TIME Religion

Young Muslims Are Inviting You to Draw Muhammad

The campaign is a creative response to Islamophobia

Did you know that Muhammad is the most common name in the world? The chances are you know a Muhammad or know somebody who knows one.

Muslim American activist Amani al-Khatahtbeh, who runs the popular blog MuslimGirl.net, is fighting Islamaphobia by inviting people to draw a picture of their friends who are called Muhammad.

The campaign is in response to the inflammatory Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest organized by Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) in Garland, Texas, on Sunday night. Participants there were invited to draw images of the Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims consider offensive.

The event resulted in violence after two Islamist gunmen, identified as Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, opened fire outside the building, injuring a security officer. The suspects were both shot and killed by police.

Geller is known for her anti-Muslim stance and the AFDI is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Al-Khatahtbeh vigorously condemned the gunmen’s actions as “inexcusable.” But in response to Geller’s event, she came up with her own campaign, ‘Let’s help Pam draw Muhammad.’

People are asked to draw their friend Muhammad as a celebration of the human connections people have to “Muhammad,” it being such a common name.

“Chances are that all know a Muhammad. So, let’s draw Muhammad. Let’s honor his diversity. Let’s celebrate his many different faces. Let’s elevate his humanity,” she writes on MuslimGirl.net.

And using the hashtag #DM2015, people are taking to Twitter to draw a Muhammad in their lives.

TIME Media

Art Spiegelman: Je Suis Charlie—But I’m Not Pamela Geller

Cartoonist Art Spiegelman attends the French Institute Alliance Francaise's "After Charlie: What's Next for Art, Satire and Censorship" at Florence Gould Hall on Feb. 19, 2015 in New York City.
Mark Sagliocco—Getty Images Cartoonist Art Spiegelman attends the French Institute Alliance Francaise's "After Charlie: What's Next for Art, Satire and Censorship" at Florence Gould Hall on Feb. 19, 2015 in New York City.

Art Spiegelman is a cartoonist, editor, and the author of Maus.

On Tuesday night, Art Spiegelman hosted a table at the PEN gala, after other authors dropped out in protest of an award being given to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Here, he speaks to TIME about the award and why cartoons are so misunderstood by many Americans.

TIME: After six writers withdrew from hosting last night’s PEN gala honoring Charlie Hebdo, why did you decide to step up and co-host the event?

Spiegelman: It seemed necessary as a corrective to what I saw as boneheaded reasons for the pullout. I decided to accept an invitation to host a table that I’d passed on before, because black tie galas aren’t my thing, and I had something else I was supposed to do that night. But after those six authors, who I’ve come to think of as a kind of super hero team called the Sanctimonious Six, pulled out, I just felt that it was necessary to be a corrective and invite other sympathetic people to be there to shout, “Cartoonist lives matter.”

Why was it important to honor Charlie Hebdo with the James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award?

One point that was made over and over again was that this is an award for courage. And it’s hard to be more courageous than going back to work after your office has been bombed and your comrades have been slaughtered. On those grounds alone, one would think, “It’s a no brainer. They get the award.”

Beyond that, the magazine was getting a really bum rap. It’s actually anything but a racist magazine. One of the most touching things for me during the award ceremony last night was having the head of SOS Racisme, a French organization that combats racist activity, very movingly talk about Charlie Hebdo being a great force against racism in France.

They received the award for using their particular vocabulary and medium to stir debate on issues, not to create mischief, and they did it estimably, even when people didn’t agree with them. As one of the editors pointed out yesterday, the Charlie Hebdo editors don’t even agree with each other. The point of these cartoons is to start conversations about these issues. And these issues are not trivial.

This week, we also saw a shooting in Texas outside of a “Draw Muhammad” contest sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. What’s the difference between Charlie Hebdo and Pamela Geller’s organization?

I think that’s when my brain short-circuited. Because superficially, it seems like, well, the same thing is happening in Texas. But it’s not. It’s the anti-matter, Bizarro World, flipside, mirror-logic version of what Charlie Hebdo is about.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative is racist organization. It’s exactly the nightmare version that the writers who were protesting the PEN award thought Charlie was. But Charlie is an anti-racist, political magazine that does not have an agenda that consists of wanting to bait or trouble Muslims.

