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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. Max

    I am not a muslim but it is pretty obvious to me that this is all about publicity, this so called Rabbi wants to make himself known by doing extreme things.

    His name is out there now I guess, but I won't buy his book.

    HAve a good day, Draw as much as you like, it can be any Mohamed, not necessarily religion Mohamed.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  2. MKA

    Have you wondered why no Muslim reacted to any of these numerous drawing attempts by simply doing the same and draw Jesus or Moses? It is simply because to a Muslim it is equally degrading and unacceptable to draw these religious figures. If Muslim hold that much respect to your prophets and religious symbols, is it to much to ask for at least a similar gesture.??? Is too much too ask that you live Muhammed alone simply out of respect if nothing else? After all isn't this what a civilized behavior dictates?

    You do not need to believe in Muhammed or anything about Islam you just need to respect others and their symbols especially if they respect yours...

    May 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  3. Student

    It seems to me that something has gone seriously wrong with our interpretation of freedom of speech. So many people who have posted here are equating freedom of speech with a duty to offend. As I interpret it, the freedom of speech was provided by those founding the country in order to ensure that the government does not impinge on personal rights. It says nothing of a need to denigrate, disrespect and harass those with differing beliefs than our own. In fact, I believe that it calls for just the opposite. The freedom of speech underscores the fundamental desire for each person to be able to view the world from their own perspective and live life according to their own set of morals and values. Freedom of religion also reflects this understanding of a true sense of personal freedom.

    Simply because someone does not hold the same belief system as you do does not mean that you need to mock their beliefs, particularly in a public setting. There are many, many wonderful Muslim people in this world and to lump them in with those who commit terrorist acts is ludicrous. It is no different than saying that all white Christians are supremacist Neo-Nazis. They are no different than Christians, Buddists, Hindus, or any other religious group. They choose to believe in something beyond themselves, and for many that brings as sense of peace, goodness, and purpose. Just because I do not ascribe to those beliefs or find the same solace in them does not mean that I should impinge on their sense of decency or morality.

    No one is trying to take away our freedom of speech. We still have it. We just have to work on how we use it. There are those out there that will kill because of drawings of Muhammad. In my mind, they are simply sadistic, self-rightous maniacs who have chosen to mask their already evil personalities under the guise of religion. The religion itself did not make them bad. Whether or not we choose to guide our actions by their example is up to us. By organizing the drawing of Mohammad all we are essentially saying is that we have no respect for the millions, upon millions of Muslims who have not done so much as harm a fly and we are letting terrorist dictate how we view and react to the world. Those who are drawing these images think that they are accomplishing something when all they are doing is fueling an unnecessary fire in those who cannot be reasoned with and deeply offending those who can.

    I am not a Christian. I am not a Muslim, I have no religious ties. I believe in the freedom of speech. I choose NOT to draw Muhammed.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
    • alan777

      Uh, yes it really does allow me or anyone to say pretty much anything about anyone and anything that does not go into the realms or slander or libel. Once you limit one subject you threaten them all. People can print pro-Nazi materials here in America. People don't like it. Too bad. People can print materials supporting Intelligent Design. People hate it. Too bad, they get to because of Freedom of Speech. If people want to print a book about how Islam is a religion of hate or of peace they get to because of Freedom of Speech. It is all that simple. Either we have Freedom of Speech of we don't. Never give up and inch or they will take a mile.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  4. Mak Kim Ju

    Jesus and Mohammad weren't worth more than the compost that they became after the worms finally finished eating and defecating their corpses.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  5. Loren, Chicago

    I find it interesting that we, as Americans, are supposed to understand and respect everyone else's culture, but there is no corresponding obligation on them to understand our culture. Fundamental to our culture is the freedom of expressio, even to the point where it offends some people.

    I don't know whose idea it was to make chalk drawings of Mohammed on sidewalks and if they understood that walking on something is to show the ultimate disrespect? What I find puzzling is the idea that there may be some things as a monolithic "Muslim culture". I do know that there are two primary branches of the Muslim religion, with a variety of other sects, much as how Christendom is split up into various banches. Given that Muslims don't agree on basic tenets of their religion, to claim that something as othewise innocuous as drawing on the sidewalk is a grievous and insulting act is as ludicrous as that drawing the Prophet somehow rises to idolatry, when extremist followers by taking that tack have in fact does exactly that (the activity in preventing the image has led to same result – blind worship without understanding of th message).

