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May 20th, 2010
10:44 AM ET

My Take: Everyone chalk Mohammed?

Secular students chalked smiling stick figures on campuses labeling them 'Mohammed;' Muslim students reacted by adding boxing gloves and re-labeling the drawings 'Muhammad Ali.'

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.

iReport: Why I choose to draw Muhammad

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?

Facebookers respond to 'Draw Mohammed Day'

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.

Pakistan blocks access to YouTube, Facebook

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • Islam • Opinion

soundoff (462 Responses)
  1. "Moo"hammed

    As far as I am concerned, if you can't deal with somebody's right to free speech, then don't listen to them. If you don't like Southpark and find it vulgar, DONT WATCH THE EPISODES. Screw the muslims who feel offended. I feel offended with their presence. And it isnt only muslims. Christians drive me nuts. The next moron Mormon who comes to my door trying to recruit me to Mormon Inc. is going to get my bat slammed against their head.

    Since when did we cater to a bunch of towel-heads anyhow? Seriously... I'm truly disturbed by how the United States must bend over backwards for anybody.

    I'm going outside with chalk now to draw out mohammed everywhere... each street in the neighborhood. Screw em. If the terrorists have a problem with it, they can come see me and my assault weapons.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  2. sf

    I think the protest to the drawings is EXCELLENT, because tackles a difference in perspective in a way that both points of view can understand and respect. By turning the drawings in to a popular icon in America, those that disagreed with the drawing of Muhammad managed to protest the drawing while fighting fairly in the mind of the western world. They protested right back, made a point, and I have more respect for that cleverness than previous threats of violence.
    Those supporting the drawing of Muhammad, I believe, are actually more appalled at the severity of the resulting death threats than that they actually want to insult a religion in particular. The general outrage is that a person should not be threatened with death over a cartoon (whether its your god or a bear). Most people in the West agree that insulting someones religion is wrong, but we also do not think you should be killed for doing so. Death threats over a cartoon are an extreme punishment on a level that most people in the western world find ludicrous, to the point that those threatening such things lose their point entirely.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  3. Dana

    I think everyone is missing the point of the Humanist students to begin with. The point wasn't to anger Muslim students or offend them. The point was to test the limit of their dedication to the idea of getting offended. Islam draws a very clear line in the sand when it comes to illustrating Mohammad. You just don't. What the humanist students did was put the tiniest tip of their pinky toe over that line to see how uncompromising dedicated muslims were to that belief. Think about it. It was literally the absolute least they could do to illustrate the prophet. The figures were smiling, not lewd, and it were stick figures. Basically what the humanist students are saying is, "Good God, how could you possibly still be offended?"

    May 20, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
  4. Biru

    Sorry but I'm free to say the holocaust never happened and not go to jail for it. This doesn't mean I wouldn't be ridiculed and publicly ostracized, however.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
  5. FatSean

    Yahweh ordered the ancient Hebrews to commit genocide on several occasions. The poor people of Ai :(

    May 20, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  6. BJ

    The day any muslin denounces the hateful teaching of their prophet in the Koran where it talks about killing 'non-believers' or any of the other atrocious statements in their book, then maybe we can have a dialog with Islam,(it ain't going to happen) they won't do it. Muslim will always said how Islam is for peace.but they never give the complete verse (the Koran does say in a number of places that it is not good to kill but that is not the complete verse.The complete verse is "and that you shall not kill – for that is forbidden by Allah – except for a just cause." His cause was to kill all non believers that didn't bow to him or pay him. So, no so called liberal muslin exists. Does any one know of an example?
    Just my take on Islam.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  7. mark

    Would he have written this same article inserting Jesus/Christianity, Moses/Judaism, Buddha/Buddhism, etc for Mohummad/Islam? I wish he would have – but I doubt it.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  8. LGTexas

    A Rabbi who doesn't teach about God is like a Father who doesn't want to raise his kids. Sad.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
    • Mak Kim Ju

      Are you Jewish? Or just some kooky bible thumper who thinks if you speak well of the Jews they'll finally "correct their ways" and start worshipping your Southern-fried Baptist Jayzuss?

