WW(I)JD: Crossing the Indiana Jones Bridge, Together

June 1, 2010

Today’s guest post comes from Joseph R. Varisco, a member of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC). It is a response to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day and an explanation of why SHAC is organizing a different kind of event for tomorrow (details here.)

bridgeDialogue is one of the simplest, most complicated processes for people. Approaching that person you’ve had your eye on all night to ask for a date, telling your parents news you know is going to make them go red in the face, entering into a new school or job for the first time and running a script through your head, editing and reediting what you want to say to make a great first impression — dialogue is both unavoidable and messy.

And then there are the greater dialogues of our times: Can I honestly and openly speak of my sexual orientation? Can I express my position on the state of the wars we are currently engaged in? Can I represent my religious or secular beliefs and remain respected among my friends, peers, co-workers and community? 

We live in a time where dialogue is happening instantaneously. We can update our facebook status and blog our hearts out in the ambiguous and safe realm of the internet every millisecond. In doing so my greater hope is that this dialogue will find a way to transcend the boundaries of keyboards and box screens and find a more active place at our kitchen tables, in our classrooms, on the streets and in the institutions that represent a civilized society.

A few weeks ago an event took place known now as Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), which took the principle of transcending our electronic lives and actively spoke out. However, there was perhaps one important lesson missed in the transition. Call it respect, responsibility, compassion or consideration; call it, if you wish, human decency, political correctness or engaging in polite society. I call it “hope.”

Among my peers I have witnessed an emerging conflict of spiritual identity. While many follow in the footsteps of their predecessors — family, heritage or otherwise — there are just as many spinning free out there in the world simply attempting to connect to one another. Still others are taking a history of deeply embedded religious and spiritual conversation and attempting to bring it to the 21st century.

EDMD brought a conversation to the 21st century in its decision to make a political statement against terrorism when the writers of South Park received death threats for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a recent episode. The decision of those participating in EDMD held a meaningful intention yet, perhaps through a lack of leadership or an unwillingness to engage in dialogue, missed the greater opportunity.

The choice to take a day and create numerous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was intended to send a message of commitment to free speech but instead took what was already an unsteady bridge of difference in culture and identity and removed a few more rungs. The bridge I am envisioning is one of those Indiana Jones deep-in-the-jungle bridges — you know, that one where we know at least one person on the journey is going to fall through an unreliable old wood step and maybe, just maybe, someone will not be making the journey back. 

Indiana Jones always finds a way to make it to the other side and back. He is not looking at what is right in front of him but what is all around him, and he has the trust of those he travels with. Sure, that is a rather dramatic approach to our discourse, but we are talking swashbucklers here. And when it comes down to it, a fight for free speech against Islamic terrorists is quite the human drama (or so Fox’s 24 would suggest). 

Dialogue. Let’s create an alternative plot to the already predictable pitfalls that beset us. Let’s sit down with those of different belief systems — secularists, Muslims, etc. — and create a better script.

On Wednesday, June 2nd at 6PM the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago and various members of Chicago’s Muslim community are coming together to do just that. We each have a shared value and commitment to free speech and recognize its plight within our own communities and internationally. Working together with one another we wish to bring back hope; hope that we can transcend our personal perspectives and the sanctuary of our home offices and laptops to create a dialogue that carries us all toward a better world. 

The point here is that maybe — just maybe — if we look at all of those around us and take into consideration a growing and changing culture already a part of the American palette we too, like Indiana Jones and company, can make it across the bridge together and back. We may have to leave the so-called treasure we find on the other side behind, but if we cannot all share in it, is it even worth having?

variscoJoseph R. Varisco is a Political Science major with a Public Policy Concentration from National-Louis University living in Chicago, IL. He is currently networking with various pro-gay rights campaigns and LGBTQ organizations across the city in an effort to highlight some of the more pressing issues facing the LGBTQ community. Building momentum to increase awareness of transgendered and race/religious issues while cultivating progressive dialogue on policy and leadership programs for queer youth has become the center of his current study and work. Joseph is also the Outreach Coordinator for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago and spends a solid majority of his free time in the kitchen.