    I understand the message here, don't tease a chained dog, it might get loose and bite you, but maybe it would be best for the owner to train the dog instead. The problem between Islam and the rest of the world is that it has set a bunch of rabid dogs loose in the world under the guise of religion. Should we accept the rabid dogs by trying to humor them? Or should we dowhat is normally done for rabid dogs – put them down because there is no cure?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  6. Yanni

    When Madonna did a music video that offended Christians I don't remember the pope or anyone calling for her to be killed. Why do people think that it's OK to make fun of Christianity but not Islam?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • Mohammad

      Well the reason is simple...muslims are dedicated to their faith and take it seriously while christians esp donot have any respect for their own faith ...its odd that we expect such people to show respect for other religions...we really have to lower our expectation from you all....

      May 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  7. Loren, Chicago

    I find it interesting that we, as Americans, are supposed to understand and respect everyone else's culture, but there is no corresponding obligation on them to understand our culture. Fundamental to our culture is the freedom of expressio, even to the point where it offends some people.

    I don't know whose idea it was to make chalk drawings of Mohammed on sidewalks and if they understood that walking on something is to show the ultimate disrespect? What I find puzzling is the idea that there may be some things as a monolithic "Muslim culture". I do know that there are two primary branches of the Muslim religion, with a variety of other sects, much as how Christendom is split up into various banches. Given that Muslims don't agree on basic tenets of their religion, to claim that something as othewise innocuous as drawing on the sidewalk is a grievous and insulting act is as ludicrous as that drawing the Prophet somehow rises to idolatry, when extremist followers by taking that tack have in fact does exactly that (the activity in preventing the image has led to same result – blind worship without understanding of th message).

    I understand the message here, don't tease a chained dog, it might get loose and bite you, but maybe it would be bst for the owner to train the dog instead. The problem between Islam and the rest of the world is that it has set a bunch of rabid dogs loose in the world under the guise of religion. Should we accept the rabid dogs by trying to humor them? Or should we dowhat is normally done for rabid dogs – put them down because there is no cure?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • Jack R

      Excellent point, Loren. If they are so uncomfortable, perhaps they have chosen to live in the wrong country.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  8. Grow Up People

    0/ <- Mohammed. Deal with hit! And learn to be a mature member of an advanced society that has learned that intolerance only leads to demagoguery, war, abuse, and death. A forward thinking and just society that allows multiple people and multiple beliefs to coexist side by side. Not without conflict, but with a greater gravity to live and let live and resolve our differences with fairness and mutual respect. If you cannot do these things, then your privilege (Not a right) to live among us is revoked!

    May 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • Jack R

      Absolutly, wrong..... it is a right, not a priviledge.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  9. Dan G.

    (O)
    There
    is
    no bomb
    like
    a
    big bomb
    / \

    May 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  10. Not Mohamed Ali

    Here is my Mohamed

    O<-<

    May 20, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  11. Joe

    Correct me if I'm wrong here, but if allah is all powerful, can't he just erase all of the Muhammed drawings?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
    • Mohammad

      If your God was so powerful , how could HE let jews kill his ONLY son Jesus????

      May 20, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  12. brilliant, really

    The original drawing and the counter-point drawing present a really good and useful dialog all by themselves.

    Though I'm personally unlikely to draw a cartoon of anyone's prophet any time soon, I come away from this appreciating both sides of the discussion. For me, the original idea was interestingly presented and the counter-point was brilliant.

    For the most part these symbols have sparked good and thoughtful dialog. Everyone wins.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  13. Jason

    You couldn't be any more wrong. These drawings are not only legal, they are morally and ethically proper. That's because they ARE offensive. Offensive speech is the best proof that free speech exists in the first place. It is utterly irrelevant whether the drawings are done in public for all Muslims to see, or whether in a cartoon which they can choose to avoid. As I am a lawyer, I'll give you a one of the most celebrated statements in Supreme Court history: Our nation is founded upon a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks.”

