Pamela Geller in Brooklyn: Free Speech, Hate Speech, and the Futility of Arguing with a Bigot

Pamela Geller at Brooklyn College on April 22, 2015.

Author’s Note: I wrote this article before the tragic and unacceptable attack in Garland, Texas, last night, at an event associated with Pamela Geller. Given what happened, and the conversation around Islam and free speech, I asked the editors to go ahead and publish my original article—because it shows that I, a Muslim, went to her event, heard her out, and then came home. It should be noted that this was the exact approach taken by every mosque in the Garland, Texas, area: To not only respect Geller’s right to free speech, but to decline their own right to peacefully protest.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

They’ve already started lining up, braving the rain. I take a good long look at the lot of them, drenched but energized, and know I can’t. I don’t even have an umbrella. I do however have an RSVP. I’ll wait it out at the closest Starbucks.


My Starbucks name is Dwayne.


There’s a long line here too, full of bored coeds fiddling with their phones. I debate ordering a classic coffee cake, still one week away from discovering that ‘coffee cake’ isn’t a kind of cake made with coffee, just cake you eat with coffee.

It doesn’t seem like anyone here (most of whom are Brooklyn College students) has any idea she’s speaking, or even I’d guess who she even is. Not to mention that the title of her event, ‘The First Amendment and Social Criticism,’ sounds like a snoozefest.


Dwayne orders a Grande English Breakfast. Sans cake.


I don’t head out until my tea has steeped; because then, and only then, will I know how much sweetener I need. But what kind? The great Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah, to whom Wahhabism is wrongly attributed, said the purpose of Shari’ah is to help us find the less bad of two bad options. Which is to say, should I overdo it with sugar, and get diabetes, or overdo it with Splenda, and get cancer?


Back outside the student center, there’s a crowd of doused and disappointed undergraduates, largely Arab, Muslim or sympathetic, who’ve been refused entrance by security. Many, but not all of them, are with Students for Justice in Palestine.

I, however, point to my name on a soaked printout, and am quickly let through. After a cursory check of my bag—I’m reading Åsne Seierstad’s brilliant One of Us: Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway—I’m on my way to the elevator.

There’s an older couple already inside. They’re white, and know I’m not, and look as if they haven’t had a bowel movement in several days. The gentleman asks if I’m a professor, inelegantly attempting to ascertain whose side I’m on. Neither, it’ll turn out.

Released to coincide with his attack, Anders Breivik’s manifesto, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, frequently cites Geller; her buddy, Robert Spencer, gets in dozens of mentions. They’re the Anwar al-Awlakis of anti-Muslim terrorism.


Brooklyn College needed a new student center twenty-five years ago. Thank God they’re not wasting public funds on this.


The front few rows have been occupied by a largely greying audience, and will spend much of the event looking like jilted retirees. The rest of the room seethes with oppositional energy, buzzing, unable to stand let alone sit still. I get it, because fifteen years back, I was them. Which means I know how this’ll turn out. Badly.


On Tuesday, a judge sided with Geller against the MTA. Her latest ‘advertisements’, which declare not only that Muslims want to kill Jews, but that our religion instructs us to, are not incitement to violence. Or material support for terrorism. (Imagine if I said that—think I’d be treated the same?)

I can imagine all kinds of unsavory characters would be jubilant that messages encouraging the indiscriminate murder of Jews will be posted in the world’s biggest Jewish city. I’d imagine this would make Jewish New Yorkers, never mind Muslim New Yorkers, deeply unwelcome in their own city. Is that her purpose? Or Dr. Seidemann’s?


Dr. Seidemann, Deputy Chair of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has invited Pamela Geller—not, as he was careful to note in an email exchange with me, his department, or anyone else at Brooklyn College. In fact no student organization wanted anything to do with her either.

So why did Dr. Seidemann? He’s not an expert on the topic she’s not an expert on, so maybe the well-educated man isn’t that well-educated. Though I find that terrifically hard to swallow. The unhappier answer is that he thinks she has something worth saying, which means he’s sympathetic to bigotry.

But he has the right to encourage hate speech.


The man in front of me asks, ‘Do you have an iPhone charger?’

‘For a 5,’ I ask, though so presumptively it does not merit a question mark.




He’s a nice fellow, though he believes Palestinians would have a different view of Israel if only they ‘visited’ (not seeming to understand that they cannot, and many would not be visiting so much as returning to places they were expelled from).

They could come, he volunteers, and ‘wear a bikini, or go to the beach’—a position firstly ironic, since his family owns a kosher coffee shop in a conservative Jewish neighborhood, and secondly, well, seriously bro? That’s what you think this is all about?


We are treated to a long, condescending introduction to free speech as an American value. During which the moderator pronounces ‘academia’ as if it rhymes with ‘macadamia.’ (Hey, it’s a free country.) The patriotic force of the moment dissipates with a reminder of the dire penalties awaiting those who disobey school and state law.


Dwayne has finished his Starbucks beverage. Fortunately his name is Dwayne and not Muhammad or Haroon, so when he steps out to use the bathroom, it’ll just be because he had to go, not because he hates his/your/our freedom.


Seeing Pamela Geller after so many years is weirdly heartwarming. It’s like I’ve come across an old friend, one who once made my life difficult and still does, though I’m rather less frustrated by her now. Because she’s exactly the same—and I’m not.

I should ask Dr. Seidemann if she can be immune to change, immune to evolution or even erosion, or better yet, make up a theory myself, and demand we sacrifice our nation’s resources based upon it.

I’ll call it “The Process of Erosion and the Defense of Our Freedoms.” (‘I’m not a scientist, but some of my best friends are canyons.’) You’ll have to RSVP. Stupid’s the coffee, and First Amendment’s the cake.