16 Responses to “WW(I)JD: Crossing the Indiana Jones Bridge, Together”

  1. […] by Chris Stedman on June 1, 2010 Don’t miss SHAC member Joseph R. Varisco’s guest blog on NonProphet Status, which talks about SHAC’s big event […]

  2. I think this is fantastic, and kudos to everybody involved for creating a place to discuss all of this in meaningful ways. I look forward to hearing how it went.

    I do have one quibble.

    You say, “The choice to take a day and create numerous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was intended to send a message of commitment to free speech but instead took what was already an unsteady bridge of difference in culture and identity and removed a few more rungs,” but don’t (in my opinion) fully acknowledge the religious group targeting artists with death threats as having had a hand in removing (again, in my opinion) far many more rungs from that bridge than the folks who participated in EDMD, it undermines the idea that concerned religious and non-religious folks can come together to do some good. Yes, the EDMD folks have missed out on building bridges with religious folks who believe in free speech, but they’re not making death threats; I just wish the folks who made the death threats were called out as much as, or more than, the EDMD folks are, especially by those trying to build (rather than tear down) bridges.

  3. …and here’s hoping all y’all fill us in, in depth, on how the meetup went!

  4. Hitch said

    Unfortunately DMD is just widely misunderstood. Or how some understand bridge-building is dangerous. One or the other.

    DMD is about the ability to discuss each others world views and at the same time the rejection that one group, or one religion can mandate what we all have to do and it also is about a contemporary culture were violence and fear promotes this one outcome, and a rejection of this culture.

    I wish this was a topic we could just be silent about, but I do not think we can unless we decide that giving up criticism of each other is the right solution, which I would consider dangerous.

    Tolerance and coexistence that has substance and prolonged value must be resilient with respect to criticism. If it is not, it simply isn’t a solid bridge that was built. We can build many bridges without aim, but we have to watch out if inadvertently the bridge ends up supporting things that actually do not want. If those bridges then crumble, it is not a bad thing. In fact it is a sign that we have to reconsider and build a better, stronger bridge.

    I have say that I had more discussion of depth due to DMD, because it articulated what all sides want. More understanding has come out, at least by people who show signs of wanting to understand, of wanting to reach out, of wanting to build bridges.

    If we do not reflect on why bridges crumble or find easy blame (“DMD was bad”), we are doomed to try to build the same dysfunctional bridges over and over again.

    Incidentally Indiana Jones would fight, when there was a cause worth fighting for. I think IJ would have drawn Muhammad and not been shy to defend the reasons why others did it too.

    Incidentally Muhammad very likely would have responded with humor and sympathy to DMD, perhaps he would have participated? But we ask much more about the value of DMD, than WWMHD. One side is already judged as the bad one in this, and so the only reaction to have is seek alternative ways.

    If the alternative way retains freedom of expression and art, freedom of mutual criticism without fear of reprisal, true interfaith that doesn’t brand all atheism as aggressive and the ability to laugh and humor rather than tip-toe and be offended, then I am all for it! There may be many ways to achieve the right things, but we will not get there by stopping to do the right thing.

  5. @Hitch:

    Most of what you say relies on the (imho) false assumption that we all have only two options in responding to the death threats against artists: stay silent or draw Mohamed. While I think actually drawing Mohamed through participating in DMD does send the strongest message about free speech and religious freedom directly toward the jerks who believe in death threats, it seem disingenuous to suggest that it’s the *only* strong response, and that not doing it equals being silent. What interfaith folks are asking for is a strong response against the death threats that doesn’t involve also violating a basic tenet of Islam.

  6. Hitch said

    I do not assume this at all. What I do say is this: Drawing Muhammad for non-believers should be allowable and not trigger death threats or calls for blasphemy laws. In fact any person, Muslim or not who make that choice should be protected against retributions.

    If you want to protect that very right you literally have no other option than to draw it.

