On Sunday, there was a shooting in Garland, Texas. Two men opened fire outside a Muslim caricature event hosted by anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller, and were shot dead in response. One security officer was reportedly injured in the attack as well.
There are many unanswered questions about the shooting, and we don't know much about the identity of the perpetrators or their motivations.
But the narrative that is being told about the events is incomplete. Geller is being portrayed as an advocate of free speech, who was holding a Muhammad cartoon contest that was simply about affirming First Amendment principles. This is simply not the case.
Geller is not a “critic of Islam,” as the Los Angeles Times wrote last night. Her goal is to cleanse the Western world of Muslims in much the same manner Slobodan Milosevic wanted to cleanse the Balkans of its Muslim population. On her website, she promoted a British activist’s solution to that country's Muslim migration:
If a government wants to learn how to manage growing Islamic problems, take some advice from Ottoman army officer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk abolished Islam by putting a complete ban on Islamic materials, demolishing mosques, and removing any traces of Islam in his country to get rid of the evil. Those who tried to revolt were put in their place, or basically killed….
It is time for the UK to stop wasting their military abroad, but bring them to patrol their own streets and begin to remove Muslims. And it is vital time to plan and arrange deportation programs – and even arrange new deportation programs for practicing Muslims born in England to be deported to their parent’s country of origin.
She has posted bus ads around the country saying that “Islamic jew-hatred: it's in the Quran,” leading to the New York Metro Transit Authority banning all political ads in its system after her provocative material was placed. She has called for all Muslim migration to the West to be banned.
None of this is to justify the attack that occurred last night, whatever its motivation. Violence is abhorrent, whether it be a shooting, or demolishing mosques, or killing people from the air with explosive weapons.
But we should understand the political climate in Garland, a city with a nearly 10 percent Asian population, much of which is Muslim immigrants. Last January, a group of Muslims held a conference titled “Stand With the Prophet Against Violence and Hate.” The conference was focused around a fundraiser to build a new center to combat extremism and negative perceptions of Islam. In other words, the conference was an organizing point for those “moderate Muslims” we often are told do not exist.
This is how these Muslims were greeted in Garland, by thousands of protesters:
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.”
Some of the protesters came armed, and many screamed at the attendees as they walked into the conference. 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.”
It's pretty obvious that Geller and her friends in Garland believe the United States is at war with Islam, and Muslims are not welcome here.
Although we do not know the exact ideology or identity of the attackers, one thing is immediately clear is their attempt to do violence upon Geller's event will be seen as validation. Immediately after the attack, Geller appeared on Fox News, saying, “There's an enemy among us.” In other words, the attackers, no matter what their motivation is, have only helped Geller spread her hate.
In the days to come, the attack will likely provide new fuel for the fire of those who want to demonize Muslims and say that Muslim Americans cannot be trusted. These rare events are broadcast as crisis moments, and given disproportionate ink and screen time, creating the perception that Muslim terrorism is both common and a mortal threat to the United States. The most pernicious idea that will likely spread from this event is that it is somehow dangerous to criticize Islam, because if you do, a Muslim will try to kill you, because Muslims are infamous for taking offense, and for acting out wildly from their zealotry.
A rational response to this may be to ask why, if this were true, is there an entire successful cable news outlet dedicated to demonizing Muslims? Why do both major political parties hold them at arms' length, treating them as political kryptonite?
But maybe what radicalizes the few Muslims who actually do take up terrorism has little to do with perceived offense about Islam's prophet or cartoons.
Last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad and anti-ISIS organization, claimed to have found evidence of 52 Syrian civilians being killed in an American airstrike. The news was but a blip in the radar screen of American politics. There were no calls for investigation, no angry pundits and politicians on TV. It was just normal, a shrug, as if these are the people that we expect to die, so why get outraged about it?
The idea that Muslims in the West are most enraged about a cartoon is like claiming that the greatest grievance African Americans have is watching an idiotic politician don blackface at a party, an event that occurs every so often. Yes, it is annoying, but it's simply a symbolic insult on top of years of direct and systemic violence, persecution and discrimination. The violence against Muslims is simply brushed off as an unfortunate but expected occurrence, but when a rare event like Garland occurs, it is evidence of a grand and deadly conspiracy against which we must all arm ourselves.
Overnight, Twitter users claimed to identify one of the possible attackers, who goes by the handle @atawaakul. The account did tweet out a message right before the attack saying:
The bro with me and myself have given bay'ah to Amirul Mu'mineen. May Allah accept us as mujahideen. Make dua #texasattack
— Shariah is Light (@atawaakul) May 3, 2015
But what might be interesting to people wondering why young Muslims are radicalized in the first place and why they choose to do things like what this man may have done last night would be the rest of his timeline. The user didn't tweet a whole lot about debates about religion or blasphemy. Yes, he did use political rhetoric, but much of his timeline was dedicated to talking about deaths of Muslims he perceived to be killed by their enemies. There was a retweet about a massacre from a U.S. air strike, tweets about horrors of barrel bombs dropped by Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, and even retweets about police violence in Baltimore.
In their hearts, America's Muslims know that our grievances in the West have nothing to do with cartoons. Comedy Central comedians crack jokes at their expense, and Fox News and CNN hosts televise hysterical exaggerations about the threat Muslims pose to the American way of life. Muslim Americans have plenty to be offended by, and there is no real threat to anyone who wants to offend a Muslim. But in a political climate where Muslims in Texas are threatened with assault rifles for attending a peace conference, and Muslim blood overseas is so cheap that a massacre barely registers on the news, there may just be more grist out there for extremists to seize on to radicalize Muslim youth.