Dr. Onkar Ghate is a senior fellow and the Chief Content Officer at the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written and lectured extensively on philosophy and serves as Dean for the Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center in Irvine, CA. The Undercurrent’s Jon Glatfelter had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Ghate regarding the recent shooting at the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, as well as religion and free speech more broadly.
The Undercurrent: Many of the major U.S. media players, including CNN and FOX, still have not published the cartoon contest’s winning piece. Why do you think that is?
Dr. Ghate: I haven’t kept tabs on which outlets have and have not published that cartoon, but there were similar responses in regard to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and, before that, the Danish cartoons in 2005-2006. Sometimes a media outlet would try to explain why it is not showing its audience a crucial element of the news story, and I think these explanations have revealed a mixture of motives at work.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list: fear, cowardice, appeasement, sympathy. Let me say a word on each. Some media outlets are afraid of violent reprisals and of the ongoing security costs that would be necessary to protect staff. And because the U.S. government refuses to take an unequivocal stand in defense of the right to free speech, the totalitarians are emboldened, which makes violent reprisals more likely. So that’s one reason. But despite this legitimate fear, I do think there is often an element of cowardice. The likelihood of an attack can be overstated, and of course if more news outlets publish the cartoons, it is more and more difficult to intimidate and attack them all, and less and less likely that a particular organization will be singled out. Here there is strength in numbers. A third motive is the appeaser’s false hope that if he gives in and doesn’t publish the cartoons, he will have satisfied the attackers and no further threats or demands will follow. Finally, many are sympathetic: out of deference to the non-rational, faith-based emotions of Muslims, they don’t publish the cartoons, even though those cartoons are news. They view the cartoonists and publishers as the troublemakers and villains. (The roots of this sympathy I think are complex and often ugly.)
The Undercurrent: Some have condemned the contest’s organizer, Pamela Geller, and the winning artist, Bosch Fawstin. They say there’s a world of difference between good-natured free expression and malicious speech intended solely to antagonize. What do you think?
Dr. Ghate: I disagree with many things that I’ve heard Pamela Gellar say but I refuse to discuss her real or alleged flaws when totalitarians are trying to kill her, as though those flaws, even if real, justify or mitigate the actions of the aspiring killers. The New York Times editorial to which you link is a disgrace. After a sanctimonious paragraph saying that we all have the right to publish offensive material and that no matter how offensive that material may be, it does not justify murder, the rest of the editorial goes on to criticize the victim of attempted murder. As my colleague and others have noted, this is like denouncing a rape victim instead of her rapists.
And notice what the editorial glosses over: in the first paragraph stating that offensive material does not justify murder, it concludes with the seemingly innocuous point that “it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.”
This is the actual issue. Why don’t you similarly have to tell a group of biochemists or historians, when they disagree about a theory, that their disagreements don’t justify murdering each other? The answers lies in the difference between reason and faith, as I’m sure we’ll discuss, a difference the editorial dares not discuss.
But contra the editorial, the Garland event had a serious purpose. Look at the winning cartoon: it makes a serious point.
Although it is true that any form of mysticism, including religion, is philosophically an enemy of freedom, what is at issue here is a political enemy—an enemy who is willing and able to use force against us. The act of drawing figures of Mohammed was directed against the Islamic jihadists. It is they who want to forcibly impose their religious beliefs upon others. It is they who kill infidels and seek to establish a global caliphate. And it is they who must be publicly denounced and resisted.
The so-called moderate Muslim—if that term is to have any real meaning—is someone who renounces force. He practices his religion but acknowledges everyone’s right to reject or ridicule it. Such a person is no threat to our freedom; he can, in fact, be an ally in this conflict. But anyone who believes that the denigration of Islam must not be allowed is in the camp of the jihadists. That camp consists of not only the people who perform the beheadings and the machine-gunnings of non-believers, but also their tacit supporters. This includes all the Muslim states that have penalties for any type of blasphemy or apostasy—i.e., the practitioners of legalized jihadism—along with all the people who endorse such penalties. The jihadists and the jihadist-sanctioners are the enemy we need to stand up to.
The “Draw Mohammed” event did just that.
Was the peaceful Muslim offended by the Mohammed cartoons? Perhaps. His response, however, should be, first, thankfulness that he lives in a free, secular society, in which one is allowed to praise or to condemn Allah because the government neither inhibits nor promotes religion; second, anger against the jihadists, who are a threat to his rights as well; and third, enthusiastic support for the imperative of confronting that threat.
