Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Modest Reply

Below is the response I received this morning from the V.P. of the MSA:

"Dear Chris,

First of all, I'm really amazed by the coincidental dates of these events which are either during last week of class or a week after finals week. I know this specific date isn’t something you “made up” but rather a pre-scheduled date but the point that I’m trying to make is that picking such awful dates to deliver a message reflects a “possible” ill intention of the creator (original creator of the event and not you “Chris”).

That being said, I would like to let you know that at the moment, most student are off campus and thus the MSA would not be able to show up for this event. If you are really concerned about your freedom of speech then holding up a panel and a discussion meeting sometime during the fall or spring semesters would be the way to go. After such discussion, both groups (MSA and AHA) can proceed with their agendas easily without having a problem. However, you have already declined such a request two times, when I asked for it on the email 12 hours before the last Draw Mohammed event and when Rashid asked for it right before the chalking. Also, I have seen a couple of these blogs, one of which you quoted “parts” of my reply email and then received hate emails claiming that I “threatened” you and the AHA. Apparently, they were referring to me explaining my interpretations of a university’s policy to you!

Honestly, I’m beginning to question your peaceful intentions (excuse my honesty) because of your past actions. BUT, if you would like to prove to the MSA otherwise, then the MSA is willing to take that extra step to create harmony between the groups.

As far as commenting on the “one” stick figure, I personally believe that anything around the lines of “We have the right to depict the greatness of Prophet Mohammed” or “We have the right to depict the great character of Mohammed” would work. Most importantly is that you acknowledge the greatness of whom your depicting and stating that you’re depicting their character and not some false hate images.

That’s all I have got to say. You can go ahead and carry on your event and I’m glad you emailed us a couple of days in advance this time.

Ahmed Fikri"

And here is my response:

"Dear Ahmed,

Thanks for your reply!

To address the timing issue, I agree with you that it’s unfortunate that these events took place at such an inconvenient time during the semester. I doubt that the creator of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” had any ill intentions in choosing the date – given that she has subsequently distanced herself from the idea and indicated that she never intended it to be taken seriously. I am of course aware that most students are gone at this point; many AHA members are also off campus by now. Nevertheless, I was hoping to have an informal meeting today with any MSA/AHA students who are still around.

I am a little confused about your comments about blogs which have covered these events. When you say that “one of which you quoted “parts” of my reply email” are you suggesting that I unfairly edited your email to me? If so, this is simply untrue. Your response in its entirety is posted on the AHA blog here. (If you’re referring to another blog, I have no control over their content)

By “and then received hate emails claiming that I “threatened” you and the AHA” do you mean that you have personally received hate mail? If so, let me apologize on behalf of whoever took such misguided and unacceptable actions. No matter how much we disagree, I would never suggest that anyone is justified in harassing you. However, it is true that I referred to your actions (i.e. contacting the Dean) as “intimidation.” Whether you intended your email to be a threat or not, at least one AHA member chose not to participate in the event out of the fear that doing so would result in disciplinary actions from the University. For the record, I later referred to the MSA’s modifications to our drawings as “creative,” “non-confrontational” and “cunning.” Greg Epstein blogged about this very issue on CNN today.

Finally, I am thrilled at your suggestion of holding a panel discussion next semester. I sincerely look forward to working with the MSA on putting such an event together in the Fall. Let me clarify that the reason we declined your previous offers was because the prerequisite to such a discussion was that we cancel our chalking event. (“I politely suggest that you cancel this event and prefer instead that we meet and discuss the issue respectfully”) A discussion, while less offensive and arguably more productive, would have failed to adequately demonstrate our commitment to free expression. I would also like to add that at the event itself, I made it very clear that AHA would be interested in having a discussion/panel/meeting with the MSA in the future. I intended to follow through with this, and prove to you that AHA is committed to cultivating positive relationships with all religious groups on campus.

