I Still Support the People Who Drew Muhammad September 23, 2010

I Still Support the People Who Drew Muhammad

Chris Stedman, blogger at NonProphet Status, has a guest piece for Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel at the Washington Post On Faith blog.

The topic: Molly Norris, the cartoonist who initially suggested Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, who later publicly regretted that decision, and who is now in hiding.

A few college atheist groups chose to draw Muhammad as a stick figure with a smiling face, hardly the same thing as the infamous drawing of Muhammad with a bomb on his head. Their intention was not to piss off one religious group, but rather to make the point that no one has a right to tell you what you can and cannot draw.

How dare Comedy Central censor Muhammad’s image on South Park? Why should cartoonists have to live in fear for their lives because they drew an image of Muhammad? Where are the moderate Muslims who practice their beliefs without forcing others to act the same way? If they don’t want to draw his image, so be it. If they think they can stop anyone else from drawing his image, they’re in for a welcome shock.

I’m all for building bridges with religious people in certain cases, but the Muhammad controversy was not one of them.

Chris writes:

For example, popular atheist writer P.Z. Myers addressed Islam as if it were a single entity, writing: “Come on, Islam. Targeting defenseless cartoonists is your latest adventure in bravery? That’s pathetic. It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

I’m disappointed at such assessments, and I have a feeling Norris would be too…

Obviously, not all Muslims think identically. PZ knows that, too. But those Muslims’ voices — in support of free speech, despite it being “offensive” to them — were rarely heard in the wake of the controversy. Meanwhile, atheists were accused my Eboo Patel, among others, for drawing the equivalent of swastikas on the ground.

Chris mentions me, too:

Around the time of EDMD, the Council of American-Islamic Relations issued a statement asking that, instead of reacting negatively, “American Muslims — and Muslims worldwide — should use that and every other day as an opportunity to reach out to people of other faiths and beliefs to build bridges of understanding and respect. The best and most productive response… is more communication, not less communication — including not restricting the free flow of ideas.”

I applaud them for taking the high road, and I am sorry that my fellow atheists did not do the same. Instead, prominent atheists like Hemant Mehta said: “If you get offended by [EDMD], no one should be taking you seriously.”

That’s not totally fair. I expect Muslims to be offended by unfriendly depictions of Muhammad.

But if you read the post, I was referring this picture specifically:

And I wrote:

There’s Muhammad in the upper left.

Is that offensive? I say no. If you get offended by that, no one should be taking you seriously, anyway.

I stand by that.

If you’re getting into hysterics because you saw a happy stick figure with your prophet’s name on it, and you’re accusing others of committing evil, nasty, you-must-hate-Muslims “hate crimes,” then we should ignore you. Come back to us when you have a legitimate complaint.

Chris, though, takes the side of Eboo and blames the artists instead of only the people overreacting.

And though like me [Patel] disagreed with EDMD, he has also publicly condemned the extremists who reacted to it with threats of violence. The extremists who forced Norris to go into hiding do not represent his faith, and he and other Muslims do not deserve to have their identities maligned — by those extremists or by people calling Islam “the religion of hate.”

I don’t think for a second that the majority of Muslims side with the extremists.

But religious criticism — criticism of foolish and dangerous superstitions — isn’t the problem here. Neither are the students who chalked their campuses or the thousands of people who drew a Muhammad that day.

The only problem is with Muslims who couldn’t — and still can’t — deal with criticism (or mockery) of their beliefs. That includes moderates as well as the extremists.

I’m not impressed when moderate Muslims disavow the extremists and say they don’t agree with them. That should be a given. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to say, “I agree that violence is not the solution.”

I want to hear the moderates come out in support of free speech, including speech that goes after their religion. I want to hear them admit that the artists did absolutely nothing wrong in drawing the images. And then I want them to do everything they can to spread those ideas in their own community.

Chris says these Muslims are out there, and that’s good. Let’s help them share their message. If any Muslim wants to applaud those students brave enough to draw images that so many other people were scared to death of drawing, I’d be happy to let them say so on this site. Can you imagine a Muslim handing an atheist chalk so that he could draw an image of Muhammad? How’s that for PR to make the whole drawing campaign look silly.

Let’s not forget that no one would have drawn those images of Muhammad in the first place if the Islamic taboo against them wasn’t so damn ridiculous. The overreaction from Muslim extremists and moderates just showed that the rest of us were on the rational side of this issue.

***Update***: Here’s a fantastic list of Muslims who stand up for free speech instead of the religious nuttiness at play here. (Thanks to Corrie for the link!)

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  • Corrie

    Interestingly, this post popped up in my google reader directly after this one:


    So at least some Muslims are speaking out for free speech, anyway.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Good post Hemant. Your position on this is exactly correct.

  • Randy

    Funny, that was my opinion but others seem to disagree.

  • L.Long

    I’m with PZ here as they are a religion of cowards, but not because they are isLame but because they are a religion. Xtians, isLame, Hindoes, Mormans,putzes, what ever! they need to have some Daddy figure telling the poor frighten little children to be brave and do what I say.
    If they weren’t so terrified to grow up and face the reality of the here and now and leave the mythical ‘what comes after’ until they get there, many problems would go away.
    But that will never happen as there are more terrified little children then there are adults willing to face up to reality.
    And the so called ‘moderates’ are just the ones that are still more cowardly cuz they claim to follow the KaKakaran and buyBull but then pick and chose the parts they like and then have the bold face hippo-crazy to claim they are better then atheist because their morals come from S/He/IT. And by perpetuating their BS they become a bunch of breeders for the crazy Fundies.
    A religious group that says we are about LOVE and then DOES NOT TRY TO PASS schite laws based on their bigotry, then I will accept them as ‘moderate’ and live with them.

  • Hemant: To clarify, is it fair to say that the CAIR statement Chris mentions (that you also link to) is just such an example of a statement “in support of free speech, despite it being “offensive” to them”?

    Also, when we talk about “voices being heard”, we have to take into account the role of the US mainstream media, which is generally ignorant, dismissive, or even hostile to certain narratives.

  • Miko

    If you’re getting into hysterics because you saw a happy stick figure with your prophet’s name on it, and you’re accusing others of committing evil, nasty, you-must-hate-Muslims “hate crimes,” then we should ignore you.

    This is one of the reason I oppose “hate crime” laws: once the police get involved, you can ignore them all you want but they aren’t going to ignore you.

  • Bob

    Hey Hemant, I drew the Muhammad in that picture, and I take offense to being labelled as an artist. As anyone can tell I would best be described as a childish scribbler.

    To me your request for a Muslim symbolically handing the chalk to a non-muslim (no reason it has to be an atheist) is brilliant. As soon as the “artist” receives the chalk, he can hand it back without making a drawing, because there would have already been acceptance of the principle of free speech. Of course, that can’t be planned in advance, because the Muslim’s actions would then be empty.

    Anyway make it happen and keep the latter part secret. In fact, delete this post once you read it. Is there a “this comment will self destruct” option on friendly atheist?

  • p.s.

    Can you imagine a Muslim handing an atheist chalk so that he could draw an image of Muhammad?

    I think it’s unfair to expect them to actively participate in something they find offensive. I find book burning offensive, but I support someone’s right to burn their own books, and I also have the right to call them an idiot. In order to support someones right to burn books, I don’t have to go out and burn books myself, and I don’t have to provide books for them to burn.
    That being said, I thought EDM day was a great response to *extremist* muslims demanding that everyone follow their rules.

  • Hitch

    I’m not that amused how people claim to be able to mind-read Molly Norris (and then use it to advance their agenda).

    Where were these people standing up for freedom from fear and retribution in May? Oh right, they compared people who drew Muhammad to all sorts of unsavory activities…

    And where were these wonderful articles complaining that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had to pull their collection of historic depictions of the prophet? Nowhere.

    Will I ever agree that we have to appease people who promote fear and violence? Nope.

    Yet another wonderful lesson in “cooperation and kindness”. About 4 months too late for Molly.

    I’m tempted to call it an outright insult. At the very least it’s a concealed one. The swastika-comparison type of kindness is what we are asked to accept. And we are supposed to forget that these comparators did nothing to counter the culture of fear, but rather shamed those who did nothing but express.

  • Ron in Houston

    They clearly either didn’t read your whole post or quoted you out of context.

    I support the people that drew Muhammad. Do I think the whole idea was prudent or productive? No.

