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. Greg

    HAHA! My imaginary god in the sky is better than your imaginary god in the sky!

    May 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm |

    I NEVER would've said this before 9/11 and the whole Danish Muhammad cartoonist flap, but I'll say it now: Just snap a picture of Charles Manson. There! Instant Muhammad!

    May 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Greg

      :}-< <- Mohammed. So shoot me!

      May 20, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  3. timber

    light up or leave me alone- Traffic

    May 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  4. Steve

    smile a little – it's only art...

    May 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  5. logan

    so when is Draw Jesus Day?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Name

      EVERY day is draw Jesus day 😀

      May 20, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
  6. Scott

    It is clear to most that the Muslim faith is a religion of hate. they hate every thing about the way western society lives. they gain power with fear and keeping their populations uneducated. They have been at war with the western cultures for quite some time and we are afraid to except the fact that if we want our children to live in a free world we will have to eventually start fighting back.
    They claim to be a religion of peace but they commit terrorist acts against innocents, appose free speech and women rights. They even ban music under there laws.

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

    Keep in mind that Epstein's platoon is lead a Reb Wine, who declares hmself an "ignostic" and denies the existance of G-d as no one can come forth with proof of G-d's existance...

    May 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  8. ken

    ooooooo, a smoke monster, how cool is that!

    / \

    Mohammed in a space suit.

    I could make a lot of money with a picture of that monster so bring him on !

    May 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  9. Brian

    Bravo to these Muslim Students! Their reaction shows a civilized and intelligent response to a very sensitive issue. Hopefully these type of Muslims are the future of their religion. If so, the world will be a much better place.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  10. bebe34

    We shall see who's going to laugh in the END.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  11. Censorship is evil

    I for one will be chalk drawing lots of Muhammeds until the day that I can watch that South Park episode without it being censored. Rights that are not excercised are lost.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  12. Loki

    The writer may have a good education and speak well, but they are quite wrong on many levels. First, these drawings are not necessarily attacks on Muslims as much as DEFENSE against Muslim's attack on our free speech! I doubt if any of the 'chalkers' were aware of Muslim offenses taken at the drawings on the ground. And I find the efforts to turn them into Muhammad Ali to be one of the first peaceful protest responses I have seen. Normally the offended would call for the death or harm of the people doing the drawing. Welcome to the 20th century you guys. Also, statistics are meaningless without context. Sure 1700% increase sounds huge, but prior to 9/11 there probably were very few assaults on Muslims. If only 1 was attacked in the prior year, and 17 were attacked in the following year, that is 1700%. Sounds big, but not really when you delve into it. So better facts please. And as for Muslims showing respect that we do not with the drawings on the ground, how about the Muslims who danced in the streets when Americans died on 9/11. Yeah right, respect. Draw a cartoon, threaten death. Convert to Christianity, kill them. Don't like something they stand for, bomb innocent civilians. And for the ones not doing the killing, stand silently and don't stand against it. Respect is apparently a relative term to them.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  13. Whodat

    Let us not stoop to this level and offend the good Muslims by this stupid ordeal. However, I do find it a bit offensive that too many Muslims justify or condone to some degree the 911 attacks and other cowardly terrorist acts. Furthermore, these words or pictures will not help. What needs to be done is a little more military persuasiveness and a deal with Afghanis and possibly Taliban. A deal insofar as no sanctuary for Al Queda or any other group whose main objective is to destroy US or allies and we'll leave so you can run your people the way they allow.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  14. Citizen

    "Large numbers of innocent Muslims in the U.S. have been harmed or intimidated simply because they share a religious tradition with extremists."

    Specific examples, please? Not rhetoric. I doubt that its 'large numbers'? If you want to generalize, then I will say that a larger number of non-Muslims have been hurt or killed in recent years because they are not Muslim.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
    • Jack R

      A large number of muslims have been charged with being terrorists.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  15. elitesack

    I believe in free speech, but i love my fellow man and i will not use it as an excuse to do nothin more than insult them, and this is how i prefer to practice my right to free speech. Now i will draw something for all of you -–> ~o his name is bob

    May 20, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  16. Muckluck

    It seems that using the name Mohammed as a label to a drawing is what ticks people off. If a stick figure is not indicated as any particular person, real or imaginary, then it can be anyone. Take it a step further artistically, and make an abstract picture or whatever and call it Mohammed, and it is. It is a form of oppression to prohibit any person's creative efforts. Just because the pedagogy of a moldy fairytale keeps its believers from behaving in certain ways does not give those believers the right to inhibit the activities of non-believers. You want a boot on your neck? Go for it. But do not get upset with those who choose to be free.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  17. ;D

    Umm I believe this is Muhammed -> ^o^

    May 20, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  18. Frank

    1) Not all muslims are terrorists but just about all terrorists are muslims
    2) I don't care what they believe, they are free to believe what they will. Having said that, their beliefs (the Koran) are absurd, full of contradictions, flies in the face of known scirntific truths is and provably incorrect. Anyone that performs a thorough and open minded review and analysis would come to that conclusion.
    3) Their religion has kept them in the 7th century and they have contributed nothing good to this world since becoming enslaved by it.
    4) Just because they might think something is sacred does not make it so. I can't understand why they consider a murderous pedophile to be sacred. This guy has been dead for centuries but the plague he left hasn't yet receeded. Muslims, open your eyes, research your book & religion, compare and save yourselves.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  19. Mohammad

    Legitimacy of issues is not the only criterion that the media uses to focus its attention on a story. With many competing interests each fighting for media attention, it becomes the responsibility of American Muslims, individually or collectively, to undertake proactive steps to develop sustained relationships. We know now for sure that any positive story from muslim world will not get the attention of mainstream U.S media. However if their is one crazy fanatic with a bushy beard holding an anti america slogan, he will be the center of media attention.....talk about media bias! Campbell Brown of no bias no bull should learn a thing or two from link TV. CNN, Fox and MSNBC all cherry pick their news and Godforbid if there is a positive story on muslims they will do their best to ignore it....

    May 20, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  20. Chris B

    You say no one was hurt, but what about Lars Vilk and, to a worse extent, Theo van Gogh?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:11 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.