heartsYesterday The Friendly Atheist reported that a student group, the Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics (AHA) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is engaging in a “Draw Muhammad” project today. They are not the first; other campus groups have done the same. But this group did something a little different — they reached out to the Muslim Student Association on their campus one day in advance with this letter warning that they would be drawing images of the Prophet Muhammad in chalk on their campus in response to the protests of extremist Muslims over a recent South Park episode.

The MSA responded, saying that they were, in fact, offended. The MSA’s response was thoughtful and patient, pointing out that sending a warning does not absolve one of being disrespectful: “To slap someone in the face, despite warning the person in advance and assuring them of you good intentions, does not make slapping someone in the face ok.” Their letter did nothing more than point out that the AHA’s planned activity was misguided — “Why do you not direct your protest to the groups in question instead of engaging in acts that you yourself acknowledge will offend the vast majority of Muslims, on this campus and off” – and suggest that it was in violation of the campus’ discrimination policies. How did the AHA respond? By saying that the MSA was “using fear and intimidation to suppress criticism of their religion.” Did I miss the fear and intimidation buried in there somewhere?

The idea behind the campaign is to advocate for free speech. It seems to me, however, that the campaign is masking an attack on religious identity with a martyrical “free speech” claim. There are other ways to go about this that don’t knowingly target a specific belief of a particular identity. The Friendly Atheist blog wrote, “It’s a stick figure drawing. Chill. Out.” Instead of recognizing the ramifications of offensive images — let’s say they were chalking swastikas or, more specific to this issue, something anti-Atheist — we secularists seem far too keen to tell people to “just get over it.” Because that’s an effective approach, right?

chalkThe AHA at UW Madison has made an enemy where they could have had an ally. And over what? “Principle”? It seems like a way to stir up negative feelings, an immature approach to a complex situation. Why not instead reach out to the MSA and plan an activity that condemns the extremists who threatened the creators of South Park while still acknowledging that it is a complex issue? Oh, right — because then you couldn’t draw pictures of Muhammad in chalk and create controversy on your campus.

The American Atheists wrote on their “No God” blog on April 29th that “Muslims have been in the news lately with their ridiculous behavior… One thing we need to keep in mind is that Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive.” This isn’t just bad and oversimplified writing; it is lazy, dangerous, and divisive. Two entries before they too promoted “Everybody Draw Mohamed [sic] Day.” It seems so basic to ask: is this really the best use of our time and resources?

People who engage in such activities are drawing a line (or as Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel might say, a “faith divide“) between themselves and others, and it is not something as impermanent as one made in sand or etched with chalk. It cannot be so easily erased.

We secularists need to think long and hard about what lines we’re drawing — and who we’re boxing out in the process. We say we want “free speech;” now let’s recognize that with freedom comes responsibility and the need for respectful dialogue despite differences. In other words, as my mom might say: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Chalk may wash away but the divides we build often don’t.

Let’s talk the talk, not chalk for shock.

43 Responses to “Talk the Talk, Don't Chalk the Chalk: Drawing a Divide With the "Draw Muhammad" Campaign”

  1. Zil Says:

    It’s interesting to see the different reactions, and it seems (to me) that this has a lot to do with some of your general critiques of the Atheist “movement” and a lot of my strangely hypocritical ideas about society today–that we can, and should, have freedom of speech but we must think of the ramifications, though I know (and enjoy) the places where nothing is sacred and therefore there is the precedent for potential offenses.

    I can understand the concern on both sides of the argument, but I think the biggest part is that the AHA president seemed unaware of how the context changes from a ne’er-reverent cartoon making a point (which can be censored by its larger company) and to a college campus. I feel that the college campus stick figures could easily be used to incite or offend those who were not reached for clearance (translation: contacting a student association and getting their okay does not mean you have the entire community’s support, even if members of the MSA would not have been offended), especially since there is an increased likelihood that the pictures will be encountered with a lowered understanding of the situation.

    I think this could have been somewhat prevented by actually discussing things with the MSA in advance–which is what the MSA suggested.

    Anyway, I’ll say more later, I’m sure. But thanks for the interesting food for thought for now. I’d probably better get back to work…

  2. Tina Says:

    I’m so proud to know you. This is fabulous.

