US divisions deepen over Islam debate

The armed attack on an anti-Islam event is deplorable, but so too was the provocation

A police officer stands near a school bus used to evacuate attendees of the Mohammad Art Exhibit and Contest sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Mike Stone / Reuters
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The shooting outside an anti-Islam cartoon contest in Texas deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms possible, but so too do the deliberately provocative acts by anti-Islam extremists that sparked them. The events are reminiscent of the gruesome attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris that killed 12 people. In this case, it seems that two gunman were shot dead as they approached a conference centre where the anti-Islamic American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) was holding a contest for the best caricature of the Prophet Mohammed.

The AFDI, a right-wing group loosely associated with a network of anti-Islamic organisations in the United States, offered a $10,000 prize and defended the event as an example of free speech but few saw it as anything other than an act of provocation. This sort of thing is hardly new. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, groups like the AFDI are developing a culture of fear around Islam through deliberately provocative acts such as this cartoon contest in Texas.

The cast of extremists the AFDI lined up for the event reveals the true aims of this publicity stunt. Among those in attendance were the notorious Dutch anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders and Stop Islamisation of America co-founder Pamela Geller. Their campaigning against Muslims reads like a laundry list of incitement.

As the head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Mr Wilders is one of the most recognisable faces in global efforts to demonise Islam. He once likened the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and called for it to be banned and for Islam’s role in public life restricted in Europe. In 2009, Dutch judges levelled charges against him for inciting hatred and discrimination over his attacks on the symbols of Islam. Mr Wilders was later acquitted but his status as a pioneer of a global movement against Islam had already been minted. Among Ms Geller’s many Islamophobic exploits are vicious anti-Islam adverts she paid to be plastered on subway stations and buses in New York. She also chastised the mainstream press for enforcing Sharia by refusing to show caricatures of the Prophet after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

While violence should never be the answer, we must remain aware of the increase in provocation from anti-Islam extremists in America. And we must rise above it.