      May 20, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  9. Dummy

    Its all about ethics. Freedom of speech is one thing but you don't call a Fat person Fat because you know that it could be offensive. So why create unnecessary tension when the times are already tough. There are so many other serious issues in the world that needs more attention.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
  10. Timothy Rigney

    I can't even believe this. There's absolutely no reason to antagonize Muslems by drawing Mohammed. It's offensive to them – which seems strange to "us" but guess what? It's none of our business! That's their belief; they have the Freedom of Religion; and we have to respect that.
    This seems very "kindergartenish" to me – - "they said THIS so I'm gonna do THAT!"
    In my opinion it's unacceptable behavior – there's no reason or justification for being so antagonistic and petty.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
  11. Grow Up People

    We all have rights. And some go much deeper than others. I have a right to draw and express myself. Others have a right to not agree with what I draw, and even the right to turn away and not look if they choose. I have a right to sell my expression to those who would pay to see it. Others have the right to vote ‘no’ with their pocketbooks. And if someone wants to live in a society of diverse views and beliefs, a person must develop the right (and obligation) to control their emotions, be an adult, and not get overtly offended to the extreme when they see someone else’s expression. Americans have been asked to do just this all of our lives to allow freedom of expression which we hold dear. Christian Americans have dealt with this issue for multiple decades. Why should one group's inability to control themselves change that, simply because they lack the social maturity (or unwillingness) to accept differences around them and live in harmony with other opinions they may see. This is fundamental for a society and its citizens to allow others the DEEPER RIGHT to express themselves as they wish.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
  12. Joe

    What in the Lord's name is a secular rabbi??

    May 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
  13. Sean

    The sad thing is, there are two right sides to this, but that understanding will never come to be.

    It's every person's right in this country to be allowed freedom of speech, even if we find that speech reprehensible (or offensive to our religion of choice, or lifestyle of choice, or soda of choice, or whatever it may be).

    But...those practicing their freedom of speech rights must understand that there are other consequences (not legal). For instance, you may get your butt whipped if you burn a flag in front of me. It's legal for you to do so, but there are other consequences. That being said...why would you want to intentionally hurt someone else? Why would you want to purposefully take something they believe in and defame it? Just because you don't hold it dear, and don't understand why someone does, does not mean that what your doing is ok.

    It's your right to do it, but that doesn't make it right. and for the other side, if you want to live in a nation that supports free speech, you need to be prepared to hear things you don't like.

    "I may not like what you say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it."

    May 20, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  14. darkstar

    I respect everyone's right in the world to believe as they see fit; however, that does not mean I have to respect what it is that they choose to believe.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  15. play fair

    why do people keep targeting mohammed to anger muslims. if you know thats not what they like, stop it. simple as that. just like how jewish people would not like people denying the holocaust.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  16. Really?

    What if I called your moma names all in the 'freedom of speech' spirit. Would u take it with dignity?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  17. JB

    These days, there's always someone who finds something offensive. It's impossible to please everyone. For once at least the secular part of society is being noticed. Well done.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  18. darkstar

    I respect everyone's right in the world to believe as they desire. However, that does not mean that I must respect what they choose to believe.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  19. felicia

    So it's a rule for Americans to go and DRAW Muhammad? Just because we can doesn't mean we shouldn't be sensitive to other people. Just because you CAN picket at a soldier's funeral, doesn't mean you should.
    And Muslims aren't trying to shove their way of life down our throats; we're invading the Middle east trying to shove our ideas down their throats. Get your facts straight.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  20. alan777

    Can't handle Freedom of Speech? Then don't be American. Freedom of Speech is the most fundamental right we Americans hold dear to us. People can and will say all kinds of things that you as a person may not like. That is too bad. Look the other way, move on, and get over it. No one is going to force us to abandon Freedom of Speech for any reason, even to protect a group of religious people from having their feelings hurt.

    This is not about protecting your religious or political beliefs. It is about protecting Freedom of Speech. That is the bottom line and frankly it is the ONLY line that matters. Like I said, can't handle Freedom of Speech? Don't be American because you are NOT changing this nation!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.