Yes, We Can (Dream Bigger): An Agnostic’s Response to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day

May 20, 2010

It’s “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” — today’s guest post is from Nicholas Lang, and it addresses this controversy.

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream Speech.” August 28, 1963, Washington D.C.

Dr. KingIn 2007, students at Clemson University and the University of Arizona honored the memory of the great Dr. King by holding blackface parties on MLK day. The Clemson students called their party “Living the Dream,” but campus groups and university administration quickly labeled it something else: incredibly racist. Ironically, the King speech that the students were lampooning preaches racial inclusiveness, pushing us to look past social schisms and judge others on the content of their characters. In his toil for the Civil Rights Movement and interfaith work with Gandhi, King’s own life stands as a powerful model of looking past these divides to create real societal change.

But three years after these events, two years after we elected a black president, two years after we started talking about how to create a movement for change, I must ask: how are we doing this in our own lives? Have we made America safer, stronger, more inclusive? I have seen t-shirts informing me that “Yes, We Did,” and the bumper stickers tell me we did. My mother, my family, my friends say that Yes. We did. But upon hearing the news that three different Midwest campuses championed our rights to free speech, the foundation of America’s ethos of liberty and equality, by marginalizing Muslim students on their campuses, I wonder: What did we, the people, do? And what are we doing now?

For those unfamiliar with the context, these aforementioned demonstrations are a part of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a nationwide movement to protest against the censoring of images of the Prophet Muhammad on South Park. Muhammad’s depiction was part of an episode in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, featured all of the religious prophets. In the episode, Muhammad was drawn in a bear costume. Although this was not the first time that Muhammad had been featured in the show, two bloggers from the radical site Revolution Islam warned that Stone and Parker should expect to be murdered for this particular affront against the Prophet. To support their claims, they cited the case of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated following the release of his short film “Submission,” which told the stories of four abused Muslim women.

Comedy Central replied to these threats by censoring subsequent episodes of the show, citing that the network’s utmost priority was the safety of its staff, but writers, artists and cartoonists across the country went further, responding with outrage. For them, the issue here was one of free speech. Our constitution endows us with the creative license to say what we want, even if our choice is to say things that offend others. Although this is a problematic position on a fraught issue, the artists’ feelings were understandable. However, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris took her anger further, by creating a national “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” on May 20 to speak out against censorship.

“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Through the power of Facebook, this idea grew into an astoundingly pervasive grassroots movement to combat Muslim extremism by drawing stick figures of Muhammad and labeling them “Muhammad.” Many of those participating feel that Little Stick Men are not offensive, although others have been more creative in their licenses. The Swedish artist Lars Vilks made Muhammad into a canine which Vilks then named “Modog.” Other drawings have shown Muhammad to be a suicide bomber, a pig, Freddy Krueger, Michael Jackson and the Kool-Aid man. One shows him engaging in sexual relations with a sheep, and in another, he is sodomized by Jesus. One of them really strives for every target possible: the artist alleges that only a “violent, illiterate pedophile” could have composed the Qu’ran. Another is much simpler, equating Islam to nothing but a piece of shit.

chalkmuhammadThis is not simply exercising an inalienable right. This is hatred and bigotry. The University of Madison-Wisconsin’s student group stated in a letter to their school’s Muslim Student Association that their “Chalking for Freedom of Expression,” in which they drew Little Stick Men on their campus sidewalks in chalk, was not meant to be offensive. Their actions were not “intended to mock or intimidate” anyone. Many bloggers have been in the same boat as the University of Madison-Wisconsin students, deciding to participate in the movement, despite its increasing tones of religious hatred. One specifically stated that she had to participate, to fight for free speech, even if she didn’t like EDMD.

However, UW-M campus’ Muslim group responded, in a wise and patient letter, informing the secular group that they were, crazily enough, offended by these drawings. And we must also remember that, as Americans have the right to engage in hurtful acts, the objects of that vitriol and their allies have the right to be offended by them. Molly Norris herself rescinded her participation in a campaign that has veered far from her satirical intent, one that has been taken over by anti-Muslim groups like Stop Islamization of America. When a movement is increasingly designed to attack our Muslim classmates, our Muslim neighbors, our Muslim friends, we have the right to speak out.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… It would be fatal to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

This campaign has made every Muslim accountable for the actions of two, and many of the Muslims that the Stop Islamization of America movement and its borrowed campaign have demonized responded with tolerance and love. The Muslim Student Association from the UW-M responded by “politely” requesting that the secular group revoke its participation in EDMD and join UW-M’s Muslim students to discuss this issue. Although many Facebook users have lobbied to get all EDMD-related pages and events removed from the site, sweeping the campaign under the rug is not enough. We must do more than account for a single digit on a social networking site. We have a duty to bring this issue to our classrooms, schools and communities, many of which will be as divided as the America that the EDMD’s discordant call to action represents.

In 2008, after Obama had been elected our first black president, the collective we came together for a short while to celebrate the incredible potential of the American people. The potential we have of coming together to realize impossible dreams. We had a dream of a people united, and for a moment, we were the singular people that our forefathers addressed us as. The honeymoon may be over and Obama’s approval ratings may have fallen back to Earth, but do we have to stop dreaming? Do we have to engage in offensive, divisive acts, ones we don’t even like, when we could devise others that might help us come together? Do we have to stir up more controversy and create more hatred and misunderstand, when a simple dialogue could generate understanding and engender friendships out of assumed enemies?

This controversy underlies an America divided: one angry that, despite progress made, we still have such a long way to go. We are still segregated, we are angry, we are scared, but we still long for more, we still hope. However, in tearing down the schisms of a divided America, King urged that we do not have to wait to act, we can realize our festering dreams today. If we are going to inspire others to speak out against marginalization, we must inspire ourselves. For we, the people, have the power to come together for dialogue today. We, secularists and religious folk alike, can work with our Muslim brothers to create change today. All we have to do is dream bigger.

“We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Want to start a discussion for interfaith cooperation on your campus today? Then check out the Interfaith Youth Core’s resource, “Talk the Talk, Don’t Chalk the Chalk,” here.

NickNicholas Lang is the Social Media Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and will be the lone agnostic among 2010-2011’s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community.

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29 Responses to “Yes, We Can (Dream Bigger): An Agnostic’s Response to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day”

  1. Cyndi said

    So very well said – an echo of my thoughts and feelings. No one has ever changed their opinion or beliefs because of ridicule or abuse.

  2. Hitch said

    I’m sorry, but a smiling stick figure is not hatred, bigoted, abusive and all that.

    Let me know how you feel about this video.

    Not a sign of hatred in there, but lots of calls for friendship and tolerance. This is what interfaith should look like, not these lock-arm claims that stick-figures are hatred. Calling honest and sensible expression hatred it itself a form of bigotry and I think we have to be careful how we charge people and perhaps you are kind of ridiculing and abusing that very expression that perhaps should in fact be considered quite sensible.

  3. Catinthewall said

    If this event is “hatred and bigotry”, then not only is this, but so is demanding gay marriage. So is simply being an agnostic, an atheist, or be part of any religion that is not Islam. Writing The God delusion was an act of hatred and bigotry. Same with studying biology, astrophysics, or anthropology.

    Doing something that person x thinks is immoral, but does not actually harm them is alright in my book. They may consider this a “slap in the face” or some other expression to act as though they are the victims, and demand laws protecting their egos and delusions, and in many cases have succeeded. Look at all the sodomy laws, drug laws, laws that discriminate against women, GLBT people, and people who aren’t religious, and tell me how captioned stick figures are hateful, when they are the kindest possible protest against a religion?

    It’s against Islam teachings to drink ethanol, does that mean anyone who does so is bigoted and full of hate?

    The worst attribute I could think of was it inspired ridicule, and I support all of that pointed at any religion.

  4. Nicholas said

    Hitch: I think my biggest question for you is to think about the ways in which people are waging this campaign. If the campaign were truly interfaith, truly meant to build bridges between rival religions, would the EDMD campaign continue to engage in tactics that are certain to alienate the Muslim communities they could be reaching out to? Would they continue to do so when the EDMD movement has been taken over by hatemongers? When people in Karachi are rioting in the streets over these depictions? The issue is not just these stick figures, but thousands and thousands of depictions of Muhammad for this day that make the cherished Prophet of a religion out to be far more than a stick figure. This is not dialoguing. Drawing Muhammad as a dog or engaging in acts many Muslims consider to be “haram” is not dialoguing. And when the University of Madison-Wisconsin campus group participates in a day that encourages that kind of base bigotry, they are endorsing bigotry, whether they like it or not. They may not be bigots themselves, but if they were truly interested in honest and sensible expression with their Muslim neighbors, they would not be participating.

    And, thank you for sharing the video. It was very nice to see, despite the larger picture.

    Catinthewall,

    Being an agnostic LGBT person and an LGBT activist, I don’t really find the parallels apt here. At all. Every march I’ve ever been to, every event I’ve ever held, every fundraiser I’ve ever been to has preached a message of inclusiveness and tolerance (even the so-called “militant” ones). And to advocate for said inclusiveness and tolerance, we used methods that depicted our desires for aforementioned nouns.

