“Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a ‘Muhammad drawing contest’?” asked Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times reporter who specializes in Islamic extremism, on Twitter last night. That prompted a fair amount of criticism and mockery, but we’d like to attempt a serious answer to the question.
Callimachi was responding to last night’s events in Garland, a Dallas suburb, summed up by The Wall Street Journal:
Two men were killed Sunday in a Dallas suburb after they opened fire outside a building where an exhibit that featured cartoon drawings of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad was being held, city officials said.
The men drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, where the American Freedom Defense Initiative was hosting an event with an award of $10,000 for the top Muhammad cartoon, and began shooting at an unarmed security officer, according to a Garland city spokeswoman.
Garland police who were helping with event security returned fire, shooting and killing the two gunmen, who weren’t immediately identified.
The victim, Bruce Joiner, is out of the hospital after treatment for an ankle wound. The New York Times reports that police identified one of the dead suspects as Elton Simpson of Phoenix, where the FBI searched “an apartment believed to be connected to him.” In 2010 federal prosecutors charged a man by that name with “plotting to travel to Somalia ‘for the purpose of engaging in violent jihad,’ and then lying to a federal agent.” A judge convicted him of the latter charge “but said the government had not proved that his plan involved terrorism.”
The Times adds that “officials did not give a motive for the attack,” which is no doubt wise of them: The job of police investigators is to gather facts first and explain theories later. In this case, however, one hypothesis seems far likelier than any others. As the Times notes, “drawings of Muhammad, considered offensive by many Muslims, have drawn violent responses in the past.” The most shocking was January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre, but also in February, as CNN reported, a gunman who “swore fidelity to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” opened fire on a free-speech forum in Copenhagen, and then outside a synagogue, claiming two lives before Danish police killed him.
Even without official word on Simpson and his yet-unnamed accomplice’s motive, one can say that the attack was functionally an act of jihad. Anjem Choudary — the London-based extremist imam who defended the Charlie Hebdo assassinations in a next-day USA Today op-ed — tweeted this morning: “#garlandshooting we must learn the lessons from [Salman] Rushdie, [Ayaan] Hirsi Ali, Theo Van Gogh & Chalie [sic] Hebdo not to insult the Messenger Muhammad (saw)!” He elaborated in another tweet: “#garlandshooting there are two camps in the world: those that believe sovereignty belongs to mankind & those who believe it belongs to Allah.” (“Saw” is an abbreviation for the Arabic phrase meaning “peace be upon him.”)
So what about Rukmini Callimachi’s question? Let’s first dispense with the “Free speech aside …” preface, which some on Twitter found especially neuralgic: “The #NYT should change its slogan to ‘Free Speech Aside,’” snarked Gavin McInnes. It was certainly an unfortunate choice of words, but sometimes Twitter encourages brevity at the expense of clarity. We’d suggest a charitable interpretation. Perhaps Callimachi didn’t mean to disparage free speech but to concede it. That is, perhaps by “Free speech aside …,” she meant something like “Stipulating that the event was an exercise in constitutionally protected free speech …”
Proceeding on that assumption, the answer seems obvious. The purpose of the event was to make a point, in part a point about free speech. The event’s message was something like this: This is America, where the right of free speech is nearly absolute and includes the right to say things others find offensive or otherwise provocative.
Of course the event provoked not just indignation or anger but violence, a consequence whose possibility the authorities evidently anticipated — hence the strong police presence — and that was reasonable to anticipate given the European events described above. If we assume the organizers were cognizant of the possibility as well, then the event is best understood as an exercise in nonviolent resistance.
In a Salon apologia for the Baltimore riots, political philosopher Musa al-Gharbi observes that Martin Luther King “often staged episodes of civil disobedience in the most hostile or dangerous areas, with the implicit intent of generating a heavy-handed response from the authorities or local community in a highly public and well-publicized setting — thereby advancing sympathy for, and awareness of, the cause. Pacifists gain moral high ground precisely by refusing to return violence in kind — a feat that is impossible unless and until they are confronted with unreasonable force.”
It would be inaccurate to describe the Garland event as civil disobedience, since the organizers’ adversaries were not the civil authorities. (Indeed, the Garland police appear to have acted exemplarily in employing deadly force to protect citizens from violence.) But if Choudary’s understanding of the attack is correct, Simpson and his accomplice were acting on behalf of what they saw as a higher authority — the laws of Shariah, ordained by God. That such authority has no formal standing in the U.S. does not make it either benign or unworthy of resistance.
Five years ago this column criticized “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day,” a similar effort that grew out of a whimsical cartoon, because it struck us as a gratuitous effort to offend. A few months later the cartoonist, Molly Norris, was reported to have gone into hiding in the face of death threats. In 2008, we interviewed Dutch politician Geert Wilders and argued that some of his anti-Islam rhetoric was overwrought and wrongheaded:
He insists that his antagonism toward Islam reflects no antipathy toward Muslims: “I make a distinction between the ideology . . . and the people. . . . There are people who call themselves Muslims and don’t subscribe to the full part of the Quran. And those people, of course, we should invest [in], we should talk to.” He says he would end Muslim immigration to the Netherlands but work to assimilate those already there.
His idea of how to do so, however, seems unlikely to win many converts: “You have to give up this stupid, fascist book”—the Quran. “This is what you have to do. You have to give up that book.”
Mr. Wilders is right to call for a vigilant defense of liberal principles. A society has a right, indeed a duty, to require that religious minorities comply with secular rules of civilized behavior. But to demand that they renounce their religious identity and holy books is itself an affront to liberal principles.
Wilders was among the organizers of last night’s event in Garland. As far as we know, he has not softened his problematic views. But he’s still right to call for a vigilant defense of liberal principles. Sometimes that justifies being provocative. Sometimes it even requires it.