Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why We Must Draw Muhammad

The following is an essay I wrote in defense of the Muhammad chalking campaign. It was recently published in the eMpirical, the newsletter of the Secular Student Alliance:

Let’s get it out of the way: while it is true that having a legal right to perform an offensive action is not a sufficient moral justification, AHA and the other campus groups who chalked Muhammad did so for the following reasons.

1) To stand in solidarity with those who have been threatened with death for drawing Muhammad, and to eventually diminish the risk they face by creating more “targets.”

2) To publicly demonstrate that violence and intimidation are not acceptable in a free society; and that we will not allow ourselves to be silenced by them.

3) To convey the notion that Islam, or indeed any set of ideas, should not be granted an undue immunity from criticism.

4) To protect our right to criticize religion and to perform actions considered blasphemous, even if many individuals find this offensive.

Our actions were met with outrage from Muslim Student Associations, interfaith groups, and even many members of the atheist community. Responses often derailed into condescending lectures about how people ought to treat one another on college campuses. We maintain that defending the principles summarized above outweighs the sensible precept that one should generally avoid offending others. The most intransigent critics summarily dismiss that drawing Muhammad can ever be a statement in favor of free speech, or at best argue that there are better ways to do so.

Context is everything. We did not, as many have accused, set out to offend Muslims just for the sake of offending them. We are responding to a disturbing movement in western societies towards a “chilling” of free speech, in which the South Park episode was merely the latest of a long series of events. During the Danish cartoon controversy not a single newspaper, television station, or magazine in the US was willing to display the Muhammad cartoons uncensored. (Save for one notable exception, which was shamefully pulled from every Borders and Waldenbooks stores.) This voluntary censorship was not done in order to avoid upsetting delicate American sensibilities, but rather out of fear of violent retaliation. Unfortunately, the fear is legitimate, and the media conglomerates understandably felt the responsibility to keep their employees safe. However, by kowtowing to religious extremists they set a precedent which rewarded bullying and rendered the intimidating parties more powerful. As history repeated itself this May, Lars Vilks was attacked at a public university in Sweden and his house was set on fire. The lack of support for Lars and others who depict Muhammad is outrageous. If our media, our government, and our intellectuals won’t stand up for free expression, who will?

I also feel compelled to address the frequent parallels that have been drawn between our stick figures and various forms of “hate speech.” According to Eboo, innocuous drawings such as this are equally as offensive as swastikas. The key difference which has apparently eluded those who make such comparisons is that swastikas, the “n-word,” burning crosses, and the like have a long and well-established history of being used as symbols of hatred and intolerance towards a particular group of people. Happy stick figures of Muhammad have no such significance! Eboo could have at least reserved his hyperbolic commentary for the defamatory drawings produced during EDMD, some of which undoubtedly do demonize Muslims and are therefore admittedly much less defensible. The SSA affiliates who participated in EDMD understood the risk of alienating fellow classmates; which is why we reached out to Muslim communities, published blogs, wrote Op Eds, sponsored discussions, and took every conceivable precaution to make our message unmistakably clear.

The absurdity of the swastika comparison shines light on another elephant in the room – Eboo and his secular compatriots advocate a kind of “kumbaya” religious pluralism which is incompatible with an honest discussion about religion. Interfaith dialogue should not require that all participants venerate what everyone else personally holds sacred. Rather than pretending that all religious beliefs are compatible, we need to cultivate relationships which tolerate amicable disagreements. You have the right to potentially offend others by not following (or maybe even questioning) their religious prescriptions, but concede that others have the right to offend you equally. In the marketplace of ideas, no single group gets to dictate the rules of discourse. It is ridiculous to politely ask others to confine their freedom of expression within your own predetermined limits, and then to call them bigots when they politely refuse. Minority groups absolutely have the right to feel welcome on campus, but not if they define “feeling welcome” as being contingent upon never having their beliefs challenged. No one has the right to not be offended. It is especially depressing that this needs point needs to be explained on college campuses, of all places.

We must all eventually come to the agreement that no ideas should be exempt from criticism and satire. In a free society, even opinions which the majority may find reprehensible have the right to be heard. The fundamental underlying principle of free speech is that it applies just as much for unpopular and offensive views as it does to orthodox ones. Our right to free expression is being eroded not only by religious extremists, but also by moderate groups such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has introduced so-called “blasphemy laws” to the U.N. When our ability to criticize religion is under threat, as it clearly is today, we have a moral obligation to exercise it to ensure that it is not lost. Although drawing Muhammad appears to unfairly target Muslims, rest assured that we are not indifferent to the injustices perpetrated by other religions. Wherever religious groups overstep their bounds, atheists should not shy away from opposing them, even when doing so will be offensive.


“To stand in silence when they should be protesting makes cowards out of men.”

- Abraham Lincoln