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.


  1. Lately it seems Islam, at least certain segments, has become the "religion of perpetual offense". But I agree. This "lets draw pictures and make 'em angry" deal is just silly, as silly as the offense taken. You know they are going to be angry and offended, so what? Leave it be. If enough people ignored the preposterous reactions, I think they might be more apt to get the message.

  2. I will admit to becoming a fan of this on facebook, mainly because what happened to Matt Stone and Trey Parker recently kind of upset me. They received what amounted to a death threat over a joke on their cartoon show and the people who did it were not prosecuted and basically got their way. I'm not even particularly a fan of South Park. I think I've seen 2 episodes, but this upset me. I was coming at it from a free speech side, more than a "let's piss people off" side (because the atheist "blasphemy day" makes me quite angry sometimes myself).

    As I began to see the posts show up on my facebook, I began to realize that this wasn't much different from "blasphemy day" and not something I wanted to support. Also some of the posts were quite hateful. This post confirmed that I made the right decision removing this from my facebook page

  3. I agree, this is just an opportunity to attempt to offend Muslims. I get the whole free speech aspect and I think death threats over representations of Mohammed are over the top. But this isn't going to do anything except make people participating in this look like petty jerks, not unlike the people who get pissy over representations of Mohammed.

    When I was a young atheist I used to find endless amusement in blasphemy. As a matured atheist I find this sort of thing childish and pointless. It doesn't accomplish anything other than making people mad and that never amounts to anything useful.

  4. Perhaps I'm revealing my inner child, but I'm okay with this sort of behavior from non-christians.

    Anytime we reveal the inner workings of our minds, we expose ourselves to all sorts of reactions, responses, retorts, and ridicules. So if we don't want people to make fun of us, we shouldn't reveal our irrational hang-ups.

    And consider: 'Boobquake' backfired brilliantly. So if faithful Muslims consider this ridicule a form of suffering for their faith (proof of their holiness), this whole drawing Mohammad initiative will backfire too.

  5. I can appreciate in some ways what you're saying about this. I too find many of the images offensive. The more puerile versions also seem counter-productive to me, and I am not eager to associate myself with them. I wish all the images could be -- if not witty or thought-provoking or beautiful -- then at least untainted by the baser, distasteful sentiments.

    But I also find many things about the Koran even more offensive. I find Mohammad offensive. I think the fact that so many people are brainwashed -- usually as defenseless children -- to revere a delusional, megalomaniacal, pedophilic warlord and use his "prophecies" to justify all manner of vile, misogynist, homophobic, oppressive behavior that continue to add significantly to the weight of human misery in the world... I find all that deeply offensive. It's nauseating. The right to oppose it with speech and art and entirely justified ridicule is sacred to me. It is at least as sacred to me as the ironic idolotry of Mohammad's enforced absence from art is to Muslims.

    And I also find the notion that Muslims would claim that they have the right not to be offended by, say, a film, or a novel, or a cartoon, or an academic book, and that they will enforce this so-called right with the threat of violence.... I find that intolerably offensive. I find the fact that that some of us would encourage that behavior by capitulating to those threats even more offensive. That kind of cowardice needs to be overruled and made to feel ashamed of itself. I'm not sure that I can think of a better way to do that than for free-thinkers to join together and overwhelm the enemies of free speech by flooding the public sphere with more of it.

    So, in a sense, even the most offensive cartoon here is ultimately in the service of a greater good. It is a peaceful demonstration that threats of violence will not achieve the desired effect of silencing your critics. When you respond to speech with violence it won't get you want you want. For the sake of civilization, it can't.

  6. @Browning What service to the greater good does insulting the Muslim faith and probably angering people who do react with violence? What people seem to fail to take into account is that not all Muslims threaten people with death when their faith is insulted. The actions of extremists should not be used against an entire religion. The angry extremists already think Westerners are arrogant, and this would be a fortifying example of such arrogance. So I have a hard time seeing what was accomplished besides an acute sense of "stickin' it to the man" who wasn't even watching in some countries due to blocking many sites on that day. *sarcasm* Bravo! *end sarcasm*

    Another thing that gets me is that this is all about the creators of South Park, who are pretty much in the business of offending people. It seems ridiculous that a lot of people are swooping to their rescue. Let the authorities investigate the death threats and go back to your own business. Chill out and watch South Park or something.

  7. @Vic. I find your comment deeply offensive. Please delete it immediately.

    Go on.

    I'm waiting.

    Oh, what's that? My feelings have no real relevance to your right and desire to express your opinion? Exactly the point.

    The greater good here is civilization. The point is that in a civilized society, free speech can't be hostage to anyone's "anger." That is a fact that needs to be demonstrated to those who fail to grasp it (including you apparently). Because you don't have to do anything as obnoxious as the worst of these drawings to invoke that wrath. Salman Rushdie just wrote a novel. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh made a feminist art film. Kurt Westergaard drew a political cartoon. One of them is dead and the rest live under the threat of death. That is completely intolerable.

    But it's not just about them. It's about the rest of us feeling afraid to say or do anything that might offend the wrong people. The books that don't get written, the films that don't get made. And, yes, even the satirical animated shows that get censored by their cowardly networks. That intimidated self-censorship is even more intolerable. In a moral civilization, the violent don't get to decide where the line is drawn between acceptable and unacceptable speech, between life and death, between freedom and fear. That is what the Danish cartoons were about in the first place. That is the few oppressing the many through violence. And that has to be fought. And you fight it with more free speech and solidarity. You say, "You're offended? Guess what. We don't care. If you threaten us, we will not be intimidated. You'll only get that and worse for your troubles. You can't kill all of us." Because civilization has to win this battle. Everything depends on it.