  3. jeffliveshere Says:

    Do I wish that the atheist group had reached out to the Muslim student association in order to create a protest against extremists that didn’t ostracize others? Yep.

    And yet…

    I’d be curious to know what the Muslim student association had planned in protest of the extremists views that have been batted around lately. If they had a protest all ready to go, or perhaps have already had one (that obviously didn’t include chalk drawings!), I would feel a little less bothered by the criticism of the atheist group. Sure, it would have been better to reach out, in my opinion–far better. But I also want to note that I’m glad that folks are standing up against the craziness of threatening the life of people because of their religious beliefs in myriad ways–I wish I was hearing that Muslim groups across the world were rising up and holding protests against this kind of extremism. And perhaps they are! Perhaps my media consumption is just skewed. Why didn’t the Muslim association form a protest and reach out in an interfaith way? It’s possible that they did, or tried to; if so, I’d like to know about that, too. My suspicion is that they wouldn’t think to reach out to the atheists any more than the atheists thought to reach out (really reach out, not just warn) to the Muslim group. But again, I’m way open to being completely wrong about that, and would love to be shown I’m wrong about that.

    It would have been great if the atheists had reached out, but I’m not surprised that they didn’t, y’know? And it would have been great if the Muslim student association had responded with, “You know, we get it. This is totally offensive to us on a religious level, but we get how angry you are. We can’t support what you’re doing because it offends us in a deep way, but we’re not going to stand in your way because we recognize that each group is protesting the craziness of fundamentalism in their own way.” But that would have been a lot to expect as well. Still, would have been nice.

  4. Geoff Boulton Says:

    While I agree with many of your comments and the sentiments behind them, to say that free speech is only a ‘principle’ is rather disingenuous.

    The denial of free speech, as a means of silencing criticism, has been a key tool in initiating and furthering some of the most heinous episodes in human history.

    Nobody has the right to not be offended, myself included. I personally find many religious practices abhorrent and extremely offensive, such as the physical mutilation and forced ‘club membership’ of babies and the indoctrination of young children. Should I just ‘shut up’ about it because it might offend believers?

    Since when did free speech mean “It’s okay for my beliefs to offend you but not for your beliefs to offend me.”

    @jeffliveshere – I too would be interested to know what action the Muslim group had planned to protest the hijacking of their ‘religion of peace’ by extremists threatening violence and death. Surely, such action would be at least as offensive to them as a few chalk drawings that will wash off in the first rain. If not, then doesn’t that say something in itself?

  5. Toby Says:

    Chances of this project changing the mind of a single person in Revolution Muslim: approaching 0%.

    Chances of further alienating Muslim students on campus: 100%.

    Hm, what were they setting out to accomplish, again?

  6. Leah Says:

    I find this post quite insightful and really agree with it. In terms of peoples’ responses, I do not think schools’ MSAs should be focusing on denouncing extremists. The UW MSA has their own religious community to run and should not have to focus on apologizing for extremist members of their religion. Instead, they can spread a positive image of Islam by exemplifying values of peace and tolerance that they feel represents Islam. Furthermore, I don’t think that other religions are required to apologize for their extremists in the way that people expect Muslims to. Are Christians being asked to apologize for the Hutaree Clan?

  7. jeffliveshere Says:

    @Leah:

    Very good points, all around. Thank you for pointing this out.

    I agree that Muslims are expected to respond and apologize for extremists more (a lot more) than folks in other religions are asked to, and I think that is ridiculous. However, instead of this indicating (for me!) that the MSA shouldn’t be expected to respond to extremists, I would say that it means that the Christian campus groups need to respond more to Christian extremists. In fact, I’ve thought for a long time that the folks who should be showing up anywhere that Fred Phelps and his cronies are “protesting” are the Christians in the area. I also recognize, however, that this is a minority opinion, and I agree that it’s not fair to call on Muslims to do something Christians aren’t asked to do.

