From Charlie Hebdo to Pamela Geller, the Left Needs to Return to Defending its Principles

Since the shootout that left two gunmen dead in a foiled attack on a Draw Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, the organizer of the event, Pamela Geller, has been the subject of interrogation and criticism. Her critics, especially those on the left, have leveled the standards points against her. Several of these complaints are specious and in need of rebuttal.

One criticism came from lawyer and CNN host Chris Cuomo, who at first called the cartoon contest an exercise in “hate speech” that is “excluded from protection” by the Constitution. When it was duly pointed out to Cuomo that hate speech is a category of protected speech, he doubled-down, claiming that such speech does not pass “the [C]haplinsky test,” a reference to a Supreme Court case that disallowed words that “tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

However, successive decisions from the high court have severely limited this category of unprotected speech, called “fighting words,” which refers to words not that result in a “breach of the peace” (such a standard would be too slippery and criminalize any speech that is followed by violence) but expressions that, exchanged face to face, would likely provoke a violent reaction. The relevant case here is Gooding v. Wilson (1972), in which a man threatened to choke a police officer to death.

In short, while the cartoons drawn at Geller’s event are certainly offensive to some, they do not constitute “fighting words” according to the Supreme Court and are thus clearly constitutionally protected.

A more pernicious argument comes from Wajahat Ali. He writes that Geller is peddling a narrative that “Islam is at war with the West,” a message identical to the claim that the “West is at war with Islam” as made by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. In other words, according to Ali, people like both Geller and Geert Wilders (Dutch MP and a contest attendee, on whom, more later) are “ideological extremists” just like jihadists and are thus “two faces of the same coin.” Ali blames Geller (and other so-called Islamophobes) for legitimating the jihadists’ propaganda and playing into their recruitment strategy.

Ali is not alone in making this accusation. Writing in Al Jazeera America, Rafia Zakaria claims that the works of Charlie Hebdo and the writings of authors such as Salman Rushdie sustain and ‘us-vs.-them’ worldview that “[feeds] into the collective sensibility that led to the mass slaughter of Muslims as a way to fight terrorism.” Glenn Greenwald, Murtaza Hussain, and Nathan Lean have made similar arguments in one form or another: criticizing or mocking Islam “otherizes” Muslims and fuels hatred that is exploited to justify military operations in the Middle East.

However, in recent days, Geller has been (uniquely) clear in expressing what her binary worldview entails.

Rather than trying to divide people along ethnic, religious, or even geographical lines – as people like Ali claim, she explained that the war is about the fundamental values of the Enlightenment. Writing in Time, she warned that the attack in Texas is part of “a longstanding war: the war against the freedom of speech,” which she later defines as “the foundation of a free society.”

And while Geller freely uses words that rightfully put liberals on high alert, such as “monsters” and “savages,” she explains, in her Time article at least, that the monsters are not all Muslims or all non-Caucasians, but “jihadists” and “Islamic supremacists,” i.e. those who “use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence.”

Over the last decade, it is clear that the fundamental divide is thus between those who support free speech and liberalism on the one side and those who support censorship and illiberalism on the other – a divide that cuts into demographic blocs often considered to be homogenous.

Take, for instance, the responses in Europe to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. In France, the head of the French Muslim Council, Mr. Dalil Boubakeur – sounding a great deal like Mrs. Geller – told one newspaper that the murders amounted to “a thunderous declaration of war.” In the United Kingdom, Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist radical-turned-reformer, repeatedly condemned the attacks and unequivocally defends liberal principles, and Muslim groups in the U.S. and around the world advocated the liberal idea of challenging speech with speech.

Since so many Muslims in Europe and the United States do not want to stifle speech merely because it is rude or offensive, the divide is thus clearly not between Islam and the West, especially since “the West,” like the umma, does not speak with one voice and is itself internally divided over the freedom of expression.

For instance, Pope Francis famously claimed that there is “a limit” to free expression, which apparently does not allow one to “insult the faith of others.” Phil Donahue, the President of the Catholic League, agreed with the idea of firm limits, tellingly calling the defenders of Charlie Hebdo “crazy liberals.” Donahue also callously wrote “It is too bad that [Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher] didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.”

In this same vein, a Muslim commentator writing in The Guardian who called it “a violent act” to mock Muhammad wrote approvingly of a British law from 2008 that imposes broad constraints on “hate speech and offensive images” – apparently justified in the name of “social cohesion.” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, an influential Jewish voice in Britain, likewise blamed the cartoons for causing “a breach of fundamental values that form the stability of any civilised society.”

This new cleavage between defenders and opponents of free speech – especially offensive speech – is evidently orthogonal to the various ethnic (white vs. non-white), religious (secular vs. Christian vs. Muslim vs. Jew), and even political (left vs. right) categories that usually determine how we taxonomize popular opinion in our social discourse. Instead, the singular axis here is the freedom of expression, and the debate between these two factions has yielded interesting results in recent months.