There is no need to apologize for your honesty. The ability to express oneself, even in offensive ways, is the cornerstone of a free society. :)"

I really do hope that a panel discussion will happen next Fall.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Modest Proposal

The following letter was sent to the President and Vice President of the MSA:

Dear Ahmed and Rashid,

This Thursday, May 20th, is Everybody Draw Muhammad Day – a fictional event originally thought up by a Seattle cartoonist which has “gone viral” and become a very real movement. In the aftermath of the chalking efforts that took place at UIUC, our own campus, and Northwestern; dozens of blogs have picked up the story. Prominent commentators include critics such as Eboo Patel from the Washington Post on the one hand, and vocal proponents like "The Friendly Atheist" Hemant Mehta on the other. Additionally, the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) has issued a press release, and many SSA affiliate groups are poised to participate in chalking Muhammad on their campuses this Thursday.

We feel that repeating our previous event will not serve to illustrate any points which have not already been raised. I have been struggling to develop compromises which will allow AHA to accomplish its goals while minimizing any disrespect shown towards the Muslim community on campus. Here is what I would like to propose: On Thursday at 7pm, both of our groups could meet at the steps of Memorial Union. As an acknowledgment of the distress depictions of Muhammad can cause, AHA will agree to only draw a single non-inflammatory stick figure. We understand that any depiction of Muhammad will be offensive, but you may recall that our stick figures were deliberately drawn without any obscene embellishments which would needlessly defame Muhammad or display him in an unfavorable light. AHA will also include a very descriptive explanation about the purpose of the chalking event, in order to provide context and ensure that passers-by do not misinterpret our actions as a sign of xenophobia, hatred, or intolerance. (The MSA could certainly chalk its own message explaining your disapproval.) Then, as a demonstration of your commitment to protecting the freedom of expression, the MSA would agree not to tamper with or our chalking in any way. Of course, it is well within your legal right to modify and even to erase our figures - but understand that we feel compelled to draw Muhammad only because our freedom to do so is under threat. Finally and most importantly - both groups would then proceed to an agreed-upon location and have a peaceful, respectful, and hopefully productive discussion about the many complex issues at stake.

I welcome to your thoughts or suggestions, and I look forward to advancing the dialogue between our groups in a more constructive direction.


Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics (AHA) President

I don't think my request was unreasonable... do you?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why I drew pictures of Mohammed.

A) It is my stance that the principle that one should stand in solidarity with people being threatened trumps the principle that one should not offend people.

B) I stand for freedom of speech. I want to demonstrate that I should be allowed legally to express ideas without government preventing me — as is my First Amendment right.

C) I want to express the idea that threatening people with violence is unacceptable in a liberal democratic society.

D) Memes that impede human flourishing should be criticized.

MSA and other organizations walk a fine line. They want to condemn violent acts carried out in the name of Islam but do not want people criticizing their faith or insulting their sensibilities. However, their behavior demonstrates that they think that the latter two outweigh the former and I find this morally repugnant.

So many writers on this subject conflate desires for government change and desires for zeitgeist change. I want both! I want to legally be able to express ideas but I also want to stand in solidarity, condemn threats and criticize ideas that stand in the way of human well-being. Those three have nothing to do with government. Obviously offensive ideas should not be approved of by our society at large but from this it does not follow that they should be censored by the government.

Of course sacred cows should not be slain for the sake of slaying them. However, as I stated before, “The principle that one should stand in solidarity with people being threatened trumps the principle that one should not offend people.”

Now I must deal with the platitude that we are racists or bigots.


Criticizing Islam is not racism. Islam is a set of ideas, not a semi-geographically isolated population with certain correlated clusters of alleles. Criticizing Islam would be criticizing a set of ideas — criticizing a set of ideas by definition cannot be racism. No matter how censorious the criticisms of Islam become, they can never be racism.

I think a justifiable conception of racism is, “Racism is the unethical behavior of, all things being equal, not treating individuals as individuals but as the vessels of perceived average traits of an ethnic population they belong to.” Note the difference between treating someone as the perceived traits of a group they cannot control being a part of and treating someone based on the perceived traits of a group they can control being a part of.

