On Sunday, there was a contest held in Garland, TX featuring cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. It was attacked by a pair of Muslim terrorists who drove there from Arizona. Unlike previous attacks over harmless cartoons, however, only the terrorists were killed after they shot at the event’s armed guards. And unlike previous incidents, this time the West did not unite in solidarity with the cartoonists, like the Je suis Charlie slogan. Instead, the conversation seems to have revolved more around criticism of the event’s organizer, incendiary blogger and professional protester Pamela Geller. Perhaps this was partly because the conservative Geller is known for being offensive and provocative, and partly because, thankfully, there were no innocent victims to mourn this time. But another factor seems to be an inexplicable rush to defend the Muslim faith when Muslims have threatened innocent people.
Conservatives and liberals usually take divergent, knee-jerk positions in the wake of Muslim terrorism, positions which often seem more concerned with contradistinction to their political opponents than with an honest discussion about modern Islam. Conservatives will tally another notch as proof that Islam is a violent and dangerous religion; they may genuinely believe this, but it may also be motivated by tribal one-upmanship to make their own religion or ideology appear better. Liberals will often argue that this it is not all Muslims committing terrorism, that either all religions or all religious extremists are equally bad, or that Islam is a peaceful religion. Unfortunately, these defenses do more to derail the discussion than resolve it. True, the nearest terrorists had to drive across two states to reach their target, but that kind of determination renders their small numbers almost insignificant; just one terrorist willing to go through such great lengths is more dangerous than all the other religious extremists in the country. The leftwing condemnation of all religion may equally just be one-upmanship by the nonreligious. And the question of whether Islam is a religion of peace or not is debatable. Like every religion, it’s really only as good as the individuals who practice it, so asserting this statement as the starting point of the conversation rather than the conclusion is being simplistically doctrinaire.
Arguing that Islam is supposed to be peaceful is a pointless distraction to very real violence committed by devout Muslims in the name of Islam. LIke it or not, Pamela Geller’s point has been proven true: if you mock or criticize Islam, Muslims may try to kill you. She may be an agitator, but she is not the instigator. This conflict started years before when some Muslims killed innocent people over cartoons that were not even intended to provoke a violent reaction. When Muslims behave like other religions and no longer try to silence criticism and mockery, there will be less to ridicule and criticize. Or at least it will be less appealing to provocateurs. Until then, both sides are in a perpetual cycle of antagonism, but we should not be misled by fashionable pundits who argue both sides are equally to blame. They are not. One side has drawn offensive but harmless pictures, the other side has killed innocent people. There is no moral equivalency between the two, as the point was made on the Daily Show: “It is not okay to shoot other people because you’re offended by what they draw, even if they drew it to offend you.”
I completely understand the disgust with Geller and her inflammatory methods, I am not going to argue that anybody has to like her. But I support free speech even when I don’t like the person or the message, because that’s really the only time it matters. What bothers me, though, is the eagerness with which some liberals are willing to abandon the principles of free expression under the guise of politeness. You may have heard, “I support free speech, but…” then blaming the organizers for being hateful, offensive, or in some way causing the violence. After Sunday’s attack, Salon argued that “free speech is not a license to be stupid.” This couldn’t be more wrong or more illiberal: nobody’s right to speak is subject to anyone else’s evaluation of their intelligence. The mere insinuation that free speech is licensed in any way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. “Hate speech” is not a crime in the United States, if it were anybody could restrict any criticism they dislike with the mere accusation that they found it hateful. Direct incitement to violence or lawless action has been established as the only speech punishable under U.S. law, and even then it must meet rigorous criteria. Comparisons of Geller’s provocative views to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” are refuted because the attack demonstrated her warning was not false.
Criticism misdirected at the target rather than the attacker is a disconcerting trend. A few days after the Texas incident, Salon published an op-ed by Rula Jebreal calling ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali “dangerous.” Now the article doesn’t mention that the apostate Hirsi Ali has to travel with bodyguards because of her criticism of Islam, including a film she made with Theo van Gogh which resulted in the filmmaker’s death at the hands of an angry Muslim. To call a peaceful author, activist, and victim of Muslim extremism “dangerous” is not only unreasonable but inexcusable. Instead of devoting so much attention to attacking harmless critics of their religion, moderate Muslims would do far better outreach if they attacked the extremists who would try to murder them. If you only attack the critics of your religion while ignoring the extremists of your religion, then you’re not really a moderate, you’re an enabler. Jebreal’s irresponsible hyperbole is far more dangerous because it has more potential likelihood to incite real violence against Hirsi Ali and her loved ones than Hirsi Ali’s words do to actually harm any Muslims.
The Left’s overreaction to defend Islam from Rightwing criticism may actually be making liberals less liberal. There are obvious double standards when liberals freely bash other religions while withholding criticism of Islam for the same or even worse offenses. Some liberals have retaliated for the offensive Muhammad cartoons by encouraging offensive cartoons of other religious figures. This should not be confused as a brave stand for free speech, because it’s only attacking religions that they already know will not respond violently. Pamela Geller may be passive aggressive, but this is just cowardly. Similar observations on the liberal hypocrisy when it comes to Islam were summarized by Allen Clifton last year:
“It’s a point Bill Maher actually made a few weeks ago. He said when it comes to religion, liberals often have no problems bashing Christianity. Yet he often finds many of these same liberals defending Islam and outraged if someone might dare call out radicalism within the Muslim community.”
It’s admirable to stand up for the rights of Muslims to live and practice their faith without discrimination or oppression, as we should for people of any or no religion. But many liberals seem to have mistaken Islam for a progressive cause, which it is not. The main battles which have characterized liberalism for the last century–women’s rights, gay rights, and individuality–are all at odds with Islam. It is not intolerant to acknowledge this fact.
I would be a hypocrite for writing an article critical of the Christian Right’s opposition to same-sex marriage while giving Islam a pass on gay rights. It would actually be progressive if Muslim countries were merely resisting the right for gays to legally marry, but sadly the majority of Muslim countries still criminalize homosexuality, and in at least 10 countries it is punishable by death. In any city in the U.S. you can find a gay-affirming mainline church, but finding a gay-affirming mosque anywhere in the world is a challenge, and virtually impossible in the Muslim world. The gay community justifiably has a lot to criticize Islam for, and these deplorable human rights violations should not be swept away by the honor brigade.
Like anybody, Muslims individually may be more progressive than their professed creed. Congressman Keith Ellison’s support of gay rights is acknowledged and appreciated, in the same way as the support of Republicans even though their Party’s platform still opposes same-sex marriage. There certainly are progressive Muslim voices like Irshad Manji, but unfortunately her books are banned even in supposedly moderate Muslim countries like Malaysia. Liberals should not lose focus in the gap between how we think the world ought to be and how it actually is; the sobering reality is that Islam is presently far behind liberal ideals. So much so that it is also behind modern conservatism in its progress. It doesn’t always have to be this way, other religions have undergone dramatic reforms in their doctrines on slavery, caste, women, and sexuality. But as outsiders (aka infidels) we don’t get to tell Muslims what their religion is supposed to be, that’s something they have to decide for themselves. In the meantime, let’s stop pretending it is something that it isn’t. And let’s rightly condemn violent attackers and not their intended victims.