Was the Draw Muhammad Competition an Incitement to Violence?

by Nigel Warburton, @philosophybites

On May 3rd two men opened fire on a security guard near the ‘Muhhamad Art Exhibit & Contest’ an event in Garland, Texas, that advertised a $10,000 prize for the best cartoon drawing of the prophet. The assailants were shot dead by the police. Pamela Geller, the organiser of the event, is a political blogger, who, enflamed by 9/11 has mounted a well-funded campaign against what she sees as an Islamization of America and the ‘mosque-ing’ of the workplace (see this Washington Post article). The immediate catalyst for her draw Muhammad stunt was the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.  She was within her US First Amendment rights to organise this event, and explicitly defended it on free speech grounds. She told the Washington Post: ‘We decided to have a cartoon contest to show we would not kowtow to violent intimidation and allow the freedom of speech to be overwhelmed by thugs and bullies.’

This justification is very similar to that behind the decision of Charlie Hebdo’s surviving editors to publish the Muhammad cartoon on the front cover of the first issue of the magazine after the murders. It also echoes a more nuanced version of this stance given by Timothy Garton Ash in an article in ‘Defying the Assassin’s Veto’ in the New York Review of Books, in which he argued for reproducing a wide range of Charlie Hebdo’s covers, not just those which satirised Muhammad. Where violence is threatened, and there is a risk of self-censorship through fear, one of the best ways of standing up to the assassin’s veto is to produce more of the very thing that offends the would-be assassin in reaction and solidarity.

No sane person wants to defend freedom of expression by every individual in every context whatsoever. The philosophical debates about free speech have always focused on where to draw the line between speech that is tolerable and that which is, and should be, beyond the pale. It’s a question of liberty rather than complete licence. Most liberal philosophers are concerned to defend extensive freedom of expression, even up to the point of tolerating the promulgation of deeply offensive and repulsive views. A popular place to draw the line is at incitement to violence. This, famously, was John Stuart Mill’s approach in Chapter Two of On Liberty. This was consistent with his Harm Principle that the only justification for intervening and constraining an individual’s actions was to prevent harm to others. Mill recognised that what constitutes incitement varies from context to context and is not determined by the words used, but rather their use in a particular situation. In his example, the line ‘Corn-dealers are starvers of the poor’ is acceptable within a newspaper editorial, but not when on a placard waved in front of an angry mob gathered outside the house of a corn-dealer. The second context would make the words an incitement to violence and can legitimately be censored.

Even if you adopt the Harm Principle, however, drawing the line between harm and mere offence is not as straightforward as Mill assumed. Hate speech is a difficult area (I discuss some of the difficulties in this review of Jeremy Waldron’s book The Harm in Hate Speech. Rae Langton argues for restriction of hate speech in this Philosophy Bites podcast). Hate speech typically involves an act of harming someone with words: the harm is psychological, but, as we know, psychological harm can be as or more damaging than physical harm, so the justification for drawing the line between expressions that incite physical violence and those which are used to cause psychological harm is hard to defend.

But Pamela Geller’s competition raises another interesting question of line-drawing, I haven’t discussed. Her actions might well be seen as an instigation to hate speech, or at least hate expression, something that many would condemn, though others might see as misguided, but tolerable and defensible within a society that values freedom of expression highly and is concerned not to have it eroded through intimidation. But in some ways more interesting is the question of whether holding the competition was itself an incitement to actual violence, not violence by the cartoonists, but rather an incitement to extremists to attack those attending the event, violence against the very people organising the protest. Not that that would in any way excuse the terrorists who took the bait: they are completely culpable for their actions. But if at some level, as seems possible, Geller was seeking this sort of reaction from the largely invisible angry mob of offended extremists observing her actions, because that would promote her cause, perhaps her staging of the competition could be seen as the equivalent of that protestor waving a placard outside a corndealer’s house. The fact that Geller herself was (and presumably still is) among the potential targets of the violence shouldn’t matter. Drawing the line in this sort of case, as with so many specific free speech issues, is a delicate matter, as the meaning of such actions are context-dependent. Trigger-happy extremists shouldn’t be able to claim that all offensive speech incites violence; on the other hand, some offense speech really is fighting talk and is uttered to provoke that reaction. The distinction between a provocation to violence against a protest and a protest that establishes freedom is a subtle one.