    Can all of the people supporting Everybody Draw Muhammad Day say the same? Can Lars Vilks, who showed a Muslim audience a video of Muhammad entering a gay bar to deliberately provoke them, say the same? What about the man who showed Muhammad having sex with a sheep? Or the ones who depicted Qu’ran and its Prophets as piles of shit? These are not kind. The creator of EDMD herself has gone on record to condemn this event, never wanted the event to turn into this and has publicly apologized to the Muslim community for this campaign. What does that tell you?

    Furthermore, I wonder why we should be protesting a religion when this reactionism was spurned from the actions of two Muslims. The Muslims I have spoken to stand with us in condemning intolerance, so why are we taking an issue with a religion that has helped them come to the same moral values we then seem to share? I do believe that we should respond to the Revolution Islam duo. I think we should speak out against threats of violence, no matter who that violence is directed at. However, I think we need to be mindful of the ways in which we wage diplomacy, or we might end up waging something else.

  5. Catinthewall said

    I agree that depicting Muhammad having sex with sheep is insulting. Is depicting him married to a prepubescent girl also insulting? Is depicting him preaching insulting? If your argument is that the content of the picture isn’t important, but the mere act of drawing anything and labeling it Muhammad is insulting, That’s the exact opposite of inclusiveness and tolerance. It’s bowing to censorship. Tolerance doesn’t mean accepting random decrees forbidding you to do things for fear of insulting them, it means accepting others won’t do everything you tell them.

    The way I saw it, minus the worst examples, it wasn’t a protest on a religion, it was a protest against those who wield the religion as a weapon of fear. If people can be bound by fear away from small things like drawing, it is simply a matter of time before they use that fear in more ways, and the only way to fight the bullies who hide behind a crowd of followers is to ridicule them en masse.

    The extremist leaders can’t issue fatwas on everyone in every college’s atheist group, and any other option also makes them lose face. The only way the rest of Islam’s leaders have to get good press outside of their bubble is to denounce the worst of their hatemongers.

    Censorship of this pre-emptive kind benefits no one.

  6. Hitch said

    Nicholas, tolerance is a two-way street. If the only way one can avoid alienating one side is to only do exactly what they want that is not tolerance or interfaith. That is adopting the rules of Islam. This cannot be interfaith or it is not the kind of interfaith I can ever support.

    What is at stake here is that religions have to be resilient enough to understand that another point of view exists and also needs tolerance. It’s not just Islam that needs tolerance and respect, it’s all world views that come to the table. In my world view a smiling stick figure is not offensive. It is intolerant of my to charge me with hatred to draw a smiling stick figure per se.

    But the question does go deeper. Let’s address Vilks, Van Gogh, the Danish Cartoons. Are these hatred? If one wants do make ones live easy we just say yes! But the truth is that this is too easy. The truth is that all of them have one thing in common. And that is that they articulated an uncomfortable yet not just frivolous point of view. Take Van Gogh. He and Hirsi Ali articulated the role of women in Islam. Is a dissenting view allowable or always hate? I think that one should be able to discuss the role of women in Islam, so I simply cannot dismiss their work as purely hateful. Same for Vilks. He articulates touchy points in religious traditions. For example he got head-butted for articulating the role of homophobia in Islam. Yes a very contenious topic, but actually a very real one. See if homosexuality would be accepted then showing Muhammed as homosexual would not be offensive. But it is, so the very fact that it conjures offense articulates the very point. I do not see how an artist can articulate that point without drawing offense. So in his case too I cannot completely dismiss him as hateful. Take the Danish Cartoons. They articulated, albeit some inartfully, the justification of violence through Islam. This too is real and I cannot just dismiss it as hateful.

    Do we protect people articulating difficult points that draw very negative responses or not. This is at stake.

    Do we want InterFaith to gloss over contentions for a shallow coexistence, or can we demand a dialogue culture that goes much deeper? This is the choice.

    One can try to imaging many different forms of interfaith. The most shallow one I can think of is the “we all learn each others sensitivities and respect and accomodate all of them”. This means there can never be any criticism. If an homosexual gets whipped, we accept it because it is another’s tradition. If an abortion doctor gets shot, we accept it because it was the faith that decided it’s OK. I personally reject this form of interfaith because it is moral relativism of the worst kind. We wash our hands in innocents to things we actually consider immoral.

    Deeper interfaith conduct explores mutual morality and seeks consensus. Perhaps we can agree that whipping homosexuals is not OK in a pluralist society? Perhaps we agree that murder is universally wrong so abortion clinic shootings are always wrong? Perhaps we agree that free expression is a necessary part of a democracy to exchange ideas and we seek to socially mediate the upset that can always happen as part of criticism?

    This is the more difficult, but I think much more meaningful interfaith path. Here we have to actually work, we have to talk, and we have to find common ground. But we also do not have to give up certain values just to coexist, in fact we can find shared values to coexist.

    Does that make sense?

    But let me go back to the concerns you articulate. What about alientation. There are cartoons and drawings out there that are just there to offend. Is there a point? Well I fear there is. And the point is exactly one that is critical also to the perception of people who are externally associated with any group. See most Muslims indeed have no responsibility for the action of the violent fringes. So too most people who want to articulate free expression don’t automatically endorse the vilest of expression. But this is key. It is unfair to someone who draws a smiling stick figure to equate that to someone who draws Muhammed as engaging with an animal. Yet these are not differentiated at all.

    But back to dialogue. You are right this is not dialogue, but it is not because the atheist groups have not invited dialogue. All I have read indicates that they have! It’s just that there is no agreement on the terms even. As best I can tell any depiction of Muhammed, no matter how benign is non-negotible by student Muslim groups. That isn’t dialogue either. Dialogue is a two-say street by both sides. It’s not giving in to the demands of one side without considering the other.

    Free expression of ideas is indeed the corner stone of at least the US democracy. The way we come up with laws is by expressing ideas in an open marketplace. But if some ideas are before the fact declared protected, then the market place is skewed. Hence the very first point of the Bill of rights is to prevent that Government and also Religions can bias or limit this market place.

    Should hence the secular groups just give up their part in the marketplace of ideas to even get dialogue? Is that a fair mandate? I would say it is not. I have yet to see a sensible theological claim that shows that a non-Muslim cannot depict Muhammed. Yet that is exactly what is demanded. You see how dialogue is so early torpedoed?

    A final word on morals. Muslims have moral codes. And other world views do too. Should we take everything that Muslims consider haram without any deliberation? Homosexuality is considered haram, but I reject this. I think homophobia is wrong. Who is right in this view? InterFaith does not decide this but at least it recognizes that both views are allowable. If one view is not allowable, then it is not interfaith but it is monofaith, namely the moral side that was picked. You will have to choose what you want, if you want to give in to a dominant moral code to have peace, or look for a real mutual ground where multiple, perhaps even conflicting moral codes exist and people come to a mutual agreement how to handle it.

    Now Karachi. How are we to interpret it. Let me take the Danish Cartoons as example. One can have multiple interpretations on the cartoons. One is that they are “pure malice” as one of my Muslim friends put it. Another, closer to my own is, that it is also commentary on a culture of violence and hence articulates a difficult yet true point.

    What happens in response? Multiple embassies burn, also news paper buildings, people get attacked, hurt or killed, flags burn, death threats are issued and attempts to execute them happen.

    Is the right response to this: Well the cartoons were wrong and this reaction is justified? Or perhaps we can reflect on the reaction itself? See for me the danish cartoons articulated an uncomfortable relation to hyper-sensitivity in some extreme parts of the Islamic faithful and violence. What was the response, exactly this hyper-sensitivity and violence. Did the cartoons have a point? Absolutely. Should we cave to violence? Well… I think you decide. I personally do not think we should. It’s bullying. If in school I say something someone does not like and he punches me in response, he is a bully and not someone who handles differences in a sensible and mature way.

    Same here, the violent responses to Van Gogh, Vilks, Westergaard, Rushdie etc are all bullying and in my world view it’s immoral to stand by that without at least saying it’s wrong. But you can choose your moral code.

    See DMD is about this. It’s about a world where bullying is not OK just because you do not like a certain expression or depiction. That is what is at stake I think and that goal is not at all hateful. In fact that goal ultimately has nothing to do with Islam. Any violence, any bullying, and intolerance towards diverging world views is not OK.

    And ultimately interfaith requires a world that is free of violence, free of bullying and tolerant. Hence DMD for me, at least in the more positive expressions of it all, is ultimately very much in line with interfaith goals.

    I think we should draw stick figures all day until people realize that smiling stick figures are indeed harmless and that we should look beyond our little sensitivities and look at the other person. And perhaps also look at the pictures and judge them after the fact and not beforehand.

    Let me put it differently too. Who should be tolerant?
    The one who thinks it’s OK to draw Muhammed but decides to respect the other’s request?
    Or the one who things that it’s not OK to draw Muhammed but allows it for non-believer because they request for it to be OK?

