Imagine for a moment a hypothetical religion. It is a major one with many millions of followers. One of the tenets of this religion states that wearing red clothing is disallowed, perhaps out of respect to its founder who died the bloody death of a martyr. Many adherents say that the ban on red clothing applies not just to members but to everyone and that for anyone to do so constitutes offensive disrespect towards their religion. A small but vocal minority go further and say that wearing red is punishable by death and regularly offer threats of violence towards those who refuse to respect their religious rule.
Now imagine someone saying, “Well, it’s a major religion and who am I to judge their rules, even if I don’t believe what they believe? I don’t want to offend anyone and religious people deserve respect, so I will stop wearing red and encourage my friends to stop as well. After all, there are many other colors to choose from, so it’s no real sacrifice to give up wearing red. True, it’s still within our legal right to wear red, but no good would come of intentionally offending these people by doing so; it’s best simply to comply for the sake of comity. Of course it’s wrong for anyone to threaten to kill people for wearing red, but they don’t represent the peace-loving majority. Frankly, anyone who would wear red is childish, rude, insensitive, and perhaps even hateful and bigoted.”
This hypothetical situation is, in principle, no different than the issue of creating images that depict Mohammad ibn ‘Abdullah, the founder of Islam. This practice is by many Muslims considered deeply offensive, and a small handful have issued and acted on threats of violence towards those who dare to do so. Even the more moderate Muslims claim that drawing a picture of Mohammad is insulting, hurtful, mocking, and so on.
A few weeks ago, Comedy Central infamously censored a portion of a South Park episode that illustrated Mohammad due, apparently, to a death threat from a handful of Muslims. Since then, various projects have sprung up in answer to this, including several secular/atheist college groups who have been drawing smiling Muhammad stick figures in chalk on campus sidewalks. The project that is starting to get a lot of press is “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day”, started by cartoonist Molly Norris, which is to take place on May the 20th. While Norris has since backed away from the project, it has taken on a life of its own, and naturally there are a lot of passionate responses to it on both sides, for and against.
The initial purpose was to show that we will not be intimidated by threats. Considering that artists have been physically attacked for portraying Mohammad, this is a real issue. It is fundamentally wrong to expect people not to exercise their right of free expression because of threats of violence, and this alone makes “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day” a worthwhile project. But I believe there are deeper reasons as well.
At the heart of all this is the notion that a religion has the moral, if not the legal, right to demand that their own rules should apply to everyone. Just as it is absurd to demand that everyone stop wearing red clothes, it is equally as absurd to demand that everyone avoid drawing a picture of a specific person. The given justification for this demand, given by both Muslims and non-Muslims, is that to do so would be offensive to them. On the surface, this makes sense (just like our hypothetical person above does)—after all, we’re good, tolerant people who respect the right of others to live peacefully; why should we purposefully offend them? Why punish all the moderate Muslims for the actions of a few extremists?
First: I am personally and genuinely offended by the idea that I shouldn’t be allowed to draw Mohammad; why is it okay for me to be offended? It’s okay because people are allowed to express themselves, even at the expense of people being offended! This is because offense is not automatically harmful. Harm implies the undue infliction of pain or the theft of something valuable, such as property, opportunity, or dignity. Painting a swastika on a synagogue sidewalk is harmful because it indicates support of Nazism and the murder of Jews. Drawing a Black man as a monkey is harmful because it perpetuates the idea that one race is inferior to another. But drawing Mohammad is no more harmful to Muslims than drawing Jesus is to Christians or Siddhartha Gautama to Buddhists or L. Ron Hubbard to Scientologists, because doing so (a) is not directly harmful and (b) does not reflect or incite harmful action. Offense in this case does not constitute harm and so is insufficient reason to avoid drawing Mohammad.
Second: the aim of such projects (as I see it) is not to offend but to disempower a sacred cow that has far overreached into secular territory. In fact, a central point is for people not to be offended—it would be wonderful if May 20 came and went without a single word of complaint. But as long as Muslims are treated with kid gloves, they will continue to make oversensitive demands that intrude on basic liberties. If we can resist such unreasonable demands with persistence, humor, and yes, respect for Muslims as people, then the hope is that eventually the taboo will become tolerable.
Yes, many Muslims will be offended on May 20. One answer to this is, “you artists are childish, rude, insensitive, and hateful! See what you did? You offended Muslims!” But I think a better answer is, “We’re sorry you are offended, but we cannot apologize for a drawing that causes you no harm. You are free to believe Mohammad deserves the ‘ultimate respect’ but we are not obligated to agree with you. And that lack of agreement does not necessarily mean disrespect towards you personally; respect does not require compliance or immunity from criticism—it means that we will not demean you, steal from you, deceive you, or injure you. These drawings do none of those things.”
If peaceful Muslims really want to speak out against their extremists, as they often claim they do, they could sacrifice their comfort for one day and actually support the project. I don’t expect this, of course, although it would be an effective gesture. Rather, I expect many will don the robe of the martyr, woefully but courageously enduring the torture being inflicted upon them in the form of hundreds of badly drawn portraits. But people don’t have a right to be protected from offense, especially when the offense is not reflective of real harm—Muslims invented this rule out of thin air, not out of a history of injustice or injury. To cry racism! or hatred! or injustice! in this case is to utterly disrespect the real racism, hatred, and injustice that various peoples have endured through the years.
The fact is I have no real interest in drawing Mohammad. I don’t think I’ve ever drawn any religious leader and I have been an artist (doodler?) all my life. But I do have an interest in freedom of expression and in challenging religious dogma. So, I will be adding my contribution on the 20th.