against already beleaguered U.S. Muslims, including those who did the right thing and simply ignored this event. We can and should be merciless in our criticism of ideas; but wild, reckless accusations of the kind Geller flings about are far more likely to incite the hatred and destruction of people. That’s why it’s so important to emphasize the difference.
And on a related note: this week, the PEN American Center conferred an award on the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo, in recognition of their courage and devotion to freedom of expression. It seems like a hard choice to argue with; yet almost 200 PEN members argued with it, refusing to attend the award ceremony or signing a letter of protest, on the grounds that the magazine is “hate speech” which promotes racism and intolerance against France’s vulnerable Muslim minority.
These authors may be well-meaning, but they’re very badly misinformed. The truth, as vehemently argued by Michael Moynihan on the Daily Beast, is that Charlie Hebdo is a profoundly anti-racist publication (as the head of France’s largest anti-racism NGO agreed). Some of its covers are admittedly vulgar, and may seem offensive to people lacking the context of French politics. But the reality is that – like the New Yorker cover that showed Barack and Michelle Obama as terrorists – it often put bigoted ideas on display to mock their absurdity. It has no special bias against Islam; it regularly lampoons bad ideas of all kinds and from all faiths, as Jeffrey Goldberg acknowledges, even though it attacks beliefs he personally holds. Although freedom of expression covers them both, the contrast between Charlie Hebdo and Pamela Geller couldn’t be greater.