  • stephanie

    I’m sorry to sound so awful, but the lack of extreme protest for issuing fatwa against Norris builds a bridge to my understanding. I like to think I’m open-minded. I like to go about my day no matter what the idiot next to me is spouting about Muslims, Christians, Atheists or (insert group-du-jour here).

    But when an authority figure publicly calls for the death of someone? That’s pretty much the equivalent of your normal modern person putting an ad on Craig’s List for a hit. That’s grounds for murder anywhere in the US through malice aforethought or at least depraved heart. I did not see any truly vocal outrage over al-Awlaki’s actions in the Muslim community, and that tells me more than handing a piece of chalk to someone ever will.

  • Rieux

    Wait a minute: Stedman directly lied about Hemant’s statement. Hemant did not say “If you get offended by EDMD, no one should be taking you seriously.” That’s not “out of context”; it’s a full-blown lie!

    Indeed, depending upon the consequences to Hemant, it could be actionable libel: Hemant might be able to sue Stedman and the Post—and win!

    I’ve just left a comment on the Post blog to that effect.

    I strongly suggest that you complain to the Post about the misrepresentation, Hemant. There’s a real chance the newspaper would force Patel/Stedman to issue a correction. Libel would be a tough case to make, but only because (to my knowledge) you haven’t suffered concrete injury due to Stedman’s lie. I suspect the Post folks would recognize their exposure and act to limit it.

  • Jeff

    At which point did the stick figure actually become a representation of Muhammad? Was it when he wrote the “M”? The “u”? Or was it not Muhammad until he wrote the “d”? Is it like a statue of a deity from an ancient culture – it doesn’t actually become the deity until they paint in the eyes?

    These are the questions that keep me up at night.

  • ThilinaB

    Well said Hemant.
    We need to stop setting the precedence that violence and death threats are the way to go to get what you want.

  • Karmakin

    The problem is the privilege.

    And when “moderates” try to protect and extend their religious privilege, they do the work of extremists who use that privilege as a weapon.

  • penn

    He doesn’t really think through his swastika example. Swastikas are used in the media all the time when it’s relevant and no Jews that I know of have encouraged violence due to the showing of swastikas when discussing Nazis or Nazi-sympathizing groups. Many insensitive portrayals of Nazi atrocities have been made, but I haven’t seen the Jewish equivalent of fatwas being issued. But, including the likeness of Muhammad in a cartoon will lead to numerous death threats from extremists and weak-kneed and possibly well-meaning “multi-culturalists” will scold you for your insensitivity.

    In a sane world an EDMD would be the similar to EDSwastikasDay. Currently, if you tried to organize an EDSD, you’d be an asshole for trying to offend people for no reason. Everyone would agree your an asshole, and you’re within in your rights and that would be that. Speech would fight speech and you’d be the bad guy for needlessly provoking people.

    That’s not what happened on EDMD, though. That’s why Norris is now in hiding, and that’s why it was necessary and should be continued annually until enough Muslims accept that their rules don’t apply to everyone just like they accept my right to drink, eat pork, and keep dogs.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    Another thought about the stupid ‘draw swastikas’ comparison to ‘draw Muhammad’: Swastika drawings are offensive because they represent people who killed a bunch of people. Are Muhammad drawings offensive because they represent people who killed a bunch of people? Hmm? 😉 Muslim extremists have killed a lot of Muslims…

  • Onkuundig


    Meanwhile, atheists were accused my Eboo Patel, among others,

    I think you meant ‘by’ here.

  • Hitch

    Penn, let me give it one more try why you are horribly wrong.

    Let’s examine the context of swastikas. They actually were not offensive before the Nazis. However they became the symbol of an ideology that perpetuated violence and murder against people they disagreed with.

    Now let’s examine artistic engagement with Islam (and actually also other religions and ideologies that wield violent retribution as valid reaction). Here people who do dare to do this are persecuted, threatened, subject to violence or murdered.

    See the difference? Comparing smiling stick figures to swastikas in the contexts we have is like comparing those who protest to stand with the victims to those who marched to create victims.

    It’s morally despicable to wield that comparison.

    It is morally reprehensible because we equate legitimate expression that is part of a free peaceful society with intolerant expression that is part of an oppressive society.