    If both these outcomes can in principle be considered, then we have real tolerance, and real interfaith.

    Tolerance is not that one side is expected to always give up it’s needs. That should not be expected of Muslims, of atheists, of LGBT persons, of anybody. Tolerance is exactly that your position gets consideration, like the position that it’s OK to by gay in when it’s haram in Islam. And that it’s OK to draw Muhammed as a secular person when it’s haram in Islam. That is tolerance.

    Right now only one is allowable, and this is in fact not tolerant. Only the “don’t draw” is an allowable position, and I actually reject the intolerance that’s encoded here.

    I had people offended at the above linked video. It became clear that they never saw it or made false assumptions about it. We do need to get beyond this ease of taking offense, because we will never have dialogue if all we do is dance on egg shells.

  7. Nicholas said

    Hitch,

    I’m obviously not homophobic, either, but I think what all of this boils down to is methods. If these people above truly cared about interfaith, truly cared about taking that step to dialogue with others, they would not have engaged Muslims in the way they have. For Vilks, the Modog depiction of Muhammad makes me think not the best of his intentions with his video of Muhammad walking into a gay bar. Dissent, of course, is a foundation of American democracy (see: our Supreme Court’s very structure), but I think the question with Vilks is one of respect. Provoking Muslims in an auditorium to show their “intolerance” is not a means to a dialogue. That’s the means to being a shock jock, which generally just engenders more hatred.

    My question of tactics with the University of Madison-Wisconsin students is why they would choose to engage in acts that they knew full well to be offensive to their campus’ Muslim group. If they were interested in reaching out for a dialogue, they would not have followed suit in this campaign. They would have taken the route that Molly Norris has. Honestly, I think to follow suit in a campaign that has been used for so many vile deeds without thinking for yourself what your participation in that really means isn’t terribly encouraging. I agree that we should speak out about free speech, but if you cannot question the methods of your side in effectively championing free speech, what good does that do? Have you really exercised your right to free speech, your right to individual thought in a festering clot of groupthink?

    I am completely behind all the emotions and ideas that went into EDMD. I just, like Molly Norris, think that the result is something no one wanted. Note that almost everyone who started this campaign has dropped out. I think that if we are not reevaluating how we plan to wage tolerance, how we plan to wage interfaith then we aren’t going to get much of anywhere. If I were a campus secular group, I would have worked with my school’s Muslim group to jointly make a statement against extremism. Of the two options, the chosen route or the path not taken do you think would have been powerful?

    Remember: together we are strong. Together we make a statement. Divided we fall.

    I agree that bullying is not okay. I agree that waging fear and intimidation is not okay. I stand with Matt Stone and Trey Parker. I stand with Salman Rushdie. However, if we are to do these artists justice, if we are to do the cause of free speech justice, we must engage “the other side” in a way that create lasting change for the future. As many of the perpetrators involved in this campaign have labeled this the First Annual EDMD Campaign, I think coming together with Muslims on the issue is the only way to keep this from spiraling more out of hand than it already has.

    Thank you very much for writing to me on this, by the way. This might seem strange, but I have liked discussing this with you. You make really interesting points, and I think that what we are doing, debating and dialoging around this issue, is exactly what we all need right now. I truly wish you all the best.

    Catinthewall,

    I only remarked about it being an attack on a religion because you alluded to that in your closing, but I think you might not quite have meant it that way. Some things often read differently than we meant them to.

    But I definitely agree that the strength in numbers is compelling. At its heart, the EDMD campaign is an incredible platform for issues of free speech, and although I agree with the stated message of that campaign, I do not feel like its content necessarily matches that. I think that the points that you bring up about depicting Muhammad married to a child is a very complex issue that I don’t want to discuss now, at the risk of offending any who comment on my article. I personally wouldn’t feel that depicting Muhammad preaching isn’t offensive (as long as the content of that sermon is not).

    However, I think that this isn’t about my feelings about Muhammad. I didn’t grow up with, my culture has no historical relationship with him. Not to offend anyone, but he means nothing to me, just as the Egyptian or Greek Gods mean nothing to me. But we do have to look through the eyes of another here. I think that if we were really interested in making images of the Prophet that were not offensive, we could work with Muslims on our campuses to figure out how to do that. I know that this sounds far-fetched, but that was the exact point of this post, that we need to dream bigger. We shouldn’t be limited to someone else’s problematic tactics. If those campuses really wanted to make a statement, they could have acted differently. They did not have to do exactly what they did, when they knew what feelings it would engender. I don’t know if you could label it hatred, but I know, as a fellow agnostic, it just really disappoints me. I expected better from my people, the people who are supposed to value reason above all else.

    I think that, had the campaign been fought very differently, the campus groups could be in a place where what they did was not insulting. I think there could be a way that stick figures were not insulting. To have written that letter to their campus’ Muslim group about how they knew what they were doing was going to be insulting but were going to do it anyway…that, to me, is pretty insulting.

    And, no, I definitely do not value censorship either. But I do value temperance, mindfulness and effectiveness. Although it is good to hold free speech in high regard, the campaign should have held these values more dearly if they hoped to truly make an impact. At this point, I feel like we have responded to hate by creating more of it, which just saddens me. We are such a divided world already that I can’t believe we would actively create more divides.

    Also, I would like to take this moment to thank you, too, for writing me. I am glad to see that you are so passionate about these issues, and even though we do not agree, I feel like discussing EDMD rationally and openly is a real step forward in the way we talk about advocating for free speech from here on out. It has truly been a pleasure to know you in print.

  8. Hitch said

    Nicolas, frankly I think we no longer have a choice. I personally have no desire to draw Muhammed at all. But it’s no longer my choice. If I don’t draw him the extremists decided how we have to behave. This is not compromise or failure in method. That ground is simply gone.

    Don’t forget that people live under threat and fear right now. No matter what you think of Vilks, he does not deserve to be assaulted, be subjected to arson attacks and have a bounty to his head. This is the reality we live in, and I’m not particularly inclined to talk method when people are in harms way. Same for Hirsi Ali or Nasrin who live under 24 protection. The fatwa on Rushdie still hasn’t been lifted by Iran.

    But let’s take respect. Is it respectful to burn embassies, flags, to murder people? Furthermore why do certain world views command more respect than others, simply for claiming to be divinely created. See I think we need people like Vilks to push the boundaries and to raise those unpleasant questions. And yes he deserves full protection to do it. That is free speech. It’s not for when it’s easy or pleasant. It’s for when it’s hard contentious, difficult and unwelcome.

    About the Muslims in the auditorium. Vilks is known for what is art is about. It is known that he is about challenging all religions. The Muslim contingency went there knowing full well that Vilks would challenge their faith and they came to make a scene. They had a choice. Just as much as the Christians who sat in the audience and took the criticism of Christianity and sexuality that preceeded the Islam part without any of what came later. No, you do not consider the full picture here. I think it’s fair to say that the people who went to that presentation came to be offended. Not a word about Jesus, even though he is considered an earlier prophet in Islam.

    And angry shouting of Muhammad, Muhammad is actually haram, but nevermind that. It’s easier to dismiss Vilks as having ill intent.

    “My question of tactics with the University of Madison-Wisconsin students is why they would choose to engage in acts that they knew full well to be offensive to their campus’ Muslim group.”

    Because we no longer have a choice? If any articulation in the public sphere on Islam is offensive, including smiling stick figures with the common name Muhammed next to it, then we have no right to articulation at all!

    You and I should not need explicit permission from any subgroup how to express ourselves in the public sphere, but you have already conceeded that we do! We have to ask the Muslim community first, which expression will be palpable to them and we can only do those that they will sanction and nothing else. This is not free expression.

    And you have this wrong. Muslims could have reacted in kind. They could have asked what this is about and what it’s history is. How they can participate to create a joint image and all that. Why is the onus for mutuality solely on the secular group? That makes no sense. In fact having read the secular group’s descriptions it is quite clear that they did not want anti-Muslim messages and would have welcomed Muslim inclusing, in fact invited discussion! How horrible of them indeed.

    Free speech is not a method. I can draw a smiling stick figure and that should just be OK. Free speech is exactly that one does not need to seek sanction from another party. Else it is not free speech.

    You keep forgetting over and over that there are two sides with agency here, two sides with ways to compromise. Two sides with ways to close the gap. To sides with mechanisms to reach out. Go back and read what both sides said and tell me faithfully that the secular groups acted with ill intent? I will be happy to quote at length that this simply is not the case. In fact some attempts at inviting mutuality have been rejected by the Muslim groups and unilateral demands have been made. But that is apparently OK? That is InterFaith?

    But again, this is not just about extremism, it is about free expression. And it is about toleration. Can the Muslim students tolerate that non-Muslims draw stick figures of Muhammed?

    To say that the secular students should have approached the Muslim groups to organise an event against extremism in a way goes counter to what the goal is here. The goal is that we can coexist without constantly getting offended, feeling attacked and all that. The student group was not out there to defame Islam. They were out there to reclaim the right to express. And again, they did reach out and you be the judge how much reciprocation they have received.

