Within two of the most prominent monotheistic religions in the world, Judaism and Islam, tradition dictates it blasphemous and highly insulting for any person to physically depict their G*d in Judaism, and the Prophet Muhammad in Islam, even positively or respectfully. So why then did the so-called American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and its leader, anti-Islam activist Pam Geller, organize their “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, a small suburb near Dallas? Geller offered a $10,000 prize to be awarded for the “best” cartoon caricature of Muhammad.

According to Geller, as well as the invited keynote speaker, far-right politician Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party, the event was called as an exercise in free speech. Evidently, Geller chose the site in reaction to a pro-Islam gathering, “Stand with the Prophet” held there last January. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which follows extremist hate groups, defines AFDI as an extremist right-wing organization.

Expecting trouble and the possibility of violence, Geller expended an estimated $10,000 to the Garland, Texas police force to cover security costs for the two-hour event, and violence is, indeed, what they got. Two men identified as Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, using automatic weapons, opened fire on a security officer stationed outside the contest building. The officer, using only his service pistol, was able to bring down the shooters, possibly saving many other lives. The two men died of their wounds.

The shooters actions cannot be condoned, for violence in the face of hate only brings about more hate, thus creating an unending cycle. I am at a complete loss, though, to understand how this event could be justified as free speech.

“Muhammad fought and terrorized people with the swords. Today, here in Garland, we fight Muhammad and his followers with the pen. And the pen, the drawings, will prove mightier than the sword,” said Wilders during his address to the estimated 200 attendees. Geller continued the justification in an interview with CNN: “It’s dangerous because increasingly, we’re abridging our freedoms so as not to offend savages.”

To caricature the Prophet Muhammad in reflection of the perverse actions of some extremists who use their distorted interpretations of Islam as their battle cry is equivalent to depicting Jesus in response to the abhorrent acts of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVey or the sorted activities of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Though these so-called “cartoons” may stand within the protected categories under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and though I am not calling for them to be outlawed, I see these caricatures as acts of hate and bullying for the goal of insulting and inciting.

I ask then, who are the real “savages”?

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).


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