Confusion in the Public Square—The Case of Pam Geller and Islamic Jihad

Pam Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is an activist. She clearly is on a mission to raise awareness of the threat from radical Islam. Most recently, she hosted an event in Garland, Texas. The idea was to award $12,500 to the winner of a cartoon contest for depicting the prophet Muhammad. This is just the sort of thing that riles Muslims worldwide. It is provocative and incendiary. It appears that it was deliberately so. Ms. Geller doesn’t like jihadists, and this is her way of drawing—quite literally—attention to the seriousness of their threat.

The event in Garland turned bloody when two gunman rolled up to the venue, brandished high-powered weapons, and were shot dead by the police. A media frenzy has developed over the event, but it has been focused through a peculiar lens: the misdeeds of Ms. Geller.

Apparently, Geller wishes to test the first amendment protecting freedom of speech in the United States. And she seems to have concluded that this precious right has been trampled in the aftermath of the event. In her media appearances, she has sought to direct attention to the truth of her message, so dramatically demonstrated by what happened at the Curtis Culwell Center: Muslim radicals are a danger and a threat to Americans right here at home.

There are at least three possible motivations for the media outcry against Ms. Geller:

  1. The Chris Matthews of this world probably are motivated by a socially and politically liberal ideology. These ideologues are always at pains to distinguish peace-loving Muslims from those radicals who have highjacked the peaceful religion of Islam, almost as if the “extremists” aren’t real Muslims. They smugly pronounce Islam to be inherently peace-loving, without any obvious awareness of what the Qu’ran teaches or Muslim history. They haven’t discerned that the “true” Muslims that they link together are the reformist progressives who feel no compunction to take the Qu’ran literally. Because they’ve bought the line that Islam itself is harmless, these ideologues are intent on calming emotions about the dangers of Islam. Pamela Geller should be ashamed of herself.
  2. Some of Geller’s critics may be genuinely fearful for American security. They’ve accused her of being dangerous. They’ve suggested that she is a threat to our security. After all, her actions were provocative. She sponsored an event that is offensive to Muslims. And radical Islamists can be counted on to step out of the shadows to shed blood to “voice” their disapproval. If she and her cohorts keep this up, we’re bound to face more immediate and alarming threats in our own backyard. She owes it to her fellow Americans to keep a lid on it and let saner measures deal with the threat she abhors.
  3. Some pundits may simply think Geller is acting stupidly. She’s asking for trouble, foolishly thinking that her campaign will stem the tide of jihadism in the world. There are better ways of answering the threat, and it’s nuts to think that progress can be made on this front through the antics of an extremist counter-Islamist. (Of course it won’t. But it may also be stupid to think that she thinks it will.)

I should mention a fourth potential motive for the media’s present obsession: Their need for another news story. “After all, Baltimore has calmed down, and they need some news to report.” This vague allusion to media cynicism neglects the significance of similarities and differences in media treatment of Ms. Geller’s escapades. They share a distaste for her actions; they differ in their specific criticisms of them.

The Common Sense Objection

The media critique of Geller has generally fallen short of accusations that she crossed the line protecting her freedom of speech. Her freedom of speech is protected. And note, Geller is doubly protected. First, the first amendment protects her from prosecution for her actions. Second, when threatened by violence, she and her cohorts are rightly protected by law enforcement. The gunmen who were killed violated the law. Geller did not. They had murder on their minds. Geller did not.

Here’s a difficult question for the media to wrestle with: If the gunmen were shot and killed for their own violent, law-breaking actions, while Pamela Geller was exercising her first amendment rights and did nothing legally wrong, should we focus on what the jihadists are doing to threaten American civil liberties, or should we focus on the wisdom of Pamela Geller’s actions? Wow, that’s a tough one.

Many media personalities have focused exclusively on the provocations of Ms. Geller and not at all on the nefarious action of the gunmen who represent world jihadism. They’ve blamed her for what occurred on May 3. This is a diversion from the truth that the gunmen were responsible for the outcome and that their acts were motivated by commitment to extremist Islam. And it ignores the report that ISIS has taken responsibility for the murderous decision to attack the Muhammad Art Exhibit.

