When Anti-Muslim Bigots and Muslim Extremists Follow the Same Playbook – on Pamela Geller and Garland, Tx

When Anti-Muslim Bigots and Muslim Extremists Follow the Same Playbook – on Pamela Geller and Garland, Tx May 5, 2015
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Image Alia Salem posted with her message to Texan Muslims to not engage with the “Draw Muhammad” contest.

Alia Salem, Executive Director at CAIR-Texas Dallas Fort Worth, knew it was going to be a very difficult, dangerous time for Muslims in her area and across Texas at large. With the Pamela Geller-sponsored “Draw the Prophet Muhammad” contest coming in Garland, TX, she decided to make a plea to her community to take the high road.

So, on April 25, she posted this on Facebook:

Please share this in every group and with every Muslim in DFW. I implore the community.

I am calling on ALL community members in Dallas/Fort Worth to ignore and encourage others in the community to ignore Pamela Geller who will be holding a “Draw the Prophet Muhammad” contest at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland on May 3rd, 2015. This is her effort to incite our community and rile us up and I do not want us to give her the satisfaction or the media attention she thrives on. Without our reaction she has no story at all and no draw for the media which is what keeps her going and allows her to get publicity.

Please take as many opportunities as possible to discourage community members from going to the event, holding rallies or attempting to talk to the media regarding this issue.

Let’s not fall for it. Please.

That was the plan – no protests, no rallies, no talk about how this exhibit was insulting or hate-speech or anything. The less attention given, the less impact the contest and exhibit would have.

But on May 3, when the contest at the Curtis Culwell Center opened its doors and people began going through metal detectors and past guards to see the drawings and pictures on display, violence broke out. Texas police shot and killed two suspects outside the center in Garland, who had opened fire and had wounded a security officer.

Pamela Geller is the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization that has sponsored anti-Islamic bus ads in cities across the United States, most recently New York. In NPR’s article detailing five things to know about Geller and the AFDI, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, lists AFDI as an “active anti-Muslim group” (which, of course, AFDI denies.) Geller is also the leader of the group, “Stop Islamization of America,” which often coordinates with AFDI. Many Muslims (and others) see her as Islamophobe #1, bent on spreading hate-speech and extremist rhetoric against Muslims and Islam, and showing tacit complicity on Muslims being on the receiving end of all things bad.

Over the years various American Muslim pundits and thought leaders have engaged with her in hopes of exposing and minimizing her group’s rhetoric. Geller and AFDI have remained consistent in their thinking. What has changed, though, are Muslims in their approach. Sure, protests, rallies and legal actions are often launched when noted Islamophobes organize anti-Muslim campaigns, like the bus ads in New York.

But more so, we are realizing that some people you just can’t talk to. Some people you shouldn’t engage with. It gets you nowhere. In fact, they are looking for a fight. They are looking for that one Muslim to go off and perpetuate the very violent, extremist image they are screaming about to the world.

Which is what makes this whole situation all the more sad and frustrating. Salem had it right in the weeks leading up to the contest: Ignore. Stand down. Stay quiet.

Considering the Options: Engage or Disengage

Peaceable protests would’ve been another option, as well continuing to build strong relationships with allies. We can respond to her vitriol with our own responses, if we so choose. Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, posted a myriad of suggestions on Facebook on how to deal with Geller and her ilk, favoring engagement rather than disengagement (though I think for the Muslims of Garland, Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding communities, Salem, Sheikh Omar Suleiman, who also advocated for ignoring the event, and others like them had the right approach.):

… Am I offended by the cartoon depictions of my beloved Prophet Muhammad – OH YOU BETTER BELIEVE I AM. I would never translate my offense in to a violent response BUT I don’t appreciate people telling me what should and shouldn’t offend me. As a Muslim, I will defend my faith and prophet by speaking truth to power and spreading knowledge of true Islam.

Again, Pamela Geller has EVERY RIGHT to be a bigot and a racist, we have every right to call her a bigot and a racist. Maybe I need some growing to do personally, I am just not into the passive, let her do what she does unchallenged and let’s all forgive her. We need to take every opportunity to continue building meaningful relationships with allies, respond to her hate speech with more speech, use the media to tell our own story about who we are and stop leaving it to the Gellers to teach about Islam in hopes that we further marginalize her.

Another means of peaceful protest is a humorous approach, like Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad did here in response to the New York Islamophobic bus ads. Muslimgirl.net got in on the action by sponsoring their own “Draw Muhammad” contest, saying that we all know many Muhammads in our lives, so send in drawings and pictures of the (not Prophet) Muhammads you know.