Pam Geller’s organization is intentionally trying to start war of culture with Islam by saying that all Muslims are terrorists under the surface, and we’re going to prove it. Do the group members deserve free speech protection? Of course. But they’re hiding behind that banner with things that have very little to do with free speech and a lot to do with race hate.

Je suis Charlie, mais je ne suis pas Pam Geller. She and her dim-witted, ugly organization deserve the protection of the free speech mantle that they wrap themselves in. But would I ever give them a courage award? Hardly. Would I ever want to be in the same room with them? No. Do I wish they would stop? Yes.

The PEN writers who protested the event were projecting similar motives and attitudes onto Charlie Hebdo. Dismissing it as French arrogance is quite arrogant. Dismissing it as crude and vulgar is something that makes me suspicious of how cartoons are viewed by the writers who didn’t have enough respect for these images to understand them on their own.

What is the role of images and cartoons in this debate?

It’s interesting to me that cartoons have been so central to it. Cartoons are so much more immediate than prose. They have a visceral power that doesn’t require you to slow down, but it does require you to slow down if you want to understand them.

They have a deceptive directness that writers can only envy. They deploy the same tools that writers often use: symbolism, irony, metaphor. Cartoons enter your eye in a blink, and can’t be unseen after they’re seen. But to understand some of these cartoons requires a lot of culture immersion and symbol reading and a lot of analysis.

There was a New Yorker cover back in the beginning of my time at the magazine that helped change the magazine’s DNA enough to embrace controversial images. It was in the wake of the Crown Heights race riots in which the West Indian black community and the Hasidic Jew community came to bloody blows. As I was doodling I wondered, “What would the guy with the monocle look like if he were Hasidic?” And then I had a black woman kiss him.

When the cover came out, it created a riot of its own—as much indignation on both sides as possible in the world before the Internet. Among the letters that came in to the magazine was a letter from a young woman saying that she thought it was really sweet that on Abe Lincoln’s birthday there was a picture of Lincoln kissing a slave. What’s so amazing about that is that it gets right to the heart of the problem that some of the protesting PEN writers have: learning to read images. They’re very easy to misread without enough information, and some of my writing brethren are great mis-readers.

What would you like to see moving forward?

We should be teaching visual literacy in all schools. We’re bombarded with images more and more, and we have less and less time to understand them. What’s amazing about these simple drawings is that they stand still long enough for you to circle them and get around them in ways you often can’t with videos.

It’s not easy for Americans, because for one thing there are hardly any political cartoonists in America at this point. Political cartoonists are a dying breed. Here there are fewer newspapers, fewer newspapers with a cartoonist on staff, and political cartoons have been reduced to being a variant of a gag cartoon because the last thing a newspaper would want to do is lose a single reader.

I’m stuck having to agree with my bête noir friend Pam Geller that it would be better going forward for newspapers and magazines to take on the responsibility for showing these images. When the Danish Muhammad cartoons appeared in 2006, and when the Mohammad cartoons from Charlie Hebdo appeared, newspapers should have shown these images and talked about them. Many dismissed them as banal and treated them as, “Nothing to see here, move along.”

If it were taken as a matter of course for newspapers and magazines to show these images, they could be normalized, so the many Muslims not offended to the point of grabbing a machine gun could understand that this is how our culture functions with images and issues. It would create a better-informed population dealing with whatever comes next. It would also be useful to have other voices on newspaper and magazine staffs.

What’s the mistake in not publishing images that could be deemed offensive?

There’s no stopping it. What would it be based on? Would it be based on when someone takes up arms against the image? Would it be based on when someone thinks it’s offensive? God knows where the line would be drawn. It can’t be drawn that way. There is an incredible efficiency cartoons have, once you learn to read them, in clarifying the issues at hand, making them memorable.

There’s something basic about cartoons. They work they way the brain works. We think in small, iconic images. An infant can recognize a smiley face before it can recognize its mother’s smile. We think in little bursts of language. This is how cartoons are structured. They’re structured to talk to something deep inside our brains. A cartoon becomes a new kind of word that didn’t exist before.

