The fact pattern and references to anti-Islamic “hate speech” sound depressingly similar to so many other cases abroad. Yet this incident occurred courtesy of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) Chicago chapter, showing how precious and precarious American free speech rights are.
A Chicago suburb chapter of ACT! For America, an anti-sharia group, screened on May 17 the film Geert Wilders Warning to America at the Des Plaines Public Library (DPPL) after having met there since fall 2013. In the film, the Dutch politician Wilders addresses an American audience with his well-known thesis that “Islam is not a religion, Islam is a totalitarian ideology.” Amidst interspersed images of Islamic atrocities worldwide, Wilders, among other things, demands an end to construction in Western societies of mosques and Muslim schools, the latter termed by him a “fascist institution.”
Library parking lot flyers advertising the film drew opposition from CAIR-Chicago and the Islamic Community Center (ICC) of Des Plaines against the film screening. The library, a “safe haven for knowledge, education, and enlightenment… is now being tarnished,” CAIR-Chicago executive director Ahmed Rehab stated. Rehab worried about perceptions of the library endorsing the event. ICC board president Fazal Mahmood also questioned the appropriateness of a publicly-funded library as the film’s venue.
“I’m just practicing common sense not to let hate spark in our community,” Rehab said. Rehab “believed there should be limits on freedom of speech when it harms or incites someone else,” yet nonetheless conceded ACT!’s speech rights. “I understand and respect freedom of speech, but where do you stop?” Mahmood also said.
Media reports also persistently noted ACT! for America’s “hate group” listing by the Southern Poverty Law Center without, however, mentioning SPLC’s leftist partisanship. Also unmentioned were CAIR’s deeply disturbing, numerous associations with precisely the kind of people against whom Wilders warned, including CAIR’s status as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case over financing of terrorism. Rehab himself has had such connections while asserting “Jewish control over the media” and that the “history of the Jewish film producers in particular have shown that they predate on weak minorities by default.”
“Personally, leadership at DPPL finds the materials being shared by ACT! for Des Plaines reprehensible, bigoted and Islamaphobic and we in no way agree with the hateful sentiments they express,” Library Director Holly Sorensen said in a statement. However, Sorenson noted that American free speech law obligated the library as a public forum to host the screening. “It is our hope the controversy this event generates will expose the areas within our community where bigotry and racism exist and we fully support our Islamic community’s efforts to peacefully fight this prejudice.”
ACT! for Des Plaines founder Sara Schmidt denied hating Muslims but rather radicals “who want to destroy our way of life, who want to take over our country… and make us all Islam” are what concern Schmidt. “They don’t have the right to do that and they have devious ways to do that.” Schmidt cited a recent lawsuit by the American Islamic Center against the Des Plaines City Council after truck traffic zoning and safety issues prompted denial of a building permit for a community center.
In the end, the screening passed without event, although ICC members there to present questions and protest actually constituted the majority of the audience. Schmidt invited the gathered Muslims to collaborate against “Islamic extremists” and then showed the Wilders film. Most of the audience dissipated before a second showing.
“Americans enjoy more freedom than Europeans,” Wilders stated during a May 12, 2011, address in Nashville, Tennessee; “you cannot imagine how we envy your First Amendment.” While Europeans and Canadians “are dragged to court for telling the truth about Islam,” Americans “are still allowed to tell the truth.” “The day when America follows the example of Europe and Canada and introduces so-called ‘hate speech crimes’… America will have lost its freedom.”
The Des Plaines nonevent confirms Wilders. Accusations of “hate” and “Islamophobia,” including a partisan position from a public official theoretically committed to impartiality, did not stop a public gathering. Wilders appeared on screen in Des Plaines while opposing Muslim and non-Muslim views received an open airing without any legal repercussions.
Wilders’ Nashville warning, though, shows how easily sentiments against “hate” can harden into laws dictating speech crime and punishment. America’s legal walls protecting free speech create what has been called the world’s “last bastion” of free speech concerning Islam. Yet often self-proclaimed minders of public morality like CAIR in Des Plaines and elsewhere remain ever ready to undermine and outflank these protections in America’s land of the free. Such subversion would simultaneously weaken freedom and the ability to discuss threats to it. “We have to be able to speak up or we’ve lost it,” Schmidt rightfully observed.
This article was sponsored by the Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum.