Free speech in the age of Islamophobia

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    A few years ago, I invited Pamela Geller to visit the class that I teach about “culture wars” in the United States. Geller had recently spearheaded a campaign to block the construction of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center attacks. I wanted my students to understand why.

    Moments into her remarks, the answer became clear: Pamela Geller is an anti-Islamic bigot. Geller said the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” was just the tip of a gigantic plot to “Islamicize” America. She warned that states and localities might adopt Sharia law, which would legalize polygamy and child marriage. And all of that would happen with the blessing of the “pro-Muslim” President Obama, whom Geller said could be a closet Muslim himself.

    My students went ballistic, denouncing Geller as a demagogue and a liar. She fired back, questioning the students’ courage and patriotism. But nobody trained any actual ballistics—i.e., guns—against each other.

    And that’s how we’re different from the two men who opened fire on Sunday at an event in Texas sponsored by Geller’s organization, which was offering a prize for the best cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. The basic principle of a civilized society is that you get to speak your mind without threat to your body. But there are some people in our midst who simply don’t believe in that ideal, and who are willing to kill—and to die—to quash it.

    So the rest of us need to rally behind the principle, even when it protects speakers as hateful as Pamela Geller. Although the shooters failed in their murderous efforts, we should be rallying to Geller’s side as loudly as we did to Charlie Hebdo after it was attacked earlier this year. If we start picking and choosing, based on whom we like and dislike, free speech won’t mean anything at all.

    Witness the recent dust-up over the decision by the PEN American Center to bestow its award for courage in freedom of expression upon Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine where 12 people were killed back in January. As in the Texas shooting, the assailants were young Muslims seeking revenge for the publication of cartoons of the Prophet.

    But 200 writers—including Francine Prose and Teju Cole—have signed an open letter protesting the award. Given that France’s impoverished immigrant communities contain “a large percentage of devout Muslims,” the letter states, “Charlie Hedbo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”

    Thankfully, the PEN leadership refused to budge. And it got a shout-out from Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about free speech. “The issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority,” wrote Rushdie, the target of a fatwa for his musings about the Prophet in The Satanic Verses. “It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which . . . seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence.”

    I’d go even farther. Unless we speak up on behalf of every victim of Islamic terror, including Pamela Geller, we cede the free-speech argument to anti-Islamic bigots like Geller. And we implicitly endorse the idea that Muslims deserve special protections from bigoted speech because of their special sensitivities, which condescends to Muslims in the guise of defending them.

    As Muslim columnist Dean Obeidallah wrote last week, Geller’s agitprop cartoon contest was “akin to offering a prize for people to draw the most anti-Semitic or racist images imaginable.” But it is a myth–indeed, it’s an anti-Islamic slur–to say that most American Muslims want to silence free speech. To the contrary, as Obeidallah documented, Muslim organizations urged members to ignore Geller’s contest. They fully supported her right to sponsor it, no matter how offended they were.

    They also recognize that Geller didn’t invent American Islamophobia, which is as old as America itself. Writing in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1741, Benjamin Franklin wondered aloud whether it was worse to follow Mahomet–another name for the Prophet Muhammad–than Satan. Thirty years later, on the eve of American independence, Continental Congress delegate John Dickinson worried that Islam would impose “oppressive superstition” and “miserable slavery” on everybody else.

    The same fear seized Americans in the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire seemed poised to conquer the world in the name of Islam. “Hereafter, upon the fair face of your beloved America . . . a night of apostacy [sic] may settle down,” an American missionary to Turkey told a Boston audience in 1833, “and hordes of yet unnamed barbarian invaders fasten deep the blight of some new Mohammedanism.”

    Nor did Muslims submit to the authority of anybody else, as disgruntled American officials would discover after the United States acquired the Philippines in the early 20th century. The most resistant “natives” were the Moros, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, a Muslim people whose warlike and capricious ways reminded him of the Sioux and Apache who were the “terror of our settlers” in the American West.

    Back in the West itself, finally, bigots likened Muslims to another hated population: the Mormons. Both groups practiced polygamy and promised their adherents eternal grace, the argument went. And, most of all, both appeared intent upon conquering the globe.

    A century ago, then, all of the elements of our present-day anti-Islamic prejudice were already in place:  Muslims were ferocious brutes, bent on world domination. But this cartoon received a huge boost on September 11, 2001, which brought real jihadists—not imagined ones—into America’s consciousness.

    The 9/11 attacks also spawned a new generation of Islamophobes like Pamela Geller, whose own cartooning project last Sunday elicited precisely the kind of barbarism that she imputes to Islam as a whole. She’s wrong about that, but she has every right to say it. As one of Charlie Hebdo’s surviving editors recently said, during a visit to New York to accept the PEN award, you are for free speech or you are not. There is no middle ground.

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