It’s interesting how little respect they get. “Oh, anyone could draw that crude, vulgar scrawl,” said a number of critics of Charlie Hedbo. That’s not quite true. They’re not totally dismissible. If a writer had made some of the points that Charlie Hebdo had made, I don’t think the writers protesting PEN would have been so condescending and dismissive.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Republicans Aren’t the Only Ones Who Believe in God

Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter.

There, I said it. I believe in God. I mean, I really really believe in God.

Here it comes again, as regular as the flu season, and almost as frequent: the march of the presidential contenders, and the mad scramble, especially among Republicans, to enlist God as campaign manager numero uno.

On the far right we’ve got Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who, in a 2013 interview said: At the end of the day, faith is “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio upholds the teachings of the Catholic Church on gay marriage and abortion. The supposed front-runner, Jeb Bush, also Catholic, has openly declared that public leaders need to be guided by faith, and recently met with Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, presumably in an effort to beef up his Christian cred. Bush will also be speaking at the commencement of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. So God-centric has our political culture become that Hillary herself—yes, the she-devil who sends chills of fear up every Bible-thumper in America—recently declared, “the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking.”

Gaily fluttering flags hanging from countless front porches all over the deep South, including many in my own former neighborhood in Baton Rouge ask: “WWJD?” To which I, a somewhat left-of-center Jew, would always think: “He’d hang out with prostitutes, feed the poor, try to get medicine to people dying of AIDS, and finally go to shul to daven mincha.”

My former neighbor in Baton Rouge, Randy Nichols, and I used to sit under the shade of the live oak trees and talk about such things — about the gap between talking about God and doing God’s work, about how easy it is to forget that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew steeped in the teachings of the biblical prophets, about people who preach mercy but show none. It was weird, too, because Randy is an ordained Methodist minister, polite to his core, who still speaks with the East Texas drawl of his youth, whereas I’m the opposite, right down to my East Coast education and penchant for sprinkling my conversation with a combination of Yiddish and words that can’t be printed here.

Even so, we had a lot in common: We shared a profound belief in God. What was it, we’d ask ourselves, in our shared holy books, our shared if fraught history, our shared stake in the experiment that is American democracy that would so skew one set of God-infused beliefs from another? And why would God desire a world where we locked people up, sometimes indefinitely, in brutal surroundings? For that matter, what is He thinking when He observes His idiot children poisoning the world He brought into being?

I don’t actually think that God thinks about all the plastic bottles that we throw into the ocean. At least not in any way that I can parse out. The word God is itself a metaphor, the best I (and billions of others) personally can do to get at something that all my words can’t elucidate but my heart knows to be true.

There, I said it. I believe in God. I mean, I really really believe in God. I believe in God so much that my relationship to Him infuses and has infused pretty much my entire waking life, and has from as early as I can remember. (I use the male pronoun because the English language doesn’t have a gender neutral term.) Like my gruff, Republican grandfather, who attended synagogue without fail, presided over a kosher home, took in distant relatives from Germany as Adolf Hitler came to power, and once told my father that a world without God simply didn’t make sense, I cleave, in my own imperfect way, to faith. As do countless others who share my left-leaning world view.

And yet the pollsters tell us that God belongs primarily to the Republican Party, citing, for example, the horrifying trend among Republican candidates to say that America is a Christian nation and a recent poll that found that 57% of Republicans support establishing Christianity as the national religion.

I now live in northern New Jersey, where, unlike in Baton Rouge, people generally don’t wear their faith on their sleeves. And yet my overwhelmingly liberal-leaning town of about 40,000, a town so stuffed with members of the chattering classes that it’s come to be known as “the Upper West Side of New Jersey,” is home to two synagogues (three if you count the one that straddles the border) and some 45 churches. That’s an awful lot of praying from folks who, the popular discourse tells us, don’t have much use for religion.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Violence Is Worse Than Blasphemy

Two Gunmen Killed Outside Mohammed Cartoon Contest Event In Texas
Ben Torres—Getty Images FBI investigators work a crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center on May 04, 2015 in Garland, TX.

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

"The measure of a truly tolerant society is only seen in its most egregious provocations."

Most religions have rules against blasphemy, but it’s understood that insulting God is less egregious than attacking human beings. The God of monotheistic religions cannot be harmed by coarse words and images. Theological mockery, which has a long history in religious debates, is the price of a free society.