    On the other hand, I wonder who *should* be calling extremists out. Certainly it seems odd to ask the atheists to be the ones to do so, even though they are obviously wanting to, in some cases. If the Muslims aren’t asked to, and it’s problematic for the Christians and atheists to do it, then who should? And if “all of us” should, who should really be leading in that regard? It feels like it should be the Muslims who are obviously of the opinion that their religion is being misused by extremists, just as I think the Christians should be shouting from the rooftops about just how harmful Fred Phelps is.

  8. jeffliveshere Says:

    @Toby–

    It seems disingenuous to suggest that the folks behind the project were wanting to change the minds of anybody involved in Revolution Muslim. While I agree that they were certain to offend the folks in the MSA, let’s at least give them the benefit of the doubt around what minds they were trying to affect–their project was at least partly to raise awareness about how we should be passionate about people who respond to religious offense with death threats. The idea is, “Ok, you’re going to threaten people who draw the prophet with death? Well, we’re not going to take that ridiculous threat sitting down–we’ll draw him all we want.” It wasn’t, “Ok, you’re going to threaten people who draw the prophet with death? We want to change your mind about that with drawings of him.”

  9. Geoff Boulton Says:

    Before anyone is going to censure ‘extremists’, surely the question needs to be ‘What is an extremist’? This is a purely subjective assessment and will differ from culture to culture and society to society.

    Many Christians, I’m sure, would have no problem identifying ‘extremists’ in Islam and similarly many Muslims would have no problem identifying ‘extremists’ within Christianity, but the definitions used by each group or even individual within each group would be different. In particular, there is a noticeable ‘blind spot’ when members of each group’s own faith are involved.

    Maybe religious leaders, and their followers, might find it so difficult to censure people within their own group simply because the ‘supposed’ extremists are only following the ‘letter of the law’ within their particular doctrine. Criticism of such ‘extreme’ actions would involve at least an implied criticism of the very writings which form the basis of their belief system.

    Perhaps too, religious people are unwilling to criticise other religions too strongly, or investigate the reasons for such behaviour, for fear that they might expose similar shortcomings in their own ‘holy texts’.

    Who then is to decide what is ‘religious extremism’, and be able to do so in an objective and unbiased way?

  10. jeffliveshere Says:

    @Geoff,

    I understand your concerns in theory, but I’m unsure that in practice it’s really much of a problem. One is hard-pressed to find Christians who agree with Fred Phelps and his hateful gang, for example (similarly, it would be difficult to find anybody in the MSA we originally were talking about who agrees with the folks at Revolution Muslim. Sure, it may be harder for Christians to come to an agreement on whether or not, say, the Mormons who supported Proposition 8 in California are extremists, but I’m unconvinced that the difficulty in finding absolute (objective, unbiased) consensus should keep them from trying in at least some of the cases, especially in cases where most folks agree completely about what is extreme and what isn’t.

    And I’d ask again: What are the options? If we wait for complete objectivity and lack of bias in the way you seem to be suggesting, then not much happens to stop folks who are wanting to commit violence in the name of religion. Unless you think the atheists will be more objective about what counts as extremist in religion, which seems kinda dubious to me, from a practical perspective.

  11. Geoff Boulton Says:

    @jeffliveshere

    I wasn’t so much concerned with the identification of ‘extremists’, more with the different religions’ unwillingness to actively condemn their own membership.

    Sure, you’ll hear Christians tut-tutting when Westboro Baptists are picketing a funeral but it is generally only the ‘way’ in which the group protests which is seen as unreasonable and not the anti-gay message itself. Even when the message IS attacked it is done in an apologetic ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ kind of way which, while a watered down version of the Westboro message, basically supports their position.

    On 9-11, I was horrified and sickened to hear Muslim co-workers, in the UK and not some third-world theocracy, commenting on their ‘joy’ at the events. While these people expressed their regrets at the deaths, they were nonetheless quite happy to support the action as something which was a ‘holy victory’ for their religion.

    The point is that with both of these examples the followers of each respective religion were, are, providing the underpinning and ‘moral’ support for the views and actions of the extremists themselves. In my opinion, this implicit support should itself be considered ‘extremist’.

    For example, I doubt you could find many westerners who would support female circumcision, or consider it as anything other than barbaric, yet those same people will happily turn a blind eye to male circumcision. Equally ‘violent’ and being done for similar ‘religious’ reasons.

