As the PEN American Center prepared to give its courage award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine attacked for publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, some writers argued that while the violence should be condemned, honoring the magazine would mean endorsing anti-Muslim bigotry. Others assailed this position as illiberal and cowardly.
Then, just before the award ceremony, violence in response to Muhammad cartoons struck in America: Two Islamist gunmen were killed in Garland, Texas, while trying to attack a "Draw the Prophet" cartoon contest. And in this case, the misguided argument against the prize for Charlie Hebdo actually fits. Yes, we should staunchly defend the organizers' right to free speech, with no "buts" or disclaimers. No, we should not hail them as heroes because they are, to put it bluntly, peddlers of hate.
The contest was the brainchild of anti-Muslim rage-blogger Pamela Geller and her close ally, maverick scholar Robert Spencer. The two style themselves "anti-jihadist," but have a long record of demonizing not only all of Islam but Muslims as a group. They have blogs that endlessly hype the "Muslim peril" -- denouncing ritual prayer foot baths for Muslim students on college campuses as encroaching sharia law, or detecting one-person jihad in any violent crime that may have been committed by a Muslim. They also campaign to block the construction of mosques using the power of the state, which makes their appeal to First Amendment freedoms a tad hypocritical.
Charlie Hebdo, as its supporters note, has steadfastly championed equal-opportunity offense, skewering everything from government and politicians to other religions. Geller's contest focused exclusively on Islam, and not just in defiance of the ban on drawing Muhammad (like the "Everybody Draw Mohammed" day organized by Internet freedom activists a few years ago). That is her right, of course.
But anyone inclined to salute Geller should realize that the way she exercises her right to free speech has taken her some pretty dark places. She has vilified Muslim reformers such as Arizona physician and activist Zuhdi Jasser as deceivers. She has dismissed the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims as a hoax and portrayed Serb war criminals as anti-jihadists.
All this makes Geller an ill-chosen hero for our time, especially because -- as critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues in her recent book, "Heretic" -- one urgent issue of our time is the reformation of Islam. Geller's noxious activism not only treats such reformation as a lie, but also feeds right into the notion that criticism of Islamic extremism is a war on Muslims.
None of this justifies or mitigates violence against Geller or her associates. All attempts to suppress or abridge speech, even toxic speech (other than threats, slander, or direct calls for imminent violence) should be rejected and condemned. But the existence of such attempts does not make the speech or the ideas less toxic. The 2006 prison sentence in Austria of Holocaust-denying historian David Irving was outrageous from a free-expression point of view, but no one would suggest a prize for him.
Geller is not, as some have recklessly suggested, morally equivalent to terrorists. But anti-Islamic extremists do contribute to a vicious cycle of which Islamist radicalism is also a part -- not because they provoke violence, but because they stand in the way of solutions. Our first priority should be to affirm freedom of speech without fear of retaliation. Our second priority should be to cultivate constructive conversation on Islam, radicalism and religious reform. Geller and Spencer will not be a part of that conversation.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.