Islam’s tenets should be rationally criticized both internally and externally. Criticism and self-criticism are indicators of both a healthy person and community.


Should one be tolerant of all groups? What about the group of people that abjures all moral responsibility? I disagree with some tenets of Islam. So why shouldn’t I criticize it? If I disagreed with Anarcho-Syndicalism, I would criticize it publicly and loudly. If I feel the same about Islam, why not do the same? Repeat this five times, “Islam is a set of ideas.” Here I helped you. Just read it.

Islam is a set of ideas.

Islam is a set of ideas.

Islam is a set of ideas.

Islam is a set of ideas.

Islam is a set of ideas.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

AHA Condems Widespread Attempts to Censor Muhammad Chalkings

Last night, we chalked figures of Muhammad across campus from roughly 7-10pm. By noon the next day, the stick figures remained but many of the "Muhammad" labels showed signs of deliberate censorship.

The pictures speak for themselves.

This raises some interesting questions.
Given our mutual love of free speech, would the MSA stand with us against these acts of censorship? I also can't help but wonder, did the people who did this even feel the slightest sense of irony, as the word Muhammad was stamped out beneath their feet?

Keep in mind that this is just a few of the best examples, of which there are many more. Also note that I'm not blaming the MSA (or anyone else) for this, as I didn't see it happen and have no way of knowing who did it - pending further evidence. For all I know, it could have been a single mischievous atheist looking to incite more trouble.

After my last blog post, I'd say the internet hivemind was divided about 50/50 in their opinion about the MSA's response to our event. Some argued that it bordered on the realm of censorship, because AHA's right to free expression was at least somewhat interfered with. I stand by my original statement that is was a cunning response to a rather difficult situation, and it still allowed us to get our point across. Hey, one blog commenter observed, at least they didn't rub out the chalk or pour water on the figures.

Well, somebody did, and now I'm offended.

A common sentiment I've heard the past few days went a little something like this: "I'm totally in favor of free speech and all, but what you're doing is needlessly offensive. Just because you can draw Muhammad doesn't mean that you should."
And my response was simple - we shall see if I can.

As it turns out, no, you cannot draw depictions of Muhammad in Madison. At least, not without having them immediately changed to pictures of Muhammad Ali, and not without having them censored the next day. Let's imagine an alternate universe. Let's say the drawings were never tampered with, but instead were met with nothing more than shrugged shoulders and public admonishment for our childish behavior. In this scenario the egg would be on our faces. Instead, suffice it to say that our point has been proven. The right to criticize religion and perform blasphemous acts needs to be defended more than ever.

As Ed Clint of AFF put it, when similar images were censored at UIUC:
"Any question about the silencing of criticism is now over. This is no longer just about Viacom/Comedy Central but about what is permissible on our own university campuses."

Do we truly cherish freedom of speech? Or do we only pay it lip service, and surrender it willingly upon the slightest cries of offense?

Muhammad will be back.


The deed is done... kinda.

Immediately upon arriving at our agreed upon meeting spot, we were somewhat surprised to see a large gathering of MSA students - also armed with chalk. After a brief discussion, and another explanation of the purpose of the event, the MSA informed us that they would not try to prevent us from drawing anything or attempt to censor our work, rather, they would merely be expressing their own freedom of expression by "adding to" our drawings.

Thus, Muhammad (the Prophet) became Muhammad Ali (the Boxer)!

You've got to hand it to them, it was a creative and non-confrontational way to minimize the intolerable offense of seeing stick figures labeled Muhammad. It was a celebration of free speech for everyone! AHA students were outnumbered at least 4:1, so it was rather easy for the MSA to follow us around and make modifications to nearly all of our 50-100 drawings.

Curiously, many of the drawings featured the quotation "Do not get angry" - which I can only assume is a reference to the hadith in which Muhammad advises a man to, well, not get angry. Doesn't attributing a quote from the prophet Muhammad detract from the goal of transforming the stick figures so they are no longer representations of him? I think "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" would make more sense here.
(Incidentally, I do want to sincerely express my gratitude that members of both AHA and the MSA were able to remain calm and cordial throughout the entire chalking event)

So many Muhammad (Ali)'s was getting tiresome, so we introduced variations.

