Cartoons of Free Speech or Hate?


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).

2 thoughts on “Cartoons of Free Speech or Hate?

  1. Relentlessly Pam Geller and her American Freedom Defense Initiative have used as a ruse and abused our constitutionally protected freedom of speech rights, by stoking the flames of hatred and violence in their inflammatory use of fighting words and now, in Texas, organizing a contest which awards the most blasphemous and vulgar cartoon depiction of the highest prophet of the Islamic religion.
    In one depiction of fighting words, the AFDI created and posted racist ads in our public collective transportation vehicles and stations which suggested that Israelis are “civilized” and Arabs are “savages”.
    Decided in December of 1942 in the case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire was that :
    “A criminal conviction for causing a breach of the peace through the use of “fighting words” does not violate the Free Speech guarantee of the First Amendment”.
    Pam Geller and the AFDI must be held accountable for their violation of Constitutional law.
    The writer of this letter is, documentably, a direct descendant of Holocaust surviving parents, in case this happens to be of interest.
    Unethical, reckless, and illegal provocations of violence must be proscribed.

  2. Yes, my relatives were slaughtered in the Holocaust, AND I speak out against Islamophobia when I see it.

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