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. Matt

    Well said Jake.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  2. Me two

    Looks more like Kennedy. Oh well. This whole this is just retarded.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  3. Truth

    The quran also says preaches that islam is not just a religion but should also be the main political party. They also preach murder and war against anything that stands in the way of islam.....or did you get the edited quran they hand out to poor people they try to recruit?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  4. Islam_religion_of_terror

    Here is my drawing.... <<<>>>> Mohamed loved boys<<>

    May 20, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  5. Mohammad

    all media are busy cherry picking news....spew hate and instill fear n anger....wow cant find an ounce of journalistic integrity

    May 20, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  6. Mohammed

    Author, please tell me again that you're a Humanist. I didn't absorb that from the 20 times you mentioned it in the article.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  7. not all docs play golf

    I understand that death threats against people who draw a religious prophet seems like an extreme, but, do people (especially those who claim to be so "Christian") have to purposely antaganize and ridicule those of another faith?
    Seems like the whole world would be better off without religion at all, and just caring for their fellow man through secular humanism. That is the highest ideal.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  8. Grey, Atlanta

    I am glad CNN has finally allowed the Jewish perspective on all of this to be heard. Now if you would only invite a main-stream Jewish Rabbi to express an opinion instead of this hack "Rabbi" who does not even believe in God. Who ordained this Rabbi? How dare he associate himself with something that he is not?! He is an imposter. This is political correctness taken to the most ridiculous extent. Thank you CNN for your balanced coverage! And to Greg Epstein, please call yourslef a Humanist Guru intead of a Humanist Rabbi. Just because you were born Jewish does not make you a Rabbi. Go hug a tree and sing it a humanist hymn.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  9. Jack

    Its not a correct act to insult the religious beleifs of muslims by doing something that one knows is hurtful and insulting. You know its going to humiliate them and you still do. Its wrong. What is happening is not right. Just not right.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  10. Mohammad

    Hey I dunno if should feel sorry for you becuase your ignorant or fell sorry beacuse you are a retard?? WE muslims donot believe in any of this B.S you posted here....we believe in the prophethood of Moses, Jesus and Mohammad and all prophets in between like Joseph, Jacob , John the Baptist, Abraham, Davis, Solomon....pl stop smokinh pot now for Christ's sake....

    May 20, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  11. Alan

    I don't see horns and a pitch fork on the drawing of mohummad

    May 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  12. John Mutrux

    To the posting by Bill – you are a frighteningly self-centered person yourself to declare such absolute right over every other human being. I say to you, my God is Meithulaz. If you draw a picture I will kill you, and it is totally justified.


    >>it is unclear to me just why drawing the alleged prophet Mohammad is an offensive act.

    You are a frighteningly self-centered person.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  13. SLick

    Beautifully written.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  14. jimmyyy

    @ Seraphim0 – Hate to break it to YOU, but I am not saying altruism comes only from religion. If you want to look strictly at nature maybe you should get some rabbits and try breeding them. If you put your scent on a recently born baby rabbit (im sure many other animals do this as well) the mother will ostracize the baby and even eat it alive. So maybe when someone shakes their baby or puts it in the microwave (check out the story), we should just chalk it up to nature and let the person continue with their lives, after all it is their own baby anyways...
    The point I'm trying to make is that 'religion' doesn't make people good or bad, and even though 'religion' does encourage good, some people are fanatical and critics would have you believe their behavior is typical of everyone in that religion. So for Jonathan Figdor to sweeten his words in favor of people drawing mohammed and try to make religious reverence unacceptable because it doesn't make sense to him, and also point out that he is a student of the blogger (as if that and going to Harvard makes his opinion any more valid than the rest of us) is very narrow minded and a poor reflection of the reputation Harvard has.
    I wonder if you or Johnny boy refuse to go to funerals because they are considered religious events and the only point of going would be to show other people at the funeral how phony you really are in that you'd go out of your way to 'pay respects' when your really there because 'it's the right thing to do'. Of course, these are all assumptions that you do/don't do certain things... but my point is that atheism requires as much or more of a leap of faith than does belief in a creator (Check out The Reason for God by Timothy Keller). For that matter what do you live your life by? Most efficient, maximum pleasure, touching as many live as possible, making yourself better in every way...... at the end of the day, if you don't believe in the consequences of death the only logical thing I can think of is to just end life as quickly as possible, because what's the point of living it?
    People may be more scientific today but can you say we are any more enlightened with respect to philosophy than since Socrates time?? you can send me an electronic mail to jimmyclfilter at the google mail if you have any suggestions of societal/social evolution books.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  15. Arcadia Steve