When I have debated with notable atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others—they have often said offensive things about God in Judaism. Against each of them I debated, protested, parried, and occasionally resented the argument. Afterwards, we shook hands.

Yet for some in Islam, an attack on Muhammad is felt as an attack on Muslims, not only a theological insult but also a communal insult. The “Draw Muhammad” contest sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, where police killed two armed gunmen, was deliberately offensive. As many of its critics have alleged, it was intended to provoke a response and to anger Muslims. Such antics make it harder for Muslims who preach against radicalism to gain a sympathetic hearing. Humans just don’t warm to a culture that disparages what they hold dear.

And yet the measure of a truly tolerant society is only seen in its most egregious provocations. “The Book of Mormon” is an undisguised attempt to be as insulting as humanly possible to the Mormon faith. It is witty, vulgar, caustic, and extravagantly offensive to anyone who is a believing Mormon. Yet, to the enduring credit of the Mormon church and community, there was no demand that it be silenced. Mormons did not take to the streets. The play continues to be seen, and the church continues to thrive.

When Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was displayed, some tried to shut it down. Immersing an image of Jesus in urine was calculatedly repulsive. Yet here, too, free speech advocates made the persuasive case that it was only in provoking that you test tolerance. A similar instance was when Nazis marched on Skokie, Illinois, in the mid 70’s, when it was home to a large population of people who survived the concentration camps. Our limits are stretched by hard cases.

If I were Muslim, I would be hurt and offended by the “contest,” as I would be as a Mormon watching the musical, or as I was as a Jew witnessing the Nazis march. It is painful to see your most cherished beliefs deliberately and coarsely mocked. Yet I would be even more offended by the two men who came to Garland, Texas, to kill. The decision of two evil people is not the reaction of an entire community.

No group in America is exempt from the kind of crude lampooning that characterized the contest. Each group has an unfortunate tendency to say “we are the only ones who ever get mocked that way.” Not so. The truth is that if you are fat, or short, or black, or Jewish, or Mexican or Muslim, or Asian, or awkward, or any number of other things, you will hear nasty things said about you and those like you.

We can encourage sensitivity in speakers, but even more urgent is to encourage stoicism in listeners. The creed of a free society is simply this: God may deal with blasphemy however God wishes, but as people we wince, argue back, and then leave other alone. You do not have to be serene in the face of slanders but neither can you be violent. It is no victory for the Divine to kill one of Her children.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Pamela Geller: A Response to My Critics—This Is a War

Pamela Geller
Jason Andrew—Getty Images Pamela Geller, author of the book The Post-American Presidency answers emails inside her home on August 3, 2010 in New York City.

Pamela Geller is the President of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and publisher of PamelaGeller.com.

Some are saying I provoked this attack. But to kowtow to violent intimidation will only encourage more of it.

Sunday in Garland, Texas, a police officer was wounded in a battle that is part of a longstanding war: the war against the freedom of speech. Some people are blaming me for the Garland shooting — so I want to address that here.

The shooting happened at my American Freedom Defense Initiative Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest, when two Islamic jihadists armed with rifles and explosives drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland and attempted to gain entry to our event, which was just ending. We were aware of the risk and spent thousands of dollars on security — and it paid off. The jihadis at our free speech event were not able to achieve their objective of replicating the massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine last January — and to go it one better in carnage. They were not able to kill anyone. We provided enormous security, in concert with the superb Garland police department. The men who took the aspiring killers down may have saved hundreds of lives.

And make no mistake: If it weren’t for the free-speech conference, these jihadis would have struck somewhere else — a place where there was less security, like the Lindt cafe in Australia or the Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket in Paris.

So, why are some people blaming me? They’re saying: “Well, she provoked them! She got what she deserved!” They don’t remember, or care to remember, that as the jihadis were killing the Muhammad cartoonists in Paris, their friend and accomplice was murdering Jews in a nearby kosher supermarket. Were the Jews asking for it? Did they “bait” the jihadis? Were they “provoking” them?

Are the Jews responsible for the Nazis? Are the Christians in the Middle East responsible for being persecuted by Muslims?

Drawing Muhammad offends Islamic jihadists? So does being Jewish. How much accommodation of any kind should we give to murderous savagery? To kowtow to violent intimidation will only encourage more of it.

This is a war.

