Almost immediately after the news of last night’s shooting in Garland, Texas broke many in the chattering class started to blame the intended victims of the attack. The group that had sponsored a contest to draw pictures of the Prophet Muhammad and two of the controversial speakers at the event were quickly depicted as having invited violence by their willingness to offend Muslims. But whether or not you agree with Dutch politician Geert Wilders or American activist Pam Geller, the failed attempt to slaughter them or those who chose to hear their words illustrated one of their main contentions. You can offend any other religion with impunity but dare to speak rudely or even truthfully about Islamist intolerance and you’d better pay for heavy security and/or hope the police are doing their job (as, thank Heaven, they were in Texas). That, and not whether or not Wilders or Geller are right about some things or even anything, remains the only question to discuss when it comes to talk about Islamophobia.
Let’s specify that not all Muslims, especially here in the United States, are violent or intolerant. Most are hard working, decent people and deserve the same respect as any other American.
But there is a reason why humorists fear to skewer Islam or its holy book the same way they do Catholics or Mormons. You can mock Christian symbols, call it art and then expect cultural elites to lionize you and denounce those who are offended as fascists. You can stage an opera rationalizing Palestinian terrorism and the murder of Jews and be lionized as a courageous defender of artistic freedom and call those who denounce your bad taste Philistines. Write a play wittily trashing the Mormon faith and you can become immensely rich. None of those activities are particularly commendable but they are safe. But speak ill of Islam and you take your life into your hands.
Talk about Islamophobia in the United States is misleading since there is little or no evidence that the years that followed 9/11 or even now after the rise of ISIS that Muslims have suffered discrimination or violence. To the contrary, anti-Semitic attacks have always far outnumbered those despicable incidents in which Muslims were targeted. But the attempt to distract us from Muslim intolerance also misses the point.
You may say it is bad that some people are drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad specifically to offend Muslims who believe such drawings are forbidden. But the problem is that unlike other faiths that have learned to express outrage about those who show them disrespect without violence, a great many Muslims throughout the world still take it as a given that they are entitled to kill those who commit what they call blasphemy. The attacks on the Danish newspaper that first thought to publish Muhammad cartoons and then Charlie Hebdo illustrated this distorted principle.
The editors of Charlie Hebdo, Wilders and Geller need to be defended not because they are right about everything they say, write or draw. They aren’t right about everything as is inevitable with anyone who ignores nuances and seeks to inflame rather than analyze and illuminate. But, contrary to many of the talking heads on television today, they aren’t the problem. The problem is that a variant of Islam that commands the loyalty of hundreds of millions around the globe thinks it is okay to kill those who blaspheme against Islam. It is that faith that leads terrorists to cut off the heads of non-believers and to wage a war of conquest across the Middle East that threatens the security of the region and the United States. Nor is it a coincidence that this same not insignificant splinter of Islam is also promoting vicious anti-Semitism and helped fuel a rising tide of Jew hatred across Europe.
So, just as it is offensive to speak of the slain editors of Charlie Hebdo as being unworthy of our defense because of their harsh views, it is just as inadmissible for today’s discussion to center on whether or not Wilders or Geller are too provocative or show bad taste in their attacks on Islam. That may be hard for some in the Muslim world to accept. It may also be equally hard for many on the left, both here and in Europe, who have wrongly come to accept the idea that Islam may not be offended because it is a victim of imperialism and the West or the Jews who must always be seen as the villain. But the struggle against intolerant Islamism is one that hinges on the right and even the necessity to make it clear to the world that Muslims must learn to tolerate other views of their faith. Free speech can’t be sacrificed to Islamist sensibilities. Until it is safe for Wilders and Geller to speak without massive security measures, let us hear no more about the evils of Islamophobia.