    Where do you draw the line? Is intolerance ‘extreme’, or maybe hate speech, or do you have to actually physically damage or kill someone for it to count? We are only talking about levels of degree here and it is only when religions stop providing support at the lower levels that we can expect to see a decrease in the number of ‘extremists’ at the upper levels.

    No, I don’t think atheists have all the answers. I believe that only the religions themselves can excise their own ‘demons’. Unfortunately, to do that they are going to have to abandon some of the basic tenets of their beliefs. I can’t see that happening any time soon so I guess we’ll just have to continue reading about religious atrocities and listen to incessant tut-tutting from the people whose, no doubt unintentional, support allows those atrocities to continue unabated.

  12. Free Speech vs. Fundamentalist Islam? - Eboo Patel - God's Politics Blog Says:

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  13. Fred Says:

    People who are offended by a stick figure are mentally ill.

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  16. Jaro Says:

    Ah, it is refreshing to read a reasonable and measured response to this affair. Thank you!

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  18. Sam Says:

    I understand the contriversy, But I have a problem walking on eggshells in a free country. Just because they fear thier god does not mean I have to fear thier god or them for that matter. And that’s the problem. What else are we going to do to offend these people. Do we have to cowtow to them every time they have a problem? I don’t think so. Yes, we need to stand up to this kind of life threatening rhetoric. I’ll draw whatever I want whenever I want.

  19. Zil Says:

    To me the bigger issue is the idea that the Atheist group’s president seems to have thought that simply notifying a single Muslim group on campus was enough to ensure that it would not simply outrage and frustrate the people to whom it was not aimed. And the idea of drawing a stick figure to do it makes it more outrageous to me. If you’re going to make a point, do it well–give the image merit rather than a slough-off.

    The point is supposed to be that the image shouldn’t be censored, but to do that the image must have merit within its context. At least to me, the lack of attempting to draw something artfully gives it a lack of artful merit.

  20. Zil Says:

    Er… To *earn* that the image must have merit in its own context, that is.

  21. Toby Says:

    Bad comparison. No one, Christian or otherwise, should protest Fred Phelps and his ilk. (And I know for a fact that Christian groups do protest him–though they shouldn’t.) It’s what they thrive on. They should rather be studiously avoided when they come to town. “Calling them out” does nothing but encourage them. FYI.

  22. Toby Says:

    “raise awareness about how we should be passionate about people who respond to religious offense with death threats”

    If that is the goal, then chalk messages condemning RM. Makes it clear what exactly they stand for, and isn’t going to further alienate Muslims on campus. Duh.

    “The idea is, “Ok, you’re going to threaten people who draw the prophet with death? Well, we’re not going to take that ridiculous threat sitting down–we’ll draw him all we want.””

    Like how if a gay guy gets on someone’s case for using the f-word, it makes sense for me to stand up for free speech by heading over to the gay part of town and shouting the f-word at everyone I see. (h/t Eboo Patel for the comparison)

  23. Psydan Says:

    I have to say, they seem to have just been calling more attention to the chalk drawings and trying to stir up controversy by upsetting another group. I have to empathize on some level: I’m against all religion because the moderates prop up the extremists. If we have a couple million Muslims, and only 2 go on suicide runs this year, we still need to blame these very organized, hierarchical structures. They need to either condemn this loudly, and be cool with actual free speech, or we need to be loud and offensive to all Muslims and show that we are not intimidated by either the terrorists or the apathy of the moderate majority. If it were possible for a man to bomb something in the name of atheism, I would loudly decry it; still, atheism is not a vastly structured group that can react to this sort of thing or be responsible for anyone claiming membership in the group. The problem is that most Muslims dissociate themselves from this image so much that they take no responsibility for needing to condemn the actions done in the name of their faith. Either way, I’m all for mocking Muhammad and drawing attention to it, religion should always be mocked. Nonetheless, I would do it a la “Jesus and Mo” and make it offensive to all religions, and make sure an actual message is made. This is what South Park does, and why it is especially heinous that they are attacked for it. Let’s stand up for our right to draw and insult all prophets, but let’s do it in a way that calls for some greater good. Let’s not just be out to offend individuals who hold something sacred out of ignorance and cultural identification.