Now, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, and after the Garland attack, what are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?

The attack in Garland showed that everything my colleagues and I have been warning about regarding the threat of jihad, and the ways in which it threatens our liberties, is true. Islamic law, Sharia, with its death penalty for blasphemy, today constitutes a unique threat to the freedom of speech and liberty in general.

Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.

Putting up with being offended is essential in a pluralistic society in which people differ on basic truths. If a group will not stand for being offended without resorting to violence, that group will rule unopposed, while everyone else lives in fear.

Islamic law as it’s interpreted by extremists forbids criticism of Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad. If they cannot be criticized in the United States, we are in effect accepting Islamic law as overriding the freedom of speech. This would establish Muslims as a protected class and prevent honest discussion of how Islamic jihadists use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence.

Some say that “hate speech” should be censored. But what constitutes “hate speech” is a subjective judgment that is unavoidably influenced by the political perspective of the one doing the judging.

Allowing this sort of censorship would mean nothing less civilizational suicide. Many in the media and academic elite assign no blame to an ideology that calls for death to blasphemers — i.e., those who criticize or offend Islam. Instead, they target and blame those who expose this fanaticism. If the cultural elites directed their barbs and attacks at the extremist doctrine of jihad, the world would be a vastly safer place.

You can try to avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality. The shootings in Garland, Paris, and Copenhagen targeting defenders of free speech, and the raging jihad across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, are the disastrous consequences of avoiding reality.

I encourage all Americans to watch the videos of the Garland event and see what Islamic supremacists wish to silence: basic, elemental free speech arguments.

But we are unbowed. Even when the venue was in lockdown and hundreds of attendees were ushered down into the auditorium, the crowd was singing the Star Spangled Banner and G-d Bless America. In the face of fear, they were staunchly and uniquely American.

To learn who rules over you, simply find out whom you cannot criticize. If the international media had run the Danish cartoons back in 2005, none of this could have happened. The jihadis wouldn’t have been able to kill everyone. But by self-censoring, the media gave the jihadis the power they have today.

We must take back our freedom.

Pamela Geller is the President of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), publisher of PamelaGeller.com and author of The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America and Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

What Pamela Geller Advocates Is Not Free Speech

Pamela Geller, author of the book The Post-American Presidency and an opponent of the proposed World Trade Center Islamic Center poses for a portrait inside her home on August 3, 2010 in New York City.
Jason Andrew—Getty Images Pamela Geller, author of the book The Post-American Presidency and an opponent of the proposed World Trade Center Islamic Center poses for a portrait inside her home on August 3, 2010 in New York City.

Qasim Rashid is an attorney, author of EXTREMIST, and national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.

Repeated demonization can inspire violence

There’s an important history behind America’s free speech laws to which the anti-Islam hate group behind the “Draw Muhammad Contest,” is wholly ignorant. While the Islamophobe leading this hate group believes she’s a free speech champion, remarkably comparing herself to Rosa Parks, in reality America’s current free speech model developed as an attempt to protect — not demonize — religious and racial minorities. “U.S. law only began to protect hateful speech during the 1960s,” writes Garrett Epps. “Southern state governments were trying to criminalize the civil-rights movement for its advocacy of change. White Southerners claimed that the teachings of figures like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X were ‘hate speech’ and would produce ‘race war.’”

Courts sided with American icons like Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, not because they advocated unpopular ideas of hatred or destruction — but because they faced ongoing hatred and destruction at the hands of racist white southerners. As the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and leading Jewish American Rabbis note, Geller represents the antithesis of the moral courage that was Rosa Parks.

Repeated demonization can inspire violence. This is a fact. “During the Holocaust, the Nazis went beyond making us social outcasts; they systematically slaughtered our people with unspeakable cruelty. Because we know so well what it is like to be outcasts, we must never, through our deeds or words, make others into modern-day lepers,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the largest Jewish denomination in North America. “[W]hat [Geller] does, what she represents, has no place in a Jewish community that is built on tolerance and understanding.”

We, as society, must do better. Rather than fall for the fallacy that what Geller advocates is free speech, recognize that as human beings our strength rests not in sticking to the bare minimum the law permits, but in elevating our civility to the highest levels possible.

