Politics & Policy

Islam and Free Speech: Missing the Point in Garland

The purpose of the free-speech event was to highlight the threat posed by Islamic supremacists.

‘Even free-speech enthusiasts are repulsed by obnoxious expression.” That acknowledgment prefaces the main argument I’ve made in Islam and Free Speech, a just-released pamphlet in the Broadside series from Encounter Books. Alas, in view of last night’s deadly events at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, the argument is more timely than I’d hoped.

In Garland, two jihadists opened fire on a free-speech event that was certain to be offensive to many Muslims. The gunmen wounded a security guard before being killed when police returned fire. The jihadists are reported to be roommates who resided in Phoenix. As this is written, only one of them has been identified: Elton Simpson. The wounded security guard, Bruce Joiner, was treated and released. Joiner works for the Garland Independent School District, which owns the Culwell Center.

Simpson was apparently what my friend, terrorism analyst Patrick Poole, describes as a “known wolf.” That’s a radical Muslim whom the Obama administration and the media are wont to dismiss as an anonymous, unconnected loner but who, in fact, has previously drawn the attention of national-security agents over suspected jihadist ties.

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Simpson previously attempted to travel to Africa, apparently to join al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda franchise. He was reportedly convicted of lying to FBI agents, though a judge found the evidence insufficient to prove he was trying to join the terror group. The al-Shabaab connection seems salient now: Police are investigating tweets about the Garland event prior to the violence, allegedly posted by a young al-Shabaab jihadist who is said to be an American citizen.

The Garland free-speech event was a contest, sponsored by Pamela Geller’s New York–based American Freedom Defense Initiative. Participants were invited to draw cartoons of Islam’s prophet, in homage to the Charlie Hebdo artists killed by jihadists in France. Besides Ms. Geller, the featured speaker at the event was Geert Wilders, the Dutch parliamentarian whose life has been threatened for years for speaking openly about the scriptural moorings of Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda has publicly called for Wilders to be killed, and a notorious Australian imam called on Muslims to behead him because anyone who “mocks, laughs [at], or degrades Islam” must be killed by “chopping off his head.”

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In Garland, activists opposed to the violence endorsed by Islamic doctrine and to the repression inherent in sharia law were invited to draw caricatures of Mohammed, with a $10,000 prize awarded to the “best” one. The contest was sure to yield images offensive to Muslims just as transgressive artist Andres Serrano had to know the public exhibition of his Piss Christ photograph would offend Christians.

Yet, as I argue in Islam and Free Speech, it will not do to blame the messenger for the violence. The shooting last night was not caused by the free-speech event any more than the Charlie Hebdo murders were caused by derogatory caricatures, or the rioting after a Danish newspaper’s publication of anti-Islam cartoons was caused by the newspaper. The violence is caused by Islamic supremacist ideology and its law that incites Muslims to kill those they judge to have disparaged Islam.

It will not do to blame the messenger for the violence. The shooting last night was not caused by the free-speech event any more than the Charlie Hebdo murders were caused by derogatory caricatures.

Christians were offended by Piss Christ, but they did not respond by killing the “artist” or blowing up the exhibiting museum. If any had, they would have been universally condemned for both violating society’s laws and betraying Christian tenets. In such a case, we would have blamed the killers, not the provocative art. There can be no right against being provoked in a free society; we rely on the vigorous exchange of ideas to arrive at sensible policy. And the greater the threat to liberty, the more necessary it is to provoke.

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The threat to liberty in this instance is sharia blasphemy law. A bloc of Muslim-majority countries, with the assistance of the Obama administration (led by the U.S. State Department, particularly under Hillary Clinton), is trying to use international law to impose Islam’s repressive law to make it illegal to subject Islam to negative criticism. No sensible person favors obnoxious expression or gratuitous insult. But as I contend in the pamphlet, there is a big difference between saying “I object to this illustration of insensitivity and bad taste” and saying “I believe that what repulses me should be against the law.”

Ms. Geller’s detractors are predictably out in droves today, prattling about how the violence would not have happened were it not for the offensive display. No one would feel deprived by the lack of sheer insult, they say, so wouldn’t it be better to compromise free-expression principles in exchange for achieving peaceful social harmony? But that line of thinking puts violent extortionists in charge of what we get to speak about — an arrangement no free society can tolerate.

It is very unfortunate that this debate is so often triggered by forms of expression that non-jihadists will find insulting and therefore that even anti-jihadists will find uncomfortable to defend. This grossly understates the stakes involved. This is about much more than cartoons. As I outline in Islam and Free Speech, classical sharia forbids most artistic representations of animate life, not just expressions that are obviously sacrilegious. More significantly, it deems as blasphemous not just expressions that insult the prophet and Islam itself but also

critical examinations of Islam . . . especially if they reach negative conclusions or encourage unbelief[;] proselytism of religions other than Islam, particularly if it involves encouraging Muslims to abandon Islam[; and any] speech or expression [that] could sow discord among Muslims or within an Islamic community. And truth is not a defense.

It is not the purpose of Pam Geller, Geert Wilders, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, and other activists to insult Muslims. Their mission is to awaken us to the challenge of Islamic supremacists — not just the violent jihadists but also the powerful Islamist forces behind the jihad. Islamists are attempting to coerce us into abandoning our commitment to free expression. They are pressuring us to accommodate their totalitarian system rather than accepting assimilation into our liberty culture.

You may not like the provocateurs’ methods. Personally, I am not a fan of gratuitous insult, which can antagonize pro-Western Muslims we want on our side. But let’s not make too much of that. Muslims who really are pro-Western already know, as Americans overwhelmingly know, that being offended is a small price to pay to live in a free society. We can bristle at an offense and still grasp that we do not want the offense criminalized.

It would be easy, in our preening gentility, to look down our noses at a Mohammed cartoon contest. But we’d better understand the scope of the threat the contest was meant to raise our attention to — a threat triggered by ideology, not cartoons. There is in our midst an Islamist movement that wants to suppress not only insults to Islam but all critical examination of Islam. That movement is delighted to leverage the atmosphere of intimidation created by violent jihadists, and it counts the current United States government among its allies.

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