  24. jeffliveshere Says:

    I disagree. Some friends of mine did nice, peaceful protests when they came to the bay area, and some folks actually do counterprotest fundraisers. The press goes wild for Phelps and his ilk regardless of whether or not people counterprotest, I think, so it can be very positive to do so.

    In fact, one local high school had its own student body organize a counterprotest, which made the queer folks in the school feel a huge sense of community.

  25. jeffliveshere Says:

    “If that is the goal, then chalk messages condemning RM. Makes it clear what exactly they stand for, and isn’t going to further alienate Muslims on campus. Duh.”
    I disagree that it makes it clear exactly what they stand for–part of what they stand for is being able to draw religious figures without getting death threats (though not without offending folks, obviously–I don’t think they have the ‘right’ to that). Chalking protest against RM in words doesn’t convey as strongly that they should be able to draw Mohamed without getting death threats.

    Having said that, I would have chosen to write words and not to draw–but I don’t condemn them for doing that.

    “Like how if a gay guy gets on someone’s case for using the f-word, it makes sense for me to stand up for free speech by heading over to the gay part of town and shouting the f-word at everyone I see. (h/t Eboo Patel for the comparison)”

    I’m not seeing the analogy. A better one, to me, would be groups of gay people (analogous to groups of people who want to be able to draw religious figures without having death threats levied against them) claiming the word gay for themselves, showing that they’re not going to take it, even if it offends some straight people, by using the word positively, and by being out, gay and proud (analogous to atheists who want to be able to draw Mohamed without having death threats levied against them, by being “out” about their atheism specifically around the drawings).

    I don’t like that analogy, but if we must use an analogy to oppression of gay folks, that’s a better one, to me.

  26. Hitch Says:

    Let’s go through the motions.
    1) Salman Rushdie wrote a book. People were offended, burning, banning and the whole parade. A bigoted theocratic tyrannt issues fatwa for paid murder on a writer of a fictional novel. Rushdie has to go into hiding and his translators and publishers get terrorized, attacked and some even killed!
    2) Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali make a critical film about the interplay of the Qu’ran and the role of women. Death threats, protests. Theo van Gogh gets killed in open daylight with another death threat stabbed to his chest for AHA and others. She is under 24 protection until today.
    3) Danish cartoonists address the question of violence and Islam. Mass riots, books, embassies and news paper offices burn. People die. One of the most prominent cartoonist Westergaard gets attacked while his grand daughter is present solely because his house has been prepared to withstand attacks. He lives under protection.
    3) Creators of south park receive death threats. Are these loons or serious? Noone knows but who is going to endanger employees so viacom self-censors.
    4) Cartoonist invents Draw Muhammed day, but withdraws it within a day. Death threats? Noone knows but the idea is out there and people want to acts.

    This are just the most prominent cases. Critics of Islam are under threat in many other cases too.

    What do moderates do? Call for voluntary silence. The OIC tries to get blapshemy laws through the UN, so that people who speak freely can be persecuted by the state.

    We had that and that’s why we now have the wall of separation. Churches can no longer institute what can or cannot be said. It is the very foundation of a free society.

    What is the problem here? We cannot even speak about the violence and the real or false role attributed to Islam. Because any speech connected to the topic is “anti-american bigotry” “islamophobia” “false free speech” “offensive”.

    No this is a topic were we need free speech, exactly because people come to harm and we have to have the right to speak it. In fact moderates pursue the exact same goal as the radicals. Silencing. Except that he does it with gentle words and ask for our cooperation. The radical blow us up to bits.

    In both cases we can no longer speak, that perhaps there is a cultural or religious problem, perhaps the Danish Cartoons proved to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Addressing violence in Islam leads to violence by some Muslims. And what do moderates do? Some condemn the violence some come out and act offended in essence agreeing with that murderous anger is out there.

    No this is exactly about freedom of speech. Rushdie was about freedom of speech, Van Gogh was about freedom of speech and I applaud the student groups for addressing the topic.

    This topic goes away when we can speak freely without reprisals, violence or attempts to pass blasphemy laws or otherwise curb the freedom of speech, it really is that simple.