We cannot defeat terrorist groups like ISIS by following ideology that serves only to demonize the other. Rather, we counter such extremism with better, more compassionate, and more pluralistic concepts that are universal to all people — respect, integrity, and justice.

At an international peace conference in the United Kingdom His Holiness the Khalifa of Islam Mirza Masoor Ahmad wisely remarked, “Let it not be that in the name of freedom of speech the peace of the entire world be destroyed.” This simple lesson in personal accountability is the key to establishing peace. No law, no matter how specific, can legislate morality — and speech is essentially a moral issue. If we truly want peace, society must rise above the intolerance that Geller and ISIS alike espouse.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Jihad Comes to Texas

Two Gunmen Killed Outside Mohammed Cartoon Contest Event In Texas
Ben Torres—Getty Images FBI investigators work a crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center on May 04, 2015 in Garland, TX.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the founder of the AHA Foundation and the author of Infidel, Nomad, and the new book Heretic: The Case for a Muslim Reformation.

The right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion

Just before 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 3, outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, two men got out of their vehicle and began firing. They hit one man, a security officer, in the ankle. A Garland police officer returned fire with his handgun and killed the two men.

I repeat: This happened in Garland, Texas. It did not happen in Paris. It did not happen in Peshawar. It happened in the heart of Texas, in the town that inspired the cartoon series King of the Hill.

At this early stage, much remains unclear. One of the shooters, Elton Simpson, has been identified as a convert to Islam who lived in Phoenix. The other, Nadir Hamid Soofi, lived in the same apartment complex and attended the same mosque. The obvious inference is that the two gunmen intended to attack the “First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” that was being held that evening under the auspices of the American Freedom Defense Initiative. It’s possible that the target was not the event but one of the speakers, Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who has called for a ban of the Qur’an.

It’s important to congratulate the police and the security officers at the event. The policeman who took out the two would-be jihadists deserves a medal. Simpson and Soofie were armed with assault rifles and were wearing body armor. At a time when American police forces are being publicly pilloried for alleged misuses of force, this was exemplary. It’s likely that America just avoided its very own Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The thwarted attack in Texas comes at a time when several prominent authors have criticized the writers’ organization PEN for honoring Charlie Hebdo’s commitment to freedom of expression. The French satirical magazine had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, an unforgivable insult in the eyes of the Kouachi brothers, who burst into its offices and shot eight of its staff, as well as four other people, including one police officer, in January.

Last month, the American PEN center announced it would award its annual Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo. In response, a group of writers—including award-winning novelists Peter Carey, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Ondaatje—signed a letter to PEN protesting the award. The signatories said that it could “be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering” to a section of the French population that is “already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.”

This was their argument against Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Muhammad:

Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.

In other words, free speech needs to be qualified. No doubt those who endorsed the letter would make a similar argument about the Garland Muhammad art exhibit. And no doubt if the attackers had achieved the massacre they intended, we would hear the same words: “Yes, we believe in free speech, but…

These writers have lost track of an important distinction. In the decades-old controversy over depicting the Prophet Muhammad, we must remember the difference between what constitutes the imagination and what is real. Adam Gopnik explains:

The imagination sees and draws and describes many things—pornographic, erotic, satiric, and blasphemous—that are uncomfortable or ugly. But they are not actually happening. The imagination is a place where hypotheses and conditionals rule, and where part of the fun, and most of the point, lies in saying the unsayable in order to test the truths of what’s most often said.

In other words, a distinction must be made between acts of the imagination such as cartoons, movies, books, and acts of violence such as mass shootings. The group that organized the Muhammad cartoon event, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is using acts of imagination. In response, two men sought to use violence to try and silence them. There is no “but” in the First Amendment.

I am no cartoonist. But I do believe the Prophet Muhammad must be exposed to the same scrutiny applied to any religious figure—whether it be Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Joseph Smith. Applying scrutiny to the Prophet Muhammad is not an act of “hurting” Muslims or causing them “humiliation.” Instead, it can actually lead Islam to a better place—one where the imagination of every writer, artist, and citizen can run free, without fear of violent retribution.

You may not agree with me about that. As it happens, I disagree with some of the things Wilders says, and I’m not entirely comfortable with everything that comes out of the American Freedom Defense Initiative. But in a free society, such disagreements can never justify acts of violence. Nor can they justify acts of censorship.

