Thursday, May 20, 2010

Drawing Mohammed

Today, in some circles of the western blogosphere and in certain corners of our social networks, is "Everyone Draw Mohammed Day." The idea behind this event was to... it was to... um... ahhh... hmmm. I think the idea was that it has something to do with free speech. If we're a free people, then we can say or do whatever we like. If a particular pattern of speech is forbidden, then that infringes on our basic human rights to say and do whatever we wish. So if South Park wants to offend everyone and anyone, they're entitled to do so.
In Islam, producing images of Mohammed is forbidden. This little prohibition appears to have more to do with avoiding idolatry than anything else. You know, in the same way that Judaism forbids speaking or writing the name of G-d, or certain Calvinists forbade stained glass windows.
This injunction has been conflated and expanded by Islamic fundamentalists into something other than one of the house rules for participating in that particular faith. If anyone makes an image of Mohammed, it is an offense against Islam. This helps folks who are suffering from endemic poverty and oppression focus on something other than the thing that is oppressing them, and redirects their anger towards a convenient Other. They pour onto the streets, and shout and yell angry slogans. They issue death threats, which makes them feel big and strong, even if their nation is crushingly mismanaged and brutally suppressive. It's a very useful way to shore up populist support in paleotheocracies.
That's why Pakistan yesterday blocked access to Facebook, where a page was dedicated to the production of images of Mohammed. It's why, undoubtedly, there will be threats against folks who have created those images. There will be much stomping around, and the Arab Street will once again resound with the misdirected outrage of oppression.
The images themselves range from the realistic to the intentionally peaceful to the pornographically nasty. Some producing the images are doing so out of desire to express their own liberty. Many others are doing so because they despise Islam, utterly and totally. The latter group includes folks on the American right wing, some fundamentalists, and atheists. These latter folks are gleefully taking this opportunity to stick it to a religion that they assert is essentially violent, hateful, and the enemy of the free peoples of Middle Earth.
This issue here is complicated. On the one hand, theocratic prohibitions against speech can't govern symbolic action in a democratic and free society. If you want to present an image of the crucified Jesus immersed in your own urine, it is your right to do so. If Sarah Silverman wants to pretend to sing Amazing Grace with her rectum, she can do that. If something compels you to create homoerotic paper-mache sculptures featuring Krishna, the Buddha, and Joseph Smith, then you can do that, too. It is our right, in this society, to speak in ways that are offensive, petty, and nasty. We are, after all, free.
But intentionally seeking to give offense can't be viewed a noble endeavor. Yes, Islam as a world faith is a total mess right now. It's the angry man living in the tattered home at the corner of the street, the one who shouts at the kids when they step on his browning grass. Taunting that man isn't brave. It isn't mature. It's childish, the kind of prank done by little clusters of twelve year old boys emboldened by the knowledge that they can't be hurt because they have strength in numbers and anyway, their Dad would, like, so call the cops.
Quite frankly, that's all this event is. That's not to say Muslims should get a pass when they freak out over nothing and threaten lives. No religion or movement should be permitted to behave that way. Nor can the standards and ethics of a particular community be allowed to define the behavior of all others. But though taunting others is our right, in exercising that right we show ourselves to be ethically stunted, small-hearted, and ignoble.