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. N R

    Everyone drawing Muhammad is causing the stock market to plummet! 😉

    May 20, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  2. Uncle Sam

    "Nobody knows what he looks like."
    They will when I finish my drawing.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  3. Talon6

    All religions are offensive to me.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
    • N R

      I absolutely agree. Can you imagine how much further technologically we could be if we would focus on REAL LIFE issues rather than made up fantasies?

      Let's all move as a society toward increasing our life span, or perhaps establishing a second colony elsewhere to minimize our race from being destroyed completely someday. Come on people, stop with you silly fantasies.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  4. Thr33DeeJ

    A shoe was thrown at our former president. Don't forget that Muslim world. Some of you have no control of your emotions and act out in violence to express your objections. Much like a child or someone primate. Religion no matter what it is was not initially formed to provoke violence to anyone.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  5. Mike

    Just like a noose is offensive to the African Americans, denying the holocaust is offensive to the Jews drawing Mohammed is offensive to the Muslims and should therefore not be done.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
    • MIke's buddy Tim

      The noose is an image of implied violence against against African-Americans. Denying the Holocaust denies that actual violence was applied against Jews. Drawing a cartoon of Muhammad is completely different. It implies solidarity with those non-muslims who have been threatened violence by muslims.

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

    Offending for fun or making a point is wrong (yes, a moral issue).

    How about Hug A Muslim day?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
    • JD

      Careful – you may be killed if you hug a Muslim woman. Worse yet... she may be killed instead. (I recommend you watch the Stoning of Soraya M.) Better ask her lord and master (husband) first. If she is not married, I suggest you check with her brothers and father.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  7. Chris

    So you say how Comedy Central dropped the ball and kowtowed to Muslim extremists, but then you go on to say that we should kowtow to the rest of the Muslim world, because they may be watching/reading CNN to determine how to feel about the rest of us (aka Infidels, as we are known in the Muslim world)? Where's the logic? Aren't these the same people who burn flags, effigies, tires, eachother, etc everytime something or something offends their paper-thin psyches?

    Maybe, just MAYBE they should learn to not be offended by everything. Someone draws a picture of your prophet? Keep walking. How is a drawing harming you, exactly?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
  8. Paul

    Its all about disrespecting intolerance

    May 20, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  9. Speak_Truth

    I'm really amazed how people are getting so emotional about their right of Freedom of Speech, and Expression. It amazes me how you can depict and insult a prophet of a wonderful religion in the name of Freedom of speech and expression but you can not question the Holocaust? Do you people it is illegal to question the Holocaust in Europe? Researchers have been arrested and imprisoned because they questioned if Holocaust really happened. So, where was his Freedom of Speech and expression?? Today we live in a double standard society, freedom of speech and expression is selective. It's a big shame.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
    • Austin

      Dude get with the times, the holocaust was like fifty years ago, muslims cutting off heads for cartoons was like two years ago. Just like on the playground at school, innappropriate behavior will be ridiculed until it stops.

      This is how humans operate.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
    • JD

      Europe is not the land of free speech. There are countries in Europe with blasphemy laws where it is illegal to criticize religion. It is also Europe where cartoonist are getting murdered for depicting the "great" prophet.

      The US is the land of free speech, but only if we are willing to protect it.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
    • Yanni

      I don't see how you can be called a "researcher" when you are trying to disprove facts. Only an idiot would believe that Jews weren't killed in German prison camps. Many of our dads and grandfathers saw the proof as the camps were liberated.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  10. JD

    Oh... and on further thought. I recall that African American protesters in the 1960's were also considered to be very impolite. Look it up if you don't remember!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  11. jesus

    personally, i hate atheists. you're all taking your own daddy problems out on not believing in god. That said, thank you for the drawings.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  12. Dan

    Anyone with any common sense can see thru the political agenda of the Zionists and Christian extremists behind this.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  13. CRBean

    I'm not Relgious at all, matter of fact I have No Religion. But I'm still in awe that there are people out there who want to kill, not hurt, BUT KILL someone for drawing a profit. What if other countries did that? Talking about worldwide censorship, YIKES!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
    • yankeeDoodle

      someone was killed for drawing a profit? Well there goes capitalism...

      May 20, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  14. Talon6

    o o
    ( . . ) <-- Mohammed (pig)

    My contribution

    May 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • pig

      Please do not offend my friends the PIGS...

      May 20, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • Dusty

      How is that racist? You're ignorant.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
    • Farooq

      Please read more about Islam rather than drawing this non sense.

      May 20, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  15. meggyb

    with all due respect to mr. epstein – why the hell is there a need for a "humanist chaplain" at harvard or anywhere else? humanists don't believe in god, therefore why would you need a chaplain to advise you about god if you're humanist?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  16. Mike

    This is not about free speech. This is about offending the Muslims, therefore it is not right.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • Austin

      Actually Mike this is funny, impolite would be, oh, I dunno, 'take down that picture of I'll cut off your head'

      May 20, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
    • Muhammad Likes Goats

      Nowhere in our Bill of Rights does it state that people are free to live without being offended. PC has gone too far. If people are offended that their prophet has been drawn in chalk on a sidewalk, then they are thin-skinned, hot-headed, narrow-minded fools.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  17. JR

    ...imagining a world without religion...

    May 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • Sue

      I just did and it was very liberating.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • Another human..

      then there might actually be piece in the world...

      May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • Read

      and I would then ask you to watch the south park episode where cartman goes in future where there is no religion, STILL folks are fighting because they think their science is better then the other groups science. Look at athiests, they think there is no God, thus all religions are bad...

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

      Ok, now imagine a world without South Park...

      May 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  18. Muhammad Likes Goats

    Just another reason I believe that Islam will never enter the modern age. Probably the best thing to do is isolate them, stop buying oil from the Middle East, cut them off from all things western, and let human nature take its course. If they want to live in the 13th century, they'll be there soon enough.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • Read

      Islam has already entered the modern age. Proof is the group in facebook opposing the page with their own view page and the group of students changing the name to Ali with gloves. The one's you are talking about are illiterate people abroad who are jobless and poor e.t.c. they are taking out their frustration abroad this way.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  19. Jacob

    The writer as well as those who have commented here are missing an important point. These drawings are not being created out of some random, religious hatred. These drawings are to show solidarity with those who have been threatened or even killed for pursuing their rights to free speech. Not all of us are artists or writers, so not everyone can create a witty and well drawn picture of Mohammed which makes a cognizant point. However, we CAN all show solidarity with those who can, by also drawing these pictures and making it clear to extremists that if they want to take away people's freedom of speech, they have to come take it away from ALL of us.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • Lisa

      Very, very well said. Bravo.

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

    If we are to draw Mohammed for what he really was and represented it would probably be rated "X"

    May 20, 2010 at 2:15 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.