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. Steve

    Smile a little – it's only art

    May 20, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  2. Hakim

    Typical anti-American Lefty belief: "It's always OUR fault when someone hates or attacks us." So what did the people in Bali do that required Muslim terrorists to blow up a disco of 200 people? And what did Spain do that lead to the subway attacks? Can't you possibly fathom that some people - extremists Islamic fanatics - don't like freedom, and want to take the world back to a 7th century Caliphate?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  3. Read

    DAMN talk about mis information in the above reply, I am a muslim and no we do NOT ask God to kill christians or jews, in our prayers. We believe in Jesus, but as a messanger of God, We believe in Moses as a messanger of God, we put both of them at their highest honor. We believe that Quran is the same word of God that was sent as Bible.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  4. PJ Fuchs

    "Imagine no religion, it's easy if you try." J. Lennon

    May 20, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
  5. Jack

    To the nice muslim people out there; I know a lot of nice people are muslim but the problem is much bigger than you. Your extremist seem to live in the dark ages and run your religion. I know many religions have their dark time in history but they've grown out of the barbaric ways of the past. Islam is still crude and barbaric and the moderates are afraid to confront the extremists or just don't want to.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  6. This is it

    Whatever we say or do has consequences on us and others. Learn about Islam in an academic way to have your own opinion and do not accept tailored ones put forward for you. Very easy to sit drink bear, watch tv.... and think you know all. Very sad for the human race.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  7. Joe

    So I should ignore the fact that nearly every religion constantly disrespects my beliefs and perpetually calls me names because I do not hold the same belief structure? Freedom of Speech is more dear to me than any religion could ever come near.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  8. CCCool

    Reading these posts, I find myself very much more afraid because of the extreme lack of basic dignified behavior, than I am of extremist Muslims. If someone asks you to turn the TV volume down, you do it-unless you're brainless. If someone says it's offensive to draw their sacred figure-especially offensive when drawing it on the ground where people step-it's simply basic courtesy to refrain from being offensive. NOTHING to do with protecting your imagined "right to offend"!! So many cretins here...

    May 20, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  9. Fung

    Radical Christians and radical Muslims are equally dangerous.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  10. Big Bob

    I'm very sensitive about building a mosque at Ground Zero.

    Now THAT's insulting. See Medina, Constantinople etc...these folks have a little history, ya know!

    May 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  11. EJ

    So when we tune in to what is happening in the Arab world, we've grown accustomed to see bad mock-ups of the US flag and our leaders being burned ineffigy. So they have to endure the same tiresome footage w/ chalk stick figures on the ground. Big deal.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  12. joe

    Anyone believeing in religion is ridiculous. I think the Lord of the Rings trilogy is more believeable actually. People need to accept we're all just animals, we live, we die, we rot. The end. Just because we have great intelligence doesn't give us the right to invent magical stories that people must live by.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  13. alan777

    What is your point?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  14. buttset

    mohammed stick figures Rock. I want to sell some tee shirts with that logo

    May 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  15. Dr. Carl

    LMAO, not at what you wrote, but at you. I highly recommend you go back to school if you have every been, and learn to read, and maybe do some research about the fastest growing religion despite all that is happening.
    I could give a contradiction, but I would just say pray to your pope, who you put him equal to god, giving him power to allow and forbid anything he wants.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  16. charles

    Free speech- use it or lose it.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  17. Jonmark

    THE SIMPLE REALITY IS YES AMERICANS HAVE FREEDOM OF SPEECH – BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN SPEECH SHOULD BE USED IRRESPONSIBLY. It's a crime to yell "FIRE" in a crowded movie theater. It's highly irresponsible to make jokes about a plane crash or terrorism in an airport or on an airplane. Isn't it their right to do so? Yes, but it's irresponsible and highly offensive and concerning to those around.

    Muslims HEAVILY value their texts and they try to follow them closely. Islam teaches Muslims that It is highly offensive and disrespectful to draw the Prophet or God and to give them an image that's not theirs his. They learn a great deal about the Prophet and try to follow his way of life. When someone mocks the Prophet or portrays him incorrectly, or in a highly offensive manner, Muslims get upset out of their love for the Prophet.

    This is simply because the Majority of Muslims are more dedicated to their faith. They follow the commands as much as they can in the Quran. A good example of this is why Muslim women wear Hijab (loose clothing) while the Christian woman do not. The command for them to do so is found in the Bible, the Torah and the Quran! So why is it that only some Muslim woman follow their texts? It's because they really believe in it. Most Christians in the world today identify as Christians, but do not really believe in their texts and often take their personal opinion over that in their books, which they claim to be from God. Most Christians rarely pick up the Bible, while many Muslims read the Quran daily, weekly, monthly and finish reading it at a minimum once a year.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
    • alan777

      But the point of Freedom of Speech is that we CAN say we disagree with a thing with no fear of punishment from the government. We in America CAN disrespect anyone or anything because we CAN. Don't you get it? This is very black and white. Either you have Freedom of Speech of you do not. There is no middle ground. That all includes the idea that some people may be deeply offended. That is too bad. They can speak against things that offend them here in America. That is their right to Freedom of Speech. But they do not get try to get the things that offended them illegalized or quashed simply because they do not like it. That would be stepping on another citizens right to Freedom of Speech.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  18. ken

    cool pic.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  19. Lori

    In my opinion, I think that to depict Mohammed is ok, as long as it's not in disrespect of the religion. For the Christians out there(and yes, I am one of them), would you want Jesus depicted on a sidewalk with people walking all over him? I know I wouldn't. But to simply have a drawing or to make fun of him on a tv show(if and only if ALL other religions were treated the same way i.e. South Park) is why we have freedom. That is what makes us America. Our men and women died and are still dying for that right. We CANNOT let an extremist group come and tell us what we can and can't do because we are being threatened. WE ARE THREATENED EVERY DAY! This is nothing new to us. So I say, Continue to depict Mohammed, Jesus, Allah, the blue haired guy that lives down the street, whoever, as long as all religions are treated the same way.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  20. Math is God

    I don't subscirbe in any particular religious denomonation however that doesn't mean im not a spiritual person. The universe or even the source of the universe had to begin somewhere. I personally find it offensive that "god" is personified in any way, be it through Muhammad or Jesus. Cut the earth out of the universe and look at the impression it leaves. We're not so special and with that no human or human creation (Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha, etc. ) is so special that they can't be critisized let alone depicted. Maybe i have thick skin but when someone criticizes my beliefs I either ignore it or try or understand why, maybe they're right to criticize. People are going to do and say what they want and i have no problems with that. I do have a problem with someone telling me i can't or shouldn't do something because it may offend someone. Nobody has the right to impose their own morals on another regardless of who may be offended. This kind of challenge to authority and beliefs needs to happen more often.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:19 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.