    I would disagree with your claim that everybody who is behind DMD dropped out Morris did, but noone deserves to be in the position to have started this. If I was Norris I would also try to not be the founder of the movement. You might just be the next Theo van Gogh and noone deserves to live in that fear.

    Norris original drawing captures the essence of what is at stake here. Where is the boundary to something being offensive, and who gets to make that decision and do we always have to honor that decision if we didn’t make it.

    I agree that there are numerous contributions I personally do not stand behind in content, but let me say this very clearly. I stand behind them completely in the sense that they all have to be speakable without fear of retribution and violence. But this too is at stake. Because clearly we do not live in a world where we can grant our harshes and most unpleasant adversaries the right to speak. I am with Voltaire on this one.

    As for comming together with Muslims on this issue, I agree in spirit. I have tried and many simply are not interested. I have met many Muslims who simply consider for example non-believers second class people and also require that one accepts all prescriptions of Islam without consideration. Now if that is acceptable to you, go ahead. It is not for me.
    I have been called all sorts of names in the book for simply expressing my view and seeking common ground. But you go ahead and try.

    I can tell you this. I will be drawing smiling stick figures as often as I can. I will only stop when the intolerance and violence stops. And I think that any person with a heart and a spine should do the same, Muslim or not.
    I hope we come together, but I am not going to compromise my own core values just to get a false coexistence that is predicated on me giving up basic values and goods. This is not acceptable to me and I really do not think it should be acceptable to you. But you be the judge.

    I want interfaith, but it has to be real and not coerced and I’m lucky to have it with quite a few people in virtually all major religions (and non-religions). But as a global program we will have to get way beyond certain rigidities within the faiths to allow what between more enlightened individuals already can work quite easily.

    I hope that Muslims will come out and speak more for free expression, for rights of non-Muslims and all that. I think we’ll be in a better situation when both sides move. Right now a lot of Muslims I talk to simply refuse to move away from their position at all, in that they get to decide what is right or wrong and everybody can take it or leave it. Until that changes it will be hard to have actual interfaith happening.

  9. Nicholas said

    Hitch,

    It seems to me that you and I are talking about very different things, and I, regrettably, do not see the point in taking this discussion further. It seems that you are very resolute in your views, and I have been glad to engage them for a little while. I respect your right to disagree with me, and I respect your right to draw a stick-figured man. If I have made you even think for a second about what that Little Stick Man might signify to others, then I have done my job. Have a nice interfaith.

    Nick

  10. Hitch said

    Very well. I hope you will just as well transport alternative the meaning of smiling stick figures to others. So that we get beyond calling people who draw them haters and bigots and realize that there is a common ground in all this! Good luck.

  11. anon said

    A non-Muslim says a stick figure of the Prophet(pbuh) is not offensive, A Muslim says, any depiction, positive or negative, stick figure or not, is offensive and hurtful to a Muslim—who do you believe?

    So why does a Muslim have such a sentiment?—this requires dialogue to understand where a Muslim is comming from.

    As a Muslim—I would have been more than happy to join any campaign that defended freedom of speech against voilence if it did not involve depictions of the Prophet(pbuh)—which a campaing based on decency, and compassion would have done.

    This is not a defense of freedom of speech—-it is simply a defense of the “entertainment value” of offending another at the expense of higher values of respect, tolerance, understanding. —and as such it is Juvenile.

    While U.S. students are engaging in such frivolous activites, U.S. troops are inflicting “Collateral Damage” in which innocent civilian lives are lost. —but maybe, the pain and terror caused by U.S. wars is of little concern to students living in the Luxury of the United States?

  12. Nicholas said

    Anon,

    “As a Muslim—I would have been more than happy to join any campaign that defended freedom of speech against voilence if it did not involve depictions of the Prophet(pbuh)—which a campaing based on decency, and compassion would have done.”

    As a non-Muslim, I completely agree with you and will support any campaign that seeks to actually promote tolerance and understanding.

    “This is not a defense of freedom of speech—-it is simply a defense of the ‘entertainment value’ of offending another at the expense of higher values of respect, tolerance, understanding. —and as such it is Juvenile.”

    I hadn’t thought of that aspect, but I would argue that its a little of both.

    “While U.S. students are engaging in such frivolous activites, U.S. troops are inflicting “Collateral Damage” in which innocent civilian lives are lost. —but maybe, the pain and terror caused by U.S. wars is of little concern to students living in the Luxury of the United States?”

    I, of course, cannot speak for all Americans, mostly because I do not know all Americans, but I can speak for DePaul University’s International Studies department when I say that the pain and terror caused by U.S. wars is of great concern to some.

    Thanks for posting.

  13. Hitch said

    I want tolerance and coexistence, but it cannot be that a religion can claim the standards. Why do you not allow non-muslims to draw a stick figure labeled Muhammed, when it isn’t even stated that the prophet is meant?

    Where is the line? There were drawings of a stick figure with just the first few letters of Muha… there were stick figures that said “I am not Muhammed”. Some where labeled “Censored”. This is exactly to show the paradox of the line here.

    But what is more, there are people under threat right now for having criticized Islam. How are we respond to that? Do we have to give up speaking for them to have an open hand or can we still stand and say it is not OK that they live in fear?

    Or do we have to give up deliberate democracy in order to get the concession of peaceful coexistence? For in a deliberate democracy we have the right to criticize points of view.

    I think it’s wrong to demand that people not criticize religion, and I understand that it can be offensive. But this is what it means to live in a pluralistic society. And I think it’s wrong to accept that people live in fear for having done nothing but write a book, draw a picture, make a film or do a TV show.

    I agree with Nicolas that there is opposition to US militarism and also to the indirect support of unjust oppression of violence against any people (whether Muslims in the middle east or people in Latin America).

    But one wrong does not justify another. We have to work to resolve all of them.

  14. Nicholas said

    I have stated that we should not accept the threats made against Vilks, Rushdie, etc. Threats of violence are not acceptable. But what you are doing is not helping them live in a more peaceful or tolerant society. People have the right to criticize and the right to be an insensitive douchebag, but as we are seeing, it doesn’t really get you anywhere.

  15. Hitch said

    I do not understand your position. You say you are against threats made against people who criticize aspects Islam or the world in words and pictures. How do we do that if not speak about it?

    Let me say it again, all these people had legitimate points. Should we no longer address legitimate points because it is labeled insensitive and one is called a douche for doing it?

    I could quote from the Qu’ran right now passages I find offensive. Would it be a legitimate position for me to demand that noone ever reads those passages because of my sensitivities? Of course not. But that is exactly because most secular humanists have long subscribed to a tolerant position. We allow expression we do not like. We seek common ground even though things are said and done that we consider harmful. That is exactly the spirit of common existence and religious tolerance.

    I do not run around and quote all the passages in religious scripture I find troubling exactly because I already seek mutual ground. I do not need to push the most difficult issues at all. But there ought to be some space where we can express things in principle.

    No it is intolerant to ask for silence about real issues. And it is tolerance if both sides consider the others perspective, not one side has to be sensitive to the other. If I started to demand that my sensitivities to be respected we would indeed go nowhere and this is exactly why we go nowhere now. We do not have mutual tolerance and it’s not because I for example am not willing to give it.

    I have never drawn the prophet Muhammed (pbuh) yet I have already been accused of having done so. Is that tolerance? And who is the insensitive douchebag? Apparently people like me, who say that this hyper-sensitive culture and the quick (and misinformed) blaming is causing a real problem.

    I think you have chosen a side and do only care about some people’s sensitivities and not others. I applaud your sentiment but I think you are not actually promoting peace and tolerance by the path you choose. In a peaceful and tolerance coexistence all sensible world views are tolerated and respected. We people seek peace even if there is misunderstanding and conflicting perspectives and don’t abandon that peace.

  16. Nicholas said

    I never disagreed that these people do not have legitimate points, and I believe that I have made my position very clear. I have never asked for silence, and I never will. As an activist, I know that silence does no one any good. Have I not said that we should speak out? That we have a duty to speak out? We have the right to free speech. We have the right to say whatever we want. However, no matter the legitimacy of anyone’s points, if we plan to reach others, we have to exercise our free speech rights respectfully and responsibly. We have the right to be insensitive, yes, but taking the high road entails not doing so. If the Muslim group can respond to the deliberate disrespect of their Prophet with patience and wisdom, why can’t we?

    I completely understand where the secular students are coming from. As an agnostic and a humanist, I understand their position and your position. I am well-versed in the tradition and understand how our historic rational ethos informs our current situation. But using the rationality taught to me by my own philosophical tradition, I rationally weighed both sides and chose to abstain. As an International Studies student with a focus on the Muslim world, this decision was not only out of deep respect for my Muslim classmates and their faith perspective. It was not just because my friends and co-workers at IFYC held a certain position. I have done an incredible amount of research on the campaign for my internship, and at first, I was, frankly, a little divided on the campaign. I knew not if my heart lied with my Muslim friends or my Secular co-philosophists.