    In fact in my mind this should not even be a topic of debate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had historic depictions of Muhammad up until January, until it was pulled out of fear. All this was OK until suddenly the most restrictive version of Islam is sold to all of us as a sensible prescription to be honored by everybody.

    Within just a few years we have forgotten that Sunni and Shi’a actually disagree on this very prescription. We have forgotten that books written by Muslims have depictions of Muhammad in it, like for example a recent book by Omid Safi.

    We are asked to ignore all that and agree that drawing muhammad is a violation of a basic tenet of Islam, when that is not a correct characterization. It’s like saying that hasidic prescription of judaism are what all faithful jews uphold and in fact what is sensible to demand that non-believers should also uphold in the public sphere. And in this case Wahabism is not Islam.

    But irregardless. This should be OK speech:

    It’s exactly what interfaith is. Pluralism, tolerance, open expression and support of each others rights (and not just the rights of one side). And most importantly transcending stereotypes.

    The moment you cease drawing Muhammad or defend his historic depictions to be shown you have already given up that right. No matter how much you discuss that it ought to be allowable.

    If you no longer do what is allowable in fear of offending sensibilities you have lost that possibility for practical purposes.

    But yes, I am saying that we should be allowed to violate basic tenets of Islam, when we are not muslims. I break basic tenets of virtually every faith all the time. I do not wear head-dress, violating hasidic prescriptions. I work on Sunday violating christian prescriptions.

    But I’m not told how horrifyingly insensitive I am when I don’t do any of those things.

    A pluralistic society allows difference in behavior, exactly when it violates a prescription of alternative world views. Non-muslim and muslim women who so choose should be OK to not wear the niqab for example, and in fact, if they choose should be fine to go to nudist beaches. At the same end we should not demand that the niqab is banned either, for precisely the symmetric reasons.

    I have no choice but draw Muhammad as long as I’m told I should not. If I would not do so I would become a multi-faith-follower, not someone who does interfaith. Interfaith is mutual toleration, not mutual imposition.

    Finally interfaith cannot abandon criticism of religions, if we see damage being done by what is promoted in the name of religion. Homophobia is a strong example here. However just articulating that homosexuality might be OK is horribly offensive to some people. Should we stop saying it because it hurt sensibilities? Absolutely not. People are in harms way.

    Same for drawing Muhammad. We act as if noone is in harms way right now for having done nothing wrong but dared to criticize religions or depict religious figures. Who here can correctly articulate what Lars Vilks got head-butted for, for example?

    Yet we keep scolding people who stand up and say that there is a line that we all have to hold up for each other.

  7. “If you want to protect that very right you literally have no other option than to draw it.”

    I disagree. I believe that people have the right to free speech regarding white supremacy, but I don’t have to write a tract on white supremacy to protect their right to do that–instead, I support the ACLU. I believe that pornographers have the right to produce porn, but I don’t have to produce porn to protect that right. I think artists should have the right to draw Muhammad all day long without getting death threats–I don’t think that they get to do that without acknowledging the harm it can do to interfaith work–you seem (to me), by continually saying that we have no choice but to draw Mohammad, that such harm is to not be given a second thought. I disagree.

    I understand that drawing Muhammad for DMD is a great way to send a strong message to the violent folks who hand out death threats against artists. I disagree that the *only* way to protect that right is to draw Mohammad. And, again, you’re creating a false dichotomy when you say “Finally interfaith cannot abandon criticism of religions, if we see damage being done by what is promoted in the name of religion.” We can criticize the people who put up death threats to artists, and in that sense criticize that version of that religion, without limiting ourselves to the one way of criticizing that will ostracize many interfaith folks.

  8. Hitch said

    Frankly I’m tired of those KKK comparisons. Drawing Muhammad is not universally offensive and demeaning. This is not “draw a muslim as inferior day” and I resent that this false comparison is keep being promoted.

    This whole “ostracizing” thing is false. Tell me what is offensive or ostracizing about the video I linked?

