Haroon Moghul: Pamela Geller says she is for American values, but she subverts them. Individual responsibility is an American value
He says she's been banned in Britain, her anti-Muslim rhetoric widely denounced. American Muslims wisely ignore her provocations
Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author, essayist, and public speaker. Follow him on Twitter @hsmoghul. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
It’s possible you’d never heard of Pamela Geller before Sunday night’s tragic attack in Garland, Texas. You might think she’s taking a brave stand for free speech, for American values, and that by supporting her, you’re supporting America.
I’m here to disabuse you of that notion. While Geller claims to stand for American values, much of what she does undermines our values.
Sunday night, two gunmen opened fire outside an anti-Muslim event in Texas, and were quickly shot dead. Security prevented what could have been a far greater tragedy, and I am thankful for that, and for those authorities who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom of speech. But this isn’t only about free speech — which, it should go without saying – is a right for all Americans. It’s also about how some people use freedom of speech to subvert other American values.
I am Muslim, and after attacks like these, folks always ask, “Do you condemn terrorism?” Or they throw up their hands and say, “Where are the Muslims!” Well, to be blunt: Not at the event. In fact, every major mosque in the Garland, Texas, area not only shrugged off the anti-Islam event happening in their backyard, but also declined to exercise their equal right to peacefully protest it.
It appears from early reports that the suspects were not currently involved with a mosque. This is because American Muslims – our mosques and our leadership – reject radicalism out of hand.
There’s a reason ISIS uses the Internet to propagandize. Jihadists won’t gain traction in American mosques.
So why did Geller claim that the attackers represent large numbers of American Muslims — as she puts it, “your everyday, run of the mill moderates praising mind-numbing savagery” — although her only evidence for that are a few Twitter accounts linked to ISIS, one of which may have belonged to one of the attackers, and none of which represent any American Muslims?
It’s not as though Geller ever lets facts get in the way of a good opportunity: After the attack, she didn’t call for dialogue, for understanding, for bringing people together, which is what real leaders do.
Instead, she went on Fox news and called it a war. And that appears to be what she wants. That’s why she’s dangerous, not brave. She’s not celebrating hate speech for the sake of free speech, but to provoke reactions that polarize America, set people at odds, and alienate Muslims, who are American citizens and often first in line to report planned terrorist attacks. (American Muslims are allies, not enemies.)
And plenty of people know this, not just American Muslims, who might be presumed to be partial.
Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed dozens of fellow Norwegians and published a long, rambling screed justifying his murderousness, cited Geller repeatedly to justify his terrorist actions. The UK’s conservative, right-wing government even banned her from the kingdom (along with her colleague Robert Spencer). Because they know what the Southern Poverty Law Center knows: She’s using one democratic value to subvert other democratic values.
Democracy requires free speech, but it also requires individual responsibility. That’s at the heart of what makes this country work. So what happens when they clash? What happens when a person uses free speech to stigmatize an entire people? Even though American Muslims condemn terrorism, it’s unfair to be expected to. Collective responsibility? Guilty until proven innocent? That’s what it means to ask us all to condemn actions, when we have nothing to do with those actions.
There are other American values, too, which deserve mentioning: Exercising your freedoms with responsibility. Yes, we have the right to say things, even offensive things. But should we? Should we act with no consideration of the consequences? Should Geller have hosted an event she knew would draw a violent reaction? Should she put up advertisements in New York with the beneath-contempt claim that killing Jews is obligatory for Muslims?
Note, too, how Muslims responded: With levity and humor. But maybe making this about Islam prevents people from seeing the bigger picture here, the reason American Muslims are rightly and justifiably offended by Gellar and her ilk: Should white activists line up to drop the n-word “to support American values” of free speech? Or perhaps march into Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore waving Confederate flags? You have every right to. But should you?
And should you be surprised if a few people react violently, even if that violence is unacceptable? (Which it is.) What if you kept doing it, over and over again? For what possible reason would you want to?
Don’t let Pamela Geller fool you. She might use an American value to defend her work, but it’s merely a means to an end, and you won’t like where she’s taking us.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the pundit who David Cameron said made him "choke on his porridge."