By Alia Salem
May 30, 2015
IDEAS
Alia Salem is the executive director of the Dallas / Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Last night in Phoenix there was a “free-speech” rally outside a local mosque where Muslims attended Friday prayers. The rally featured a Draw Muhammad cartoon contest similar to the one targeted by two armed men in Garland, Texas, earlier this month. The event’s organizer, who wore a t-shirt that said “F— Islam,” had encouraged attendees to come armed with guns and rifles.

Is this legal? Yes. But is it OK?

In the aftermath of the shooting in Garland, the national discussion quickly turned to the question of what constitutes free speech and whether it is acceptable to purposefully insult a community in order to rile them up to illicit a response. I was relieved to see that, for the most part, people thought the two men were exceptions to the rule of behaviors accepted in Muslim practice. Instead of being about Islam, the debate was about the responsibility people have when they exercise their free speech.

As a community leader, I naturally worry about the safety of the communities I serve. I question the purpose of free speech when it’s hate speech and when it’s meant to incite violence. As a society, we are responsible for what we allow to go unchecked and what we accept as socially permissible actions.

Anti-Muslim activists can say or draw whatever they want, but I have the right to say that I think their words are disgraceful, their actions are dangerous, and I am not OK with it. Their actions are dangerous because they seem to be intended to turn communities against one another using fear, lies, and intimidation. They are dangerous because they seem to prey on people’s prejudices and inflame them to the point at which people think it’s acceptable to treat people they don’t like with hatred. They are dangerous because they seem to define patriotism as something that only belongs only to those who think and act as narrow-mindedly as they do.

Are we a nation that approves of people terrorizing others because they hate their religion and want the world to know it? Many will say yes because that is what they think free speech is. They will say that free speech means the freedom to say whatever you want, whenever you want.

I agree that free speech is an important freedom. But after waking up every day to put on my headscarf and walk out the door—braced for the stares, the fingers, the slurs, and the death threats—the lens through which I view the world has changed. Anyone who has ever scrolled through the comment feed of a story online that has anything to do with Islam and Muslims knows that by doing so, you will either lose faith in humanity or learn offensive insults that combine the words “pig,” “dog,” “raghead,” expletive of choice, and some version of “Get out of my country.”

This may be free speech. Last night’s rally in Phoenix may be, too. But I don’t think these acts should be socially acceptable.

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