I’ll admit that when I first read the news that Robert Spencer and Pam Geller, the Sonny and Cher of anti-Muslim “creeping sharia” activism, had been barred from entering Britain, I felt a small sense of satisfaction. After all, these are people who engage in, and who raise money off of, the basest sort of knuckle-dragging bigotry, traveling around the United States whipping anti-Muslim sentiment, setting American against American, neighbor against neighbor, and always cloaking their crude propaganda as “human rights activism.” It was enjoyable to see them officially declared undesirable by an office of state, even if the state wasn’t my own.
The UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May justified the ban on the grounds that that the presence of Geller and Spencer would “not be conducive to the public good.” Geller and Spencer had been scheduled to speak at a right-wing rally in Woolwich, where a British soldier was murdered by two British Muslims in May. A Home Office spokesman confirmed that Geller and Spencer were subject to an exclusion decision, stating “We condemn all those whose behaviors and views run counter to our shared values and will not stand for extremism in any form.”
“Win-win,” I immediately tweeted, “UK gets to keep out haters, [and] Geller and Spencer get to feed their sense of victimization.”
It only took a few more seconds of thought to realize that this was the wrong response.
I certainly don’t diminish the harm that people like Geller and Spencer do. In 2011, I co-authored a major report exploring the well-funded Islamophobia network of which Geller and Spencer are important nodes. In both doing the research for that report and in presenting its findings afterwards, I’ve talked to countless Americans who’ve been targeted by their hate speech simply for being Muslim. I attended their “Stop Islamization of America” rally at Ground Zero in Manhattan in September 2010, where Geller condemned a proposed Islamic Community Center nearby as “a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the jihadist attacks” of September 11. (After a few hours in that crowd, I really needed a hug. Fortunately there was a dude in a bear suit giving them out.) It’s pretty sick stuff, with troubling historical echoes.
Their words fuel hatred. While they don't bear direct responsibilty, Spencer’s writing alone was cited 162 times in the manifesto of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo in July 2011 in the hopes of setting off a war against Muslims, and stopping the “Islamization” of Europe.
All of this, as stated by the Home Office spokesman, runs counter to the values shared between the U.S. and UK. But so does prohibiting people from speaking purely on the basis of offensive speech, which is precisely the speech that liberal principle requires that we stand for. If Geller and Spencer were advocating violence, that would be one thing. But they are not. To paraphrase an older Brit, I’d give the Devil benefit of speech, for my own freedom’s sake.
Better than banning these characters, which grants them far more importance than they deserve and enables them to imagine themselves free-speech martyrs, their views should be highlighted and repudiated. The answer to bad speech is more speech.
“Britain is a sufficiently mature nation to reject the extremism of people like Geller and Spencer,” wrote James Bloodworth on the British progressive blog Left Foot Forward. “There has been no ‘wave’ of anti-Muslim bigotry on the back of the Woolwich killing of Drummer Rigby. Those incidents that have occurred appear mostly to have involved those, like the EDL"—the English Defence League, at whose rally Geller and Spencer were scheduled to speak—"who were simply waiting for an excuse to legitimize their bigotry.”
“Banning them for what they might say is also dangerous territory,” Bloodworth continued. “Free speech within the law should be paramount. If they break British law then they should be asked to leave.”
It’s not something I imagined I’d ever have to say, but here it is: Geller and Spencer should be allowed to speak. Our societies are strong enough to survive their stupidity.