- - Monday, May 11, 2015

Beyond the sheer act of defiance in the face of tyranny that was the recent draw Muhammad contest in Garland, Texas, a deeper benefit is emerging: the swirl of controversy that erupted after two Muslim terrorists drove all the way to Texas from the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamic Cultural Center of Phoenix, Arizona, intending to commit mass murder, is forcing us to consider what exactly it means to “defend free speech.” And what we want it to mean or are ready to accept that it should mean.

Most Americans have no trouble defending the First Amendment – in the abstract, anyway. But now that defending the right to defy Islamic blasphemy laws comes with specifics like an art contest, with actual drawings of Muhammad, and prize money offered by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), and event organizers like AFDI co-founders Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, and death threats—now some aren’t quite so sure anymore that this is the kind of free speech or these exactly are the free speech champions they had in mind.

So, there are the artists and cartoonists who draw images of Muhammad: the Albanian-born ex-Muslim Bosch Fawstin (who won the AFDI contest), the Swedish artist Lars Vilks and the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. And there is the Dutch political leader, Geert Wilders, who made a film that criticized shariah-sanctioned abuse of women. Danish journalist Lars Hedegaard is a free speech advocate who has been critical of Islam, too. These (and many more, including Americans who increasingly are labeled “Islamophobes”) are the champions of free speech who actually create the material shariah would label “blasphemous” (essentially for daring simply to depict Muhammad in an image or criticize anything about Islam at all). Many have been targeted for death by the enforcers of shariah.

Then there is the Jyllands-Posten Danish newspaper that published Mr. Westergaard’s drawings and the satirical Parisian magazine, Charlie Hebdo, that generally takes swipes at everyone and everything, including Islam. These and a host of online sites (including this one) posted the articles and cartoons and images, thereby incurring the murderous wrath of shariah-adherent Muslims, whose doctrine and law explicitly enjoin them to attack such media and their staffs with intent to kill.

And finally, there are those like Pamela Geller who display and encourage and feature such material, whether in city bus ads, transit stations, or at the recent contest in Garland.

The question that so many of the wobbly set now seem to be stumbling over is, at which point in the free speech process – creation, publication or public promotion – does it become “provocation” that “goes too far?” Does it ever? Is it even possible for speech to be “too free” — in America? Why is the abstract defense of free speech and the First Amendment so laudable, but when the abstract takes form in ways that boldly challenge Islam’s attempts to silence those who criticize, when the abstract is personified in a Fawstin, a Geller, Hedegaard, Vilks, Westergaard, or Wilders, then it’s called “incitement” that ought to be toned down? If not their statements, then what would be an acceptable demonstration of defiance against Islam’s blasphemy codes? That is, if defiance itself isn’t just a bit too much these days.

The point is that unless we champion and defend the actual people who are the physical embodiment of those abstract principles we all claim to cherish, the principles won’t stand a chance.

Bosch Fawstin’s winning drawing of Muhammad was neither crude, nor grotesque, nor tasteless. It was, in fact, the perfect depiction of the principle at the center of contention: the right to freedom of artistic expression. If the conquered civilizations of the Afghan Buddhists, Byzantium, Middle East Christianity and Judaism, Hindus, and Persians teach us anything, it must be that even the most determined defense over a span of centuries may not suffice to save a people targeted by Islam; anything less, never mind actual passivity in the face of jihad aggression, will lead inevitably to subjugation.

Some would say that Pamela Geller pushes the edges of the envelope. To the extent that this is true, it is because it is always out at the edges, at the frontiers, that the ghazi – the warriors of Islam – have probed and tested the defenses of their targets for any weakness. If no one confronts them at the frontier, they push onward, inward, to the soft centers of society. Those hardy defenders who hold firm out there on the frontiers stand between civilization and barbarism.

By all means, we need to have this discussion. Long overdue, actually. But let us understand that the debate is not about the principle of free speech, per se: we agree on that pretty unanimously. Rather, it’s about how far we are willing to go to support those who put that principle into action against an enemy that would shut it down completely if not stopped.

Clare M. Lopez is vice president for Research and Analysis at the Center for Security Policy.


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