Anti-Muslim advocate Pam Geller has the absolute right to draw any cartoon she wants of the Prophet Muhammad. That was not just the response from Muslim-American leaders I spoke to after news broke Sunday night of a shooting outside a Garland, Texas, event that Geller had organized—offering $10,000 for people to draw images of Muhammad—but before that event as well.
As of the writing of this article, we know that after the conclusion of Geller’s event, two gunmen drove into the parking lot of the venue and fired shots that wounded one security officer. The two suspects were then reportedly killed by the police officers outside the venue. The identity and motivation of the gunmen is still not known as of press time.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that some Muslims (and even people of other faiths) aren’t offended and/or disgusted by the idea of Geller offering $10,000 for people to draw despicable cartoons of Muhammad. This is akin to offering a prize for people to draw the most anti-Semitic or racist images imaginable, with the true goal being to stoke the flames of hate versus Jews or Blacks. But the reality is American Muslims deeply value freedom of expression.Plus, to be blunt, we are used to Geller, a person who has been denounced by both the Anti-Defamation league and the Southern Poverty Law Center for her anti-Muslim hate. She’s been demonizing us Muslims for years and we fully get that her goal is to provoke and demonize in the hope of inspiring a response that attracts the media attention that she so desperately craves. Indeed, Geller is so over-the-top in her rabid hatred of Muslims that she has become a punchline in our community.
In fact, in the weeks leading up to her contest, the response by Muslim community has been a mix of ignoring her and comically mocking her.
Alia Salem, head of the Dallas chapter of the Council on Islamic Relations explained to me by phone Sunday night that she had “passionately urged” Muslims to ignore Geller. Salem said that she’s a strong supporter of freedom of expression and believes that Geller certainly has the right to draw hateful cartoons about any religious figure she so chooses, including the Prophet Muhammad. But she urged Muslim community members to not give Geller “what she wants” and respond or even protest the event.
In fact, on April 25, Salem posted a plea on Facebook to fellow Muslims in the Dallas/Forth Worth area “to ignore and encourage others to ignore Pamela Geller” and her contest. Salem noted that Geller’s goal is “to incite our community and rile us up and I do not want us to give her the satisfaction or the media attention she thrives on. Without our reaction she has no story at all and no draw for the media which is what keeps her going and allows her to get publicity.” Salem concluded, “Let's not fall for it. Please.”
The comments by Muslims (and non-Muslims alike) to this Facebook post applauded Salem with remark like, “completely agree. They're not worth acknowledging,” “I can't believe how lame she is,” and “I can't believe the purposeful hatefulness of this! I'm glad everyone is getting ready to ignore it, they just want a reaction!”
Salem’s words clearly had an impact. As a local reporter noted, not one protester showed up to the event. And the event itself went on without disruption. (The shooting took place in the parking lot after the event had concluded.)
Another popular Muslim-American website, Muslim Girl. net, responded to Geller in a way I truly applaud: comically ridiculing her antics. A few weeks ago, Muslim Girl launched its own campaign to draw images of Mohammed and asked people to post them with the hashtag #DM2015. As they noted, “we thought, why not push back against the hate—with love?”
But this contest had a comedic twist. As the Muslim Girl staff explained on its website, since “Muhammad is the most common name in the world...Chances are that all know a Muhammad. So, let’s draw Muhammad. Let’s honor his diversity. Let’s celebrate his many different faces. Let’s elevate his humanity.” The staff even included an entertaining video of people drawing images of Muhammad’s they know.
And Muslim-American leaders I spoke with outside of Texas universally defended Geller's right to draw cartoons. For example, Linda Sarsour, a New York City Muslim community leader, explained to me that Geller can “draw any damn cartoon she wants and I defend her right to do so. I have always fought for her right to be a bigot and I have the right to counter her bigotry with my own speech.”
I couldn’t agree more. In fact after the terrorist attack against the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris, I appeared on numerous media outlets urging the media to show every cartoon they had drawn of the Prophet Muhammad. The very essence of freedom of expression demands that we defend the broadcasting or publishing of images that we may not like or even find offensive. That is how important freedom of expression to our nation and it is a principle that Muslim-Americans agree with wholeheartedly.
I, along with Muslims across America, are hoping and even praying the two gunmen involved in this shooting were not Muslim. But if it turns they were, I can assure you that Muslim-American community and religious leaders will swiftly denounce it as well as make it clear that we absolutely defend freedom of expression. The only hope is that the media covers our responses with the same zeal they cover the attack.