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5 Responses to Was the Draw Muhammad Competition an Incitement to Violence?

  • Andrews says:

    Hello sir,

    Thank you for this interesting post. First of all I wish to express my deepest gratitude for your amazing Philosophy: The Basics which I read as a teenager (it was part of a college course in philosophy for bilingual students — in Switzerland); this book played a significant role in my choice to pursue a philosophy in my academic life.


    But if at some level, as seems possible, Geller was seeking this sort of reaction from the largely invisible angry mob of offended extremists observing her actions, because that would promote her cause, perhaps her staging of the competition could be seen as the equivalent of that protestor waving a placard outside a corndealer’s house

    I think this antecedent of your conditional is clearly true, and I agree that the consequent follows. But I really doubt that the antecedent entails your claim that

    the competition was itself an incitement to actual violence, not violence by the cartoonists, but rather an incitement to extremists to attack those attending the event, violence against the very people organising the protest

    . The competition might be a provocation done with the purpose of drawing public attention to Geller’s cause, and still not be an actual incitement to violence (even less an incitement to violence against the competition itself). Instead of being an incitement to violence, what seems to be wrong with the competition is that it is very likely to trigger a “higher-order” competition (staged between any friend of the cause and any enemy thereof) where the goal is to use all kinds of means to harm the other party more than it harms you and to give the audience the impression that you are the last man standing. In that sense it is essentially divisive and undermines the preconditions for a fruitful discussion on matters on which the two parties would in principle be able to discuss in a minimally, respectiful way. It is thus socially undesirable, especially at a time where the relations between different groups need to be eased. If so, it could be sorted under an abuse of free speech without falling under the concept of incitement to violence. It occupies a middle-ground between those two bounds in that it does not prescribe having a violent type of attitude or behaviour toward individuals (as it would if it were a genuine incitement to violence), but runs the risk of giving individuals reasons for having such an attitude or behaviour by creating the conditions for unnecessary conflicts.

    Now putting aside the competition, we might still accuse the caricatures of prescribing a violent type of attitude or behaviour toward individuals. But this would need to be backed up by an argument to the effect the caricatures can only be interpreted in this way. As far as I know, there is no argument for that claim if we consider the original caricatures (the ones published in a Danish newspaper and reprint in a French one), which clearly conveys the idea that islamic fundamentalists conceive of their prophet as commending the use of violence in suicidal attacks.

  • Curious says:

    Suppose the convention was a group of mathmatically literate individuals convening against the well known, and often violent, “2+2=5” religion.

    Would the ridicule of these people be considered an incitement to violence? What if the attribute of violence was ambiguous? What if the “2+2=5” religion was pacifist? Point is, the conditions matter (and you stated this), but are we to disengage from correcting harmful dogma when the conditions bear possible violence? Silence earned through bullying rather than reason.

    Are these people committing hate speech? Is it hateful to state something is inaccurate? Is it hateful to ridicule bad ideas and beliefs? I don’t think it is. There is something different about stating the idea is ridiculous and calling the holder of that idea a loon.

  • Jon T says:

    Determining one person’s right not to be offended trumps another’s right to freedom of speech is perilous. Setting aside the obvious that the former right cannot exist, it becomes the tool of censorship, whether willfully imposed on one’s self or on others. Like any tool, the potential for misuse is great. Witness how academia, once the home to controversial, vibrant and lively debate is now home to regurgitated banalities. In academia, diversity is truly becoming only skin-deep.

    People abusing their rights to the detriment of others is constant. There are numerous instances of criminals going free on a “technicality”. They are freed because their right to a fair trial demanded it. They are absolved, despite the harm they’ve done to others.

