I’m thinking of inviting Pam Geller over to my house on July 4th to burn an American flag in the backyard.
Geller is the head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the group that organized the recent “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas. Cartoonists were invited to enter their best depictions of Muhammad in a competition for a $10,000 grand prize.
Two homegrown jihadists took exception to this insult to Islam, attacked the event with firearms and were killed by a police officer. Now ISIS is claiming responsibility.
Actually, I have no plans to burn a flag on July 4th, but my right to do so – among all of the excellent rights that citizenship in this country bestows – is one of my favorite.
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This seems counterintuitive, and many Americans are surprised to discover that it’s not against the law to burn the flag. In France you can be sent to prison for six months for burning a flag, in China for three years and in Germany for up to five years.
But after oral arguments in Texas vs. Gregory Lee Johnson in March 1989, the Supreme Court held that flag desecration is an expression of speech and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment.
Extraordinary. We live in a country that has enough confidence in and commitment to free speech that we refuse to impinge on citizens’ right to speak, even at the cost of the destruction of the national symbol of those rights.
Back to Pam Geller. Her prominence stems from her outspoken criticism of Islam. She said she opposes only political Islam, jihadism and Sharia law, but her strident disparagement of all things Islamic has moved the Southern Poverty Law Center to call her organization a hate group, and the British government barred her entry into the U.K. in 2013.
In fact, the flavor of Geller’s indiscriminate hostility to Islam came through clearly when she told CNN: “I will not abridge my freedoms so as not to offend savages.”
Geller would probably say that all of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims aren’t actually savages; her targets are only the ones radical enough to take the bait offered up in Garland, Texas.
Still, one wonders how offending more than a billion people – even if you don’t quite call them “savages” – will help worldwide Islam face the formidable task of dragging itself into the 21st century. No institution that systematically relegates women to an inferior status will prosper. Intolerance has to give way to pluralism. The religious realm has to be disassociated from the political.
And a doctrine that forbids its adherents to drink alcohol? Matters of faith have to negotiate ways to accommodate human nature.
Of course, it took Western institutions a long time to get where Islam needs to go. With regard to women, the Catholic Church, for example, still hasn’t entirely arrived. And a devout Mormon is forbidden not only alcohol, but coffee. The achievement of a tolerant modernity doesn’t happen overnight.
Of course our country gives Geller the right and freedom to ridicule Muhammad, even though his depiction by cartoonists generates reactions among a billion people that range from annoyance to offense to indignation to anger to a sense of persecution that leads some people to resort to violence. Many others are reinforced in their sense of isolation from Western modernity.
In short, Geller’s exercise of her legitimate right to free speech, unfortunately, does more harm than good.
I celebrate my right – and yours – to burn the flag. But I don’t actually do it. And I don’t plan to, unless doing so serves a legitimate, last-resort goal of political expression. Otherwise, fellow citizens are needlessly offended and the First Amendment right to free speech is trivialized and abused.
But if I did burn a flag, I wonder if Geller and her adherents would afford me the same impunity that they demand from Muslims.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.