The Garland Texas Art Exhibit on Muhammad

The attack by radical Muslims on the Garland Texas event organized by Pamela Geller has been the subject of contentious debate.  I thought I would weigh in.

The Garland Texas show included an art exhibit and contest for the best cartoon of Muhammad.  Pamela Geller’s critics appear to have two main charges against her and the show:  That the show was insensitive towards the sentiments of religious Muslims and that the show provoked the attackers.

The charge that the show was insensitive towards religious Muslims is the more serious one.  There is no doubt that one should not say something simply because one has the freedom of speech to do so.  On the other hand, one should also not refrain from saying something simply because it will offend someone.  In these matters, it depends in part on the reasons why one is saying the thing.

If one believed that a religion had behaved very badly – say the way that the Catholic Church had behaved concerning child abuse – then one might argue that saying harsh things about the Church was justified.  There is certainly much about Islam, as practiced by many Muslims throughout the world, that is seriously problematic.  And so one might justify strong criticisms on these grounds.

It is not entirely clear what the main motivation for the show was.  One possibility is that was intended to criticize various aspects of Islam as practiced throughout the world.  If that was the motivation, then one needs to consider whether those practices were serious enough to warrant this treatment and whether the caricatures were an appropriate response.  I have mixed feelings about this, believing both that many aspects of Islam as practiced by some religious Muslims throughout the world are seriously problematic but also questioning whether caricaturing the prophet of Islam is the best way to voice those concerns.

A second possible motivation was the concern that western institutions have chosen to forego exercising their free speech rights – most importantly printing caricatures of the prophet Muhammad – because of fear of violent retaliation by radical Muslims.  Such violent actions are despicable, killing people for the exercise of their constitutional rights.

The problem is that many in the West have come to be cowed into not showing these cartoons.  Some of these institutions admit outright that they are concerned about safety.  Others deny that they are responding to threats of violence, but in many cases one should be skeptical of their explanations, especially because normal rules of reporting and publishing would lead to the caricatures being shown.

The cowing of people from showing the caricatures is a serious problem – not merely because it involves the chilling of constitutional rights, but also because it is difficult for government to address the problem.  The most obvious way to fight the problem is for private parties to publish the caricatures and risk the violence of the radicals.  If the caricatures were more routinely published, then it would be more difficult for the radicals to effectively punish those who publish them.  Moreover, the radicals might come to accept that such behavior is simply what westerners do and accept it without violence, however much they disapprove of it.  At the worst, the radicals would continue to react occasionally to these publications, but at least the constitutional rights would continue to be exercised.

The problem is that such behavior requires private citizens to engage in courageous behavior.  We cannot necessarily expect such courage, but that is what the Garland Texas show displayed – both courage and a prudent defense of the show against violence.  As a result, when the radicals showed up to do their dirty deed, the show was ready and the radicals were neutralized with limited harm to others.

In this respect, then, Geller’s organization should be praised – as having the courage to defend freedom of speech from possible or likely attacks of violence.

It is here where the second criticism of Geller enters – the claim that she provoked the attack.  Geller denies this, but let’s assume that it is true in the following sense – that Geller took the act, knowing there was a reasonable chance the show would be attacked, but did so in order to defend freedom of speech.  Even in those circumstances, I believe the “provoking” of the attack would be justified as a defense of freedom of speech.

Others have defended Geller on the ground that she no more provoked the attack than a woman provokes a rape by wearing a short skirt.  But Geller is on even stronger ground.  If a woman walks around in a dangerous neighborhood wearing a short skirt, knowing she is likely to be attacked, one can lament her action on ground that she put herself in jeopardy.  But if the woman carries a firearm and defends herself, then she both protects her rights and lets the wrongdoers know that their will be consequences.  That is what Geller did here.