On Sunday evening, two gunmen opened fire outside an event dedicated to depictions of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, a practice offensive to some practitioners of Islam. The motive of the assailants — both of whom were killed by police — is still being investigated, but various major news outlets have pointed out that the event was orchestrated by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center due to its lengthy history of spouting anti-Islam rhetoric. The disturbing shootings, which wounded one security official, were quickly interpreted by attendees of the gathering as a direct attack on their free speech by practitioners of Islam, and Geller insinuated on Monday that the assault resulted in part because Muslims haven’t done enough to champion free expression.
“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the American Muslim leaders had a conference in defense of free speech?” Geller told Fox News.
Yet American Muslim leaders are already condemning the shooting and defending Geller’s right to exercise her free speech, hateful or otherwise. Ibrahim Hooper, National Communications Director and spokesperson for the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), told ThinkProgress his group rebuked the attack “without reservation,” and maintained that while Geller’s statements are unhelpful, her freedom of expression should be protected.
“She has the right to do it, it’s a free country,” he said. “But one has to wonder why one would dedicate their life to promoting hatred and bigotry.”
The Qur’an says to respond to speech with speech.
Harris Zafar, a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, expressed a similar sentiment on CNN this morning. Asked to respond to Geller’s assessment of the attacks as emblematic of a deeper “problem in Islam,” he explained that his faith actually embraces the belief that everyone should be allowed to voice an opinion without fear.
“We stand with her and with everyone who defends freedom of speech,” he said. “We believe that everyone has a right to speak their words, and our faith actually backs that up — it champions free speech.”
Zafar’s defense of Geller was not without caveat, of course. He blasted AFDI for their repeated attacks on Islam, noting that Geller and Geert Wilders, a notoriously islamophobic Dutch lawmaker who spoke at the event where the shootings took place, “are anti-Islamic” and that their language is “free speech, but it’s hate speech.” Still, he insisted the debate between Muslims and groups such as AFDI should be fought with words, not guns.
“The greater point here is that a violent reaction is never sanctioned. Islam actually does champion free speech — it’s not just a talking point,” he said. “There is no evidence in the Qur’an or in the life of Muhammad that says that you are allowed to intimidate others by silencing them. Such acts like this or Charlie Hebdo or what others have faced is a gross violation of Islam and we condemn it wholeheartedly.”
“The Qur’an says to respond to speech with speech,” he added.
Over at the Daily Beast, Muslim-American writer and comedian Dean Obeidallah noted that this sentiment isn’t new among Islamic leaders, but that American Muslims have long balanced harsh criticism of Geller, AFDI, and similar groups with a passionate support for free speech. He referenced the fact that a local Texas CAIR affiliate asked local Muslims to ignore Geller’s event, and that no one from the surrounding Muslim community showed up to protest it. He also quoted Linda Sarsour, a New York City Muslim community leader, who told him that Geller can “draw any damn cartoon she wants and I defend her right to do so. I have always fought for her right to be a bigot and I have the right to counter her bigotry with my own speech.”
“The very essence of freedom of expression demands that we defend the broadcasting or publishing of images that we may not like or even find offensive,” Obeidallah wrote. “That is how important freedom of expression [is] to our nation and it is a principle that Muslim-Americans agree with wholeheartedly.”
Other Muslim leaders also weighed in on Twitter, including Dr. Omid Safi, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University. He accused both the attackers and AFDI of being hypocritical in their actions and motives.
— omid safi (@ostadjaan) May 4, 2015
In addition, several Muslims coupled their defense of free expression with a concern that hate speech can fuel extremism on all sides. Hooper in particular argued that those who use Islam as an excuse to kill others often benefit from the campaigns of anti-Islam organizations like AFDI.
“They feed off each other’s extremism and hate,” he said.