    Had the south park event not occured this event would not have occured. But because religious censorship is live and well we have to stand up and speak. And the day we can do that without fear, we can all celebrate and recognize that really all we want is a society where all can live and speak freely, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, secular or undergraduate.

    This is a complex world and many bad things are real. Is there lots of islamophobia out there and cultural misunderstanding? Absolutely. Will be get beyond it by not talking? I don’t think so.

    Mr. Patel would be well advised to recognized that his right to speak freely advocating against free speech hinges on the very fact that we have freedom of speech. If he had his priorities straight he would address how threats, violence, intimidation and oppression can be curbed against all groups and people, irregardless of image control and all that.

    It is odd to me when secularists agree to censorship. If it was benign I would have no issue. Noone wants to offend. But if the offense is taken exactly on points where real people take real harm, we have to offend, because else the harm is allowable without opposition.

    Free speech is not for when it’s easy. It’s for when it’s hard contentions, political, territoral, dogmatic.

    Finally if you actually google around you will find that depicting Muhammed isn’t per se offensive at all! Aziz at BeliefeNet wrote about how depiction of Muhammed are in fact allowable and there is a history of his depictions: http://blog.beliefnet.com/cityofbrass/2010/04/south-park-mohammed-and-the-fr.html
    Yet people are quick to be offended.

    No we have to seek respect for others, but we cannot respect offenses taken without understanding the context. If people are offended because their world view is criticized and hence categorically demand to be beyond criticism we can never agree to not say anything because then we have given up the very moment when free speech really matters.

    It was offensive to the catholic church that Giordano Bruno espoused non-catholic views. Who do we want to sife with? The one who is offended or the ones who seek silencing, violence or other means to get rid of speech that offends? My answer is simple. Taking offense is no grounds to withdraw free speech and to ensure free speech we have to speak freely even if it offends.

    We should care and say so too, ultimately we need free speech to do good, and luckily doing good does not always hurt like it does right now in this climate.

  27. Sam Says:

    Hitch is absolutely right. In the end we are all in this together. And cower in the corner is thexact opposite of what free speech is about. These people can threaten our lives. But we can’t stir them up a bit. I’m calling bullshit!

  28. SJ Says:

    Hi,

    Just came across your blog and have to say that I agree with you a lot. I am a former-Muslim turned “secular humanist”, and I find the attitude of certain secular humanists towards the whole South Park censorship debacle rather immature and disappointing. The whole “draw Mohammad” campaign has turned rather ugly and unsurprisingly anti-Islamic.

  29. Hitch Says:

    I expect quite a bit of positive and thought-provoking stuff to come out on DMD. It’s kind of sad how all this is being prejudged.

    But to frame this just as an immature reaction to the South Park censorship hides the fact that today people live in fear for their lives for the simple fact of having been branded anti-Islamic.

    I think people should stop accusing individuals or groups anti-Islamic without so much as a single explicit example or evidence. And if you do have evidence don’t unduly generalize it.

    I for one will submit drawings and I hope many Muslims will participate. Because it’s not us versus them. Freedom of expression and religious toleration is for all of us!

  30. Sam Says:

    That would be the thing to help the muslim community out. For the moderates also to draw muhammed. That would show that they agree with freedom of expression.

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  33. Hitch Says:

    Videos like this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wuiu4ZzDrE

    and

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bvgb7SuxD8g

    do more for interfaith tolerance than self-censorship.

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  42. FEMEN: Please slow your roll | NonProphet Status Says:

    [...] 5 Don’t think about it too hard, any local Muslim or mosque will do! We saw this clearly with Everyone Draw Muhammed Day, 6 where statements by Muslim radicals lead to atheist groups across the country drawing chalk [...]

  43. Anon Says:

    No, because white people drawing Mohammad are not an oppressed group. The original analogy was closer. A member of an oppressed group (Muslims, gays) is deeply offended by a slur and fights back in a way that’s extreme. I disagree with the extreme decision, but I also disagree with the original oppressive act (drawing Mohammad, using the slur “f*****”), so if I protest the extreme decision, I also would not DREAM of doing so by yelling the f word at a bunch of gay people.

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