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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heartsYesterday The Friendly Atheist reported that a student group, the Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics (AHA) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is engaging in a “Draw Muhammad” project today. They are not the first; other campus groups have done the same. But this group did something a little different — they reached out to the Muslim Student Association on their campus one day in advance with this letter warning that they would be drawing images of the Prophet Muhammad in chalk on their campus in response to the protests of extremist Muslims over a recent South Park episode.

The MSA responded, saying that they were, in fact, offended. The MSA’s response was thoughtful and patient, pointing out that sending a warning does not absolve one of being disrespectful: “To slap someone in the face, despite warning the person in advance and assuring them of you good intentions, does not make slapping someone in the face ok.” Their letter did nothing more than point out that the AHA’s planned activity was misguided — “Why do you not direct your protest to the groups in question instead of engaging in acts that you yourself acknowledge will offend the vast majority of Muslims, on this campus and off” — and suggest that it was in violation of the campus’ discrimination policies. How did the AHA respond? By saying that the MSA was “using fear and intimidation to suppress criticism of their religion.” Did I miss the fear and intimidation buried in there somewhere?

The idea behind the campaign is to advocate for free speech. It seems to me, however, that the campaign is masking an attack on religious identity with a martyrical “free speech” claim. There are other ways to go about this that don’t knowingly target a specific belief of a particular identity. The Friendly Atheist blog wrote, “It’s a stick figure drawing. Chill. Out.” Instead of recognizing the ramifications of offensive images — let’s say they were chalking swastikas or, more specific to this issue, something anti-Atheist — we secularists seem far too keen to tell people to “just get over it.” Because that’s an effective approach, right?

chalkThe AHA at UW Madison has made an enemy where they could have had an ally. And over what? “Principle”? It seems like a way to stir up negative feelings, an immature approach to a complex situation. Why not instead reach out to the MSA and plan an activity that condemns the extremists who threatened the creators of South Park while still acknowledging that it is a complex issue? Oh, right — because then you couldn’t draw pictures of Muhammad in chalk and create controversy on your campus.

The American Atheists wrote on their “No God” blog on April 29th that “Muslims have been in the news lately with their ridiculous behavior… One thing we need to keep in mind is that Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive.” This isn’t just bad and oversimplified writing; it is lazy, dangerous, and divisive. Two entries before they too promoted “Everybody Draw Mohamed [sic] Day.” It seems so basic to ask: is this really the best use of our time and resources?

People who engage in such activities are drawing a line (or as Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel might say, a “faith divide“) between themselves and others, and it is not something as impermanent as one made in sand or etched with chalk. It cannot be so easily erased.

We secularists need to think long and hard about what lines we’re drawing — and who we’re boxing out in the process. We say we want “free speech;” now let’s recognize that with freedom comes responsibility and the need for respectful dialogue despite differences. In other words, as my mom might say: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Chalk may wash away but the divides we build often don’t.

Let’s talk the talk, not chalk for shock.

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