    For me, the more I learned about the campaign and the ways in which EDMD was being carried out, the less I liked. To wit, if any involved plan to actually reach others, to help Muslims see their side, they have to devise tactics that have any hope of actually engaging them. The letter from the UW-M students showed explicitly that they knew their actions would not. To continue on in following through with those actions, knowing full well of the response it would provoke is not waging peace. At IFYC, we talk about respectful engagement to come to common ground, and intrinsically, drawing Muhammad is an action that is disrespectful to the Prophet and, thus, disrespectful to His followers. You have the right to disrespect them, yes, but what good is that doing you?

    I have never said that EDMD-style protesting should not be allowed. It should. I do not agree with the campaign, but it has an intrinsic right to existence. People have a right to their ideas, no matter the content. However, when analyzing the effectiveness of a movement, which Amilcar Cabral felt we should do to ensure our movement meaningfully grows and develops, we need to analyze that content and the ways it is being express. As is, a campaign which could have been waged diplomatically increasingly grew into one of hatred and bigotry, as shown by the images I cited in my article. When you have people like the SIOA movement taking over your campaign, that is not progress. And to continue to support a campaign that has veered so far from its original intent (as Norris and many who founded the campaign have gone on record to say) does not promote peace at all. Ask yourself: have we really made the world more peaceful? Although many involved in the EDMD campaign have conceded their involvement, has a single Muslim extremist conceded his violent position? What does that say? Has peace been achieved? Has common ground been achieved?

    When people are rioting in the streets in Karachi, you have not effectively waged peace. I always find a good rule of thumb in these situations is to ask what Gandhi would do, to ask what Martin Luther King would do. I can’t see either one of them picking up a piece of chalk against their Muslim brothers.

    Also,

    You said: “I have never drawn the prophet Muhammed (pbuh) yet I have already been accused of having done so. Is that tolerance?”

    Response:

    You said before: “I can tell you this. I will be drawing smiling stick figures as often as I can.”

    Lastly, I will not be engaging on this thread anymore. If we are talking about effectively waging peace, I do not think this sparring is the means to do so. I feel that I have said everything I need to say. Any further comment I feel will be unproductive. Thank you very much for taking the time to write me.

  17. Michael M. said

    Interesting discussion, and a thoughtful piece to start it off. There are so many issues raised and choice bits to respond to that it is rather overwhelming, so I’ll limit myself to this (from Mitch) as a starting point:

    “Free speech is not a method. I can draw a smiling stick figure and that should just be OK. Free speech is exactly that one does not need to seek sanction from another party. Else it is not free speech.”

    I think the fundamental problem with this view is that speech of any kind shouldn’t carry consequences (“should just be OK”), and that any compromise of that position negates the very essence of freedom of speech (“Else it is not free speech”). With regard to state action, I would very much support this view. In a truly free society, there should be no legal limitations on free expression, excepting those that protect the public from direct and immediate harm (so-called “fighting words” or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).

    But with regard to individual action in a pluralistic society, speech does carry consequences. When Sinead O’Connor ripped a picture of the Pope on national television, that had very real consequences for her. When the Dixie Chicks publicly disparaged George Bush on stage, that had consequences for them. When Parker & Stone depict Muhammad, they should expect that will have consequences too.

    Likewise, any individual or group of individuals acting in concert, as with EDMD, should expect that their speech will have consequences. Whether EDMD inspired respectful or insulting depictions of the Prophet is beside the point. The point is that the act itself is calculated to attack a proscription that is a fundamental tenet of a particular religious faith. As I understand it, the point is to say “We should be able to express ourselves in this manner without consequence, because said proscription is intolerant and has no place in a free society.”

    That, it seems to me, is plainly silly. Of course violating a central tenet of some religion will have consequences, of course people who adhere to that faith will be insulted. Mitch writes, “I think it’s wrong to demand that people not criticize religion, and I understand that it can be offensive. But this is what it means to live in a pluralistic society.” The problem is that engaging in a mass action designed to violate a central tenet of any religion is not to “criticize religion,” it is to insult particular religious beliefs. I take the point of Nicholas’s piece to be, “this insult is not productive, it isn’t what Interfaith is about,” and on balance I have to agree with that. Fundamentally, this is a disagreement about what it means to live in a pluralistic society. Mitch’s view seems to be that it means putting the right to be offensive above all others. Nicholas’s view seems to be that it means trying to engage communities with different points of view and different beliefs in productive dialog. I know which type of society I would prefer to live in.

    Context is important here. On the one hand, you have several thousand people (of all faiths) murdered, an assassinated filmmaker, and a handful of artists and writers threatened with physical violence, partly as a consequence of religious and political extremism. On the other, you have tens of thousands of citizenry (of, predominantly, one faith) slaughtered in two wars, neither of which have concluded, also partly as a consequence of religious and political extremism. It is understandable why everyone would feel aggrieved given these realities. But what is the most productive and peaceful way out of this? To press on with the deliberate attempts to insult a religious belief, even as our tax dollars support the ongoing wars waged against nations who’s populace adheres to that religion? I can’t help but see that as anything but productive or peaceful.

    That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be allowed as a matter of law or public policy, that’s not to say that Comedy Central shouldn’t have aired the episode or should have censored itself. That is only to ask, this is where we are, where should we go? IMO, EDMD is going the wrong direction.

  18. Amber H. said

    excellent blog Nick. well done.

  19. Hitch said

    Ultimately we disagree what respect is. That is very much the point. I will indeed draw smiling stick figures. Nothing is more respectful than a smile!

    I don’t think it’s a path to peace when we have to give up a smile as a positive symbol. When we have to give up humor in place of pretend piety. When we have to give up being fallible for getting sanction from any group.

    There is a fine line between peace and tolerance, between a good path and a path that leads good people into a bad world. Gandhi succeeded because he had a sympathetic occupation force who would not mow down protesters. Only to be later killed by an intolerant religious and nationalist bigot. King died in his path to peace but the cultural background was on his side.

    Dr. King was a champion of non-violent action. He was not someone of inaction or debate. He claimed the right for people to act to assert their right. He did not ask the cities if it is OK to marsh. He marshed. And yes people were offended. Rosa Parks did not ask for permission to sit, she sat and yes people were offended. Same with Gandhi. I do not feel bad about comparison to these fine people with respect to taking action against oppression. And yes this is a culture of fear and oppression, we cannot even draw a smiling stick figure anymore or have subtle disagreement what religious tolerance is.

    As for chalk as a form of expression. During the Vietnam protests chalking peace signs was commonplace in the movement. In fact we still have chalk4peace today.

    In fact some people who have participated in DMD labeled a peace sign Muhammed. Very hateful indeed. No, the message is clear. We want peace and freedom of expression. This is a message that should be speakable in a pluralistic world.

    Both stood for a world that was against oppression and violent intimidation and both had the good fortune that the backdrop supported them.

    Violence and intimidation is live and well now. I think we have to be non-violent, but we have to also speak honestly. Just like King and Gandhi did.

    Gandhi was not alone, MLK was not alone. They had support because they were surrounded by others who stood up and said, you have the right to speak, even if the powerful or the offended disagree. We will walk with you.

    Many non-violent opponents during more murderous regimes had none of the support. And people who could have been Gandhi’s or MLKs got killed and are forgotten today.

    It is a very serious question to ask: What do we give up when we concede the silly point that a smiling stick figure is offensive. Should Girdano Bruno just have agreed to catholic doctrine to retain “tolerant” and “peaceful” coexistence, or are there larger values at work?

    I do not think that you take that question seriously and you have chosen to judge one side without looking at what they actually said.

    I for one happily coexist with many people of many faiths but not if the demands of any of them become unilateral. This is when we leave tolerance and enter oppression. You are welcome to consider this unproductive. I think this happens to be a key point and EDMD verbalizes that there is a boundary, a limit for unilateral demands. And the boundary is exactly who gets to declare what is respectful.

    I actually do not think you have the sole agency to declare what is respectul, hateful or bigoted. In fact I disagree strongly with your disqualifying statements about others.

    It’s not just one side who gets to make that call. A smiling stick figure is respectful. Can you tolerate and live peacefully with that?

    We tolerate that embassies burn, but not a smiling stick figure. A twisted “peaceful” and “tolerant” world is that.

    Even worse. We blame who draw stick figures for violence and intolerance erupting in Pakistan. Let’s not blame who stand for the right thing for those who stand for intolerance. Noone asked for Pakistan to ban facebook, noone asked for people to burn embassies or to issue paid murder orders.

    When riots broke out in Pakistan, false images that were much more offensive than the original ones were circulated by the imams. Is Westergaard responsible for that? Should we try to appease a culture that seeks offense? Or should we be so brave as to say that some reactions are excessive, some demands go too far? As MLK, Gandhi and Mandela did?

    Let me make this perfectly clear. I reject that smiling stick figures are to blame that Pakistan acts intolerantly. If you express a view and someone punches you in the face as response, it is not your fault. The other person had a choice about their response and they are fully responsible for that choice.