Voltaire had it right. “I disapprove of what you say,” he is said to have written to the philosopher Claude Helvétius, “but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This week is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

The Controversial Group Behind the Muhammad Cartoon Contest

Political blogger Pamela Geller, American Freedom Defense Initiative's Houston-based founder, speaks at the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest, which is sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, in Garland, Texas May 3, 2015.
Mike Stone—Reuters Political blogger Pamela Geller, American Freedom Defense Initiative's Houston-based founder, speaks at the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest, which is sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, in Garland, Texas May 3, 2015.

The cartoon contest was organized by a group that critics call anti-Muslim

A shooting in Texas has raised the specter in the United States of violence like the massacre in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

On Sunday, two men fired at a security guard in Dallas outside an art contest displaying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Security returned fire, and the attackers were shot and killed.

Here’s what you need to know about the attack.

Who organized the contest?
The inaugural “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” was organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and billed as a celebration of free speech, at a time when images of Muhammad have sparked outrage among Muslims, who consider representations of the Prophet blasphemous. The group offered a $10,000 prize for cartoons of the Islamic prophet and hosted artists who depicted the Prophet. Various hosts, including keynote speaker Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, gave speeches defending free expression, and some made incendiary remarks about Islam. “Our Judeo-Christian culture is far superior to the Islamic one,” Wilders said Sunday at the contest. “I can give you a million reasons.”

What is the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI)?

The group describes itself as a freedom of speech advocacy movement, “opposed to Islamic prohibitions of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘slander.'” It calls for equal rights and freedom of conscience. Critics, including the hate-group tracking Southern Poverty Law Center, characterize the organization as anti-Muslim.

The Anti-Defamation League, which was founded to combat anti-Semitism, said in a 2010 statement, “the group seeks to rouse public fears by consistently vilifying the Islamic faith and asserting the existence of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy ‘American’ values.”

Who is behind it?
Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger. She told the New York Times in 2010 that when Muslims “pray five times a day… they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day.” Geller said the only moderate Muslim “is a secular Muslim.”

She describes herself as “anti-Jihad,” however, and not anti-Muslim. “I’m anti-jihad. … I don’t see how anyone could say I’m anti-Muslim. I love Muslims,” Geller told the Village Voice in 2012.

What is AFDI best known for?
The AFDI opposed the construction of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan in 2010, saying it was an affront to the victims of Sept. 11. The proposed building would have been a “mega-mosque,” Geller said, and the group called it a “beachhead for political Islam and Islamic supremacism in New York.” Developers and backers said the building was in fact a community center with a prayer space inside, and a meeting place for moderate Muslims. The proposal ended up failing, but the developer has since proposed building an Islamic museum at the same location.

The AFDI also posted ads in 2012 on the Washington D.C. subway that said “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The group has also paid for similar ads on public transportation in New York City, prompting the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency to ban all political ads last week.

Why did AFDI plan Sunday’s event?
Geller has said the event was a stand against “Islamic intimidation.” “This event will stand for free speech and show that Americans will not be cowed by violent Islamic intimidation,” Geller told the conservative news outlet Breitbart earlier this year. “If we don’t show the jihadis that they will not frighten us into silence, the jihad against freedom will only grow more virulent.”

The group paid $10,000 for additional security at the event, and local police had planned security for the event months ahead of the exhibit. A bomb squad, the FBI, and a SWAT team were all in place, Reuters reports, in addition to other security guards.

TIME Courts

Santa Monica’s Ban On Nativity Display Upheld

In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a woman walks past a two of the traditional displays showing the Nativity scene along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif.
Ringo H.W. Chiu—AP In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a woman walks past a two of the traditional displays showing the Nativity scene along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif.

City did not violate the First Amendment, court says

The city of Santa Monica did not violate the First Amendment when it banned the display of nativity scenes in a city park, a federal appeals court unanimously ruled Thursday.

For years, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee erected Christmas dioramas in Palisades Park. But in 2011, a group of atheists was able to secure most of the spots in the park allowed by the city for holiday displays.

The following year, the committee and the atheists filed so many applications with the city that Santa Monica officials decided to shut down the process altogether.

