On Sunday, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) hosted a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” at the Dallas-area Curtis Culwell Center. Two gunmen arrived in a car, opened fire on a security guard, and were then killed in an ensuing shootout. AFDI President Pamela Geller said to CNN this morning that the event and shooting will “wake up the American people to this vile assault on our freedom.” This “vile assault” is a none-too-thinly-veiled criticism of the Islamic faith.
At the outset, it is important to write: violence against innocent people is morally indefensible and absolutely in contrast to the laws that govern the United States. There is never an excuse for violence.
Having said that, the whole point of this AFDI event was to provoke a response. A Mohammed cartoon drawing contest? Seriously? AFDI was aiming to draw an extremist out of the woodwork. It is why they hosted their event at the same venue that in January was the site of the “Stand With the Prophet in Honor and Respect” conference, a rally against Islamophobia and a rejection of instigators that use Mohammed cartoons to incite conflict. It is also why AFDI spent $30,000 on private security services for the event, which treaded on the raw memory of cartoon-driven violence in Europe (notably, the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris).
AFDI’s rhetoric is all sleight of hand and misdirection, grasping at legitimacy even as their message is one of intolerance. Criticize their words, and they cite the First Amendment. Criticize their event, and they take it to mean one is defending violence. Criticize them individually, and they hint at a conspiracy of freedom-hating people trying to discredit their message by attacking the messenger. They have all the markings of a hate group, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified AFDI as extremist and anti-Muslim, a dubious classification that sits alongside groups like the KKK and the Sovereign Citizens.
These kinds of negative, fire-stoking messages are threats to safety, security and national progress. They give extremists more fodder for recruiting while simultaneously insulting the peaceful, taxpaying Americans who simply want to enjoy their constitutionally protected belief system in a free society. Hosting a Mohammed cartoon contest or some other obviously inflammatory event plays directly into the hands of extremist recruiters who are targeting our young people.
Something my research partner Erroll Southers and I found during our recent DHS-sponsored field study of terrorist recruitment in Minneapolis is that recruiters exploit the crisis of identity all young people experience as they mature from adolescents to adults. Particularly for immigrants and first-generation Americans, it can be challenging to craft an identity that can accommodate the “Old World” traditions of one’s parents and the secular pluralism of the United States. Terrorist recruiters target young people grappling with this crisis of identity and say, “You’re not like these Americans. You’re like us.”
That simple suggestion of a young person’s “real” identity is the starting point for radicalization and recruitment to a terrorist group. AFDI and groups like them create very public fodder for recruiters. Right now, there could be a recruiter in the United States saying, “These Americans purposefully insult your religion. You’re not like them.”
Geller and other anti-Muslim figureheads hide behind the First Amendment, claiming total immunity from any kind of responsibility for ramping up tensions. Yet, they are getting in the way of a productive, important conversation we need to be having as a country. More critically, they inject confusion and anger into conversations American-Muslim families are trying to have with their children, conversations on identity that all American immigrants have had for centuries.
AFDI and others are perpetuating conflict in a time when we should be engendering collaboration, insulting their fellow Americans at a time when we need to be united against the decidedly un-Islamic actions of ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Geller and her ilk are not advancing and celebrating our Constitutional rights. They are threatening our security and progress.
Details are still emerging about the two now-dead shooters who attacked the event, but it’s a fair bet they were motivated by Islamic extremism. Their actions were wrong, but that doesn’t make AFDI right. Indeed, AFDI manipulates messages and ideas to sow conflict and advance their unforgiving ideology of personal superiority. That is extremism. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.