Muhammad, part 2: The Quote, and other nonsense

3 June 2010

Video | ZJ on YouTube | Subscribe

ZJ: I can't believe I'm doing another video about this. But I am, so let's get it over with. I'll try and make it quick.

Both before and after Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, people opposed to drawing Muhammad have repeatedly posted a certain quote, or variants thereof, to the extent that it's almost become their anthem. It's presented with a finality that suggests they regard it as the answer, a knock-down refutation that the rest of us have failed to account for. Here's how one person put it. Quote:

"When you attack black people, they call it racism. When you attack Jewish people, they call it antisemitism. When you attack women, they call it sexism. When you attack homosexuality, they call it intolerance. When you attack your country, they call it treason. When you attack a religious sect, they call it hate speech. But when you attack the Prophet (peace be upon him), they want to call it freedom of speech!" End quote.

Anyone who would say this with a straight face is only attempting to deceive themselves and others. As an argument, it is succinct, intuitive, and completely and utterly wrong. And here's why: Disagreeing with the belief that every depiction of Muhammad should be considered inherently offensive is not the same thing as attacking black people just because they're black. Rejecting the view that the limits of freedom should be defined by what offends religious people is not the same thing as being prejudiced against Jewish people simply because they're Jewish. Pointing out that it's unreasonable to be offended by something so harmless is not the same thing as attacking women just for being women. Affirming that violence is never an acceptable reaction to being offended, is not the same thing as hating gay people for being gay. And none of these views are at all comparable to an act of war!

Also—and this is very important—criticism of religious beliefs and activities is not hate speech. Being religious does not place your beliefs beyond reproach in a way that other beliefs aren't. Religion is not a shield, and it does not grant your opinions any greater legitimacy or any additional protection from criticism. Religion isn't special. Religious doctrine is just as open to disagreement as any other kind of belief. Disagreement is not hate speech. Criticism is not hate speech. Saying that being reflexively offended by every picture of Muhammad is patently stupid and unreasonable, is not hate speech. And objecting to the notion that your own freedom should end where this absurd indignation begins is especially not hate speech.

Finally, although this argument may sarcastically suggest otherwise, criticism of the prophet Muhammad (including that which is very offensive) is freedom of speech. It is not something beyond free speech, it is firmly encompassed by free speech. Just because Muhammad is admired by many people does not mean that criticism of Muhammad is no longer protected as a fundamental right. Just because some people consider him holy does not mean that the rest of us are no longer free to mock him mercilessly.

And the very reason we are upholding criticism of Muhammad as a legitimate manifestation of free speech is because that freedom has come under attack, not only from acts of violence and threats of violence in response to discussion of Muhammad, but also from arguments like this one that suggest it's somehow out of bounds in terms of what we are free to say. And our answer is no, it's not. In fact, it is one of the most important uses of this freedom: free speech in defense of free speech.

And really, this argument is just a specific instance of a more general tendency for people to make totally inappropriate analogies in an attempt to make this seem like something worse than it really is. I've received dozens of replies of this nature in response to my last video on the subject.

I've heard people compare drawing Muhammad to calling all Muslims terrorists, as if saying that it's absurd to be automatically offended by all depictions of Muhammad is equivalent to saying all members of a religion are terrorists. Someone told me that drawing Muhammad is like breaking into someone's house, in that we should expect a violent response, as if suppressing someone else's free speech with violence is just as acceptable as the justifiable use of force to defend yourself and your property. I've even seen people compare drawing Muhammad to an organized campaign to call black people "niggers", as if protesting violence and intimidation was in any way comparable to using a disgusting racist slur with a strong historical association with... violence and intimidation.

Not only that, but some people have a habit of grouping together anything that would be considered offensive—for instance, pissing on the grave of someone's mother, or tormenting someone to the point of suicide, or drawing Muhammad—and treating it all as essentially the same thing, while completely ignoring whether or not it actually deserves to be regarded as offensive. It seems that they're either unable or unwilling to rationally consider whether or not there's anything truly offensive about this, or whether the restrictions that accommodating this would impose upon the rest of us are acceptable. Apparently this is all irrelevant to them.

What's really interesting is how quickly they back away from this argument when it's turned on its head and taken to its logical extreme. For example, if some people consider it offensive to work on the Sabbath, does that mean the rest of us should be forbidden from doing anything on Sundays? If some people think the existence of gay people is horribly offensive, does that mean we all have to stop being gay? No! And if some people did attempt to dissuade us from exercising our freedom in this manner because it offends their religious beliefs, would it be wrong of us to organize a protest in response where everyone chooses to be visibly gay or work on a Sunday? Of course not!

So why are so many people incapable of recognizing how ridiculous it is to treat all depictions of Muhammad as offensive, and how unreasonable it is to expect the rest of us to refrain from any critical discussion about him? Personally, I find it hard to believe they could be so lacking in judgement. I think they should know better.

So, defenders of Islam: Stop being so blatantly intellectually dishonest, please.

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