There is a lot to say about Charlie Hebdo. There is a lot to say about the shooting last night in Garland, Texas. They are not the same things, but there is a narrative line connecting those events, and that’s a third thing to say, that it is a story. Precisely because they are not the same things, in fact, it’s important to tell the story as a story, as something other than yet another entry in the perpetual, inevitable, clash of civilizations of us and them and us and them. These events are distinct; there is a chronology and a narrative space that connects point A and point B. If we do not attend to that the story as story — how it has developed, is developing, will develop — we will expect the same thing to keep happening, over and over again. We will be right, but we will be blind as to why it does.
I don’t know the whole story, of course. But an “Art Exhibit” or “contest” was not the thing that was attacked, not if the word “art” means anything. If it was a story about violent extremists attempting to commit murder, then we can be glad they failed. But this is also a story about escalation and reaction, and that story gets lost if its flattened into LIBERAL FREE SPEECH vs. VIOLENT ISLAMISTS by the many commentators who not only love simple binaries, but particularly enjoy that one. For example:
This is one way to tell it, one way to tell the readers that they already know this story.
Another way to tell it would be that, in January, after Islamist gunmen killed twelve journalists in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the Sound Vision foundation, an Islamic media company, framed their annual convention in Garland, Texas, as an Islamic rebuke to those gunmen’s claims to have “revenged” the Prophet.
The convention was called “Stand with the Prophet Against Terror & Hate”:
We have avenged the Prophet Mohammad,” the gunmen shouted after killing 12 at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The publication is known for lampooning the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.
Well. The Prophet banned revenge as he built his peace sanctuary in seventh-century Madinah, establishing instead the rule of law. Peace was his goal, which he achieved by developing alliances between Muslims and Madinah’s non-Muslim Arabs, Jews, and Christians.
“The Muslim love for Prophet Muhammad is unquestionable. We love him more than we love ourselves. God’s peace and blessings be upon him. It hurts us when any one insults our Prophet. It is, however, the ignorant, who do not know the loving path of mercy and forgiveness taught by the Prophet; they are turning into violent extremists like ISIS and Boko Haram and committing crimes in his name.
This is not love. This is hate.
They were met with hate, as it happened. First, the local Tea Party was outraged that American property was being used by un-Americans:
Julie Borik says she and other Garland Tea Party members are outraged after hearing about two speakers who will appear at an upcoming event to combat Islamophobia at the Curtis Culwell Center, which is owned by the Garland ISD. Borik says, “I believe in the Constitution and we have the right to free speech. There are other venues they could rent and I don’t want it on an ISD property that is government property. I’d like us to promote American values.”
Though the Sound Vision conference was bedecked with American flags and declared its staunch American patriotism, as local news showed, right-wing protesters told them to go home:
Holding signs saying “You are not Americans. Don’t fly our flag,” protesters complained about the Garland Independent School District allowing the group to use the facility. “We pay our taxes to that school, and I don’t want them here,” one woman, Lavona Martindale said.
Another protester, identified as Greg McKinley, said, “We’re here to stand up for the American way of life from a faction of people who are trying to destroy us.” McKinley added, “If they want to live their life like the middle east, they can go back to the middle east.”
Pamela Geller’s organization uses “free speech” as cover for this kind of aggressive Islamophobia, an explicit call to prevent Muslims from flying the American flag and to prevent them from using government property. Free speech and tax dollars are code for Muslims go home, which is then justified by pretending that it’s the Muslims who are trying to restrict free speech. Because a conference against Islamophobia is the same thing as imposing Sharia law?
But “Islamophobia” is the word that Geller and company use to rhetorically transform “Stand with the Prophet Against Terror & Hate” into “Stand with the Prophet,” a Muslim project to stomp out free speech, and it tells us a lot about what “free” speech really means here. By consistently excising the “Against Terror & Hate” part (a cut which the mainstream media imitates), they carefully re-frame what was, essentially, a public relations effort put on by a media company as an effort to re-brand Islam in terms of love and peace, representing it as the first stage in a totalitarian Muslim theocratic state taking root in Texas, creeping Sharia and the immanent destruction of American Free Speech by Obama’s Muslim Agenda, etc.
In this way, to denounce Islamophobia, Geller proclaims, is a blow against free speech:
The art exhibit and contest will be held at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland on May 3rd. “This was the site of a Muslim conference denouncing ‘Islamophobia’ — an obscene stand for them to take after the Charlie Hebdo massacre – and our massive Free Speech Rally outside that event,” Geller wrote in a press release obtained by Breitbart Texas.
The contest will take submissions online and the winner will be announced at the event in Garland. The winning cartoonist will receive a $10,000 prize. The exhibit will feature images of Islam’s prophet in both historical and contemporary settings. There will also be a series of speeches by internationally renowned free-speech advocates.
Geller explained that the art exhibit is the next logical step following AFDI’s Free Speech Rally in Garland. “This event will stand for free speech and show that Americans will not be cowed by violent Islamic intimidation,” she stated. “That is a crucial stand to take as Islamic assaults on the freedom of speech, our most fundamental freedom, are growing more insistent.”
There are lots of things to say about what happened last night, but one of them is this: Pamela Geller’s mouth is where Free Speech goes to die. Geller’s organization is a lot closer to the Skokie-Illinois test case for free speech: if you allow even this, then you can say that speech is free. And the US government, of course, does “allow” it, and should: the content of Geller’s speech is and must remain a separate issue, insofar as the state is concerned, and the fact that Pamela Geller’s organization uses its speech in ways that are calculated to provoke, offend, and harass cannot be a reason for suppressing it, again, insofar as the state is concerned. But fascists are not defenders of Free Speech, even when they provisionally hide behind the protections of the liberal state.
What Geller and company mean by “Free speech,” as they show by their words and actions, is that the free can speak and the unfree should stay silent, a distinction to be found in the barely veiled expressions of racialized citizenship through which this garbage is put forward. When American Muslims speak against Islamophobia, they are taking “an obscene stand” (one of the forms of speech that is commonly censored), and it will never matter how many times they denounce hate and terrorism. If they wave the American flags, they are told to stop: this speech act is not for them. If they rent a publicly-owned convention center, the fact that their tax dollars paid for it as well means nothing, since “taxpayers” are implicitly white in this vernacular.
In this way, a “Free Speech” demonstration is the vehicle for demanding that Muslims be barred from public space, on the basis of their religion, and what they are saying.
Freedom of speech, if it means anything, means that the government takes no stand on who can speak, and how and where. If you are a representative of the state, you need to stay out of it. If, however, you are not a representative of the state, if you are a member of “civil society,” then fascism is not something to be neutral on. You have to stand somewhere. This is fascism, not something so comparatively mild as mere “racism.” Racism is bias, but fascism is what happens when white supremacy becomes the religion of the state, and it’s a jealous god. Geller’s organization (and their many fellow travelers) are working to frame the existence of a certain class of person as a fundamental threat to the nation — literally, attempting to ban them from public space because they are intrinsically foreign — and to mark anything positive said about Islam as an obscenity and an attack on free speech. If there’s a slippery slope to be feared here, it’s this one, because we’re already plummeting down it. And if the state must tolerate the intolerant, and it must, for fuck’s sake, let’s the rest of us not get confused about the difference.