    No Karachi is about Pakistan, it is not about some dorky cartoons most of which are hardly offensive to anybody who has some sensible perspective.

    Let me close this by quoting something that I think is very relevant:

    “THEY CAME FIRST for the novelists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a novelist.

    THEN THEY CAME for the film makers,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a film maker.

    THEN THEY CAME for the cartoonists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a cartoonist.

    THEN THEY CAME for me
    and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

    And the way they came for us is calling us disrespectful, hateful or worse and they claimed the rights to kill and threaten.

    This is why I draw stick figures now, because next time even just saying that you might consider drawing a stick figure is offensive. Or mentioning any faith but one is offensive. Saying that separation of church and state is good, is offensive. Because after all this is a nation under God and God is good so how dare I say that God in state is bad! That’s disrespectful! Opposing strict religious law is offensive. And suddenly we have, in the name of peace and tolerance gained but one thing. Self-abandonment and absolute intolerance.

    The problem is that MLK did not live in a world that promoted silence. He lived in a world that moved towards openness and civil liberties.

    Now we lose our almost childish civil liberty to draw smiling stick figures, in the name of peace and tolerance. For effectively waging peace it ultimately requires two sides who seek peace. I want peace and person of any faith can approach me and I am confident that we can have peace, almost trivially. And in a peaceful world a smile is good. Hence I invited Muslims to participate in DMD and I was pleased to know that some did! Because it’s not them versus us. It’s tolerance versus intolerance, it’s free expression versus repression, it’s multiculturalism versus imposed culture.

    Noone picked up a piece of chalk against their fellow Muslims. Again I challenge you to quote any writing of the student groups claiming this. And again I repeat that they articulated quite clearly what this was about. People picked up a piece of chalk for free expression! And free expression is for everyone, any faith, any world view but those that don’t want free expression.

    Again drawing a smiling stick figure labeled Muhammed is not anti-Muslim it is not even anti-Muhammed, no matter how often you claim the opposite. You say you have a path to peace? How about not misrepresenting the intentions of people? Calling some people’s peaceful expression hatred and bigotry while ignoring what they themselves really say is not the way to do it.

    If you want peace and tolerance from me, I think you’ll have to extend that hand. You can certainly have it, all you have to do is not misstate others intentions or emotions! Can I get that much respect?

    We all share the benefit of a tolerant, peaceful, multi-expressive world and we should come together to promote it!

  20. Hitch said

    Michael, I speak exactly because I want it to have consequences. Else there is no point to speak.

    “any compromise of that position negates the very essence of freedom of speech”

    The point is that I have to have agency and a say and that the context has to be neutral. I’m happy to compromise, I’m not happy being forced, coerced or intimidated into a compromise. The latter challenges free speech.

    “When Sinead O’Connor ripped a picture of the Pope on national television, that had very real consequences for her. When the Dixie Chicks publicly disparaged George Bush on stage, that had consequences for them. When Parker & Stone depict Muhammad, they should expect that will have consequences too.”

    To be honest we have to ask context.

    What is the context of Sinead O’Conner ripping the picture of the pope on TV? Well most don’t know but already back when she protested the silence of the Catholic Church with respect to child abuse and she herself is a victim. Instead of people presenting the fair context she was vilified and depicted as a bigoted loon.

    What about the Dixie Chicks? Their point was opposition to the war and Bush’s war mongering. Instead of talking about their substantive claim, namely that there are sensible grounds to oppose the war, they got a move of violent bigots who trampled their CDs not unlike the Nazi’s burned books of people who disagreed with them.

    Take Parker and Stone? Their point was that the western society left Westergaard out to dry and hence there was no culture speaking against intimidation in the light of critical expression. They also felt it would be unfair to not lampoon one religion simply because it is the most likely to react violently.

    Every single south park show has consequences. But you never know. The respondents choose their reaction.

    Are we responsible if people act immoraly to what we do in good faith? Absolutely not. Sinead O’Conner had a very important point and she advocated it long before it has become widely recognized as an issue. She is not responsible for the vile reactions she received. The Dixie Chicks have all the right to not like any president and his policies. Yet they got vilified. Matt & Trey have the right to lampoon any religion, yet they got death threats from just one.

    See you forget context. And you claim that the reaction is causative. it is not. The person reacting has a choice. They can choose, the content and the style of their response.

    Yes DMD is about speech with consequence. I for one participate exactly because I was compelled to speak. And I do hope that my words have consequence and in fact the kind of consequence that I seek. But I am old enough to know that I cannot control reception of what I say. You can do and say all the right things and still not be heard. You can say the wrong things and get lots of approval.

    “Whether EDMD inspired respectful or insulting depictions of the Prophet is beside the point.”

    Absolutely not. (henceforth (2))

    “The point is that the act itself is calculated to attack a proscription that is a fundamental tenet of a particular religious faith.”

    Absolutely not. (henceforth (1))

    “We should be able to express ourselves in this manner without consequence, because said proscription is intolerant and has no place in a free society.”

    Absolutely not. (henceforth (3))

    Let me explain.

    Starting with (1).
    To present this point fairly we have to ask a few questions:

    Is there an absolutist prescription in Islam that noone can draw Muhammed?

    The correct answer is no. There is historical evolution how depiction of Muhammed was viewed and there is sectarian difference in how it is viewed (Sunni being generally stricter).

    Furthermore what is the spirit of the prescription? The spirit is to prevent idolatry. That is a believer should not idolize the prophet (pbuh).

    Does that mean no non-believer can draw Muhammed? This isn’t clear at all.

    So that’s context. Second is, is the way you framed this fair?

    Different Christian denominations have different views on depiction of their saints and main figures of the bible. Some are opposed, some are in favor and there is a complex tapestry.

    Would we accept if the faction that is opposed to it demanded that all christian groups follow their version of the faith?

    Furthermore, let’s take a real political issue to drive this home.

    Some pro-lifers are fundamental about their belief. They think that abortion is extremely offensive and noone should do it. So someone comes out and says that they are not of this persuation and hence they will have an abortion.

    Here is how you phrased your sentence:

    “The point is that the act itself is calculated to attack a proscription that is a fundamental tenet of a particular religious faith.”

    So in your words a pro-choice person “attacks” the proscription of a pro-life person.

    But clearly that doesn’t work nor is it true. The pro-choice person has a different world view that is not compatible with the pro-life view. The pro-choice is not categorically out there attack. They have no choice but act counter to what the other belief demands.

    Let’s go back to depicting Muhammed. Even if we agree, and I think we do, that a good section of Muslims want no depiction of Muhammed by non-Muslims, should we accept this or can we dissent. And if we dissent is it fair to call that always an attack, or simply disagreement.

    I will give you my answer. Muslims have no business to tell me that to draw. I am not bound by their rules of idolatry and I have positive intent. I should be fine to draw Muhammed. But to this day I have not drawn the prophet (pbuh).

    This is not an attack on their faith or piety. That is just sticking with my own world view to which I have just as much a right as they do.

    I think that clarifies (1) which is key. We can dissent without attacking. We can choose different ways of acting without wanting to offend, but having no other choice without abandoning our own world view (ala pro-choice).

    Let’s tackle (2):

    How one depicts something very much matters. In fact a lot of participants to DMD have done exactly what I have done. Questioned the notion of offense taken.

    I have not drawn the prophet (pbuh) yet people are still offended. The secular student groups have drawn stick figures labeled [Censored] and nothing else and it is still offensive. Even if you label a stick figure Muhammed it is not clear at all that it’s the prophet (pbuh).

    See people claim to know intent. After all it was all to attack (I think I refuted that sensibly). If it’s all about attack it doesn’t matter what it looks like or is labeled, it’s hatred and bigotry. I understand that line of thought.

    Unfortunately it’s false. It’s not about attack, it’s about questioning. The question asked by a lot of depiction is quite simple: Why is this offensive?
    Why is a smiling stick figure labeled “This is not Muhammed” offensive? It’s smiling!

    The answer to all this is about who is interpreting. And hence the pictures very much matter. A lot of supposed pictures of Muhammed don’t even depict the prophet (pbuh). South Park did not depict Muhammed in a bear costume. It was Santa. But just the possibility that it might be him is cause for outrage!

    There is a very real question here, and that is the question of hyper-sensitivity and controlling others through claiming offense.

    South Park’s episode was very artful. They articulated many key concepts in a way that actually should be perfectly fine and is respectful. But people don’t actually look at context. Instead we just listen who complains the loudest and take that as the moral boundary between respect and disrespect.

    On (3): Again this is wrong. Noone talks about no consequence. The consequence sought by the movement as I understand it is freedom from intimidation, freedom of expression and freedom to exercise ones own world view. It is also solidarity with those who live in fear because real and threatened violence.

    This is the consequence sought, but one has no control over the consequence. I will continue to argue that these goals are noble. And in fact that these goals are compatible with what a lot of Muslims or people of virtually any faith I know want.