    If your argument is that the students drawing Muhammad are morally failing because they choose to act publicly rather than in private or in a more discreet manner, then you completely misunderstand the important of these drawings. What you don't understand is that the very public nature of these drawings, which are extremely offensive to some, is vital proof in and of itself that free speech and freedom from religion exists everywhere in this country for everyone, regardless of the content of the message. The more offensive and the more public, the BETTER, because if the most disgusting speech is free, then EVERYONE'S speech is free. Once you start drawing lines with some speech, particularly political and religious speech, you compromise ALL speech.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • Jack R

      Thank you Jason. Perhaps our muslims friends would be more comfortable in another country, not a liberal as ours.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  14. Jimmy

    Just like in all religions you have believers, enthusiasts and non-believers. Back in the times of the Crusades and the Middle Ages, infidels were one who were not of the Christian faith. It was the enthusiasts mission to show these non-believers that they must convert, even by force. Well Muslim enthusiasts have carried that grudge for hundreds of years in that they used to be the infidels. Now the enthusiasts take the idea of Kafir one step too far and call anyone not of Muslim faith infidels. With that they have very strict rules to live by and whether it is pure hatred or just envy that they do not live with the same freedoms as others do they speak out against the ways of these infidels. The Muslim enthusiasts speak down of other religions because they believe Allah is the only way and that if you do not believe, you don't deserve squat, on earth or in the afterlife. All other religions are ridiculed and that is fine, but you don't ridicule their religion, or else. And that is where the problem lies. When it is one cartoonist in a Dutch newspaper, the enthusiasts can intimidate. When it is one company, the enthusiasts can bring fear there too, but when it is tens of thousands, what can they do. It is the non-believers way of telling the Muslim enthusiasts to take a hike. If they ignored it and moved on (or to use a religious term, "turn the other cheek") this wouldn't be occurring, but for Muslim believers to let the enthusiasts spew what they will, it is never met with a good response, especially when they are the minority party (in numbers). If Muslim believers want what everyone else wants, it may be time to seperate the believers from the enthusiasts becauseinnocent ones. If the enthusiasts were to escalate this further, it could need more trouble for innocent people of all religions. All reilgions come from a central core, a central idea and, by coincidence, the same holy place. but the interpretation is where it all goes wrong. You do not fit your beliefs, you make your beliefs fit your lifestyle.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  15. Sam

    We should respect people no matter what their background, but those Muslim dont respect other religion example like you know in Islam holy book the muslim should call the Christians and the Jews as sons of pigs and apes, this one thing and the other thing muslims dont believe in Jesus and as Christians believe in Jesus and the Bible we have now is the wrong one but no muslim can bring the real one.
    and they call other religious nonmuslim as infidels and when muslim sees one of us he should kill him or take him as slave
    in islam prayers everyday and every time they prey they should and have to say GOD kill the Christians and the Jews kill them all don't even leave one kid a live kill all their men, women kids so they have the right to say that even in their Mosques in the U.S.A IMAGEN that

    May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  16. fujow

    I can understand Muslims being sensitive to The drawings of Mohammed, but what about the feelings of the 9/11 victims.
    They want to build a Mosque for prayer at ground zero.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  17. OldGuy

    If I am offended by speech, I do not try to kill the offender.

    But when the original Dutch cartoon showing Mohammad wearing a turban containing a bomb was published there were calls for the death of the cartoonist. That cartoon was political commentary against those who use Islam to support violence. An educated interpretation would not see it as an attack on Islam, but as an attack on the criminals who cite the Koran as supporting their crimes.

    To self-censor and cave-in demands that there be no depiction of Mohammad is dangerous to the notion of a free society, a free press, and free speech. Granted, such freedoms are western ideas not embraced in the Arab world (or, for that matter, not fully embraced in France, and much of the western world), but free speech is extremely important in the US. Offensive speech is protected.

    Will you offend? Maybe. But the offended person can speak out against the offending speech. But not commit or threaten violence.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  18. Jnan R. Saha

    Whats the hoolabaloo about?
    This Muhammed Ali.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  19. 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 |
  20. Lesly

    "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".

    Muslim students wrote "In solidarity with Lebanon" during Israel's invasion all over traffic-heavy sidewalks four years ago @ OSU. No, I don't care that these are words and Mohamed is a picture. I don't see anything wrong with insulting a godhead. Or rather, I don't think whether we insult religious godheads depends on how deeply a segment of society is offended, especially if that segment could react violently. I disagree with idiots and racists who post on "Everybody Draw Mohamed Day" to paint Muslims as a monolithic violent people, but I won't stop supporting EDMD to balance against idiots and racists.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:05 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.