Some drawings evaded detection, including the pièce de résistance... An approximately 38 foot long version, which I'd like to think is among the biggest stick figures ever drawn, Muhammad or otherwise.

And then there was this one, NOT drawn by the MSA, but rather by an agnostic who was vehemently opposed to the event and categorically rejected all of our reasons for doing it.

The point he was trying to make was that drawings of Muhammad are deeply insulting to Muslims on a very personal level - on par with the deluge of offense I surely felt when seeing this message. He argued that I, like the MSA, can thus reasonably respond to these transgressions by erasing or otherwise censoring things which needlessly cause offense.

And that's where he is dead wrong.
Actually, I'm not insulted by speculations about what kind of animals my mother has intimate relations with. Really, I'm not. In fact, I'm not even insulted that the MSA chose to change our drawings. You won't see me crying foul to the Dean's office about this. And even if I was insulted by these or other things... too bad. Offense can go both ways, that's the beauty of the freedom of expression. If people learn anything from this event (other than that, man, a lot of people suddenly seem to like Muhammad Ali) I hope it's this:

We must all eventually come to the agreement that no religion, person, idea, or sacred cow should be granted immunity from criticism. In a free society, even opinions which the majority may find reprehensible have the right to be heard. Among these is the right to criticize religion and to perform actions considered “blasphemous.” When that right is under threat, as is clearly is today, we have a moral obligation to exercise it to ensure that it is not lost. We cannot tolerate limitations to our freedom of expression, whether they come from violence, intimidation, or self-censorship out of political correctness.

Finally, someone (presumably from the MSA, although I did not see it happen) chalked the following message from the Qur'an at the steps of the Union:
"To you your beliefs, and to me mine" (109:6)
Exactly. So stop demanding that we respect your beliefs about depicting Muhammad, as they do not apply to the rest of us.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Meeting With the Associate Dean of Students

At 3pm this afternoon, I met with Kevin Helmkamp: the Associate Dean of Students.

He seemed legitimately interested in hearing the AHA perspective, and the reasons why we we felt that the event was necessary. He agreed that it "was a good topic to grapple with," but brought up many of the same arguments we have already heard from others who oppose the event.

1) This is not the best way to start a dialogue.
2) It targets innocent Muslims instead of radical Islam.
3) Just because you can offend others doesn't mean you should.

I will concede the first point. With regards to #2, I would argue that both radical and moderate Muslims need to acknowledge that others have the fundamental right to criticize Islam - and even to draw cartoons of Muhammad if they so choose. As for #3, we shall see if I truly can...

When I asked about his opinion about the legality of our event, he stopped short of making a definitive statement about whether or not AHA will be found to be in violation of any code of conduct - as the issues involved are complex and a delicate balance between defending free speech and preventing "hate" speech. He assured me that the university's lawyers were working on it.

One particularly interesting thing he had to say was this:
"Our office tends to be the office where aggrieved groups want to come and expect us to spread our little dean dust and make it all right. "

If the MSA actually does support my freedom of expression, there is no need to resort to dean dust.

A response from the Muslim Student Association

Within hours of sending my letter to the MSA, I received this sternly worded response:

"Dear Chris Calvey,

I am the Vice President of the MSA and I will cut straight to the chase. Your apology is not accepted since your act is actually offensive. 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.

You said it yourself, it was an extremist group that announced the threat (assuming such threats were intentionally issued) and we as Muslims disapprove their act. Moreover, your method of protest and announced cause of protest do NOT match. 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.

I would like to inform you that, as far as we understand, the event you are planning is illegal by the constitution of the University of Wisconsin (88-12 RACIST AND OTHER DISCRIMINATORY CONDUCT POLICY). Deviating from this law will offend not only the UW Muslim Students Association but the entire Muslim community on this campus and other organization of similar culture and faith. The Dean of Students shall be contacted immediately.

