Pamela Geller’s hate for Muslims and blurry standards of free speech
A couple of weeks back, I vocally criticised the direct interference of the state in the academic affairs of my previous university, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), after they were forced to cancel a talk on Balochistan.
However, this week, I found myself vocally protesting against the decision of my present university, Brooklyn College, to invite a speaker for an academic talk.
On the face it, the positions I have taken in the last fortnight seem irreconcilable, hypocritical even, but what differentiates my two positions is the fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech.
Ignoring any discussion on the technicality that in the first instance, the state interfered in a private institution’s affair, and the decision was taken solely by the institution in the second, my decision to stand on either side of the fences in the two debates is based on the fact that freedom to speech is not absolute.
An academic institution has a duty to encourage critical thinking, promote ideas and evaluate both positions. It is important for an effective education to inculcate the ability to critically asses an opinion that differs from your own. All aspects must be evaluated on their merits before taking a position.
It is important to not shoot down any opinion different than yours; just because somebody differs from you does not mean that that person does not have the right to speak. The other person has an equal amount of freedom to express their opinions.
However, that person does not have an absolute right to express their opinions. Hate speech cannot be allowed under the pretence of freedom of speech. Where the Orwellian state of Pakistan has repeatedly violated the fundamental right in favour of crushing dissent, on the other end of the spectrum is the United States of America that is too afraid to even curb hate speech, afraid of violating the constitutional right to freedom of speech.
A district judge in New York on Tuesday decided that the decision of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) of New York to refuse to run ads that they felt could incite violence was against the principles of freedom of speech. Judge Koeltl wrote in his judgment,
“There is no evidence that seeing one of these advertisements on the back of a bus would be sufficient to trigger a violent reaction. Therefore, these ads — offensive as they may be — are still entitled to First Amendment protection.”
The controversial ads read,
“Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah. That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”
— Pamela Geller (@PamelaGeller) April 21, 2015
The pro-Israel group funding the ads intends to gain support for Israel in the US by these anti-jihad messages.
It baffles me how the court could find that these ads do not have the potential to incite imminent violence. It baffles me even more that the woman asking for these ads was invited by my college to give a talk.
On Wednesday, April 22nd, Brooklyn College held a talk by Pamela Geller, a woman who has compared Muslims to pigs and savages. Geller is not expressing an opinion different than mine, she is simply spewing out vitriol and hate without any academic standing.
The president of Brooklyn College, Karen Gould, was inundated with emails from Muslims criticising the decision of the college to provide the platform for such opinions. However, she abject any responsibility by writing,
“While I do not support or agree with Ms Geller’s positions, the Constitution’s First Amendment protects even the most controversial speech. As a public institution of higher learning, it is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and debate, even on the most sensitive of topics.”
The words sound principled on paper but in practice, by allowing Geller to speak on campus, Gould has sown the seeds for potential religious violence on campus. Brooklyn College has a large Muslim population, a population that made itself heard by protesting at the event and openly disagreeing with her. It was heartening to see most students at college rejecting Geller’s frankly crazy opinions.
Vultures at my talk on free speech go after an attendee. They're crowing about it on twitter – where I got the video pic.twitter.com/wfc0SCuPFU
— Pamela Geller (@PamelaGeller) April 23, 2015
However, Geller labelled these students protesting against her as being ISIS sympathisers, even going to the extent of putting their pictures on her Twitter feed claiming that they are performing the Islamic salute. It simply reflects how ignorant this woman is, if she feels putting one finger in the air is akin to being an ISIS supporter.
— Pamela Geller (@PamelaGeller) April 23, 2015
The ignorance of this woman combined with her intent to incite violence, and the extent of her hate speech is why I stood against the organisation of this talk. Similarly, I would be against LUMS organising a talk by Maulana Abul Aziz or even Aamir Liaquat, who has been responsible for inciting religious violence leading to deaths in the past.
However, this was not the case with Mama Adul Qadeer; he simply wanted to give his side of the story without a national call to arms.
Therein lies the fine line between freedom and hate. Your words are not worth more than my life. Your tongue cannot take away my breath. You have the freedom to talk and I have the freedom to live. If both cannot live together peacefully, surely mine must prevail.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.