The shooting at the cartoon exhibition in Texas is a new lowpoint in the U.S. culture war over Islam.
Nothing can excuse the potentially murderous attack of the two gunmen, one of whom seems to have ties to terrorists.
But the group that put together the conference has much to answer for, as well. There is no one as provocative as the notorious Muslim-basher Pamela Geller, the main organizer of the event.
Geller spends her time attacking Islam in language so crude on her blog Atlas Shrugs, the New York Times points out that "PayPal, the service she uses to collect donations, once branded it a hate site.”
The British government once banned Geller and Robert Spencer, her partner at the American Freedom Defense Initiative, from entering the country for a hate-group rally.
“Geller is America’s premier anti-Muslim propagandist,” says Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beirich describes Geller as “a bit wacky.” Geller once “argued that President Obama is the ‘love child’ of Malcolm X, among other nutty notions,” she says.
Duke University Professor Omid Safi says that the blame for the Dallas incident can’t all be put in one place.
“Two groups are responsible for this violence: the two individuals who fired bullets, and organizations such as the Islamophobic American Freedom Defense Initiative (Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, and company) that fan the flames of hatred,” Safi says. “Yes, we can stand up for justice, simultaneously condemning the violence of the shooters (whatever their background) and the hatred of xenophobic groups who mock marginalized communities.”
Clearly, Geller wanted to rile up the local Muslim community. But, as Dallas Imam Zia Sheikh tweeted after the assault, “the community stayed away from event”; the attack was “just what we didn’t want.”
The two gunmen were not locals. They were not even from Texas, traveling in from Phoenix. Local Muslim Americans largely ignored the exhibit.
Dallas Muslims kept their own counsel and followed, in the words of University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, the best traditions of Islam.
“A dispassionate survey of the early sources shows an attitude of calm and peaceful resignation by early Muslims to the denunciations of the polytheists and a determination to simply wait out their antipathy,” writes Cole on his blog Informed Comment. “The Dallas Muslim community, which is part of a local interfaith peace coalition, knew this well and stayed away from the Geller event. The community preserved traditions showing tolerance, forbearance and steadfastness.”
Safi, who has written a book on Islam’s messenger titled Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters, seconds Cole.
“If you want to defend the honor of the Prophet, do so in a way that is consistent with prophetic manners and ethics, not violence,” he says.
But in Dallas, the misguided Muslim vigilantes confirmed the worst prejudices of loudmouths like Geller and her bigoted followers.
“I think anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise, particularly among Christian Right groups such as the Family Research Council,” says Southern Poverty Law Center’s Beirich. “Hate crimes against Muslims seem to be in news every few days.”
Garland, the suburb of Dallas where the exhibition was held, is a case in point. Muslims in the area held a conference in January to counter the negative stereotypes of Islam. They were met by thousands of demonstrators, reports Zaid Jilani at Alternet.
“Some of the protesters came armed, and many screamed at the attendees as they walked into the conference,” he writes. “Because the facility they used was a public building, protesters also packed the Garland School Board, asking that the permit to hold the peace conference be denied. Said one man, ‘I certainly don’t think you need people there who want to destroy this country.’ ”
There is plenty to talk about the need for moderate Muslims to project a more peaceful vision of Islam. Fair enough. But we need to restore civility to the conversation about Islam among non-Muslims in this country, as well.
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive and author of 'Islam' Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today.
Image credit: Above Hasham Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images; slider, Christopher Rose/Flickr