The great poet Maya Angelou once said, "Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet." Sadly, such wisdom is lost on the likes of Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, and Geert Wilders, the unholy trinity of professional Islamophobia. They make their living off of preaching hatred of Islam, benefitting financially and politically from dehumanizing and demonizing Muslims.
It is in their capacity as professional Islamophobes that Geller and Spencer helped to organize the "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest" in Garland, Texas. The event, which featured Wilders as one of the main speakers, was intended to cause as much offense and ridicule as possible to Muslims by inviting cartoonists to draw incendiary pictures of Islam's revered Prophet. It was also an effort to exploit the tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January in order to maximize media exposure for themselves and the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the organization co-founded by Geller and Spencer that sponsored the event.
While some media attention was given to the event ahead of time, the tragic shooting by two gunmen on Sunday evening gave Geller and Spencer exactly what they wanted -- a reason to declare yet one more time a war against Islam. Geller proclaimed "This is war" on her website after news broke of the two gunmen opening fire on a security officer. Spencer issued a tweet blaming moderate Muslims for not restraining their more violent brethren. Both could barely contain their glee that the event ended with such drama. They wanted a war. That was the whole purpose behind the event.
Some voices in the mainstream media are framing the event on Geller's terms, devoting lots of attention to Islam's prohibitions of representing Muhammad in art and its problems with free speech. This is a recycled story, one that we encountered a decade ago with the Danish cartoons and that resurfaced in Paris in January. It's the story of a clash of civilizations that pits Western values of freedom of expression against Islam's intolerance of these values.
It's also the wrong story. What is already lost in some of the coverage of the Garland shootings is the fact that the drawing contest didn't cause millions of Muslims to descend on Texas to protest the event much less take up arms against its organizers. Moreover, the local Muslim community in Dallas was well aware of the event and all but ignored it. Most Muslims rolled their eyes at Geller and friends and then went about living their lives. But this is a non-story. Who cares about Muslims not protesting? Who cares about Muslims not reacting violently to a cartoon contest in Texas?
In the end, two gunmen have become stand-ins for the millions of Muslims in the U.S. and the 1.6 billion Muslims globally. It's a ridiculous assumption to make, but here we are considering it because that's what Geller, Spencer, and Wilders want us to do. They want us to abandon reason and buy into the narrative that this is all about Islam's intolerance of freedom of expression and its threat to Western values and civilization.
But the real story isn't about freedom of expression. It's about the hatred of Islam for personal and professional gain. That's the business that Geller and Spencer are in. That's the business that propelled Wilders from an obscure Dutch politician into an Islamophobic rock star on both sides of the Atlantic. And it's the reason that journalists are talking about all three of them this week.
We wouldn't know who Pamela Geller is if it weren't for her hatred of Muslims and her ability to channel this hatred for financial profit and the media spotlight. The same holds true for Spencer and Wilders. We only know who they are because they have devoted their lives and their careers to bigotry. Their hatred for Muslims led the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League to condemn the American Freedom Defense Initiative as a hate organization. It also led the British government to prevent Geller and Spencer from entering the country back in 2013.
If we are at war, it's not a war against Islam. It's a war against hatred in all its forms, including anti-Muslim hatred. We cannot win this war by returning hate for hate, as Angelou so wisely noted. We must fight this war by employing our most powerful weapons: empathy, hospitality, and acceptance of religious diversity. The future of the West depends on its capacity to make room for its most diverse elements and to shun those voices that prey on irrational fears and anxieties.