    People misuse their rights. It is the cost of a free society.

  • Paula Boddington says:

    Mill’s corn-dealers example is of a particular occasion when a situation is inflamed and feelings are running high – it suggests a condition that’s temporary, since angry mobs usually go home at some point, and it suggests a situation of immediate proximity. But the Texas jihadists drove a thousand miles to the event, and Pamela Geller, like many other prominent critics of aspects of the ideology of Islam, has been living under security for years. She’s already living under death threats – she has no need to incite more threats. An actual attack at some point in time was pretty likely. The cartoonist Molly Norris, who drew cartoons of Muhammed, received death threats and has subsequently been living in hiding, under a false identity and at her own expense, for years. How many people even know who Molly Norris is? Other critics of Islam and prominent apostates live under false names, or blog, write or produce youtube videos from undisclosed locations. Why? Because of the ease with which the expression of their views produces violent reactions from a minority of extremists. Many such critics of Islam regularly receive death threats, threats to kill their children or to rape them, their wives or their mothers. The funniest are those who get death threats in retaliation to claims that aspects of Islamic ideology are violent. Bosch Fawstin, the ex-Muslim (he describes himself as a ‘recovered Muslim’) who won the cartoon competition draws cartoons and comic books for a living. He also has frequent death threats for doing so, and has had for years. This is not a temporary situation. ‘Another day, another death threat’ he laconically posts on his Facebook page. Is he ‘inciting’ a violent reaction by drawing? Should he give up his occupation? No. Moreover, some people want to kill Bosch Fawstin, and those like him, not because of what he does, but simply because he abandoned his religion. Would he be ‘inciting’ others to actual violence by openly discussing why he left Islam? Should he keep quiet in case he gets yet another death threat? Should Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who received a death threat on a note neatly pinned with a knife to the dead body of Theo Van Gogh, keep quiet too? At this point I could start a very long list.
    Bosch Fawstin’s winning cartoon depicted a drawing of Muhammed where the hands of the artist drawing him were also visible, and the drawing of Muhammed was shouting back at the artist ‘you can’t draw me’ and the artist was replying to his own drawing ‘that’s why I draw you’. Only offensive to those who find this offensive. The problem is, it’s not just cartoons that can produce such reactions amongst extremists. It’s a lot of other things as well. How much do we have to curtail? This is one of Geller’s points.
    And it’s necessary to be careful about what counts as ‘hate’ speech. Hatred of an ideology need not at all translate to ‘hatred’ of those who live under that ideology – often, the reverse is true, if one genuinely believes an ideology is harmful to people. Someone who ‘hates’ the ideology of Communism is unlikely to be accused of ‘hating’ the actual people who live in Cuba or Vietnam or the former Soviet Union, at least not the general population. Yet the conflation between attacks on an ideology and attacks on people is frequent. Is drawing a cartoon that will make someone want to kill you for drawing the cartoon ‘hate’? It’s those who want to kill who have the trump card on hatred, surely, not those who are merely asserting their honest beliefs that the others are prone to violence. And surely it’s fine to ‘hate’ various ideas, and to hate some actions isn’t it? I ‘hate’ murder, I really hate it. Honest. Is that ‘hate’ speech? Murderers, please address complaints about my hatred of murder to my solicitor.
    If you can predict that a violent reaction might take place, is this incitement to violence? There are very many cases where this surely can’t be right, else that suggests that, for example, a woman who can predict that certain behaviour (such as choosing who to date or what to wear) might well produce a violent reaction is ‘inciting’ that reaction – indeed this is a favourite excuse of abusers. Even if she deliberately provokes such a reaction, this is not properly seen as ‘incitement’, where an element of blame is implicitly laid at the feet of the alleged inciter. It’s more properly seen as standing up for herself. At this point it’s relevant to mention that Pamela Geller has also done a great deal of work aiding women fleeing from such situations, which seems to be offering a solution to violence. If the social situation changes, more and more behaviour might count as possible incitement, and this again is a point repeatedly made by Geller and many others. Perhaps Lee Rigby was inciting a violent reaction by being a member of the armed services? Perhaps the shoppers in the Paris Hypercache – Obama’s ‘random’ people in a supermarket, who just happened to be in a Jewish store – were inciting someone by shopping in kosher shop? Of course neither of these cases was incitement. But like the victims of domestic violence, is there a danger that we might find ourselves stopping more and more to wonder if it’s our ‘fault’ that we’ve ‘incited’ a violent reaction?
    If a situation is momentarily inflamed, and the heart of the mob very close by, then holding back on free speech and waiting to make a point in a quieter way might be the best thing to do, but if a person or group of people can be provoked at the drop of a hat then we start to think the fault lies with them and not with the situation or with other people. Drawing a line around incitement to violence might work okay in a generally placid population or if a situation is temporarily heated, but if a group of people like the would-be jihadis can be incited to violence so easily, what should be done? The charming, cuddly Anjem Choudary wants Geller brought before a sharia court and tried for a ‘crime’ which he thinks merits the death penalty. (He tiptoes around inside legal limits and I suspect that he’s cunning enough to try to avoid charges of incitement to violence by proposing that she be tried under a system of (some sort of) ‘justice’ rather than simply calling for her death. He in fact seems to be pretty skilled at avoiding the charge that he is inciting others to violent jihad, as recent news revealing his links to a significant proportion of the Europeans who have travelled to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq strongly suggests.) Luckily the US does not have any extradition treaties that would make Geller’s appearance before such a sharia court likely in the immediate future.
    I don’t think that Geller incited the jihadists to violence – they have thought themselves into an ideological position where they are a whisker away from violence. They have incited themselves to violence. But, just as deciding whether speech is wise depends on the context, perhaps provoking jihadists to violence in order to make the problem apparent might on occasion be a valid policy. In any case, if the jihadists are provoked to violence so easily, the only alternative might be to end up living under their rules. Their motto might be: ‘I may disagree with what you say, in fact, I do disagree, and I will fight to the death to stop you saying it’.

