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.

Reader Discussion

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on May 12, 2015 at 15:53:23 pm

"...but also questioning whether caricaturing the prophet of Islam is the best way to voice those concerns."

This may indeed be provocative; yet one wonders how to describe the level of provocation effected (and / or intended) by the mass slaughter of adherents of Christianity in various cesspools of the world.

Given a choice - what would you prefer, dear readers?

"Sticks and stones..." (or should it be swords and flame?) vs. pen and pencil!

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on May 13, 2015 at 00:17:07 am

I don't think the analogy of a woman provoking her own rape is the best one. I think a more apt analogy would be a young boy provoking his own beating by refusing to give his lunch money to the playground bully. Western societies have been presented with a list of demands, with a promise of violent consequences if those demands are not met. One such demand is that non-Muslims respect the proscription on sacred images. These demands are not part of a campaign for basic rights, rather they are part of the Islamic supremacist fantasy, which is a pillar of radical Islamic mythology and a rallying point for fanatics.

The form of the demands upon free societies is "Signify your submission to Islamic supremacy by not doing what we forbid you, or we will do you violence." The point is not to keep non-Muslims from drawing cartoons; it is to invite those on the fringe of the Ummah to indulge in the illusion that Islam is conquering the world; that even the great liberal democracies will abandon their values before the warriors of Allah. Because the demand is self-referential it creates a problem in how a response is received and interpreted. It is not enough for Ms. Geller to simply say "I don't recognize your supremacy" while complying with the explicit demands, any more that it would be for her to respond to a demand that she kneel by saying "No, I won't" while remaining on her knees. The supremacist fantasy is not sustained by dialogue or persuasion or negotiation. It, like Nazi ideology and other totalitarian myths, relies on symbols, fantastic claims and unverifiable mysticism. It is the symbols they want in order to display it to their followers and potential followers, and the symbol in this case is obedience to the demand not to depict Muhammad.

The critique that more productive methods of dialogue should be favored in addressing the West's "problems" with 7th century customs does not appear to have been thought through. Once it is established that the west will capitulate to "we demand that you submit by not drawing the prophet, or we will kill you," it will become a commonplace to hear "we demand that you submit by not criticizing female circumcision, or we will kill you," or "we demand that you submit by not objecting to the stoning of homosexuals or adulteresses...or WE WILL KILL YOU." Again, people do not reason their way into fantasies and fantasies can be sustained only so long as reality does not intrude, in this case by having non-Muslims play along. I will give Ms. Geller the benefit of the doubt that she was not willing to play along. The supremacist fantasy will persist until it is acknowledged for what it is: a dangerous, hateful form of chauvinistic hysteria.

The fantasists are abetted by the clueless and venal in our own culture; the cowards who seek to usurp some reputation for virtue by pretending that their fecklessness is really just noble sensitivity to the feelings of the misunderstood. Garry Trudeau, Bill O'Reilly and like-minded invertebrate frauds are simply trying to indulge their own fantasy. How lucky for them that the things that the thugs threaten them with violence for doing are the things they are too virtuous to do anyway! Eventually though, what will be demanded is that the cultural elite look away when the fantasies of others demand that atrocities be visited among the powerless in their midst, not merely those in middle eastern hell holes. One should not assume that our smugly sensitive betters will magically find their courage then.

There are some rather simple distinctions that make all of the nuanced analysis and competing-interest hand wringing largely unnecessary. No one has the right to impose respect for their feelings onto others. Feelings are subjective, and virtually anything is offensive to someone. Their can be no general obligation to respect the feelings of others when human life is necessarily competitive, emotional, and inconsistent in the distribution of the fortunate and unfortunate, and values, mores and personalities vary so greatly. The number of things that is potentially offensive to the subjective sensibilities of someone is practically limitless, and respect for those sensibilities is no more than a matter of good manners. Physical violence on the other hand is objective, and refraining from it is a reasonable expectation. When we ask that people not hurt our feelings, we ask a favor; when we demand we not be subject to violence, we demand a right.

So I give Ms. Geller the benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, she realizes how twisted it is to advocate violence when someone, somewhere draws a cartoon.

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