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Don't call the hateful Muhammad Art Exhibit attacked in Texas a "free speech event"

A 2010 photo of Pamela Geller, who organized Sunday's event in Garland, Texas.
A 2010 photo of Pamela Geller, who organized Sunday's event in Garland, Texas.
Jason Andrew/Getty

Reading about the Sunday attack outside of a community center in Garland, Texas, where two men opened fired and were killed by police, you might come away with the impression that the community center was hosting an event primarily dedicated to upholding the ideals of free speech.

The event's organizers, after all, implied that the point of the event was to support the American vision of freedom of speech, including the right to say or publish things that others find offensive. They called the event the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest; they solicited drawings of the Prophet Mohammed, which most Muslims consider taboo and offensive.

But this was not principally a free speech event; it was an anti-Muslim hate event. Pamela Geller is not principally a free speech advocate; her activism has rather focused on curbing the rights, including the speech rights, of Muslims in the United States. The Garland event's most famous attendee and keynote speaker, the Dutch far-right political leader Geert Wilders, has taken similar positions, for example calling for banning the Koran.

There is of course zero — zero — justification for the two attackers, who shot a security guard in the ankle (read more on the attackers here) before they were killed. No amount of hate speech justifies a violent retaliation, nor does it explain why these two men turned to violence.

But before we elevate Geller and the event's attendees to free speech heroes akin to the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, we should understand what the event was really intended to support: hatred and marginalization of Muslims.

There's a difference between an event that is protected by free speech and one that actually supports free speech. It is true that America's broad free speech protections extend to anti-Muslim hate events; that does not make them "free speech events." Elevating Geller and her cause to something they are not doesn't just obfuscate this distinction; it legitimizes and spreads her group's ideas, which are hateful, destructive, and dangerous.

What the event's organizers really want: it's not free speech

Geert Wilders speaking at a 2013 event in Australia (Ryan Pierse/Getty)

Geert Wilders speaking at a 2013 event in Australia (Ryan Pierse/Getty)

Pamela Geller is a far-right anti-Muslim activist who leads a group called Stop Islamization of America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as a hate group. PayPal at one point blocked donations to her organization on the grounds that it was a hate group.

Geller has argued, for example, that President Obama is a foreign-born Muslim and a "love child" of Malcolm X. She has accused the State Department of being run by "Islamist supremacists" and famously campaigned, in 2010, to block the development of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. According to a New York Times report at that time, her group's lawyer, "David Yerushalmi, has sought to criminalize the practice of Islamwhen defined as adherence to Shariah, Islamic religious law."

The Anti-Defamation League, which also classifies Geller's organization as a hate group, has described its goals as "promot[ing] a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam" and "seek[ing] to rouse public fears by consistently vilifying the Islamic faith and asserting the existence of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy 'American' values."

In Geller's paranoid worldview, not only are all Muslims allied in a vast and secret campaign to destroy freedom, but they also have allies everywhere who are bent on helping them. As Geller wrote in explaining the necessity of her event in Garland, "There should have been Cartoon Exhibits all over the free world, to show the jihadists and their stealth allies in groups that are doing all they can to intimidate the West into abandoning the freedom of speech that we will not kowtow to violent intimidation."

The keynote speaker at the event was Geert Wilders, who is the head of a far-right Dutch political party that is the fourth-largest in the Netherlands parliament, and is a leading figure among European anti-Muslim activists. "Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe," he has said. And, separately, "There is a battle going on and we have to defend ourselves."

Wilders has called for banning the Koran, comparing it to Mein Kampf, and was briefly barred from visiting the United Kingdom for his views. He has called Islam the "ideology of a retarded culture" and called for taxing women who wear headscarves. He has demanded that Muslims should "tear out half of the Koran if they wished to stay in the Netherlands."

Wilders has used his narrative of a civilizational war with Islam not just to argue for reducing the rights of Muslims, but for pushing them out of the Netherlands en masse — an act, essentially, of ethnic cleansing.

Robert Spencer, Geller's longtime ally and a fellow organizer of the event, produces faux-scholarly work meant to back up Geller's assertions of a worldwide Muslim conspiracy. As Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, wrote in 2013 when Spencer and Geller were briefly barred from entering the UK to give an anti-Muslim presentation:

Their words fuel hatred. While they don't bear direct responsibility, Spencer's writing alone was cited 162 times in the manifesto of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo in July 2011 in the hopes of setting off a war against Muslims, and stopping the "Islamization" of Europe.

