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?

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