  • kiven says:

    Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome is a behaviour pattern in which a caregiver fabricates, exaggerates, or induces mental or physical health problems in those who are in their care.
    this need to “hurt or kill” someone to gain a sense of pride, a sense of identity, a bond of compassion from strangers. and emotional support from a close group of like minded community is the end that justifies the means.
    the medical field have turn their lens on caregivers.
    now have the courage to turn the same lens on the rest of humanity.
    ask these questions to scientific leaders. politicians, business leaders your neighbor police officers. or in this case
    a women who have questionable emotional need to get attention for non other than the “need” for confrontation. using the pretext of ” freedom of speech” as a reason to provoke a fight.
    so another words.
    so say subject x have Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, but he or she is not a care taker.
    subject x need to engage in dangerous situations to get attention from strangers.
    willing to use any excuse a need to defend this ” doctrine”. this holier than thou “doctrine” as an excuse or pretext to engage in conflict.
    subject x is willing to kill a lot of innocent people to gain this need for identity. a need to pride himself or herself as a goal to pursuit in life.
    and what if subject x first wants power over people. a person of authority. a doctor. or a judge or a policemen or a politician’s.
    can you or anyone you know tell this person has Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome?
    will it be too late when you do? too late as in he or she have committed the crime?
    keep in mind, timothy mcveigh have always claimed he was a victim of it all.
    he saw himself as a hero of the common folks. to take on the government. even if it kills innocent people.
    or the french dude who wants 1000 people going to mars to die. even if the life support can not support them?
    so if you ask yourself. if there is a meter. and on one of the meter it says science. on the other end of the meter it says Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome.
    do the meter tilt towards science or murder?
    can you tell the difference between the debate of free speech or a mentally ill women in need of attention.


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