She's back in the news these days because of the shooting down in Garland, Texas, at an "art" exhibit showcasing comics mocking Muhammad, since it was a group she's connected to that organized the This isn't the first I've heard of her, though. Remember Park51, as in the "Grond Zero Mosque"? I first heard of her for her criticism to that mosque, which she described in a PBS piece at the time as some sort of triumphal monument to the land Islam had "conquered," like with the Dome of the Rock being built right on the site of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Only it wasn't Islam that had "conquered" Ground Zero if you want to even think of it in those terms. I personally found it insulting as hell that she talked about Ground Zero as conquered territory, but even setting that point aside, the people building that mosque weren't jihadists. They were fairly moderate, even friendly to secularism Muslims who had a history of doing bridge-building work and interreligious dialogue. I'd heard Feisal Rauf talk before the event, and while I didn't agree with him on quite a lot (and had a problem with some views of his that came up in the ensuing controversy), I thought he was definitely trying to do good and that his heart was in the right place. There are Christian leaders for whom I would say the same thing (Jim Wallis springs to mind), and I'm sure people in every camp.
What struck me about that whole showdown, besides the fact that Pamela Anderson seemed ready to make what seemed like a local conversation into a national spectacle to get her way, was the way she confronted the Muslims who attacked us on 9/11 with the Muslims who were trying to undercut and fight against that kind of Islam. So when she talks about jihadists and sagaes (as she does from time to time; her Wikipedia page has a good run-down of some of the more famous such instances), when she comes back and says she's not talking about all Muslims byut the ones that shoot people at art shows (or whatever), I have to bite back a bitter kind of laugh. Even if that was okay (and it's not, in much the same way as using dogwhistle language for other groups isn't okay if you turn around and say you weren't calling all black people lazy and violent but were talking about actual welfare queens and thugs), her history shows me that where she's concerned there's just not that much of a distinction between an imam trying to build bridges and a jihadist.
(Exhibit #2, if it's required: the way she talks about the evils of shariah law because its' brutal and unenlightened, when really shariah just means law based on Muslim religious principles. This is particularly bitter when you consider her rather uncompromising position on Israel, which I can only assume is based on a religious belief that this land is promised to the Israelites for all generations. I can't think of any other reason to think that Palestinians living in that land shouldn't have equal freedoms in voting for their leaders or even the right to build and develop the lands they live in, especially for someone as driven by freedoms as she claims to be.)
Which is why the whole situation down in Texas is so distressing for me. I really, really don't like Pam Geller, and when I've looked into the group she worked with putting this event on, I've not found much that makes me think better of them. I don't respect them. I don't think they're heroes, or courageous, or -- as Geller put it in a recent interview -- anything like Rosa Parks at all.
But I do believe -- absolutely -- that they had every right to put on that event. The fact that I hold them in such low esteem doesn't mean I think the shooter did the right thing, at all. I don't know whether Pam Geller meant to create a zone of danger for the security guard who faced down those jihadists and the other people at the exhibit, though I do think in the current political climate it was a danger she had to be aware of. And I can blame her for not taking that risk seriously, without taking away form the ultimate culpability of the gunmen.
Or I can try to. That's what I've been thinking a lot about this week. How do I find that balance, and how do I not turn people who have been doing my community (and other communities, but my community as a New Yorker is how I approach this) a great disservice over the years? How do I support the freedom without supporting the person who put it (to my mind) to really bad effect?
I've been thinking a lot on one of my fave verses from St. Paul. All things are lawful to me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other's well-being. Or to take an example from Mrs. Geller's own tradition (she's Jewish), look at the idea of lashon hora, the idea that if something is damaging, even if it's true, you shouldn't say it to others unless it serves some good purpose. So you shouldn't be saying bad things about those people around you unless it's necessary, like to warm people that the person can't be trusted. Spreading gossip and slander isn't okay even if it's true, except in very specific circumstances. And I think Mrs. Geller could do herself (and us) a world of good if she'd think about these ideas. Put another way: just because I have a right to do something, doesn't make it right to do it.
Which is really the bottom line. From where I'm standing, making and exhibiting Muhammad cartoons is going to be hurtful to a lot of people, much the way that the piss Christ photo is offensive to me as a Christian. Sure, you have the right to make and show that kind of art, and I wouldn't want it to be outlawed or for venues to refuse to show it because they are afraid of insulting Muslims and sparking off a violent incident. But when you make this kind of art, or when you put together an event to showcase it, I think you have to ask yourself what's the motivation. Is there a message you're trying to get across, and are you doing it in the most effective and least costly (to the people you insult, and to anyone people pushing back -- even inexcusably so, like with the jihadists -- might lash out against) way available to you? Or are you just doing it because you can and because it gets you attention and because you like causing these people pain?
My money's on the latter motivation in this case. Which makes me thin that, while Mrs. Geller and her group were definitely wronged, they're not some paragon of virtue here. I can say this kind of reaction is poisonous at so many different levels and just should never, never happen. I absolutely believe that. But I also absolutely believe that what Mrs. Geller was doing here is not praiseworthy, it's not virtuous, even if she had every right to do it, just because people have a right to do things other than what they ought to be doing (otherwise freedom would be a pretty pale thing). So I can support her right to organize such an event without thinking she's some kind of a hero here. It's courageous to stand up for things worth standing up for, when they're not popular or approved of by people in general. Those protesters in Baltimore are courageous. Malala was courageous when she talked about how she would respond to the Taliban without becoming like them. But Mrs. Geller?
All things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Sure, you could but do you really want to?