    There is a lot of subtlety to the anger that non-Muslims/non-Arabs just don't get. As the article mentioned, it really is insulting to have an image of Muhammad because He tried so hard to get the 7th Century "Jesus is God/Zeus "Christians and the pagan idol worshippers to change their mindset and see the world more expansively. Baha'is revere Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Krishna as equally lofty manifestations of God, even if Muhammad downplayed His station for the above-mentioned reasons ("I am just a man, please just accept the message and don't idolize the Messenger"). Secondly, as we know in the Middle East, one of the worst insults is to step on someone or throw your shoe at him (as one Iraqi journalist did to President Bush). Perhaps You Tube already is showing video of Westerners stepping all over the Muhammad chalk drawings (kind of like people defecating on a protrait of Jesus – real nice, eh?). It seems that when some people get disillusioned with organized religion they also lose the virtue of reverence.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  16. Tuath

    oops, Meant to type "Exercising Free Speech IN a Stupid Manner, not is a stupid manner. Sorry. Not calling Free Speech stupid, so don't get your undies in a wad.

    By the way, the person who wrote that people who hate free speech have oppressive countries to go back to is a genious! People in free countries that hate that country shoudl move back to whatever dung heap they crawled outt of. Freedo; Love it and work to improve it, or get the heck out of the way!

    May 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  17. Maya

    @ Joe ,
    "We don't wonder why you get upset. We wonder why you would behead a journalist, or strap a bomb to yourself, or burn an embassy, or fly a plane into a builing because you are upset."

    The reason why this happens is because of the violence that the US (and allies) are causing in the middle east. The crimes that are being committed. The war on Iraq, The illegal occupation in Palestine, The apartheid wall in palestine. I mean the truth is the Arabs are being oppressed. When an Israeli only gets six months community service for beating a palestinian child to death with the butt of a gun. When you enclose thousands in an apartheid wall and restrict them from their basic needs. The war on Lebanon, The Gaza war, Iraq. etc. So many innocent arabs are dying. People are bombed even in UN schools and UN ambulances. Killing that many innocent people results in desperate people who have lost everything and having nothing left to loose. People that become blinded by emotions and angry. I am not justifying what terrorists do, what they do is disgusting, But Violence is a cycle. And no child is born a terrorist. The US and ISrael with their policies are creating terrorism.
    And you could be brainwashed and support all these crimes that the US and Israel are committing. But if you read the opinions of the most important intellects, and the opinions of human right organizations you will see the truth. Noam Chomsky, Finkelstein. In fact the British academics are boycotting Israel. Academics are the most educated people in the society. Learn from them. Please open up your eyes. Seek the truth as a human being and not as a brainwashed. Put yourself in the shoes of the child that is born in Gaza. At least youtube it, see what is going on there. Violence is a cycle.

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

    There are no Gods. So live and let live.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  19. Sidb1

    This is your leading story? Who cares? People make fun of Christ all the time. Get over it. Why not mention the fact that there were 40k more jobless claims? Where's the growing economy our President and Congress promised? That's more important then people drawing stick figures. Or are you too afraid to report the bad stuff?

    May 20, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  20. Alex

    There is a difference between doing something because technically you can and doing it because it's actually a good idea. The First Amendment technically should guarantee the right of any person to draw a chalk Mohammed in this country, there's no denying that. But the problem here is that the people who draw them are doing it for one reason and one reason only: to prove that they can. Is anything good actually going to come out of it, apart from them feeling satisfied that they made a point? Not really. The only observable result is just deeply offending a large group of people with no real positive effects, so what's the point? How is it a good idea? Common sense says if an action has no positive outcomes, you shouldn't do it. There's just no reason to open that can of worms apart from the fact that you have a can opener in your hand.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:25 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.