The nativity committee sued the city on free speech grounds but a district judge ruled for the city in 2012. On Thursday, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the committee did not have a “viable claim” that the Santa Monica ban violated the constitution, according to the Los Angeles Times.

TIME Culture

Why I Left My Religion (and Arranged Marriage) Behind

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I didn’t understand why God would give me a brain if I wasn't allowed to question things

Melissa Weisz is an emerging actress, with a current role in the movie Félix & Meira. The film, which tells the story of a young woman in a traditional Hasidic household who leaves her faith and the strict circle of her community when she falls in love, has strong parallels with Weisz’ own life. She told her story to Laura Barcella.

I never thought I’d be an actress, but not just for the reasons most people think they won’t make it. For most of my life, I lived in a traditional family in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, where careers — let alone careers in acting — were rarely discussed. I was fully observant and, when I was 19, I entered into an arranged marriage. Four years later, I left it all behind.

My childhood was loud but happy. I had six sisters and two brothers, so there were lots of kids running around, and lots of makeshift moms — my older sisters were constantly helping out. It felt very safe, because we were in our own super-structured little bubble where everybody was like us. Everyone has one, clear, ultra-traditional direction in life — it was like, “This is where you’re going and this is what you’re doing.” You knew how to dress, how to act at home and at school. You knew what was expected of you.

I’m still not sure why, but one day, I started doubting a lot of what I’d been raised to believe. All of sudden, I was challenging my teachers and crossing the boundaries of what Hasidic kids are supposed to talk about. Some of the stuff I was learning — like the idea of men throughout history having multiple wives, things like that — disturbed me. Why was it okay for men to do that and not women?

It bothered me how, at holidays like Shabbat, the guys would sit quietly and study while the women were expected to serve them. I started to wonder, Why am I serving my little brother? Obviously, I didn’t know anything about feminism then. But, I didn’t understand why God would give me a brain if I wasn’t allowed to question things, and I only got more and more dubious as I grew older.

When I was 19, I had an arranged Hasidic marriage. It was just what was done; my ex-husband and I met a few times, and then we got engaged. Fortunately, he’s a great guy; I actually started to feel like I was falling in love with him during the courtship process. I hadn’t been with anyone else. I didn’t question whether the marriage was right for me (ultimately, it wasn’t). I figured I would make it work no matter what, because I had to. But, when you start questioning things, all the dominoes start to fall.

We were married for four years when I decided to walk away from both my husband and our community. That summer, I’d gone away to Texas and spoken with various Hasidic friends and rabbis, checked out different temples. I was reading a lot about Judaism and realized, once and for all, that it felt false to me. I had been trying to make sense of it and find my own path within it, but I just couldn’t. Religion, in general, just doesn’t really have a place in my life or my belief system.

So, I made the very difficult decision to leave.

After I left, I felt a big sense of relief, but I also realized I needed to figure out how to survive outside the world in which I’d been raised. Practical matters, like finding an apartment, were totally new to me. I was lucky to discover Footsteps, an organization that helps former Orthodox Jews establish new lives outside their communities. I started going to some of its meetings and met a bunch of great people. I found a support system, an apartment, roommates. That was when I finally felt comfortable starting to openly talk about my experiences in the Orthodox world. I put myself through college and got a degree in psychology.

When I left, I didn’t ask my family for their support — I just assumed they wouldn’t give it. I didn’t give them a chance, and after I left there was no real communication for a while. Once, my sister stopped by and left me a care package with a delicious traditional Jewish cake, but she didn’t say “hi.”

Sometimes, still, I feel like a bit of an outsider, and occasionally I miss aspects of my old life. But, we all have moments like that — like when you return to the town where you went to school, or drive past a house you used to live in. It’s nostalgic, but that doesn’t mean you want to be there again. When I pass by Hasidic boys on the street, it gives me a little pang sometimes.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to reconnect with my family. After they realized my leaving wasn’t just a phase, they began to reach out to me again, which was great. My father and I are even thinking about writing a book about the experience.

In my newest movie, I actually play a Hasidic woman. It’s been cathartic because it has forced me to face my past. The house where we shot the film was so similar to the one I grew up in, I walked in and immediately started crying. It felt like home — but it definitely wasn’t my home anymore.

Félix and Meira is now in theaters in select cities around the country.

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

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