There is a place for considering whether Pamela Geller is going about things in the right way. I think it’s a mistake. For several reasons. Not the least of which is that it isn’t exactly the Christian thing to do. I hope there aren’t a lot of Christians commending her for the strategy she’s adopted. Rank and file Christians—who have little influence on the international stage and can do little to effect geopolitical change—are called to winsome engagement with those who do not accept their Gospel. On the other hand, I believe there is the possibility of crafting a Christian strategy for dealing with ISIS and others. I even think that a Christian strategy is what is most needed today. Urgently needed.

But the media have a responsibility to get their priorities straight in the encouragement of civil discourse about what matters most. And right now that includes assessment of the potential for future attacks, some of which will likely succeed if we’re not vigilant. It’s not as if it takes a Pamela Geller to stimulate jihadist outrage.

And all Americans should be wondering whether fellow Americans whose tactics they disapprove should be cowed into silence into order to make peace with those who plot the disruption of our civil liberties. Reportedly, the winner of the cartoon contest has gone into seclusion after receiving death threats. Does Chris Matthews think he’s getting what he deserves?

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

2 Responses to Confusion in the Public Square—The Case of Pam Geller and Islamic Jihad

  1. Mark says:

    Professor Geivett, I’m a little queasy about casting the distinction you made when commenting on Geller. I’m suspicious of clean distinctions when they might be seen to tacitly endorse sacred/secular or public/private understandings in unclear ways. Here I don’t like holding a difference between “rank and file” Christians and Christian leaders. Not least because many of these also serve as “rank and file” participants in public institutions that serve political and wider ends. We can’t assume all Christians who aren’t leaders are simply people dealing within the context of interpersonal relationships. At least I hope not.

    I think a good analogy to the type of activity the cartoon event represents is when ships are sent into waters that are neutral by international law but contested by local despots or anyone who wishes to challenge the previous order. Someone has to be willing to do it at one time or another, and on occasion actually do it. Rights that are never exercised won’t long exist. It’s just politics 101. Is it really fair to characterize the exercise of rights as “the strategy she’s [Geller] has adopted” in other than a trivial sense? Whether it is wise at a given time or not is always open to question, but if and when deliberative action is taken it will be a public expression that Christians need not fear participating in. I’m not sure there is any historic precedent for a case involving rights where violence or its threat are opposed to each other that was resolved by argument alone, let alone winsome argument. So I’m not ready to endorse your assertion that you “hope there aren’t a lot of Christians commending her for the strategy she’s adopted.” That is *if* she and the locality she cooperated with on this event were prepared for the consequences that might happen. The Fatwa against Salmon Rushdie has never been lifted. But if they were, I’m not going to criticize the free actions of others taking risks to exercising their rights, whether they are Christian or not, certainly not when criticizing run no risk. Not least because I’m not sure we’ll ever be rid of Islamic ideology if people aren’t willing to take such risks. Especially in light of the fact that I think Victor Davis Hanson is correct that Islamic radicalism is parasitic upon Western insecurity and guilt.

    I think I get the interpersonal aspects of approaching discussions about Islamic ideology as well as anyone. I have been involved for years very closely to two girls who are now teenagers from a Muslim family. In the last year or so I’ve been talking to them about this sort of thing as they are now being politically influenced. I don’t think very many Christians are able to recognize and unpack the combination of political ideology, psychology of resentment and conspiracy, and religion present. Very little of the latter. Though I’m aware Muslims don’t distinguish politics from religion, that itself is a problem of course. Most people don’t even know that Nazi-inspired ideology is rife in the Middle East. For many a thin veil of religious ideology serves as toxic coping mechanism and need for explanation. What is missing in Islam is an understanding of original sin. But however nuanced I think my understanding and presentation may be, it is no more or less Christian than any other.


  2. Greg Logan says:

    This statement caught my eye “raise awareness of the threat from radical Islam”. Like we need more awareness about what everybody is already keenly aware about???


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