A controversial speaker's right to speak

Maybe it was too nice out to protest. Or maybe no one cared what a few hundred conservatives were talking about in this one-party state. But only about 10 people convened Saturday with signs outside the DoubleTree Hotel in Annapolis to oppose Pamela Geller, best known for her opposition to the Ground Zero mosque and her ad campaigns linking the concept of jihad with mass murder. She was the opening speaker at the Maryland Conservative Action Network (MDCAN) conference held the same day at the hotel.

The non-event was called by the Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). A statement on the group's Facebook page said, "We need to let the MDCAN and their Republican enablers to know that these purveyors of division and hate are not welcome in Annapolis. ... Please join us in a public demonstration as we expose their ideas as simply divisive, hurtful and out-of-touch with mainstream America."

Ms. Geller is controversial. She believes that we are in the midst of a cultural war with the highest consequences, and she knows how to attract attention. She calls the media the "enemedia" and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg the "Ayatollah Bloomberg."

It's too bad more people didn't show up, because it could have sparked a larger and much-needed discussion about "Defending Free Speech," the title of Ms. Geller's talk, and CAIR's role in trying to silence those who couple Islam with anything other than peace and freedom.

As Ms. Geller said: "Silence is sanction. Speak. Speak on any scale. The clock is really ticking" — words people on many sides of the debate could agree with.

CAIR is always described in the media as a leading advocacy group for Muslims in the U.S. But it has a darker side. It was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the terrorist funding trial of the Holy Land Foundation. Five leaders of that group were sentenced to long prison terms in 2008 for raising money for Hamas, a terrorist organization. The FBI cut ties with CAIR as a result of the information revealed about the group.

Nationally, it is busy rehabbing its image with a bus and train ad campaign called "MyJihad" (myjihad.org). The ads show images of smiling Muslims — mostly young women — with phrases including "My Jihad is to build friendships across the aisle" and "My Jihad is to always pursue new ideas and conquer new challenges."

This is where Ms. Geller comes in. In response to those ads, her organization has been running ads across the county quoting the Quran and terrorists on jihad, including Osama bin Laden. Another said, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad." CAIR has called her ads "racist."

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York was forced to run the ads after she sued. She has faced legal challenges in other cities. Many of her New York ads were defaced. She is not intimidated, however. "No war has ever been won on the defense," she said.

No matter what you think about Ms. Geller's point of view, everyone should agree she has a right to run her ads, just as CAIR should have a right to run its ads. Zainab Chaudry, vice president of the Maryland chapter of CAIR, is not so sure, however. She says her group supports free speech but added that Ms. Geller "should not be allowed to incite hatred toward a specific group."

She pointed to the example of Sunando Sen being pushed into the subway in New York last month as a reason why. His attacker, who has a history of mental illness, said she thought Mr. Sen, a Hindu, was a Muslim, and that she hated Hindus and Muslims because of 9/11. "I am not saying that Pamela Geller is responsible for his death," said Ms. Chaudry. "But it's hard to say it's a coincidence."

Really? Ms. Geller is not yelling "Fire!" in a crowded room, which would not be protected speech. To link her ads with the Mr. Sen's death is disingenuous.

Muslim terrorists killed almost 3,000 people on 9/11. If we are to defeat those who would like to annihilate Americans, we must be able to name them. That is not the same thing as labeling all Muslims terrorists. Whether Ms. Geller's ads are the best way to debate the roots of terrorism is another question, but silencing her would make all of us less free and more vulnerable to those who would like to eliminate our rights — and kill us.

Marta H. Mossburg is a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad