Cartoons of Free Speech or Hate? Redux

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"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).