free speech

Free Speech vs. Constructive Speech

I’ve never met Pamela Geller, but she’s part of my extended family. As far as I know, we aren’t related by blood, but she’s Jewish (at least her parents are, though I’m not certain how she identifies herself) and I’m Jewish, so we’re in the same family. And things that she does and says, as president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, make me cringe. She places anti-Islam ads on New York City buses and subways, and her organization just sponsored an event in Garland, Texas where participants drew cartoons of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. As you may have heard on the news, that event ended with the attack of two gunmen.

I doubt there were any Muslims participating in the cartooning event, and Muslims in the area protested it peacefully. In response to the poster ads against Islam, there has been a humor campaign led by Muslims. The founding Editor-in-Chief of Muslimgirl.net, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, reacted to the cartooning event by pointing out that Muhammed is a very common name and encouraging people to draw Muhammads they know. Dean Obeidallah urged Muslims—and everyone—to ignore Pamela Geller.

Sometimes, though, if you’re in the same tribe as someone behaving badly, ignoring it and remaining silent can seem like agreement. That’s why I’ve decided to address Pamela Geller and her organization’s anti-Islam rhetoric and actions. In the United States of America, she has the absolute right to express herself, even if she’s wrong, even if she’s offending large numbers of Muslims and non-Muslims.

I object to what she’s expressing, though, and that’s my right, too. There are those who say that people should refrain from speech offensive to Muslims because of potential consequences. The consequences referred to are the potential for violence that a minority of Muslims resort to when their religion is affronted. For me, that’s not the reason to refrain from, for example, drawing cartoons of Muhammad.

I am for respect. I am for living in a diverse society and learning from those who are different from me. I am for appreciating the richness of the various traditions that live side by side in our country. I am for humility—recognizing the violent tendencies in my own tradition and rejecting them, and seeing that those coming out of other traditions must do the same.

Sometimes there is good reason to express ideas or criticism that are reprehensible to others and might give offense, but when it is just about baiting, just about being offensive to someone else, that expression isn’t acceptable to me. No, it should not be outlawed. It doesn’t have a place in civil society, though.

Pamela Geller and those who agree with her have every right to express themselves. I’ve tried to think of what constructive purpose their various expressions against Islam might have, but I haven’t been able to come up with one. Maybe what looks to me like a society that is (I hope) moving toward more tolerance of different religious practices, looks to them like a society that will soon be taken over by Muslims.

Our Bible urges us to pursue justice. Part of our definition of justice in this country is the guarantee of freedom of expression. But I believe we also have a responsibility to choose to use our freedom of expression for constructive purposes, not destructive ones.

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