“Mouths can be more dangerous than guns,” the woman who I later described as “a 60-something door-bitch” told me when I arrived to cover Geert Wilders’ 2013 lecture in Melbourne for Crikey. I had tried to reassure her that I could safely be admitted because I had passed through the metal detector without a gun or any other weapon being detected. But Muslim mouths are dangerous, at least when opened too loudly in proximity to the politician who claims to be among the staunchest defenders of free speech.
And Muslim tweets can apparently be even more dangerous than Muslim mouths, with reports claiming that the thwarted attack in Texas on an exhibition of anti-Muslim cartoons at which Wilders was due to speak had been encouraged by tweets from an Australian “prestige member” of a group of online international jihadists. The exhibition itself was organised by the noxious Pamela Geller, whose organisation is included in a list of hate groups complied by the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
It goes without saying (or at least it ought to go without saying, but probably doesn’t) that Muslims could usefully resist rising to the bait. Reports into the backgrounds of the dead gunmen suggest that one of them might have risen to the bait before and apparently failed to learn from that experience. The previous bait laid for Elton Simpson came in the form of a paid FBI informant, who posed as a new convert to Islam in order to record him in conversation about plans to engage in jihad in Somalia. Without knowing the details of the case (in which Simpson was found not guilty of terrorism charges), this sounds consistent with a post-9/11 pattern of FBI entrapment in which suspects are lured into making statements and undertaking actions that would never have occurred to them, if not for the encouragement of government-paid informants.
The attack in Texas comes in the wake of a row over PEN’s decision to award the French magazine Charlie Hebdo with its prestigious freedom of expression award. Australian author Peter Carey is among the writers to publicly decline to attend the award on the grounds of the magazine’s alleged racism against Muslims — a gesture that led Salman Rushdie to call them “fellow travellers of the fanatics” as well as “pussies”. Rushdie later withdrew the “pussies” (although not the fellow-travellers) label in an act that might be labelled self-censorship if it hadn’t been made by the author of The Satanic Verses.
Disparate events worldwide gain momentum and perceived relevance according to the ways in which we chose to connect them. An appearance by a Dutch member of parliament at an exhibition in Texas would pass without notice, if not for the terrifying rise of the far right in Europe. And, of course, cartoons about Islam have been a flashpoint ever since the right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten commissioned 12 editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Prophet Muhammad, after learning that the author of a children’s book about the life of the Prophet was having difficulty in finding an illustrator because of Islamic prohibitions on iconography in general, and representations of the Prophet in particular. The Danish cartoons were intended to provoke Muslims, and since hundreds of people died in the ensuing protests and riots around the world, I think that we can safely say “mission accomplished”.
“Free speech”, like gender equality, has become a civilisational totem in the new religious wars within the West, frequently invoked as evidence of the ways in which “we” (meaning non-Muslims) are superior to “them” (meaning Muslims and sometimes other religious minorities). By sanctifying it and defining it according to “our” terms (so that Wilders’ supporters do not regard his call to ban the Koran as an attack on free speech), Muslims who defend it are yet again placed in the position of sounding like apologists for events over which we had no control.
Wilders’ capacity to incite hatred against Muslims is far greater than the capacity of a teenager in Melbourne to incite violence against him. He does not need to tell his fan club to attack “with your weapons, bombs or with knives” (to use the words of the allegedly incendiary tweet). He only needs to describe Muslims as a threat to Western civilisation and leave others to join the dots.
Are we really supposed to believe that the attack in Texas was triggered not by years of spectacular failures in US foreign policy (not least in Somalia, the location where one of the Texas attackers had allegedly planned to undertake jihad) or by Wilders’ and Gellers’ own hate-speech, but by a tweet or a series of tweets from an Australian Muslim?
Muslim community leaders in the United States and elsewhere are of course condemning the attempted violence by one of their (and my) co-religionists. Once again, many non-Muslims will shrug this off as tokenism and many Muslims (particularly those from the post-9/11 generation) will fume at this willingness to assume collective responsibility.
I do not hold the Dutch collectively responsible for Geert Wilders’ fear-mongering. I refuse to take responsibility for the attempted attack upon him, let alone for a tweet sent by someone who happens to share both my nationality and my religion.
If that makes my mouth (open or closed) too dangerous for comfort, then so be it.