  9. “Frankly I’m tired of those KKK comparisons. Drawing Muhammad is not universally offensive and demeaning. This is not “draw a muslim as inferior day” and I resent that this false comparison is keep being promoted.”

    My white supremacist and pornography analogies are only meant to point out that it is just not the case that you have to enact a particular form of free speech in order to support it, which is your claim when you say, “If you want to protect that very right you literally have no other option than to draw it.” Whether or not you enjoy the comparison isn’t relevant to me. You can protect the rights of people to draw anything they want (without receiving death threats) in other ways than simply drawing Mohammad.

    I haven’t watched the video you link to (I can comment while at work, but not watch videos!), but I may give it a whirl when I get home. Thing is, I would *love* it if every Muslim group said, “Go ahead, draw Mohammad in protest of that one group of violent jerks who are putting up death threats.” That would be some great pluralism. But I don’t see how I can expect that, really–and expecting it is, to my mind, not taking their beliefs seriously enough.

  10. Hitch said

    I think we are getting closer. We can take each others world view seriously. But it swings both ways. A lot of pushback against DMD was about not taking secular perspectives seriously – in fact regularly misconstruing it – while only amplifying the seriousness of the other world view in question.

    See I don’t tell anybody that they have to draw muhammad. If you are not compelled, go ahead and do whatever. I, however, am compelled. And I will keep speak up against ways this is misconstrued.

    As for a Muslim who spoke up in support of DMD, incidentally:

  11. […] Delhi Chronicle). For additional thoughts on our event, check out member Joseph R. Varisco’s reflection. Shi […]

  12. Joseph R Varisco said

    First of all I am very excited that there is an engaged conversation going on regarding this topic. During our meetup with members of the Muslim community we were given exceptional insights into this specific issue. I support free speech and I support peoples right to draw whatever they so choose.

    I support the ability to speak freely, but do not always find agreement it what is said. This was a message that we seemed to find consensus during our meetup. I was informed that it is not just the Prophet Muhammad whose depiction is considered sacred in the Islamic tradition, but the full line of Abrahamic figures as well as Jesus. These are depictions that those who follow this tenet of Islamic faith commit to are exposed to on a daily basis without any negative repercussions. I found this piece of information to be useful in identifying the fact that we need to consider our speech and the way it frames our ability to engage with the Muslim community.

    Our meetup was composed of free speech activists, free and big world thinkers, community ambassadors, religious scholars, students and a multitude of other identities. These are our Muslim community and these are our secular communities. While holding fringe radical hate promoting groups accountable, lets be certain we do not lose our friends and allies. Reactionary ideas are just that, deeper thoughts, more conversation, more freedom and greater hope is our ambition.

  13. Hitch said

    Interesting and very positive. But certainly we cannot expect catholics to tear down depictions of Jesus because of Muslim prescriptions. So the real dialogue needs to be about toleration.

    I had some interesting conversations with Muslims too and the core aspect of toleration came from the notion that the Qur’an says that there is no compulsion in the religion, and that it in fact also explicitly states that idols of non-believers are OK and to be tolerated.

    But in the last 10 years the idea that there is no compulsion seems to have eroded even among some moderates. It is now OK to demand of others to be compelled by mandates of Islam.

    I wish there was a lot more dialogue not only about toleration by christians and atheists, but about tolerance in general, by all sides. DMD ultimately was about intolerance. Secular depictions even Muslim depictions have suddenly become unacceptable, and smiling stick figures have supposedly become the same as swastikas for rather unfortunate reasons (mostly for overzealous defense of one side).

    In fact not all Muslim factions agree on the strength of the prohibitions of depiction of idols because they mostly come from the Hadith which is subject to difference in interpretation by groups. Shi’a have been more open towards depiction than Sunni for example and one will find books by Muslims containing depictions of Muhammad, and until the Metropolitan Museum of Art pulled them, there were historic depiction of Muhammad available then.

    But I see little grief for this loss (and those who grief it are vilified as extreme) and I am asking why.