I politely suggest that you cancel this event and prefer instead that we meet and discuss the issue respectfully before resorting to what we feel to be rather drastic measures. No offense, but giving less than 24 hours notice seems to betray ill intentions.

I respect the fact you let us know about your plans beforehand but I also want to reiterate that we do not approve or agree with your highly offensive acts. I assure you that we believe in freedom of expression just as much as you purport to do.


Ahmed Fikri – MSA Vice President "

Needless to say, I was disappointed by their response. I will admit, it is difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of a Muslim student on campus, and to truly understand how they will feel when seeing these images. It is distressing, to say the least, and part of me wants to cancel the event to avoid hurting my peer's feelings. However, it is much more distressing to me that the MSA has resorted to exactly the same tactics they are condemning: using fear and intimidation to suppress criticism of their religion. Regrettably, it's working - at least one AHA member has withdrawn his support from this event out of concern for his academic carrier. The MSA can not seriously pretend to support freedom of expression while threatening legal action action against us in the same breath.

The event will go on.

A letter to the Muslim Student Association

Given the obvious opportunities for this event to be misconstrued as an attack against Muslims on campus, the following letter was sent to the Muslim Student Association in an attempt to explain the reasoning behind the event:

"My name is Chris Calvey and I am the president of the Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics (AHA) @ UW Madison. I am writing to you in regards to an event we are planning called "Chalking for Freedom of Expression” on the evening of May 3rd.

As you may be aware, recent episodes of the satirical cartoon South Park which contained implied depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have been heavily self-censored by Comedy Central (and/or by its parent corporation, Viacom). The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, also received thinly veiled death threats from the American extremist group, Revolution Islam. In response, as an act of solidarity, AHA plans to chalk sidewalks around campus, labeling stick figures as "Muhammad."

We are aware that depicting images of Muhammad is a controversial issue that is highly offensive to many Muslims around the world. We acknowledge that you may view this as an unproductive, misguided, or hurtful event. We are very sensitive to these facts, and want to ensure that this event is done in a way that does not lead to Muslims feeling uncomfortable on campus. That is why I want to explain our position and our intentions as clearly as possible before the event takes place.

These drawings are not intended to mock, intimidate, or harass anyone – rather, we aim to make the following statements:
1) We have the right to criticize religion and to perform actions considered blasphemous, even if many individuals find this offensive.
2) A free society cannot tolerate violence or threats of violence which seek to limit our freedom of expression.

Further, we fully understand that Revolution Islam is a radical, fringe organization that does not represent mainstream Islam in any way. It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, in the U.S. and across the world, do not view their tactics as acceptable.

Finally, one of the most important goals of AHA is to engage in constructive interfaith dialogue with other religious groups. Unfortunately the semester is almost over, but I sincerely hope we will be able to work together in the future to foster mutual understanding and respect between our two groups. Most of all, I hope that the members of the MSA understand that our actions are not targeted towards them personally, and that we are merely attempting to counter the suppression of free expression. I leave it up to you to distribute this message via any appropriate avenues at your discretion.

Chris Calvey
Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics"

AHA to Stand for Freedom of Expression

After airing an episode of South Park which suggested that the prophet Muhammad was hidden beneath a bear costume, the creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone received thinly veiled death threats from the American extremist group, Revolution Islam. In response, Comedy Central (and/or its parent corporation, Viacom) heavily censored the following episode, including bleeping out any mention of the name "Muhammad," among other things. Previous episodes depicting uncensored images of Muhammad are no longer available online.

We believe that everyone has the right to express themselves freely without threats of violence, and that no one has the right not to be offended. We can not, in good conscience, do nothing about this situation.

In response, AHA is going to chalk around campus, labeling stick figures as "Muhammad." We will meet on Monday, May 3rd in front of Memorial Union at 7pm.

We will NOT be making purposefully offensive or insulting drawings - only very basic and plain stick figures. We do not aim to mock Islamic beliefs, create a negative environment, or deliberately upset Muslim students on this campus.