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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. Joe

    I'd just draw another stick figure and say it's Mohammed Ali knocking out Mohammed. Then it'd be a drawing of a peaceful Muslim performing an act of violence against a cartoon which caused violent threats and protests. Deep. If there is a god you have to think he's giving himself a facepalm right now at how dumb all of this is. Just picture this omnipotent being looking down at us making a big deal about a South Park and chalk stick figure.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  2. Sixoh

    I think that's quick thinking by the Muslims. I'd rather they did that than go around killing people over a stick figure.
    They should draw some movement lines around him tho, for his Parkinson's

    May 20, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  3. Ryan

    I drew a picture of Mohammaed today in the snow using my urine. I didn't mean to, but it us happened. At first I felt horrified, but then I thought maybe it was His hand that guided me to make that image and He's telling me it's ok. I'll have to pray on it.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  4. Joe

    Most likely few westerners know WHY muslims don't show pics of mohammed. The reason is that there is a prohibition against any drawing of mohammed, or "god" for that matter. Images (Graven Images) are idols, according to islam, and islam does not permit idols. the idea is to prevent worship of images/idols in place of the "real" god. And of course, mohammed is NOT considered a god, "just" a messenger from god. It seems like a good practice if you want your followers to focus on the god of the religion instead of personalities. Of course that has not helped Islam get away from personality worship – look at all the imams that claim special status. Mohammed would not have approved...

    May 20, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  5. Spockanator

    Not at all, their poles are up their Bumms

    May 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  6. CL

    Why can they just respect the beliefs of Muslims and refrain from a childish prank like this? Having Harvard next to your name makes it no less disrespectful and childish.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  7. Jasper

    I don't think Epstein gets it. His text above doesn't indicate he did. Putting the image of Muhammad on the sidewalk teaches tolerance and not the other way around. It forces others to confront the issues on real terms much like non-violent direct action did for MLK in the 1960s. Many white people of the Jim Crow south were "offended" when blacks protested in non-violent action but we wouldn't suggest blacks refrain from doing so. Now some will say this isn't an issue of "rights" like the civil rights movement was but that really isn't digging deep enough. The deeper issue is forcing a reaction of conscience on those who might (and i say might) hold others to a standard of lesser rights. Their internal conscience has to battle it out. It would be wrong to refrain from these actions MERELY because it might cause offense. Epstein uses the word "should" rather liberally to, in my estimation, offer a moral proscription about drawing on the sidewalk. The "rights" thing is a red herring. Epstein simply cannot offer a sound moral argument why I OUGHT NOT draw on the sidewalk without me adopting moral tenets that i am objecting to in the first place.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
    • Tony

      Jasper, that is a very, very good argument and analogy.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  8. Sam in WV

    Implicit within 'Humanism' is a preeminent regard for human rights. The "radicals" whose vitriol prompted Viacom and Comedy Central to censor a satirical television program demonstrated a virulent hostility to the human right of free speech.

    Where were the Muslim students and other now "offended" of their faith when the most caustic among them violated this precious human right? When intemperate dogmatists successfully stifle the free speech of others, expect a widespread and appropriate response from secular humanists.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  9. Dan G.

    I drew a picture of Muhammad today and what does that mean? Nothing.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  10. John

    Would someone please explain to me WHY people are SANCTIOING the pathetic belief in this "Muhammed" thing, when it clearly DOES NOT EXIST (nor does a "god", "Jesus", etc.). Why is it so hard to understand this? Quit giving that pathetic relgion called ISLAM a forum to continue their patheitc, fascism! Their "god", along with ALL "gods" DO NOT EXIST! Deal with it!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  11. Austin

    Actually the muslims begin their beliefs with Abrahams servant girl which was before the Ten Commandments, and you know theres also a commandment against killing, which is routinely violated.

    Learn a little about your religious texts before you go nuts. And you know, Sufis have reverence for their saints and other Muslims kill them all the time. Its just the usual religious bigotry that comes from sad lonely people trying to stand for something.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  12. God

    Rabbi Epstein doesn't wish to offend anyone.
    Well...almost everyone.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  13. micrbu

    @speak_truth: A wonderful religion!? Where do you live in a cave? What about honor killings, what about beheading infidels? what about stoning women to death for adultery? Your are truly a dhimmi!!! what about killing apostates? You really need to read the Qoran. And not just the peaceful texts. Read about Sharia law then tell us how wonderful Islam is!!!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
    • Robert

      WYou got a point. Sharia law is the Muslim equivalent to the Sacrifices and killings demanded in Leviticus. Muslims need a New Testament of some kind.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  14. Modonn

    Interesting discussion...I lived through the controversy in South Carolina reagrding the flying of the Confederate battle flag over the state capitol. After much consideration I came to the conclusion that one should not do things that visibly offend segments of the population just because you can. On the other hand...drawing boxing gloves and re-labelling is quite humerous.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  15. Read

    I am a Muslim, and I say respect every one, we as muslims are required to respect Christians and Jews and other religions feelings, we are not supposed to make fun of any christian or jew. When you make fun of your own religion, you weaken your own pillars for future generation. If you want to make fun of some one, make fun of your own self instead of hurting other's feelings, regardless of their religion. Muslims, Jews and Christians, we all respect our religion. Just because you don't want to follow any religion and want to be an athiest, does not mean you should make fun of any of them.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  16. Protean

    When belief is a requisite of being part of society, that belief system only seeks to control. If it did not, then its veracity would be self-evident and there wouldn't be a need to force people to believe these things.

    I don't think there's been a religion like this in the existence of humanity. When there is, I guess I'll read about it somewhere.

    Until then, human-centered systems of social control...

    May 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  17. ray

    we americans are becoming so offensive to others because we have no respoct to ther's feelings and thoughts. We make fun of everyone and everything, but this is not funny. do we realy have to make fun of God and Prophets? are not we affraid of God's punishment somehow???? I dont see other people making fun of us (americans)!!!! I think that we should respect others so we could earn others respect.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
    • An Atheist, oh no!

      You're joking about not seein others making fun of Americans, right? And no, I have no fear of not respecting religion.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  18. Andrew

    Seeing that athiests don't believe in God. Maybe they should just leave God alone. It's not about free speech it's about whats right and wrong. Going up to a person that believes or doesn't believe in God and telling them they are stupid for thinking the way they do is just sad. I have my own beliefs but i'm not going to force them upon you. American has gone completely gray on what is right and wrong. There is freedom of speech to a point but then again you can't say bomb on an airplane and you can't yell I want to assainate the president of the United States at a political rally. You would be arrested. So there are limits to our freedom.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  19. Ned Brisco

    I find it difficult to respect foolish people who believe in false prophets and false gods that tell them to war on people who don't believe the same as they do. Islam is NOT about peace, it is about conquering the world and making it an Islamic world. That is wrong! Christianity is just as bad, also killing others in the name of their religion. The day we realize that the prophets are false, and the gods are dead, the world will be better off.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
    • Austin

      Ned, Ironically enough, there is a southpark episode making fun of people like you.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  20. a.

    I'm tired of religions getting treated with kid gloves, no one else is afforded that luxury.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:25 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.