There should be no question that Pamela Geller had a right to organize the contest that became a target for two jihadist would-be assassins. There can be no excuse for the jihadists’ assault, which surely qualifies as an act of terrorism whether or not ISIS’s claim of responsibility turns out to be genuine.
Geller was a victim of attempted violence, but we mustn’t confuse victimhood with nobility. Nor should we shrink from condemning her provocation and recognizing the phoniness of her claim to simply be defending free speech. Geller has a long record of anti-Muslim bigotry. Her contest, rewarding entrants for caricaturing the prophet Mohammed, has to be understood in that context. It wasn’t a disinterested assertion of free speech rights; it was a deliberate insult to a religion and its adherents, another installment in a long campaign of hatred. Otherwise, why single out Mohammed alone? Why not a contest inviting entrants also to caricature Jesus and some Old Testament figure?
Predictably, Geller has gotten support from the right. The National Review’s Rich Lowry admits that her contest “…was deliberately offensive, but so what?” :
…[U]ntil all of Islam accepts the premises of a free society, as have other major world religions….[t]hen, and only then, will mockery of Islam by the likes of Pamela Geller and her ilk be a tasteless irrelevance, rather [than]a statement from atop the ramparts of free speech.” [emphasis added]
Plausible, maybe? So we should feel free, even happy, to insult Islam, until all Muslims accept our right to do so. But there are reasons why we don’t deliberately and gratuitously insult other people’s religious beliefs. I’m an atheist. I firmly believe that the core beliefs of the monotheistic religions are largely ridiculous. But I don’t make a point of telling that to my religious friends and relatives. Even if asked, I am less than blunt in telling them what I think. There are a number of reasons for this reticence, but foremost among them is that to behave otherwise would be offensive. Religion is extremely important to a lot of people, and to tell them that they are deluded accomplishes nothing except to create bad feeling.* On an interpersonal level, this kind of restraint is called tact. In a broader public setting, it’s a matter of civility. But Judeo-Christian jihadists like Geller and Lowry aren’t interested in civility where Islam is concerned—for somewhat different reasons, they are pleased to foment hatred. That is their right, and it is our right to condemn them for it.
* I think that because it is so much a part of the true believer’s self-identity, religious belief, no matter how absurd, calls for a show of respect that other absurd beliefs do not. By contrast, I have no problem telling a global warning denialist that he is delusional. If he finds that offensive, that’s just too bad.