The first week of May brought two sharp tests of the tension between freedom of speech and respect for religious belief. One unfolded in the exalted realm of American letters, the other in a hail of bullets in a Texas parking lot. Both flowed from the Jan. 7 attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which proudly offended Muslims who view depictions of their Prophet as sacrilege.
In the Dallas suburb of Garland, the first annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest was convened on May 3 by Pamela Geller, a provocateur who foments anti-Muslim sentiment in the name of combatting perceived “Islamization.” A former marketing executive, Geller is skilled at attracting attention to her causes. In Garland, she rented the very hall where in January moderate Muslims gathered to decry people like Geller who leverage the actions of extremists to condemn all of Islam.
Security was tight. And so when two men wearing body armor drove up to a police car and opened fire with assault rifles, the officer shot dead both Elton Simpson, 30, and Nadir Hamid Soofi, 34, who had traveled from Phoenix to mount the attack. Simpson’s Twitter feed had praised ISIS, which claimed responsibility for what it may only have inspired. Geller too claimed victory. “The war for free speech,” she wrote afterward on a personal site, “is a shooting war.”
Not everywhere. When the literary group PEN America announced that Charlie Hebdo would on May 5 receive its annual award for courage, 145 authors objected to “valorizing” work that intensifies existing prejudices against Islam. The ensuing hullabaloo was confined to emails, blogs and op-ed columns, where top PEN officials defended their choice only after bowing in all directions. “This is a nuanced question,” they wrote, “and all of these writers have made persuasive moral arguments.”
It was a respectful discussion about, well, respect, the quality so conspicuously lacking on the fringes fueling a fire that burns ever hotter.
This appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of TIME.
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