    Free speech is not the same as freedom from consequence. But some consequences are off limits. In particular violence, threats, intimidation, state censorship, religious censorship (blasphemy) and so forth. Some consequences are hard to classify but in specific cases are also off limits. Book burnings, trampling of CDs, censoring of internet , shouting down, public shaming are among those. These actions that try to silence other’s views.

    In fact I think free speech is the wrong word. Freedom from unjust retribution and silencing is much better.

    This is why I participate. I stand with Salman Rushdie and his violated publishers and translators (some killed), Theo van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Narsin, Kurt Westergaard, Lars Vilks and Matt & Trey and not because I necessarily agree with any substantive point they made, but because categorically they deserve to live free from fear, when they don’t.

    Is this a cause worth having a cartoon drawing campaign over? Absolutely. In fact I think everybody should stand with this call: Stand against bullying, intimidation and death threats and stand for expression that is guaranteed to not suffer those despicable consequences. That, to me is a key part of DMD. It’s not about promoting hate, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s standing up to hate and violence and saying: Stop!

    Let’s go through the list. Rushdie engaged with phrases of the Qu’ran critically, consulting with people trying to keep a respectful tone before publishing. He was vilified. Hirsi Ali and van Gogh verbalized the role of women in Islam. They were targeted and van Gogh killed. Westergaard and the danish cartoons addressed the question of violence in the name of islam. It triggered violence in the name of Islam. And so forth.

    But in all cases it is claimed that they just want to offend tenets of the faith. This is the blanket way to dismiss criticism and rephrase it as blasphemy.

    Heck, any criticism is blasphemy. If I criticise that Muhammed cannot be drawn and hence just draw it, you do not phrase it as criticism, you phrase it as blasphemy. That is not my choice. That is your claim.

    It is only an insult in the eye of the recipient.

    Let me give a very clear example. For a hijab wearing woman the gaze of an unmarried men is dirty. She has the right to that view. For me it’s insulting to make that assumption about me. Am I to frame the hijab as an insult to men and hence completely dismiss her perspective? No. But this is exactly what happens here.

    I do not want to insult Muslims, but I have no choice without abandoning my own world view. I do not choose that my actions are interpreted as insults and in fact it’s disrespectful to my view to frame it as if I wanted to insult, when I don’t.

    In a pluralistic society my perspective has value. But this is not how the discourse is going. My perspective is fine to be mischaracterized as pure malice, as attempts to attack Muslims and as insults to the prophet (pbuh), when none of this is true from my perspective. InterFaith cannot be a complete disregard for my intentions and my motives.

    “Nicholas’s view seems to be that it means trying to engage communities with different points of view and different beliefs in productive dialog. I know which type of society I would prefer to live in.”

    I absolutely agree, but by calling people who stand against threats and intimidation by drawing smiling stick figures “hatred and bigotry” we are not actually achieving what you and Nicholas claim you want. You are not engaging the people who think it’s OK to draw Muhammed on their terms at all. You have disclassified them.

    I want exactly the same that you guys want. A productive dialogue and friendly, tolerant peaceful coexistence. We will not get there by demonizing and mischaracterizing any side, not even secular humanists.

    “But what is the most productive and peaceful way out of this? To press on with the deliberate attempts to insult a religious belief, even as our tax dollars support the ongoing wars waged against nations who’s populace adheres to that religion? I can’t help but see that as anything but productive or peaceful.”

    The world is complex. I do not believe that “think globally, act locally” is that easy because we are bound to get the first part wrong.

    I happen to believe that we have to learn to compromise. We have to get beyond dogma and rigid belief systems. We have to get to consider certain values, common humanity, non-violence, etc higher than petty offenses and concepts of honor and pride.

    We cannot reach compromise, when we allow a culture of intimidation. We cannot compromise if one side gets to dictate the outcome by claiming a view as being sacred and hence deserves universal respect.

    As long as silencing smiling stick figures deserves more attention than threats to the live and well-being of people, we do have it wrong. But exactly because people do take harm we can not stand by silently. DMD stands against threat and intimidation and for the rights to have divergent world views. All we need to learn is tolerance and a smiling stick figure is exactly that a smiling stick figure. And per chance we can actually learn to celebrate diverse expression and rather than us talking about fear and Islam, we can talk about Humor and Islam, Joy and Islam and all that. This is where we should be. But we cannot get there when any vehicle that could be humorous has to go through territory of fear first.

    The moment DMD is inconsequential, we will have a better world, and DMD will have shown the sore points that need growing and mending. And as long as DMD is not inconsequential, we do have people under threat, we do have censorship, we do have that one world view categorically trumps another.

    DMD has very positive reasons to exist and I endorse it. But freedom means that you guys can have a different perspective and I respect that.

  21. Zil said

    Hitch,

    You bring up a lot of good points, but I forget myself if Sinead O’Connor and the Dixie Chicks contextualized their acts and words themselves. If you perform an act whose end will be primarily shock and outrage and you want it to teach, you cannot assume that someone will research it enough. After some brief research, it seems that Sinead O’Connor loosely contextualized her actions but not in a way that most people would understand or try to understand. I believe personally that the Dixie Chicks incident was overblown but they were also expressing a view that was strongly against much of their core audience, leading to somewhat-expected repercussions.

    My thoughts with EDMD, though, are that at least in one case it was not properly introduced to the campus (as I have said before, it is incredibly silly to believe that simply contacting the Muslim Group–even if they had given their blessing, no pun intended, on this endeavor–is a sign of contacting the entire community and covering your back) and it was a simplistic way to go about the idea. Perhaps giving the day greater context or giving the images more artistic merit would have been more effective.

    However, the past has taught us that both the extremists and the moderates are necessary to make progress in certain areas. What we need to remember is that neither side needs to necessarily agree with the other 😉

  22. Hitch said

    I don’t agree but we don’t have to agree. Let me give one last example.

    A woman in a hijab moves in the public realm and there is a ruckus in response. I would not accept the argument, that if she had just first researched the culture and perhaps picked a more tasteful color, perhaps she’d gotten a better reception. In fact she could have just voluntarily compromised and not wear the hijab at all and avoided any consequence whatsoever. See how I reject this? I reject that people need to have permission for chalking either. This whole sensitivity argument is one-sided too. We do not ask head-scarf wearing folks to be sensitive of the culture of the surroundings and perhaps drop it to be more accepted. No, we ask for tolerance and multi-culturalism!

    She has the right to move in the public realm. Period. And the ruckus tells us more about the context than anything else.

    Same with the campus chalking. In principle this should have been fine, but the reaction made it otherwise.

    I think we have much to learn about tolerance, and all too often we look in the wrong places for it. For InterFaith you have to look at all perspectives and not favor any in particular to really make it work.

    And perhaps we need to learn that tolerance and compromise are not the same. Tolerance means that you actually do not have to compromise, but that you decide to live and let live. Chalk and let chalk, talk and let talk. And treat others respectfully even if you disagree with them or have a fundamental clash about how to do things. That is tolerance, and that is what we need (and I’d argue quite a few of people who participated in Draw Muhammed Day did not get).

    So lets stop false compromises and replace it with real tolerance and seeking our joint humanity through all the differences we are just bound to have.

  23. Michael M. said

    Mitch, you’re presuming a lot about my attitudes to EDMD … no where did I say that it or all who engage in it represent hatred and bigotry, nor did I mis-characterize your intent as “pure malice.” It’s clear that some who got behind it did so to promote hatred and bigotry, but that is beyond the control of others who support it for other reasons. Realistically, though, anyone of modest intelligence should have foreseen that some would take the opportunity to promote anti-Muslim sentiments. That’s the can of worms you open when you engage in this kind of action.

    I see your actions as calculated to insult; you dispute this. So we disagree on this point, fine. But don’t impute to me other attitudes I don’t share. I understand your motives; I *think* I understand what principles you are claiming to uphold. My feeling is that the way you are going about upholding those is not terribly productive or peaceful. Nor do I think it is very thoughtful. You write, “In a pluralistic society my perspective has value…. InterFaith cannot be a complete disregard for my intentions and my motives.” True enough. But it also cannot be a demand that we must accept tactics that we don’t believe to be useful, or that we must refrain from criticizing them.

    You write, “I do not choose that my actions are interpreted as insults and in fact it’s disrespectful to my view to frame it as if I wanted to insult, when I don’t.” You frame it in such a way as to disavow responsibility for insulting anyone, because it is beyond your control whether anyone is insulted and anyway, you don’t want to be insulting. But you also write, “I do not want to insult Muslims, but I have no choice without abandoning my own world view.” You’re simultaneously admitting that your actions will be insulting (“I have no choice”) and disavowing any desire to insult along with any responsibility for insulting. I think what you mean to say is that you don’t want your actions *to be viewed* as insulting; in other words, you want Muslims to accept your actions in the spirit in which you mean them and for the purposes you intend. You want to be able to dictate to others how they should interpret your actions. Guess what? We don’t get to do that. That’s not a free speech issue. We all get to decide for ourselves how we will interpret another’s speech. You have the right to say what you want, and I have the right to decide (for myself) that what you’re saying is insulting or funny or sad or whatever. You can tell a funny joke; I don’t have to laugh.

