May 20th, 2010
10:44 AM ET
Editor’s note: Greg Epstein, an ordained Humanist rabbi, serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” and chairs the national advisory board of the Secular Student Alliance.
By Greg Epstein, Special to CNN
If I told you groups of atheist and Muslim students around the country have been breaking out boxing gloves, and the outlines of bodies have been marked in chalk on the ground, you’d worry, right? And you should, though fortunately it doesn’t mean anyone has been physically hurt yet.
Rather, it means the latest in a series of controversies over drawing the Prophet Mohammed has arrived: “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” scheduled for Thursday, May 20, has gained tens of thousands of online followers, riling fears and anger on many campuses.
This spring’s 200th episode of the always irreverent “South Park” included the Prophet Mohammed disguised in a bear mascot suit. A fringe website called Revolutionmuslim.com issued a warning against the “South Park” creators.
But the forces behind that site consist of just two “extremist buffoons,” according to Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. Read Iftikhar's commentary here
Still, Comedy Central network pulled the episode after it first aired. And the network censored Part II of the episode, with audio bleeps and image blocks. In response, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris penned a satirical cartoon calling for a national day of drawing the prophet. And groups of secular and atheist students, among others, are mobilizing to follow her lead en masse. Except Norris long since disavowed her cartoon, apologizing publicly and profusely for the misbegotten day it seems to have produced. Got all that?
The "South Park" episodes, of course, should have been left alone. The show makes fun of everyone, often brilliantly. There’s no reason for Islam to get off easier. Comedy Central seriously erred, kowtowing to extremists or to the small minority of American Muslims who oppose freedom of expression.
But two wrongs don’t make a right. Several campus groups of nonreligious students affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance, of which I am a big supporter, have started a campaign to chalk smiling stick figures on their campus quads, labeling the figures “Mohammed.”
Muslim students’ reaction? Add boxing gloves and re-label the drawings “Muhammad Ali." As an atheist (or better yet, call me a Humanist: one who emphasizes doing good without God) who longs for fellow Humanists to gain respectability in this religious nation, I begrudgingly admit the Muslims’ approach in this incident is superior in humor and civility.
This is not to say the secular students are bigots seeking to cause offense, as some have suggested. In fact they see themselves as standing up for free speech and free intellectual inquiry. They hope increasing the number of potential targets will make extremists think twice before attacking. And they earnestly believe no person should be so revered that they can not be drawn or spoken - that such reverence is simply a bad idea.
Proudly, they note that like the creators of "South Park," they are “equal opportunity critics” who would be just as harsh with bad ideas put forth by any other religion. They’ve written to their Muslim Students Association colleagues saying just that. In short they’re good, smart people, trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, they’re failing; maybe dangerously.
There is a difference between making fun of religious or other ideas on a TV show that you can turn off, and doing it out in a public square where those likely to take offense simply can’t avoid it. These chalk drawings are not a seminar on free speech; they are the atheist equivalent of the campus sidewalk preachers who used to irk me back in college. This is not even "Piss Christ," Andres Serrano's controversial 1987 photograph of a crucifix in urine. It is more like filling Dixie cups with yellow water and mini crucifixes and putting them on the ground all over town. Could you do it legally? Of course. Should you?
In Muslim culture, there is a longstanding tradition that to put something on the ground, where people step on it, is “the ultimate diss," indicating “I hate you, you disgust me,” as I was told by Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America
To this add the fact that after 9/11 hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims and “those perceived to be Muslim” increased 1,700 percent in the United States, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Large numbers of innocent Muslims in the U.S. have been harmed or intimidated simply because they share a religious tradition with extremists. Can we reasonably suggest they not be reminded of this upon seeing their prophet, the most revered and admired person in their cultural tradition, underfoot?
Our country’s top military leaders are struggling to win the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide. And many of the 1.57 billion Muslims are watching CNN and many other American networks to see what we think of them. If we think they are going to perceive this as a thoughtful exercise in critical thinking, we are in serious denial. To paraphrase one student I heard from, we should fight to the death for our right to chalk these images. But we should also have the dignity and respect not to do so.
Of course, Muslim extremists have again and again in recent memory committed atrocities that the angriest, most aggressive atheist I know could scarcely dream up on LSD. And it is moderate Muslims’ responsibility to speak out against these acts. And they are. My friend Eboo Patel is a Muslim who has built a movement training thousands of young Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Humanist, Buddhist and Hindu leaders in pluralism as an alternative religious extremism. What Eboo and other Muslims are saying when they criticize the chalking campaign is, ‘please find a less hurtful way to protect free speech; you’re within your rights to do it this way, but we can’t help but see it as, at best, unfriendly in the extreme.’ Check out the resources his organization has created for those looking for Muslim-atheist/Humanist partnerships rather than cartoonish conflict.
And partnerships are, more than ever, a real possibility. Patel and Mattson, along with Akbar Ahmed, the chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington and a leading authority on contemporary Islam, all responded enthusiastically to my suggestion that we organize a meeting between Muslim and secularist leaders and students. Ahmed’s comment summarized their sentiment: “I’d much rather know a person who says there is no God, but is dedicated to being a good person [than a person who gives lip-service to God but behaves unethically.]”
As a Humanist, I hope I do not exist solely to advance the Humanist cause. I want to advance the human cause. In this case, the way to do it is to keep the chalk on the blackboard, where perhaps one day soon Humanist and Muslim college students will use it together in inner-city elementary schools, teaching understanding and cooperation between members of different religious and moral traditions.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Greg Epstein.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.