For instance, in France, the U.S., and the U.K, critics of Charlie Hebdo (of all ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds) justifiably pointed to instances of indefensible hypocrisy on such speech, including the ban in some countries on Holocaust denial and other elastic speech codes susceptible to abuse. (In the end, I argue, these criticisms justify, for the sake of consistency, liberalizing free expression rather than constraining it further.)

The cartoon controversies have prompted similar debates across Europe. Norway, for example, recently scrapped its blasphemy law – in the words of the repeal’s two parliamentary sponsors, because “it is time that society clearly stands up for freedom of speech,” and in Ireland, a lobbying effort is underway to hold a referendum over whether to abolish its blasphemy law.

Here’s the twist: while wrong about the intent of Charlie Hebdo’s satire and Geller’s cartoon contest, her critics are right to notice who many of the people are who are making the most noise about radical Islam and the threat of jihadists.

It is troubling that it is predominantly conservatives who are making the most sense in pointing out the connection between the more bellicose, intolerant, misogynistic, and homophobic aspects of Islamic doctrine, as expressed in the Qur’an and the hadith. Why? Because it often the same people who, after making such trenchant observations, will on another occasion say something patently illiberal.

Pamela Geller, for instance, while rather nuanced in her Time article about the threat posed by Muslim jihadists in particular, had opposed the construction of the “ground zero mosque,” frets that the United Nations is aiding Islam’s takeover of America by arranging for the U.S. to accept Muslim refugees, and suggests that the TSA ban Muslim pilots to prevent travelers from becoming “sitting ducks.”

Geller is not alone in supporting illiberal policies. While Geert Wilders is right to point out the Qur’anic verses that promote hatred and violence, he often overreaches and breaches that crucial threshold between criticizing ideas and criticizing or discriminating against people, even though the distinction is apparently not lost on him: “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam,” he once said.

Yet this statement is hard to reconcile with his advocacy for ending Muslim immigration to the country he serves: “We need to stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands. That means no more mosques, no more Islamic schools, no more imams,” he told The Guardian in 2008. Wilders has also illiberally proposed banning the Qur’an.

It is problematic when those who are mostly vocal about the dangers of Islamic doctrine and mostly willing to defend free speech are, half of the time, indistinguishable – based on the corpus of their remarks – from Nick Griffin of the British National Party or the Le Pen father-daughter duo in France. Even more troublesome is when religious fanatics like John Hagee, that Christian apocalyptic, are more perspicacious on these issues than the editorial board of the New York Times.

It was Hagee’s unequivocal defense of Geller on Michael Medved’s radio show that reminded me of Sam Harris’s concern that “the defense of civil society [has been] outsourced to extremists.”

Where has the left been on issues such as the publication of cartoons or the threat posed by those who adhere to, and act on, a belligerent and intolerant yet plausible interpretation of Islam? Sam Harris, George Packer, Jeffrey Tayler, Nick Cohen, Ali Rizvi, Salman Rushdie, Bill Maher: these are the few names that spring to mind of people on the left who have found it possible to reconcile their criticism of Islam with a liberal attitude toward Muslims who ignore the worrying verses and hadiths in the Islamic canon.

These people, contrary to their detractors, are not bigots or Islamophobes. They do not make blanket statements about all Muslims, but only precise condemnation of those who subscribe to retrograde or belligerent beliefs (I am aware I am becoming repetitive on this point, but, as witnessed in the Affleck-Maher-Harris fiasco and the tiresome Cenk Uygur-Sam Harris debate, sometimes repetition feels like the only preemptive strategy against misrepresentation).

Based solely on the number of signatures collected on the petition dissenting from PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo (a majority, I am assuming, who lean to the left), I sense there is a significant imbalance here. It’s times like these that it feels like, repurposing Ronald Reagan’s quip, that “the left has left” these people – and me.

All I am asking the liberal-left to do is do what it has traditionally done: to criticize all belief systems – religious and secular – that preach intolerance, and to support free expression – even offensive speech (so long as that speech does not directly incite violence). At times, the former may even necessitate the latter: there is no way to criticize the harmful teachings of Islam and Muhammad without offending some subset of Muslims, just as there is no way to criticize the harmful teachings of Christianity and Jesus without upsetting some subset of Christians.

As Thomas Jefferson once wrote about the arcane notion of the trinity, sometimes mockery is a prerequisite for cutting through the political correctness and obfuscation that so often shelter religious dogmas: “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them.”

Nothing about this confrontational approach requires liberals to promote intolerance, however – far from it, but we cannot be afraid of criticizing Muslims who believe in or act on the teachings of jihad or who try to intimidate and silence blasphemers, just as we should not be afraid of criticizing homophobic Christians, or, in the case of Catholicism in particular, those preach the sinfulness of condom use to AIDS-ravaged Africa. Likewise, liberals ought to criticize those whose theological beliefs, rooted in a literalist reading of the Old Testament, justify an imperialist, chauvinistic, and racist project in Israel.

Not only is this what ought to come naturally to liberals, but being consistently critical of all harmful ideologies and those who act on them will deprive right-wingers of the legitimacy they receive when they are no longer the only ones defending civil society from its enemies – inside and out.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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