On Friday May 28, 2015, six hundred motorcycle enthusiasts gathered in front of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Their stated purpose is to stage a “peaceful protest” in front of the mosque in “response” to a gun attack in Garland, Texas which saw two individuals claiming inspiration from the Sunni, fundamentalist insurgency known as the Islamic State shoot at members of the so-called American Freedom Defence Initiative (AFDI) earlier this month. The shooting carried out by these two individuals was itself a response to direct and deliberate provocation on the part of AFDI and its bombastic leader, Pamela Geller. The Garland event on May 4th was one part hate-rally, one part carnival chaos at which a $10,000 prize was awarded for the “best” cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Just as Geller had hoped, the AFDI elicited a violent response from the already beleaguered and marginalized Muslim-American community of Texas. In celebration of her short-sighted bigotry, the Arizona bikers are to stage a deliberately loud, intimidating, and offensive event as well armed to the teeth in full anticipation of violent confrontation while donning t-shirts boldly displaying the slogan “F*ck Islam.”
What unites the Garland event with the planned biker rally in Phoenix is not simply their overtly racist, puerile, and openly hostile message of hate speech directed toward the American Muslim community. What unites these two events, and what should resonate as a fundamentally dangerous development on the political and civil landscape in the twenty-first century in the United States, is that these events were conceived, organized, and instituted as ostensible defences of the First Amendment right to free speech enshrined in the US Constitution.
The claim that the taunting, degradation, and humiliation of a minority ethnic, religious, or cultural group is permitted, even suggested, as a demonstration of the robust applicability of the First Amendment is as dishonest as it is dangerous. In the first place, the spirit of this crucially important civil liberty is obviously violated when it is used to defend the defamation of another, dissimilar individual or group. No civil-minded, progressive, or tolerant citizen who truly embraces the multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy that is the United States would seriously argue that the First Amendment countenances the kind of hate speech on display in Garland or Phoenix. In the second place, and more practically, legal statues prohibit the applicability of the First Amendment when it is intended as incitement, as when yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre or “Bomb!” at the airport. If we can agree that the anti-Islamic demonstrations this month are intended precisely as that type of incitement—that is, are intended to provoke a chaotic, violent response from like-minded (though ideologically opposed) extremists—then we can agree that the First Amendment is no longer an applicable legal statute in these two cases. In sum, anyone who suggests that any member of the AFDI or the Phoenix biker gangs is happily demonstrating their hate and bigotry in order to flex the somehow atrophied muscle of liberty thereby championing an imperilled First Amendment is lying, pure and simple.
Their primary object is hate. Their secondary object is incitement violence. Freedom, liberty, and justice do not enter in to the equation for these deluded hate mongers except as a rhetorical justification for their antagonistic hate speech.
That the AFDI (a designated hate-group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center), the Arizona bikers, and their allies have such a strong voice in the current political and social climate clearly indicates that the United States is a very long way from achieving the kind of ethnic and racial equality we tout as one of our greatest social values domestically, and one of our strongest political assets internationally. Instead, what these events teach us is that a substantial component (not simply a vocal minority) of our current social structure remains opposed to tolerance, acceptance, or any significant efforts toward understanding of minority cultures, races, or ethnicities.
With regard to the Muslim community, there are broad elements within the contemporary United States (AFDI and Arizona Bikers included, of course) that would have Muslim-Americans be treated substantially as second-class citizens, recreating a Jim Crow-like stratification of society that demands abject fealty and acts of contrition on the part of all Muslim-Americans. According to this disturbingly anachronistic and patently racist ideology, all Muslims everywhere are responsible for any and all violent acts couched in Islamic vocabulary. The targeted group is held to account for acts, thoughts, and deeds that they had nothing to do with and that they very frequently publicly and vociferously condemn. Further, this nebulously conceived, knee-jerk hatred of the Muslim “other” in modern society lumps all Muslims everywhere together as one monolithic group, and suggests that the violence of the Muslim community in Palestine, Iraq, Texas, or Australia occurs on the basis of a primordial hatred with which that group is afflicted. Their violence is considered inherent, organic, and inevitable. Their legitimate political or social grievances are cast aside as irrelevant and/or inconsequential to their religious and ethnic make-up.
They hate for no reason. They kill without cause.
Through these exclusionary processes, we effectively hold Muslim-Americans to different standards of admission into contemporary, western society. We construct, or aim to construct, difficult standards of practice and punitive codes of conduct for them, passwords and duties that they must enact at the snap of a finger in order to prove to us their worthiness to exist in, and amongst, our self-declared openness, tolerance, and righteousness. We only fully accept only recalcitrant and apologetic Muslims, and even then, only reluctantly keeping a wary eye on their religious attire and a ready hand on our mass-casualty-causing handgun, displayed proudly on our hip. Those who we allow in are thereby considered “good Muslims” because they concede to our demands of them to perform acts of contrition often, and on demand. As such, our insistence upon these differentiated standards of admission and performances of contrition call to mind our nation’s segregated history wherein the most bigoted proclamations of the backward-looking, white, ruling elites were allowed, accepted, and even encouraged: “I don’t have a problem with blacks, as long as they know their place.” Like the “good negroes” of our wretched, violent and racist past, today’s Muslim-Americans allow us to hold onto self-aggrandizing claims of inclusion, tolerance, and broad-mindedness.
But they must know their place.
Islamophobia in twenty-first century America has become the public and institutional racism of the 1960s, and the proudly declared homophobia of the 1980s and 1990s. Muslim-Americans are broadly regarded as a contemporary, American Fifth Column to be held to different standards of admission into our society, if we admit them at all. Hate groups like the Arizona bikers and the AFDI bring this form of grass-roots hated and Klan-style racism into plain view, showing the rest of American society a vision of its own failure to overcome our racist, segregationist roots. It is a damnable site, ugly and malicious, but it says more about our current lot than months worth of sound bites or slogans.
And it has nothing, but nothing, to do with the First Amendment.