    What is at fault is that people have not accepted the simple notion that expression never justifies retribution. That is where it ends.

    And as a side, people have not learned to be intellectually honest either. How many people have you seen who have honestly articulated how precisely the “don’t draw Muhammad” translates into theology? Well if they did we’d learn that it’s not obligatory, that it’s not universally held and we’d actually learn that some believers did not take offense.

    So not only are victims blamed, the context of the blame is at best exaggerated. So it’s immoral and disingenuous.

    So no drawing Muhammad does not make anyone an asshole automatically. Check this:


    Indeed anybody who things this kind of stuff is offensive, is silly (or worse).

    A last thing to say is offense. In feudal Europe people got constantly offended. Duels were used to resolve them. One simply cannot have an open discourse society when expression can be deadly.

    So those who insist on being offended and the offensive be stopped, should think long and hard how their demands operate in an open society. As some folks like to say “you do not have the right not to be offended” but to me it does not describe the crux. The real crux is “you do not have the right to turn your opinions, feelings, attitudes into violence against others just because they have opinions, feelings and attitudes too.”

    It’s quite easy to see that Molly would be safe and sound if our culture would stand up for this principle with the vigor it deserves.

    But we have wafflers, who rather blame those who drew a tea-pot with the name Muhammad, and we are happy to forget a school teacher who got persecuted for allowing school-children to name their mascot teddy bear Muhammad, we forget that Westergaard was attacked by an axeman in the presence of his grand-daughter, or that Vilks is subject to arson attacks, or that Theo van Gogh and publishers and translators of Rushdie are dead or injured.

    In short we forget the victims. Victims whose only “guilt” is to having drawn “offense”.

  • JB Tait

    If no one is allowed to attach the name Muhammad to an image, why are Muslims allowed to attach it to their children?

  • muggle

    The religious — all the religious of any faith group — need to get hip to the fact that the laws of their gawd only apply to them and no one else is under any obligation to follow those rules. Whether or not you believie in them, if you don’t worship the god(s)(ess)(esses)/etc., you don’t have to obey its dictates.

    That said, thanks for the link. I put it on my FB wall because I am damned sick and tired of where are all the moderate Muslims no matter how often I reply not getting the news coverage they deserve because it’s not sensational like the rabid extremists.

    Honestly, what do we hear more of in Christianity for that matter. We hear more moderate coverage but not as much as we hear from the rabid Right even there. Abortion doctors getting shot gets far more coverage than Catholics for Choice.

    The news media deserves a good share of the blame for caring more about ratings than facts and serving their best interest by fanning the flames of violence for more juicy stories.

  • How about the consideration that the voices of moderate Islam are excluded from the popular discussion? There is a big difference between saying that moderate Muslims are not speaking up, versus saying that you are not hearing the voice of moderate Muslims. You only need to look at the depiction of the “Ground Zero Mosque” rubbish on cable TV to realize that Muslims are rarely invited to give their opinions at all – no wonder we don’t hear much from them.

    In general, any disempowered group will be absent from the national dialog on any topic, so it can be disingenuous to blame them for you not hearing their opinions.

  • keddaw

    Muslims, go protest the Supreme Court of you’re actually annoyed by allowing images of Muhammad.

    Not only do they consistently protect free speech in spite of your attempts to curtail it, they actually have an image of the Prophet on the North Wall Frieze.

    Leave the cartoonists alone.

  • Brian Macker

    Instead of drawing figures of Mohammad we should just take quotes from the Qur’an, reverse Muslim for Jew, Christian, Idolater, Non-believer, and then scribble those all over the place.

    “Slay the Muslims wereever you find them …” – The Qur’an (Paraphrased)

    “There is a Muslim behind me, kill him” – The Qur’an (Paraphrased)

    Don’t see where they would be able to complain about that.

  • 3D

    How dare Comedy Central censor Muhammad’s image on South Park? Why should cartoonists have to live in fear for their lives because they drew an image of Muhammad?

    I disagree with this… Comedy Central is concerned with self-preservation (i.e., they’re scared of their offices and employees being bombed). This is a lot different from censorship for pure self-aggrandizement from a marketing standpoint.

    It’s great that some people are willing to stand up for this issue and put their lives in jeopardy, good for them. I support them, but I don’t expect everyone to make the same decision.

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