In Defense of Drawing Muhammad

27 May 2010

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ZJ: On May 20th, people around the world celebrated Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, a day where everyone was invited to create their own depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Unsurprisingly, the event elicited a variety of negative reactions, not only from Muslims, but also from many non-Muslims as well. In examining the various objections that have been made, it's apparent that most of them are either quite obviously unsound or the result of misconceptions about the purpose of the event, so I think it would be helpful to address these criticisms and hopefully clear up some of the confusion regarding the reasons for drawing Muhammad.

One common accusation is that the event was just an opportunity for the expression of thinly-veiled racial prejudice and xenophobia. And this is a delicate issue, because truthfully, there are some people whose criticism of Islam is actually motivated by racist attitudes rather than any genuine disagreement with the religion.

And while this is utterly deplorable and something we should be sure to watch out for, it does not mean that all criticism of Islam can be dismissed as racism. There are many valid reasons for criticizing Islam, just as there are reasons to criticize every religion. And these criticisms do not become any less valid just because some people would use them as a cover for their own racist views. It is entirely possible to take issue with Islam itself without the involvement of any racial prejudice. And it would be quite irresponsible and ignorant to disregard all criticism of Islam as rooted in racism, when this is obviously not the case.

In the same vein, some suggested that certain unpleasant people would agree with what we were doing, the implication being that we therefore shouldn't do it. But if some misguided individuals would approve of our actions for all the wrong reasons, this does not mean that our own reasons for participating in the event are wrong as well. If you disagree with what you perceive as their rationale for supporting this, then they are the ones you should take issue with—not us.

Others alleged that this was just an act of childish provocation with no real message behind it. In fact, the event had a very important purpose: protesting the threats, intimidation and violence against those who have made depictions of Muhammad. These violent reactions have contributed to a climate of fear, where individuals and organizations are unwilling to portray Muhammad or even criticize Islam because of what could happen to them as a result. The mere possibility is enough to deter them from expressing themselves, and this is dangerously corrosive to free and open discourse in our society. Any time that someone is afraid to publicly disagree with Islam in the same way they would disagree with other religions or belief systems, that is a serious problem.

The intent of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day was to explicitly negate this effect by depicting Muhammad on a massive scale. Consequently, these threats have become a catalyst rather than a deterrent, achieving the exact opposite of their original purpose. The act of drawing Muhammad shows that we refuse to be intimidated, and we reject the use of violence in response to cartoons. Depictions of Muhammad, no matter how offensive, can never justify harming people or property. Any act of violence is clearly much worse than hurting someone's feelings, and this is not an acceptable response to having your religious beliefs insulted.

Others claimed that drawing Muhammad is actually offensive to all Muslims, and so we shouldn't do it. It seems to me that they may have missed the point of this exercise. Specifically, it is no longer reasonable (if indeed it ever was) to be offended by literally any depiction of Muhammad, or to expect the rest of us to refrain from making such depictions. Treating every rendering of Muhammad, no matter how innocuous, as grievously offensive is just silly, and there's really no reason for the rest of us to go along with this. Why should we abide by such a ridiculous belief?

Now, some have said, who are we to say what is and isn't offensive? Who are we to disagree with them? Who are we? Well, we're the ones being asked to limit our own expression in order to accommodate their religious sensibilities. If they are entitled to declare by fiat what is and is not offensive and expect the rest of us to comply, then certainly we are also entitled to question, dispute and disagree with their assessment, just as we are free to disagree with any religious view. And religious beliefs do not merit any special immunity from criticism simply because they pertain to religion.

And really, if you think that was offensive, where have you been for the past year while I was systematically demolishing the tenets of Christianity? Where were you when I was showing people how to resign from the Catholic Church, and calling Mormonism a threat to civil rights, and telling people not to donate to the Salvation Army? When it comes to offending people's religious beliefs, that drawing of Muhammad absolutely pales in comparison to what I've said about other religions. So if you honestly think that was offensive, I just don't really care. This is obviously not something that I take pains to avoid, so what makes you think I would make an exception for Islam?

Well, some have said that these beliefs are very important to Muslims, so it would be wrong to criticize them. But suppose I believe just as strongly (which I do) that these beliefs are wrong. Should they then avoid disagreeing with me? Clearly, how strongly a belief is held has no real relevance here. There are people who have very strong beliefs that are utterly horrible, and the strength of a belief does not make it any more valid or worthy of respect. It certainly doesn't exempt it from the criticism that other beliefs are subject to, and it doesn't mean the rest of us should shy away from openly disagreeing with it.

Frankly, I would embarrassed if I had to resort to defending my beliefs by saying how important they are to me, and so nobody should contradict them. In fact, I welcome scrutiny, because I'm confident that my beliefs will withstand it or be refined by it, and it's reasonable to expect others to be open to scrutiny as well.

However, some have said that these beliefs are so deeply ingrained for some people that we cannot expect them to change, and so contradicting them is little more than an act of cruelty that ultimately accomplishes nothing. But that's their problem, not ours. Experiencing a change in one's beliefs is entirely possible, as evidenced by religious conversions as well as de-conversions from every religion. I'm sure many of you used to be Christians, but now you aren't. And however that may have happened, obviously it can and does occur.

But if a person's beliefs are absolutely not open to change in the face of reasoned argument and evidence, they are the one responsible for that. The rest of us are in no way obligated to tiptoe around someone who's chosen to completely isolate their beliefs from criticism and react with hostility toward anyone who disagrees with them. It's plainly unreasonable to hold a permanently unchangeable belief that's preserved by sheer force of ignorance. We are not the ones at fault here.

Now, some people have claimed that drawing Muhammad actually violates the rights of Muslims. But it's difficult to see how this could be possible, considering that a depiction of Muhammad does nothing to restrict anyone's freedoms. Merely being exposed to something that offends you or contradicts your religious beliefs is not a violation of any of your rights. And nobody has the right to freedom from criticism or disagreement, because expecting others to curtail their own freedom to comply with your religion would infringe on their rights. But allowing free and open disagreement does nothing to limit anyone's rights. Nobody has been deprived of their rights by a picture of Muhammad.

Finally, some have claimed that it's irresponsible to draw Muhammad knowing that it could lead to violent reactions. Others have even suggested that those participating in the event are responsible for the government of Pakistan choosing to block access to Facebook and YouTube. However, the very purpose of the event was to protest the treatment of depictions of Muhammad as taboo and the violent responses to these depictions. Citing this as a reason to avoid drawing Muhammad completely misses the point.

Furthermore, the responsibility for violent reactions or government censorship clearly lies with those who have chosen to commit acts of violence or restrict their citizens' access to the internet. Trying to foist the responsibility for this on us implies that they are somehow not responsible for their own actions. That makes no sense. How is it that we can be responsible for our actions, yet they aren't responsible for theirs? Are they not able to exercise conscious control over their decisions? Are they to be regarded as little more than automatons, totally enslaved by their beliefs? This is absurd.

Suggesting that Muslims are incapable of the rationality, agency, and restraint that we expect of everyone else is far more offensive than any depiction of Muhammad. Indeed, it seems that many of the criticisms of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day stem from a kind of lowering of expectations and an unwillingness to apply the same standards to Muslims and treat them as mature, competent and equal members of society.

It's very telling that many of the people who object to depicting Muhammad see no problem whatsoever with making fun of Christianity and other religions. The fact that a simple drawing would provoke such reactions and reveal these odd standards only serves to demonstrate why this event was necessary. This is a topic that should not and must not be off-limits, and all things considered, I think it proved to be quite illuminating.

And I look forward to doing it again next year. Hopefully, the rest of you will join in, too.

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