  8. Are there are nice, peaceful, innocuous Muslims who are offended in the process? Sure. So what. Grow up. Tune it out. You were supposed to learn how to do that in kindergarten, to learn that civilized grown-ups don't throw violent tantrums over drawings. And if you didn't, then you need to learn it now.

    Will they think us arrogant? Maybe. I think they are arrogant. I think it's arrogant for them to claim to know what "Allah" thinks or wants, and to try to make the rest of us live by the ill-conceived rules they've received from their so-called prophets.

    I too am offended. I find Mohammad himself offensive. I think that reverence for him is stupid and nauseating and ultimately a source of much evil in the world. Does that mean that I should be safe from ever having to hear him mentioned? Of course not.

    And if I claimed that my delicate sensibilities should be so protected, what would you say to me? Or more to the point, what would you say to the Muslims who profess beliefs that I find offensive? Would you wag your finger at them as well for not taking more care to protect my feelings?

  9. @Browning Your right to free speech comes with responsibilities, which many people (including you apparently) tend to throw by the wayside in order to say whatever they damn well please despite it doing no good or making situations worse. There are more intelligent ways to communicate problems than being offensive. But that would take a modicum of intelligence and maybe a little patience.

    It sounds like your proposed solution is to say screw other people's feelings, beliefs, or thoughts in order to brutishly posture. But damned if someone does it to you otherwise you'll be angry and outraged but you're in the right. This is repeated on both sides and nothing is accomplished. They can't kill us all but we can't kill them all. It's pointless and ignorant to continue throwing stones.

    Again, you are lumping the entire population of that faith in with the few violent ones. No, the violent shouldn't get to draw the line at what is offensive and what is not. But by intending to outrage and offend an entire faith just to seek sophomoric revenge against a few is bigoted, racist, and xenophobic no matter how you try to present it.

    There is a clear difference between offending unintentionally and offending intentionally. In simple terms, being a dick on purpose only succeeds at making you look like a dick. Your supposed point is lost in the dickery. Which, as I mentioned, does no good at all.

  10. @Vic.

    I agree that freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. But I fervently disagree that one of those responsibilities is to avoid at all costs giving offense to anyone. Neither do you apparently. You don't even seem to mind being personally offensive. You've just insinuated that I lack "modicum of intelligence" and that I am a "bigoted, racist, xenophobic dick." Will you be surprised to learn that I find that offensive? Are you going to take it all back? And if not, why not?

    I think a case might be made that being offensive merely for the sake of being offensive is morally wrong, but I have laid out a detailed argument for why I think that is not what is going on in this instance, at least in the aggregate. This is a case of being offensive in defense of the right to free speech as a pointed protest aimed specifically against violent intimidation of art and political opinion -- that is, a lesser evil in the service of a greater good.

    You haven't really addressed that argument. You may wish to make an argument that such a protest is insincere, or misguided. You've made assertions to that effect, but you haven't even tried to justify them. You haven't addressed my argument yet, nor made any coherent one of your own. All you've done is call people names, and sided with the enemies of free discourse by sympathizing with their desire to be protected from drawings -- drawings! -- drawings specifically and explicitly intended to peacefully protest intolerable, violent intimidation of artists and cultural commentators. (Which I find offensive. Again, I'm offended BY YOU. So what are you going to do about that? Apologize and retract it? Or sling more insults?)

  11. Also, I wasn't sure what you mean when you say "damned if someone does it to you," but now I see that maybe I'm confusing you. When I ask you how you plan to make up for the ways you've offended me, I am being rhetorical. I am hoisting you on your own petard. I thought I made it clear that I consider myself a civilized grown-up. I can take being offended without calling for an end to speech. In fact, I want to hear offensive speech because it helps me know what and how the opposition really thinks. As a rule, I don't say STFU! I just reply with my own arguments. That's what civilized grown-ups do.

    And no, I am not lumping anyone blah blah blah. (I'm really sick of that brainless canard, actually. Try listening to what I'm saying. You are, in fact, the one who is lumping me in with those from whom I specifically distanced myself when I entered this thread.) And I'm not a racist, or xenophobic, or any of that other baseless, OFFENSIVE name-calling. I am expressly opposing BAD IDEAS. Namely, that we have a moral obligation to refrain from offending people, that violent threats against free expression should be met with capitulation, and that that human claims to know the will of "Allah" are worthy of our respect. Ideas do not have races, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a hero to me.

  12. @Browning I'm sorry if calling out your bigoted actions offends you. If the truth offends you then you have problems my apologizing will not resolve. Regardless if you are offending enemies (News Flash: The entirely of Islam is not our enemy!) you are still a bigot. Calling someone out on their bigoted behavior is not an insult and you are wildly flailing your privilege in persisting that you are offended by that. If you are offended by that, maybe you should review your bigoted actions instead of passing the blame.

  13. @Vic.

    So I tell you (rhetorically) you've offended me and you respond with a classic non-apology, more baseless name-calling, and a ridiculous assertion that I have no right to be offended in the first place.

    V: You're a dick.
    B: [winking] But that's offensive to me.
    V: Well, you have no right to be offended.
    B: Why not?
    V: Because you really are a dick! I'm sorry if that offends you. [pause] But not really.

    It's funny that when I asked you if your were going respond to my being offending with an apology or more insults, you said, "I'll have a little of each." And why not really? Cover all the bases, I say! Leave no stone unturned!

    I think you've missed my point by a country mile, but I don't think I can make it any plainer. It's hard to play chess when the other guy thinks it's tiddlywinks. You seem to have a blind spot with regards to the obvious hypocrisy of your own position. That happens sometimes. Maybe it will come into focus for you in a more lucid moment (if it be His will, peace be upon Him).

    Hint: Pretend I am a Muslim, and your statements to me are a cartoon that I find offensive.