Cartoons of Free Speech or Hate? Redux


"Love is a human right" poster lying on the pavement outside.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Samantha Marx.

This is the second in my series of commentaries on the American Freedom Defense Initiative and its “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” held recently in Garland, Texas.
In my first commentary, I discussed the controversy surrounding the so-called American Freedom Defense Initiative’s (AFDI) cartoon caricature context of the Prophet Muhammad where two men opened fire on a security officer stationed outside the contest building. The officer brought down the shooters killing them both. By my bringing attention to the Islamophobia guiding AFDI’s event, a few readers of my commentary accused me of “blaming the victims.”
In actuality, I did no such thing. AFDI and its leader, Pamela Geller, have a far-reaching history of Islam bashing, and their event in Texas fit clearly into that framework. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which follows extremist hate group, defines AFDI as an extremist right-wing organization. To caricature the Prophet Muhammad, while clearly protected by the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, can also be seen as an act of hate and bullying for the goal of insulting, inciting, inflaming, demeaning, and provoking.
Pamela Geller said on Fox News: “Islam is not a race. This is an ideology. This is an extreme ideology, the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth.”She asserted that President Obama is the “love child” of Malcolm X. In addition, she said that “Obama is a third worlder and a coward. He will do nothing but beat up on our friends to appease his Islamic overlords.”
Some supporters of AFDI confuse and conflate “free speech” with “accepted” or even “tolerated speech.” For me, while I understand that what AFDI is doing has been classified under the category of “free speech,” that does not mean that I have to tolerate it by not speaking up. I understand that we cannot take AFDI to a court of law to issue a cease and desist order against its tactics, nor would I want to do so. However, I have the right, as well, to take this case to the court of public opinion and call it out for what it is: a hateful reaction to an already minoritized and misunderstood group of people in the United States and worldwide.
I certainly do not place the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in the same category as AFDI since Charlie Hebdo operates as an equal opportunity magazine satirizing many religions, including denominations of Christianity and Judaism, plus politicians, celebrities, artists, and entire nations. AFDI, on the other hand, functions solely to defame and attack Muslims and Islam more generally.
AFDI metaphorically dumps barrels of blood into the sea hoping to attract sharks. Unfortunately, by following the bait, the two shooters in Texas, apparent radical jihadists, ceded the moral high ground and transformed AFDI from the perpetrator of bigotry into the seeming victims of attack.
As progressive people of all backgrounds and identities, however, we cannot allow those who would do violence to set the agenda and control the narrative. For in the insightful words of poet and activist Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, by our employing the oppressor’s tactics of violence, we will never end the oppression.
As in so many other movement struggles, we must challenge Islamophobia with acts of non-violent civil disobedience by writing commentaries, engaging in social media campaigns, organizing peaceful protest rallies, speeches, and letter writing drives. We must maintain the moral authority, and expose the negative stereotyping, scapegoating, bullying, and intimidation by the bigots and bashers.
To dismantle the oppression, we must break the cycle of the radical extremists responding violently to the words and actions of the reactionary provocateurs. Non-violent resistance has the potential of giving voice to and halting the wheels of oppression from running over the marginalized, the bullied, the disenfranchised, and the profiled. It has the potential of realigning relationships of power. If you doubt this, study the words and deeds of such notables as Leo Tolstoy, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez, and so many others in progressive social change movements.
In the final analysis, we are all affected by oppression, even when that oppression is not directed at us specifically because we are all diminished whenever any one of us is demeaned.

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).

4 thoughts on “Cartoons of Free Speech or Hate? Redux

  1. I’m no big fan of Heller, but is it any worse than what the Nation of Islam’s Lois Farrakhan has said about Jewws. I bet you never batted an eye when he made those comments,

  2. Hate speech is protected speech–but we become hateful ourselves when we do not speak out against the hate being expressed.
    The anti-Islam movement is well-funded, and is a true social pathology. And it is being used in much the same way as anti-Semitism was used a hundred years ago–to distract from the corruption and greed that is destroying the American Dream.

  3. Consipicously missing from the discussions on the Southern Poverty Law Center designated “hate group” of Pamela Geller’s “American Freedom Defense Initiative” is the fact that what she and organization do in the name of “free speech” does not fall under the category of protected speech on the basis of the 1942 Supreme Court Ruling in Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire and this renders her and the group indictable.
    To sum up the essence of said Supreme Court Ruling : The use of “Fighting Words”, which is defined as text, drawings, photos, or any other expression which is of such defiling nature as to most probably result in serious violence, cannot be expected to be protected speech,
    Geller and the AFDI, have posted racist and hate inciting ads on buses and trains in Washington, DC and NYC which characterize Israelis as being “civilized” and Arabs/Palestinians as being “savages”.
    When Pamela Geller and the AFDI decided to organize a “context” of cartoons which defile the highest icon of the Moslem religion, Prophet Mohammad, they were in effect provoking and expecting a violent reaction and the proof thereof is that they hired tenths of armed private security guards for the event.
    Such agent provocateur activities are recklessly socially irresponsible, endanger the lives of innocent people who have nothing to do with these events, and most importantly, endanger unnecessarily the lives of law enforcement agents which in this case had to come to the rescue of the attack which was thereby provoked in Garland, Texas, since the armed private security guards took no action.
    It goes without saying that the men who carried out the violent attack are criminals and cannot be condoned in any way, but this is misses the point that, Geller & company must be reined in their brazenly broad and dishonest depictions of Moslems generically and of their religion’s highest icon in the most debasing, racist, and obscene ways imaginable.
    Free speech remains intact when channeled critically, honestly, and specifically, and therefor constructively.
    This writer is the son of German Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide against Jews and others. Today Germany is a democratic country which guarantees freedom of speech to all. This does not mean that it deems lawful the public degrading of Jews and others by Neonazis, and this is a rational, socially responsible, fundamental, constructive and common sense principle and in no way infringes on free speech, unless false claims about the exercise of “free speech” are made of the kind Pamela Geller and the AFDI have made in order to peddle their destructive and incendiary defamation campaigns against entirely way too broad categories of peoples and their religious beliefs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *