The predominant media response to the jihad attack in Garland, Texas was predictable. To wit: it’s not nice to attack people with AK-47s, but, then, it’s not nice to draw offensive cartoons of Muhammad either. Or as Alisyn Camerota of CNN put it, “there’s a fine line between freedom of speech and being intentionally incendiary and provocative.”
This was said in the course of an interview with Pamela Geller, the organizer of the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest event that was interrupted by the Islamist attackers. The exhibit itself was a response to a Muslim sponsored “Stand by the Prophet” event held in the same center in January of this year to call for restrictions on speech insulting to Islam.
Unfortunately, the Vatican response to the exhibit was also predictable. A front-page headline in L’Osservatore Romano described the artwork as “blasphemous” and the accompanying article criticized the exhibit’s “provocative intent, almost wanting to throw gasoline on the fire.” As is well-known, drawing pictures of Muhammad is offensive to many Muslims—not just semi-obscene pictures in the style of Charlie Hebdo, but any depiction. It’s difficult to understand, however, why, from a Catholic perspective, the cartoons should be considered “blasphemous,” as Muhammad is not considered a prophet by Catholics.
But what about the “provocative intent” criticism? That, at first glance, appears legitimate. Everyone knows by now that cartoons of the prophet attract trouble. Many Catholics must be asking themselves why Geller and other critics of Islam can’t raise their objections in a nice, non-provocative way.
It seems like a reasonable question until you stop and consider that the reasoned-criticism approach has been tried and very few have paid attention to it, except for Muslim mobs for whom even moderate critiques are offensive. Witness the reaction when Pope Benedict merely quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor in a scholarly address to a group of academics at the University of Regensburg.
It’s not just Muslims who object to any criticism of Islam. Secular authorities tend to react in the same way. The co-sponsor of the Muhammad Art Exhibit is Robert Spencer, the author of several books on Islam and the director of the website Jihad Watch. Spencer’s writings on Islam are well-informed and are based almost entirely on Islamic sources. His talks are well-reasoned and are, for the most part, defenses of free speech, and of the rights of victims of Islamic oppression. He has never called for violence or lawlessness. Yet he and Geller were barred from entering the UK on the grounds that their presence would be a threat to community security.
Moreover, Spencer, a Catholic deacon, is routinely barred from speaking to Catholic audiences. Why? Because Muslim and leftist activists “lobby” bishops with threats of negative publicity should they invite the “hater” to speak. The threats seem to work. I know of at least five cases in which bishops rescinded speaking invitations to Spencer from Catholic groups—and it’s likely that there have been more such instances.
The featured speaker at the Garland event was Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament. Wilders is in some ways not unlike the Churchill of the pre-war years to whom he has often been compared: he devotes most of his energies to warning complacent Europeans about the gathering storm that threatens to engulf them. Despite the Churchillian resemblance, it’s a safe bet that most Americans have never heard of Wilders. Even in Europe, every effort has been made to deny him a platform. When he produced a short documentary film about Islamic violence, he was hit not only with death threats, but also with a lawsuit charging him with religious defamation. Although he is the most popular politician in the Netherlands, the European media dismiss him as “far-right.” The Vatican newspaper, apparently taking its cues from secular sources, describes him as “ultraconservative.”
Like Spencer and Geller, Wilders has also been barred from entering the UK, where he was to speak to members of Parliament (although two years later he was re-invited). Most recently, in hopes of preventing his appearances in Garland and on Capitol Hill, two Muslim congressmen requested that he be denied entry to the US.
If you haven’t heard of Wilders, you may have heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She also was a member of the Dutch Parliament and the co-producer of a short film about violence against Muslim women. As a result, she received numerous death threats and was eventually forced to move to America.
America is, of course, a bastion of free speech. Unless, that is, you’re speaking of Islam—in which case you might not be allowed to speak. Last year, Hirsi Ali was scheduled to receive an honorary degree at Brandeis University and to speak to students at a diploma ceremony, but the invitation was rescinded when Muslims complained.
You may have heard of Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but have you heard of Molly Norris? She was a cartoonist for the Seattle Weekly who ran afoul of sharia law five years ago when she proposed an “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” contest. A fatwa was duly issued and Norris was forced to change her identity and go into hiding. She hasn’t been heard from since. And, to my knowledge, no newspaper holds an annual Molly Norris Day in honor of her commitment to free expression. Unlike the unsinkable Molly Brown, Molly Norris sank out of sight without a trace.
Undoubtedly, many wish that Pamela Geller would do the same. To many, cartoons and caricatures seem an overly robust way of expressing criticism of Islam. But it appears that we hearken to no other kind. Since 9/11, there have been hundreds of books, thousands of articles, and thousands more news reports all attesting to the existence of a violent component in Islamic ideology. Yet a significant proportion of our citizenry (not to mention numerous Church authorities) still cling to the illusion that Islam is a religion of peace. When no one pays attention to the quiet criticism, it may be time to take out the artist’s brush and the cartoonist’s pen.
“Do I have to draw you a picture?” It’s the age-old challenge to those who are slow to understand. The question seems particularly apt for our own times. The answer is, “yes, you do,” because ours is a particularly simple-minded generation. We are so deeply enmeshed in simplistic narratives that we just don’t get it unless it is spelled out for us—and preferably in blood-red letters.
The point of the Muhammad art exhibit was not to rile up Muslims, but to wake up non-Muslims who pay no attention to the everyday evidence that something is seriously amiss in the Muslim world. Seeing that Muslims have rioted over far less, it was plonkingly predictable that there would be an overreaction on the part of some Muslims. But that’s the problem. Western citizens only respond now when the Muslim reaction is of a spectacular nature. They ignore the slow and steady erosion of our freedoms that occurs when the wish to be inoffensive becomes paramount. And the Garland incident will undoubtedly be used as an excuse to erode a little more. For example, on Monday, McClatchy DC carried a story with the headline, “After Texas shooting: If free speech is provocative, should there be limits?”
That brings us back to the L’Osservatore Romano article. Its authors decry provocation—“wanting to throw gasoline on the fire”—but have they paused to consider that many Catholic beliefs and practices are also provocative to Muslims? In Saudi Arabia, Bibles and rosaries are considered provocative and no churches are allowed. In some Muslim countries, ringing church bells is considered provocative. In other places it is provocative to rebuild a church that is falling down—so provocative that Christians have lost their lives for the offense. In still other Muslim areas it is considered provocative if a Christian won’t pay the jizya tax, and he can be killed in consequence. In some parts of the Muslim world, simply being a Christian is sufficient provocation for murder.
A large part of the “provocative intent” of the Garland exhibit is to prevent such things from ever happening here. It’s a reminder that the sharia ban on blasphemy is meant to apply not just in Iran and Arabia, but everywhere. Everyone is expected to submit. The event and its aftermath also serves to remind us that it’s not a good idea to let the most violent among us determine the limits of free speech. If the Muhammad Art Exhibit is dismissed as incendiary and needlessly provocative, it means that Muslim extremists get to call the shots about what is and is not a permissible form of expression in America. Today it will be Muhammad cartoons that offend. And tomorrow? Well, it could be anything, because Muslim radicals seem to have an unlimited capacity for being offended. It could even be church bells or rosaries.
Some will say that Geller and Spencer are needlessly stirring up trouble. In reality, they are saving us from much greater trouble down the road by flushing out the danger we face while there is still time to face it down. If Americans don’t pay attention to wake-up calls of the drive-by-jihadist variety, they will wake up someday to find that the time for defending their freedoms has already passed.
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