These are not free speech advocates — they are anti-Muslim advocates. What sort of pro-free-speech activist invites a keynote speaker who has advocated banning a religious text, or taxing someone for wearing the wrong piece of clothing? Someone for whom "free speech" only applies to people with the right demographic background, and must be conditional or outright stripped for people from the wrong demographic background.

The Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest was an anti-Muslim hate event

When about 150 people gathered in Garland on Sunday for the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest, what they saw was a cartoon contest — dozens of submissions portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a vile, bloodthirsty killer — and a series of speeches by far-right anti-Muslim activists.

Geller described the event as intended to defend free speech and to call attention to what she sees as a Muslim threat to America. She told Breitbart News, "At a time when American Muslim groups in the US should have stood up for free speech and showed the world the way forward, they chose to stand with the Hebdo jihadists."

Geller's statement, of course, is false — Muslim groups widely condemned the Charlie Hebdo attacks. (Just as troubling as Geller's lie, though, is her implication that if any Muslim does not condemn terrorism, then he or she is probably sympathetic, that Muslims are considered guilty of extremism until proven innocent.) Her claim is in line with her broader worldview, in which all Muslims are an undifferentiated mass committed to the destruction of Western society and the establishment of a totalitarian Islamist state.

The event organizers portrayed the event as a continuation of the work done by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — the terror attack on its staffers was frequently cited.

But the cartoons displayed and awarded at the event, which you can see here, are not satirical like Hebdo's. Rather, they are straightforward portrayals of Mohammed as a vile monster with a clear, non-satirical message of anti-Islam hate.

Hebdo was often careful to distinguish its targeting of religious extremism from religion as a whole: Mohammed was often portrayed as a victim of Islamist extremists, and Hebdo staffers stressed that extremism rather than Islam itself was their target. This nuance was entirely absent from Geller's event, which made clear that it saw no distinction between the tiny minority of violent Islamist extremists and the billion-plus peaceful Muslims worldwide.

Further, the event's organizers explicitly positioned it as "sounding the alarm about Muslim encroachment into Europe and America, and its potential impact on American culture," according to Breitbart.

The event in Garland wasn't about freedom of speech; it was about war with Islam

The event's actual aim becomes clearer when you read Geller's explanation of its purpose. While she begins by framing the event as a defense of free speech, she quickly pivots to something else:

We choose freedom. Which is why we are holding our free speech event in the same venue, in the same city and state as the Muslim sharia event. Freedom lovers must stand up for free speech and not submit to savagery, supremism and tyranny, now. The jihadists mean to bring this war to our streets.

In fact, the "Muslim sharia event," held in January, had invited nearby Muslim-American families to discuss religious tolerance, pluralism, and anti-extremism (it was called "Stand with the Prophet against terror and hate") and to raise money for a cultural center to promote tolerance. In other words, if Geller sought to curb Islamist extremism, then she should have loved this event.

Geller helped organize a large protest outside of the January event, in which hundreds of people waved anti-Muslim signs and American flags. Muslim-American families were forced to walk through a gauntlet of hate. One sign read "Go home and take Obama with you." A woman at the protests told a local TV reporter, of Muslims, "We don't want them here." Geller reportedly told the crowd that they were "soldiers in the battle for America," according to Breitbart's paraphrase.

It's worth pausing to ask how we might view this event in Garland if, rather than espousing hatred and fear of Muslims, it had targeted a different group.

The experience of Muslims and Jews in the world is far from analogous, of course. But as a thought experiment, it is instructive to imagine how we might talk about this event if it had depicted Jews like this, if it warned that Jews were a fifth-column enemy within that was pulling the strings of power and sought the country's destruction, if its keynote speaker had called for taxing Jews and for expelling them from Europe.

In this scenario, we would of course not one iota lessen our condemnation of the two gunmen who opened fire outside the event — and rightly. But neither would we describe their meeting a free speech event or its participants as free speech champions. We would call them what they are, and what rights groups already call them: figures of hate.

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