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 - Utah

    Everyone should be respectful of what people believe. However, no one should be able to force their religious beliefs on those outside their faiths. Out of respect to Muslims, non-muslims should not draw figures of Mohammed. It is not polite. On the other hand when when Muslims threaten to kill those who disagree with them, they commit the much greater sin. Being rude and discourteous is one thing, but murdering those who offend you or your religious beliefs is simply barbaric, un-civilized, and should not tolerated. If Muslims want to be respected, they are going to have to be more accepting and tolerate of non-Muslim religions as well.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  2. LGTexas

    Rabbi, you can "be good without God", but I'm absolutely sure that you cannot LOVE without God. All this tolerance and humanist rhetoric is just empty chatter. Look around you, there is chaos and hate everywhere indiscriminant of religious, political views, and yes, education. This world will be going up in smoke before you get any problems solved. Good luck.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm |
    • Trash

      And I love you, free of anything forcing me to be good or to love. Free to believe what I want, to rely on facts, not fiction.

      Your buddy, Trash.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  3. ken

    __ I __ <---- Muhammad (Muhammed or Mohammed) Spelling differs from place to place
    I so I want to make sure it's right for each of the folks.
    / \

    May 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm |
  4. Jack

    If the Muslim wantthe respect of the rest of the world, then they be accept the critizism. they can't have it both ways

    May 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm |
  5. Praetorian

    Just because one can do something doesn't necessarily mean that one should. What this means to me in the context of 'Draw Muhammad Day' is that I reserve the RIGHT to draw Muhammad anytime I please. That being said, I also have the wisdom to know that it's wrong to do it just because I can. This is not to say that one should not do it for a legitimate reason, such as making an editorial comment, as the Danish cartoonist had done. BTW, I love the approach of changing Muhammad to Muhammad Ali as a means of rendering the drawings inoffensive. Nothing defuses a potentially explosive situation like a little hunor!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  6. Trash

    And my Muslim friend insists that one day scientists will discover what Muslims already know, women only use half their brain thus will never be the equal of man.

    He is very smart but when his logic is deluded by religion he becomes scary. Very scary.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  7. Dangerman Rogers

    As appropriate a belief as Humanism is to me, the very fact that we think they way we do would be incredibly offensive to anyone of faith as Figdor states. To say that I don't believe in your god or any god is tantamount to saying you are wasting your time speaking to something that doesn't exist. I can't imagine a worse perceived insult than that. If someone calls your god a pig then at least he acknowledges it's existence.

    Should Humanists cease all work and talk to minimize hurt feelings? Just because we are legally allowed to assert that your God doesn't exist, should we? Are your feelings so much more important than my right to believe as I do?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  8. J Wilson Hall

    Good without God? The "rabbi's" comment brings to mind a quote by actor Michael York, portraying John the Baptist in the movie Jesus of Nazareth. He states, "Men must change before kingdoms change." Though not an actual Biblical passage, it certainly conveys Biblical truth. The statement was a response to his followers' desires for peace in their strife-torn nation. York's quote conveys the fallacy of the humanist idea that man can somehow usher in peace and prosperity through his own goodness. History is rife with examples to the contrary. Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and a host of other "godless", humanist societies throughout history have proven that man simply is unable to cast off his desire to rule, dominate and pursue selfish ends. Some will argue that people have fought wars over religion, which is true. But no human being has EVER fought a war under the influence of Christ, who taught his people to "love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you." Many have murdered in the name of Christ, but they were liars, thievers and pretenders. Rabbi Epstein is free to pursue his "good without God" effort, but he'll find in time, it is a dead end. A godless world is a world of tooth and claw, where people default to their basic instincts of self preservation and aggrandizement. It is Christ who elevates man beyond instinct and prompts true love and true goodness. Don't look to Hollywood stereotypes of Chrisitans to disprove me. But rather research the lives of so many who have ministered to the dregs of human society throughout the globe. Take time to get know true Christians, and you'll find I'm right.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
    • Trash

      Biblical truth is an oxymoron.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm |
    • LGTexas

      Trash (what a suitable name),
      Your comment is highly inappropriate and an example of how people should NOT behave; at least that's what this silly humanist rabbi is trying to accomplish.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • Gilbert du Motier

      "But no human being has EVER fought a war under the influence of Christ, who taught his people to "love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you." Many have murdered in the name of Christ, but they were liars, thievers and pretenders."
      The Crusaders and the Spanish Inquisitors all beg to differ. Until you understand why they existed, you are the next in line to lie, steal and murder in the name of religion.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
    • Trash

      Ah my texas buddy. You represent the good of religion? You ignore the offense I took at your compatriots words, the hurt, the angst, the sheer horror that someone could speak so poorly of atheists...

