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The Anti-Islam Exhibit Attacked in Texas Is a Clearer Free Speech Case Than 'Charlie Hebdo'

Ben Torres / Getty Images

The most clarifying test cases for free speech involve the defense of the vile. 

Conversely, free speech contests over works that may have intellectual artistic merit inevitably become muddled in side issues of cogency and aesthetics. 

As an example of the latter, the PEN American Center created controversy by  bestowing the Freedom of Expression Courage Award to French weekly Charlie Hebdo, for “paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss.” Supporters of the award celebrated Hebdo’s irreverence, while opponents claimed the magazine was racist and Islamophobic. Yet the case became a debate about the merits of Hebdo's satire, overshadowing the core issue of defending free speech—and the crucial question of the motive for the attacks on Hebdo and how best to respond to them. 

The attempted attack Sunday on a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas, which left a policeman injured and two gunmen dead, is an example of a clarifying event. Unlike Hebdo, it’s difficult to find either intellectual or artistic merit in the offending works (see the prize winner here). The event was organized by American Freedom Defense Initiative, whose executive director, Pamela Geller, is a notorious Islamaphobic hatemonger known for allying with European neo-fascist parties. In a typical blog post from 2010, Geller refers to Barack Obama as “Hussein,” and says the president “is a muhammadan. He's not insane… he wants jihad to win.”

It’s precisely because Geller is so heinous a figure that free speech issues come into sharp relief. Geller is a far-right provocateur, but she has every right to express herself in any way she wants, short of incitement to violence. The provocative nature of her many anti-Islamic comments in no way excuses the attacks on the exhibit. The gunmen, and those who incited them, bear sole responsibility for the crime. 

In making a distinction between Geller’s speech and the violence of the gunmen, we properly move away from the issue of the content of the speech to questions about the motives and strategy of the would-be killers. It’s in the issue of motives and strategy, rather than the content of the allegedly offensive art, that the parallels with Charlie Hebdo become pertinent. 

After the Hebdo shootings, University of Michigan historian Juan Cole posted an incisive essay on the likely motives, writing, “This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point Al Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this … term deriving from wordplay involving scrambling of letters).”

The killers in the Hebdo case were well-trained Al Qaeda operatives. Information about the Texas shooters is currently sketchier, but there is indication that these were freelance operators possibly radicalized by online jihadi chatter. If so, we can see the same strategy at work, despite the use of different tactics. Groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are using the internet to stir up fringe, unstable, apocalyptic people to commit violence in the West—not simply to kill supposed enemies but to polarize these societies by marginalizing mainstream Muslims there. 

In the wake of Hebdo and Texas, the question becomes: Do we give Al Qaeda and ISIS what they want, this opposition between Muslims and non-Muslims? Pamela Geller deserves full free-speech protection, and yet she's promoting the very polarization that radical jihadi groups are so eagerly working for through their violence. So while the state has no right to censor Geller, we have every right to reject her political message. And we should.