Geller can’t get in more than a sentence or two before the students applaud her with deafening conviction. They’ve decided to mock her with faux enthusiasm. At least, it’ll start so. It’ll end just as I predict it will: With Geller running away.

15 years ago, that’s what I’d have done to Geller, too. Stooped to her level. (Stupid.) I’d feel very good about releasing all my anger with her at her, absent any concern for how this might make me (or more importantly my cause) look to those on the sidelines.

I had no larger vision, no strategy, no game plan. Just go jeer and holler. Shout her down. Game over. The better way is to respond unexpectedly, breaking the alliances upon which one’s adversary depends. Do not unite others in opposition to you.

Rather, break apart what support they have left. I wonder if the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences would be okay with one of their own inviting a speaker who claimed Baltimore and Ferguson reveal who all black people really are.

Or, indeed, who (all) white people really are.


She’s whining that students don’t invite her to speak anymore.  There’s an entire conspiracy at work, she assures us, an alliance between incendiary Islamists and leftie-liberals, to shut down free speech in America. Which explains why the last to invite her, Temple University, did so years ago.

Of course, there is a far simpler explanation. The reason Pamela’s not invited to speak on campuses is because people find her offensive or uninteresting. We may not trust peer review, but we can trust the market. Hence stunts like bus ‘advertisements’.


Geller says, ‘I was a freedom lover.’ So am I. As a freedom lover, I’m clutching an empty coffee cup that had had tea in it with one hand, and scribbling with the other. I’m mostly looking down, because I’m worried. Sporadic waves of applause have degenerated into a rawer and unrestrained anger.

People are jeering, mocking, chuckling, hooting. Did they really think they’d hold it together? To bring several dozen young students, champing at the bit, to hear a woman who is most notable, if at all notable, for her ability to aggravate and incite, is a bad idea. It’s a dangerous idea. It’s only unlikely to gain you anything—can’t we be a little more creative?— it can very easily become self-defeating.


The students want to rebut everything she says. They don’t even care what she says, except that they challenge it. This is why, when Geller says ‘ISIS is spreading,’ a young woman blurts out, ‘alhamdulillah.’ Arabic for ‘praise God.’ I turned to see who, but couldn’t twist in time.

That’s what happens when you argue with a bigot. You end up looking and sounding awfully like a bigot,
But you can be sure Geller heard it, and she was alarmed. I was, too. My own thinking is that this young woman, wanting so very badly to shut Geller up—and not understanding that Geller wants the negativity—simply fired back the opposite. ‘Whatever you say, I’m going to loudly disagree with.’ That’s the likelier explanation.

The unlikelier? She actually thinks this ISIS is a good thing, in which case she is foolish, naïve, or vile. (I heard, from students—without confirmation—that the FBI paid campus a visit thereafter.) Even if she was acting out of emotion, utterly unacceptable. That’s what happens when you argue with a bigot. You end up looking and sounding awfully like a bigot, and benefiting your opponent.

Can’t we be better than her? (It’s not that high a standard to rise to.)


The event has descended into farce. Or tragedy. When Geller tries to speak, she’s booed. During question and answer, students and supporters are practically yelling at each other, and at a few points, her supporters threaten her opponents. It’s impossible to get a real question in, not that I care to try in this environment.

This is not how we should respond to her. The best response I’ve yet seen is Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad’s humorous counter-advertisements (see them all here); more provocatively, you could do what Mona Eltahawy did: deface what is on any measure hate speech. Isn’t that free speech, too? Isn’t that what this is all about? And can we not elevate the conversation?

Geller compares the room, which has something of a free-for-all quality, to a Nazi rally. Really. Security is confused, because while the event has ceased to be the lecture it never got a chance to be, no clear red lines have been crossed. Or the College just doesn’t like Geller enough to intervene.


Geller retreats to a soundtrack of chanting students: ‘Don’t come back! Don’t come back!’ They’re beaming, exultant in their accomplishment, slapping each other’s backs, laughing and cheering. It appears the College let her get walked all over. Wednesday night, then, the bully got bullied.

If it’s not obvious, I don’t like Geller, and note the irony of her being treated in the way she treats Muslims—offensively and derisively. She wants to protect the right to offend: She can’t protest being offended. But she doesn’t appreciate her own medicine. She’s not us, and we’re not her.

The way many students responded was irresponsible, especially considering the consequences. But I don’t blame them: They’re still young, and wet behind the ears. I do blame Pamela Geller, and Professor Seidemann, the ostensible adults in the room, who think that picking on a vulnerable minority constitutes a brave stand for freedom.

Because it’s not like it’ll end here. For those kids still live here. They’ll get on buses and trains, and see ads accusing them of being vicious, murderous anti-Semites. Her intention in doing so is not to draw awareness to radical Islam—it’s to increase tension, distrust, and open up a space where people like her, who otherwise have nothing to offer, will be valued—and further increase tensions.

Hate is the only thing that earns her money. Because it’s the only talent she has. This isn’t free speech, it’s free-market. And to what end? If you link anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, or vice versa, you make it more likely each community will deny the other’s pain. Young Muslims who are expected to accept that anti-Semitism is real, at the cost of denying discrimination against them, are unlikely to.

This is not only the biggest Jewish city in the world, but the biggest Muslim city in the Western hemisphere, too. If her purpose was to increase anti-Muslim sentiment, she may succeed. But if her purpose was to increase anti-Semitism, then she may also succeed. Which is why I’m unsurprised the city stepped in, and banned political speech altogether. Just because you can say something, does it mean you should?

And if you don’t like it, why bother paying any attention to it?