We’re Better Than This

But what happened in Garland is what we all feared would happen and never wanted to have happen – a violent response resulting in the deaths of those who opened fire at the contest. And now the news is coming out. One has been identified as Elton Simpson, a convert to Islam; the second as Nadir Soofi.) What kind of Muslims are they? Was about ISIS claiming responsibility? What the hell is that? Is it true? If so, what does this say about the countering violent extremism programs being debated and implemented in the U.S.? Are they effective? (That’s a whole other series of essays I leave for those doing the CVE work.)

It’s infuriating, simply infuriating to hear about “so-called” Muslims (no matter how weak their tie to Islam is) falling prey to provocation, choosing violence and death as a means to silence that which offends them. There are a whole lot of offense things out there. Offense speech, offensive actions, just mean, awful, terrible things. But taking a life cannot be the response.

Come on, we are better than this. And if you’re reading this thinking, why is she saying this to me? I’d never do that, I’m really glad to hear that. But as much as we talk about Muslims not being a monolith, when stuff like this happens, a large population of the world lumps us into a monolith, saying – look, they acted like the violent, death-seeking people we knew they were.

Except no. No. That is not who we are. That is not who I am. That is not anyone I know.

Sheikh Suleiman is right, when he says that the problems and push back against all the millions of Muslims trying to live their lives as members of the communities where they live, as law-abiding citizens of this country, as everyday, normal people comfortably living as Muslim and American –these problems are coming from both sides of the coin. According to this pri.org article:

[Geller is] not the only one who attacks everyday Muslim Americans. Suleiman says online fans of the terrorist group ISIS have attacked and threatened him in much the same manner as anti-Muslim bigots. “People get riled up on all sides,” Suleiman says.

And here is the irony, he adds: “They’re saying the same thing. They’re saying that America and Islam are not compatible, [that] you cannot reconcile being a Muslim and being a patriotic, law-abiding American at the same time.”

Suleiman says the 10 million or so Muslims living in the US are caught in between those two extremes — and are left to wonder what both are talking about. “We have Muslim Congressmen. We have over 20,000 Muslims serving in the armed forces. We have Muslim doctors, lawyers, academics,” he says. “I mean, we’re a pretty well-integrated community here.”

We are well integrated. And we will continued to be that way, much to the ire of the Gellers and the ISISs’ of the world. What I, and so many like me know is this: Perpetuating offensive speech/images just to offend, just because you have the right to do so – well yes, you can completely do that, and you should not lose your life for it. You want to be utterly offensive? Go ahead. I’ll be utterly vocal, if I so choose, to rail against your offensiveness. Or I’ll ignore. We don’t need to mete out justice. If you’re a person of faith, then you know that God will see what is good and hold accountable what is not, whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, whatever.

Writes Haroon Moghul for CNN:

But maybe making this about Islam prevents people from seeing the bigger picture here, the reason American Muslims are rightly and justifiably offended by Geller and her ilk: Should white activists line up to drop the n-word “to support American values” of free speech? Or perhaps march into Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore waving Confederate flags? You have every right to. But should you?

And should you be surprised if a few people react violently, even if that violence is unacceptable? (Which it is.) What if you kept doing it, over and over again? For what possible reason would you want to?

Don’t let Pamela Geller fool you. She might use an American value to defend her work, but it’s merely a means to an end, and you won’t like where she’s taking us.

It’s an article worth reading. Indeed, the more people latching onto Geller and her cohorts, the worse it’ll be. These are difficult, frustrating times when we look outward into the world. I know there will be people whom I will never be able to convince that the majority of Muslims are God-loving, peace-wanting, good people. So I’ll just keep trying my best to be a living example of who I want my children to be. When I look at some Muslims around the world (ISIS, Boko Haram) partaking in unspeakable acts of violence and terror, I don’t know what to say other than, they are the minority. They do not speak for us. They do not speak for me.

Consider this parting thought from Moghul, an update he posted on Facebook today. Saying it better than I ever will:

… Each of us has our reasons for loving the beloved. Which is why we’re hurt by people who insult him. But do you know who insults him the most, the worst, the most continuously, and the most devastatingly? These cowards who claim to act in his name, who turn to violence, who harm and injure others, and who accomplish what, in the end?

They get more people to make fun of him. To what end? You don’t love the Prophet. Please. You hate him, and you loathe and detest this ummah, which is why every single one of your actions brings more harm and more danger and more disrepute onto us–and what makes us a people, except our beloved? We are his ummah. His people. His pride on the day of judgment. And what will he think of people who use his name to harm his pride?

You might fool others, but not us. We can see it stamped on your forehead from a mile away. You’ve nothing to do with Islam, except for hate for it. Anti-Muslim bigots and extremists aren’t opposites–they’re allies. Both cause us harm. One worse than the other. Because only one claims to act in His name, and in his. Only one uses Islam to mock Islam, and leaves Muslims mocked in turn. If you claim to love Islam, why do you hurt it?

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