There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies. There is also no question that however offensive the images, they do not justify murder, and that it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.
But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.
Here is the cartoon that the NY Times has written such hateful and disparaging things about — you decide.
As I wrote last week, many intellectuals in America and elsewhere have taken an attitude of appeasement toward the terrorists and their sympathizers, thus ensuring that their attacks will continue. Of course, violence is not justified, they say, but should we really go out of our way to celebrate those who offend others or humiliate “marginalized” groups? (In this case, the answer is “yes.”)
Already, we are seeing that attitude toward the organizers of the event in Garland, who are being called “Islamophobes” and purveyors of “hate speech,” always with the caveat that of course violence is not justified.
But this attitude is a form of justifying violence, in the same way that criticizing a rape victim for dressing provocatively is a justification of rape. It says, you brought this on yourself, or you provoked your assailant, or you are the type of person who deserved this. In all events, the message is that your actions, not the actions of your assailants, are the relevant cause of the attack.
There are many circumstances in which it’s appropriate not to take sides in a debate or to criticize one side or the other or both. But that applies only when there actually is a debate to take sides in or to ignore. It seems too obvious to point out, but a debate does not exist when one side is trying to kill the other.
The moment someone resorts to violence in response to speech is the moment that the issue is no longer about the merits of any side’s position or the character of the speakers but about whether we are going to have the freedom to take positions — that is, to think for ourselves — at all. If we fail to support those who are trying to speak, we necessarily end up condoning, and therefore supporting, those who are willing to resort to violence. There’s no middle ground in a dispute like this, because there’s no middle ground between speech and force. Free speech cannot exist when some people are willing to resort to force.
Whatever one thinks about Charlie Hebdo and the organizers of the Garland event or of any of the arguments or positions they take or support, there is no question that Islamists who threaten and use violence want to shut down all debate, all discussion, all thought, and all criticism of their religion. That is why they resort to violence.
When a group of people peacefully gathering for an afternoon to discuss or protest or otherwise exercise their lawful rights to free speech regarding Islam and its noxious prophet require thousands of dollars’ worth of security to protect their lives from jihad killers (and thank goodness, otherwise the slaughter would likely have far exceeded the death toll of the Charlie Hebdo/Jewish market attacks), freedom, in the Western sense of the word, no longer exists. The “public square” is a war zone.
That means that the liberty that is (was) the foundation of our republic is not “threatened,” but rather has already been engulfed by the advance of Islam, its law, its culture, into our society. (Airport security is another tip-off.) Here — not in the Middle East, not in the Turkish, Pakistani and other Islamic sectors of the EU — it is now accepted that silence buys safety, that submission to sharia is the norm. By this process, Dar al Harb (House of War) becomes Dar al Islam (House of Islam/Submission), and without a fight.
Not so for the artists, writers, spectators and one politician, Geert Wilders, who participated in Geller’s cartoon-contest-homage to Charlie Hebdo, and voluntarily placed themselves on the front lines of a very real fight for liberty against followers of Islam’s creed of violence, repression, and exploitation of women, children and non-Muslims (as exemplified by the example of its prophet). A low-ebb marker is the extent to which their fellow-citizens in media and politics prefer to embrace “dhimmitude” through sharia-compliance rather than support the defense and defenders of their own God-given liberties.
In 1987, Andres Serrano submerged a crucifix in a glass of his own urine and took a picture. Entitled “Piss Christ,” the photograph won first place in a contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1996, another avant-garde artist, Chris Ofili, smeared elephant dung on a portrait of the Blessed Mother and displayed it in a government-funded Brooklyn museum.
And so the stage was set for the ensuing nightmare of Christian terror and violence that descended on the American art community.
Just kidding. Nothing of the sort happened. There were no canonical death warrants issued, no attempts on the artists’ lives, and no threats of violence against the artists, the contest organizers, the museum curators, or anyone else.
To be sure, Christians objected to “Piss Christ” and the feces-covered Holy Virgin. And they rightfully wondered why their tax dollars had been used to promote these blasphemies. But their objections and questions were condescendingly dismissed by the secular left in the media and intelligentsia. As one prominent art critic sniffed, Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” was “deliberately provocative” in order to “jolt viewers into an expanded frame of reference, and perhaps even toward illumination.”
As if in one voice, the mainstream media and self-anointed intelligentsia argued that antiquated religious sensitivities must not be allowed to interfere with either an artist’s free expression or his right to government funding regardless of how offensive his work may be to Christians.