      Nope, you just cast more arrogance my way. You are proof of what I said.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  9. Andrew

    Nobody has a right to not be offended.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
  10. Dave

    I drew Sayyid Qutb in a Zoot Suit getting rejected at a dance with the caption: "Birth of radical Islam" instead.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
  11. Travis

    This whole thing is pretty great. The secular taunting of a Muslim taboo is pretty funny, but it's refreshing to see the Muslim response be equally as lighthearted and clever.

    Maybe we should settle all our social disagreements with sidewalk chalk. It's a heck of a lot better than suicide bombs.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
  12. Dave

    I think radical Islam is worshiping idols. Mohammed wouldn't teach what they do and they use Mohammed as a cover for the Devil's work. They are also using God's name in vain by doing this. Using God’s name in vain has nothing to do with profanity, it means don’t do things in the name of God that are unholy like the sin of murder.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  13. dave

    Stoning women for adultery is part of the Law of Moses. When confronted with this Jesus said: "Yes that is the law. Let he among yo who without sin cast the first stone>" When Jesus wanted to change the law he always had a round about way of doing it.

    So woman commits adultery -

    Christian: I am a sinner too. I can't judge her
    Jew: Kill her Moses says so
    Muslim: kill her Muhammed says so

    it is amazing Jews and Muslims don't get along better, they are so much alike

    May 20, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  14. Chris

    So what you're basically saying is that we should learn about and understand a religion that condones blind acts of terrorism as a response to harmless acts its followers may find offensive?

    The same religion that dehumanizes females in its society and condones barbaric acts such as stoning, the cutting off of ears and noses, 'honor' killings and female genital mutilation?

    I'm just trying to understand why you are placing Islam on such a high pedestal.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  15. Dan G.

    "Why people don't understand the reasons Muslims get upset at such actions is due to ignorance of our culture and religious beliefs."

    No I would say it's Muslims ignorance of the world outside of the Muslim faith.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  16. Matt

    Eh, respect this, respect that... Don't even tell me to respect a group that threatens others that don't believe in their religion. They are NUTS in the first place for believing in fairy tales – let alone the violence they cause here on earth.

    Scientific studies have shown that "laughter" can be a major stress reliever. There are a large group of people in this world that need to chill the F* out. Try laughing a little bit. Don't take everything so seriously. You'll be amazed when your blood pressure goes down.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  17. Jim Green

    What a bunch of bull. The chalk image and the edit was done by the same artist. It's this kind of blatant lies by the press that has caused it to lose any credibility. Why wouldn't the offended just erase the image? How ignorant do you think we are? Someone just happened to be walking around with chalk in their hand? (color coordinated I might add). Liar.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  18. Andrew

    I hear a lot of chat that God is dead.... How do you know if you don't believe in him? Wow athiests are hateful and arrogant.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
    • Trash

      Atheists for the most part are logical and easy going unlike those who would paint an entire huge group of people with one brush. Nice.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
    • gh34

      Atheist are typically not bothered by the beliefs of others and typically don't go out of their way to prove the religious wrong. In fact, I don't think about religion at all until it is pushed into my face by people at my door with book in hand or the local public school wanting to teach creationism in a science class. Or in this instance, people offended by cartoons in another country.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  19. gh34

    As an atheist, the concept that has always been odd to me is why Christians, Muslims, or any other religion feel they need to protect their omnipotent god from slander or cartoons?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
    • Lucy

      Christians do not need to defend our God. He'll do a good enough job of that pretty soon. "Revenge is mine, says the Lord." Christians do NOT force anyone to believe what they believe. And the lies about the Crusades need to stop - the Crusades were Christians protecting the holy land from the Muslims. It's always the Muslims.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • CTO

      Love...would you allow others ignorant of somebody you love, a love greater than your whole being, to openly ridicule and mock that person?

      May 20, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
    • Trash

      That is called fanaticism and you scare me.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  20. atheist

    /|\ <== Muhammad
    / \

    May 20, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
    • Implying

      >calling people names is wrong, btw you are a loser

      Sure is Christian logic in here!

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

      It should be you're wrong. It offends me when people use "your" when they really should be using "you're". If it's not your book, tool etc. and you mean you are–you're is correct. For your offense I think you should be ridiculed publicly.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:13 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.