    There’s no analogy to abortion at all. Show me a woman who deliberately gets pregnant simply so that she can parade around before anti-abortion fundamentalists and proclaim that she’s about to get an abortion. It is more akin to me drawing a swastika and taking it around to all my Jewish friends, telling them, “I’m showing you this swastika to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians.” Sure, I have the right to draw a swastika — it’s only a few lines on a piece of paper, after all. Why should anyone find that insulting? I could even draw smiley faces around the swastika! But does it accomplish anything? Does it make them think twice about Israeli policy? Do I even know what some of my Jewish friends think about Israel’s policies? Does it advance the conversation, or chill it?

    Your belief is that EDMD is a stand against censorship and a show of solidarity with people who have been threatened with (or been the victims of) violence by religious extremists. I am not in any way denying or doubting your belief; I’m not attributing malice to you. I’m saying, the way I see EDMD being executed, the very idea of it doesn’t accomplish those goals. I’m saying that I don’t think doing something you know is going to insult some people, even though you firmly believe it should not, is the best course of action under the present circumstances. I might feel differently if the U.S. didn’t invade and wasn’t still occupying two Muslim countries in the past decade. I might feel differently if Muslims weren’t already a beleaguered and much maligned minority in this country. I might feel differently if the U.S. hadn’t imprisoned, tortured, and abused thousands of Muslims under spurious charges of terrorism in hellholes like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. As it is, though, I am hard-pressed to come up with reasons why Muslim communities wouldn’t understandably see EDMD as another in a string of violent acts perpetrated by Americans against them.

  24. Hitch said

    Michael, I am not just arguing your points, I’m arguing the context which includes Nicolas’s position. Nicolas wrote this: “This is not simply exercising an inalienable right. This is hatred and bigotry.” and to that I respond. If you feel I conflated your position and Nicolas’s please accept my apology, this was not intended.

    “But it also cannot be a demand that we must accept tactics that we don’t believe to be useful, or that we must refrain from criticizing them.”

    I nowhere demanded that you agree with me.

    “I think what you mean to say is that you don’t want your actions *to be viewed* as insulting; in other words, you want Muslims to accept your actions in the spirit in which you mean them and for the purposes you intend.”

    Not really, though I’d consider that progress. After all most people have the request to be treated not only by the outcome but by the intent. Hence why we differentiate crimes along those dimensions too.

    I said exactly what I meant. In my world view X is not insulting. I have no control over reception. If I need to do X to comment on a harm Y, I have no choice but go through X. If X is insulting to some onlooker I had no choice about that reception either.But because in my world view I have to prevent harm Y, I literally have no choice about the insult part.

    Yes we choose to get offended and some Muslims are not offended by depictions of Muhammed. You can go to bazaars in Iran today and buy depictions of Muhammed.

    So to claim that any depiction of Muhammed is always and to any Muslim an insult is basically not a faithful representation of facts.

    Let me bring this to another faith. I do not believe in Saints. A catholic may find this offensive and an insult to them. Am I for that reason to refrain from stating my belief? It simply does not work. We cannot delineate our beliefs by the insults taken of other world views, because this is immobilizing and demands that we deny our own world view.

    And of course not all Catholics may find this insulting. I have no control over reception. In fact I may just find that oddly, no Catholic is insulted.

    I once had a friend over and I told him how much I missed some food from a country where I lived. He got offended because he read it as criticism of the food in the USA. Again I had no control of the reception and even though I learned that he gets offended I will still talk freely about that kind of food.

    “You want to be able to dictate to others how they should interpret your actions.”

    I want no such thing. I want the right to have a fair hearing. You can judge whichever way you want. I understand fully that I neither have control over your taking offense nor over your judgments overall.

    “I have the right to decide (for myself) that what you’re saying is insulting or funny or sad or whatever.”

    Absolutely. I never contented that. I do contend though that you should judge me on my own proclamation and not some fantasy or assumptions about my intent or supposed goals. I do insist that you decide on a fair hearing and proper representation. I do not at all insist that you make your decision in any particular way at all.

    “There’s no analogy to abortion at all.”

    It’s obvious that you completely misunderstood my pro-life/pro-choice example. I think I was quite clear, so rereading is the only thing I can suggest.

    “I’m showing you this swastika to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians.”

    I reject that example. A smiling stick figure is no swastika. Again, respectful depiction of Muhammed is allowable by some Muslims. The swastika stands for genocide and a murderous intolerant regime. Clearly Muhammed is per se not a negative symbol.

    See the point of the right to depict Muhammed is the very point of contention. A more appropriate analogy would be if a head of state declared that he cannot be discussed or it is an insult. And people discuss him, so necessarily all is an insult.

    This is exactly what the prescription of Islam seeks. It’s about encoding that Muhammed is beyond criticism.

    This has nothing to do with seeking to use xenophobic symbols to promote criticism.

    “Does it advance the conversation, or chill it?”

    Let me take this as an invitation. How would you discuss that it should be OK for artists to critique religions? How long should we wait to get some concession on this? How many people may we offend before we can act at all? Should one offended person dictate what we can do?

    Can you convert this for me into something that is different than “you have the right to speak freely, but don’t” and hence leave those who have already spoken out dry hanging without any support. What would you do? Or what have you done? How have you supported those under threat right now, those who suffer head butts and arson attacks? Axe attacks with their granddaughter present?

    What are you doing?

    If people are in harms way shall we wonder, if perhaps we hurt feelings standing up against that which causes harm?

    Take your Israel example. I have heard plenty of sensible criticism of Israel that has been called hateful and anti-semitic. Is that to stop us expressing sensible criticism? And if the leadership of the country wants to be beyond criticism should we still criticise them even if they call that insulting?

    “I might feel differently if the U.S. didn’t invade and wasn’t still occupying two Muslim countries in the past decade. I might feel differently if Muslims weren’t already a beleaguered and much maligned minority in this country. I might feel differently if the U.S. hadn’t imprisoned, tortured, and abused thousands of Muslims under spurious charges of terrorism in hellholes like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. As it is, though, I am hard-pressed to come up with reasons why Muslim communities wouldn’t understandably see EDMD as another in a string of violent acts perpetrated by Americans against them.”

    Well the first thing we can do is falsely reinforce that perception by joining in the canon that yes it was wrong to to DMD and that yes, it was to insult Muslims.

    We can disagree but here is my belief. One wrong does not justify another. I agree with all the misery that happens to people, Muslims and other around the globe and I understand the psychology that is going on.

    Yet we have to speak and speak faithfully. Abu Ghraib does not justify that Vilks is being attacked. Vilks is not responsible for Abu Ghraib. Both situations are a problem and both need to be addressed.

    But to the same extend we are quick to judge some dorky cartoons as misguided. But what about the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish flag that burned again yesterday. What did they do again to deserve this? Except that their embassies already burned earlier, and someone couldn’t understand the difference between the Norwegian and Swedish flag?

    Where is our moral bearing when we do not properly present cause and effect, properly attribute responsibility and describe the full context?

    No my view is that all of it is wrong and we have to end all of it. We do not make the world more just by trying to appease an oppressive regime in Pakistan that is going after free speech advocates there. We are not going to make the world better by actually agreeing that free speech and hate speech are the same when they are not.

    But I give you this. I do not know the future. I don’t think we know what results certain actions will have. One can always speculate or assume that history evolves much more predictably than it does.

    Will more embassies burn? I don’t know. Will this hurt or help free speech advocates in the middle east? I don’t know. Will tolerance and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims increase or decrease? I don’t know.

    I try to do my part. Speak up against false perceptions and quick and false judgments. That is all I can do. But I will not pretend that we can have a pluralistic world by giving up our perspective out of fear of giving a false impression. That is why we can speak, to clarify and reinterate. And as long as people actually listen (and often they don’t) perhaps there is a chance to get to better understanding.

    Yes we do have bigger problems than dorky cartoons and we should work on those. But as said, my creed is that all problems should be addressed and not just some.

  25. ‘Sex and the City 2’ labeled ‘anti-Muslim’…

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  26. […] who previously submitted guest pieces considering Park51 and the state of American dialogue and reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” But today’s piece is a triumph; searing, relevant, and deeply needed. There’s really […]

  27. […] queer agnostic interested in interfaith work, about Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Without further […]

  28. […] Today’s guest post is a submission from Nico Lang, a regular NPS contributor. An intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University, Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. His previous writing for NPS includes ”Talking the ‘Hereafter’ With Atheists and Believer,” as well as posts on his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith work, about Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” […]

  29. […] January 17, 2011 Today’s guest post is a submission from Nico Lang, a regular NPS contributor. An intern at the Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University, Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. His previous writing for NPS includes”Through Common Struggle, Hope,” ”Talking the ‘Hereafter’ With Atheists and Believer,” as well as posts on his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith work, about Park51 and the state of American dialogue and on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” […]

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