    But it seems that everything is moving towards a more prohibitive, less tolerant world. Things that used to be OK like historical depictions of Muhammad are no longer, and I at least, feel a sense of loss that I’m glad to say some, though few of my Muslim friends share. But I wish that there was a lot more of that, and a lot less of trying to paint harmless activism into extremism.

  14. alice said

    that’s the thing, though. it’s not just “harmless activism.” it’s an activity that only targets the core beliefs of ONE group — a group that happens to be the most marginalized, discriminated against group in america (and hugely outnumbered). i’ve talked to muslim friends and they say they don’t really care that you’re drawing muhammad, it’s that people are doing a whole campaign against a specific group that’s a frequent target for discrimination. grow up.

  15. Hitch said

    Not really. A smiling stick figure is harmless. It is amplified out of that harmless status by all this talk how harmful that is.

    Some of the reaction of the MSA in Wisconsin was actually quite positive. Drawing boxing gloves on stick figures was a way of participating and the secular students actually appreciated the way this turned into a joint expression of free speech (different yet mutual and peaceful). If it wasn’t for calling in the dean and all this could have been even more of an interfaith moment. But instead the secular students have been roundly demonized, noone reports how they tried to seek commonality throughout. No, all we hear is how awful and immature they were, when this is hardly true.

    Where is all this coming out and defending marginalized groups for atheists for example? The least trusted group in the US. That is less trusted than Muslims, LGBT or any other group for which we have an “awareness” that they are stereotyped.

    Yet it’s apparently OK to compare atheist students who draw smiling stick figures with the KKK and nazis, when they have gone out of their way to explain what their message is. If you want to attack islamophobes, there are plenty of real targets. British nationalists protest full of real islamophobia. But not every group apparently deserves differentiation between extreme/hateful/violent and sensible.

    DMD was never a campaign against Muslims, but it keeps being painted as that over and over again by critics of it. Drawing muhammad no more targets Muslims as a snorting Buddha in south part targets buddhists, or a present-day south park jesus attacks christianity.

    Growing up means taking criticism with maturity. I indeed agree that some growing up is needed, one that doesn’t treat groups like helpless victims, but as partners in this society who deserve exactly equal rights and protections as all of us. And this is a lot of rights and all the protection and person should have including the right to live and speak safely and freely.

    I’m glad to say that I have seen quite a few Muslims take the right tack at this and that is participate and discuss. Stand with freedom of speech and against the bigoted things, on all sides. Muslims standing up against the prosecution of the teacher in Sudan who didn’t prevent the school kids from naming their class mascot, a teddy bear Muhammad. Muslims encouraging everybody to participate in draw Muhammad day, in their own way. These are grown up, mature, multi-cultural responses. Just as mature Catholics not only can take criticism about pedophilia in the clergy, but join in the criticism because it is legitimate.

    We all could do very well by promoting that the Metropolitan Museum of Art reestablishes the exhibition of historic depictions of Muhammad. After all it’s the extremist that object to it not the moderates. Defending depictions of Muhammad is not automatically anti-muslim, it is in fact something that is pro-moderate. But instead of making this plain, we have to demonize.

    And the result is that we lose freedoms and cultural goods for all.

    Criticism is in fact even a Muslim principle. Ijtihad. Yet we do not talk about how reform muslims are unter threat as well, and how we can help create a safer discourse environment for everybody. A climate where are, expression and opinion is free and safe. A climate where the more difficult topics can be articulated and we don’t have to argue over childish things that should be trivial.

    Growing up means standing for principle that are good for all of us. And the ability to have freedom to discuss each others points of view, especially those that are most difficult, is a true sign of maturity.

  16. […] Kate Fridkis, Andrew Fogle, Miranda Hovemeyer, Nat DeLuca, Mary Ellen Giess, Jeff Pollet, Joseph Varisco, Corinne Tobias, Vandana Goel LaClair, Nicholas Lang, and even my own Mom! We’ve also hosted […]

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