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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. Lorenzo

    A main reason why I cannot abide by any organized religion is that people can get away with things in the name of religion because, almost by definition, "religious" things need no rational basis. Christians are asked to believe by blind faith that Jesus was the son of God and that true faith does not demand any proof or basis. Muslims are asked to believe that Mohammed cannot be depicted, without any real rationale for this. I cannot discuss something for which no rational basis is offered.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  2. sduck

    So may people here have managed to turn this into an issue of 4-syllable words and complex philosophical arguments. Rabbi Epstein's argument is very simple: making fun of other people's religion in a way that upsets them is just not nice. For those who think that sounds trite, imagine how much better off the world would be if we set aside all our high-minded principles and just made an effort to be kind to each other instead.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  3. ken

    I personally think Muhammad forbid drawings so his enemies could not ID him (in life) I think the seriousness of it was to insure his followers did not break the rule. they did not have cameras back then. It's time the Muslims lighten up.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  4. Gilbert du Motier

    I greatly respect James and Greg's position that "we should also have the dignity and respect not to [draw the images]." Respect is fundamental to the harmonious coexistence of people.

    However, there are two issues that I have with that approach.
    1) As others pointed out, respect is a two-way street. Freedom of speech is central to the humanist ideal, and to the Western ideal of individual freedom. Any curtailing of that freedom is a direct attack on a central cultural, political and ideological aspect of at least half a billion or so people. It doesn't matter whether that curtailing is imposed through government edicts or self-imposed through fear of retribution. Not supporting freedom of speech in the context of western cartoonists and satirists drawing Mohammad is a direct sign of disrespect. As such, I would argue that respect has already been found lacking.
    2) Again, others pointed this out already, but it bears repeating: rights that are not exercised might as well not exist. If cultural mores prevent the exercise of free speech, it does not exist. It doesn't matter whether it is technically allowed under the law – if no one is willing to exercise that right because of its social consequences, it has no practical meaning. This means that in the face of several attempts to reduce freedom of speech, it is imperative to test whether we not only have the legal right to free speech, but also the practical right to do so. The fact that some feathers get ruffled in the process is in this situation rather irrelevant.

    The inflammatory summary is: this is free speech. Deal with it. The conciliatory summary is: please excuse our more belligerent members of society while they engage in a traditional test of strength. Can I offer you some tea while we wait for it to be over?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • Johann1965

      Right on brother.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  5. Nathan

    As a fellow humanist, I completely disagree that this is inappropriate because it offends Muslims. There is no better way to express our outrage than this celebration of our freedom to do what we want no matter how disrespectful they may believe it to be.

    I have written letters to Comedy Central and Viacom and received no reply. Writing letters never solves anything.

    This act of drawing the prophet in public, in complete disregard for the Muslim faith, is completely appropriate, and it is a much more effective means of drawing attention to the issue than writing letters could ever be.

    I encourage Muslims to exercise their free speech in any means they wish. If they want to draw Jesus or Darwin on a sidewalk to 'diss' us, then go for it.

    Being offended by simple cartoons is a flaw in Muslim culture. There is no way to defend it. Multiculturalism does not mean that all cultures are equal. Cultures that value free speech and do not respond with violence when they feel disrespected are just plain superior.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  6. Robert

    How are we taking our daddy problems out on this god?? We are using reason to advance ourselves, and other persons, as opposed to being hindered by something that does NOT exist. Why do you believe in god but you don't believe in santa, reindeer, elves, ogres, trolls, giant three headed worms, flying meatballs with spaghetti for hair and aliens that are shaped like pants?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  7. Saif Harris

    I am a Muslim living in Pakistan. I feel that this debate about drawing Mohammad's cartoons is completely unnecessary. If one is totally honest, one cannot see any wisdom in insisting upon drawing Mohammad, or in reaction, protesting, getting frustrated, and even killing human beings. All this is sheer absurdity.
    One thing is for sure, these incidents are widening the gulf between east and west. And anyone can draw the rightful conclusion that the only people whose cause this rift will serve are none other than the religious fundamentalists.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
  8. Nice

    Muslims claim Quran says you have to respect other religions and gods. But it is not the case in most islamic countries(Take Saudi Arabia or Pakistan for example). In Pakistan minorities have been reduced from 15% to 1% and they are still killing, enacting blashpemy laws to persecute minorities. In Saudi arabia u cant even build a temple or church. In Muslim countries , a Muslim cannot convert to another faith without being murdered. So much for ur religion peace tolerance & respect for others beliefs. And u hypocrites have issues when others want to draw cartoons.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
    • Doesn't make sense

      It is amusing you would use a failed state like Pakistan to justify your comments, the same way you generally use the militants as representatives of Islam. As far as I am concerned, militancy or the like is a law and order problem, not something that is etched in the holy books. Treat the law and order problem and do not associate religion with that just because the miltants happen to be saying that they are following the holy books. Why respect the thought of a small percentage of a community, rather than looking at rest of the peaceful citizens of a community. And cartoons, seriously ? are there no topics left in this world than disrespecting peoples faiths? Instead try to help out in whatever way you can to control oil spills, global warming, etc. etc. Let everyone live in peace.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
    • Nice

      Almost all countries in Middle east has restriction on minorities and their places of worship. SAUDI ARABIA – wow the birth place of Islam does'nt let other religious places of worship or does'nt even let a woman drive and the clerics are saying more research has to be done to know whether it is ok for woman to be allowed to drive. Why You dont u speak out to them and reform them before u tell us about drawing cartoons. Yes I agree there are more important things we should focus on, & we would have but for all this uproar in Muslim countries. Muslims dont respect other religions where they are in majority and want to be respected when in minority. Now everybody is just letting it out on Muslims.

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

      Can u let me know why Quran says it is ok to kill when a Muslim converts to another faith. Read what Dr Zaki naik says, he is openly claiming that this is acceptable and reasoning why the Quran wants that. There are millions of other preachers who say the same. I dont know what the Quran actually says but I can see the intolerance of Muslims world over and I believe it is what they are taught. So people like u need to speak up and reform them

      May 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  9. Lee

    I just don't understand how drawing an image of Muhammad is showing support for free speech. I would think the most sincere form of "showing support" for free speech is to be willing to sacrifice something you care for rather than something you don't.

    How many people who felt compelled to draw an image of Mohammed as a symbol of their "support of free speech," would be willing to burn the US Flag for the same reasons? Why isn't there a "Burn the Stars & Stripes" day to show support for free speech?

    Draw Mohammed Day seems more like a pathetic, misguided excuse to congratulate ourselves on our superior ideals and try to get a rise out of muslims for trashing a symbol that is important to them for reasons that don't really have any material impact. Yah, we certainly have a right to do this in the USA, but it just comes off being spiteful.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • Nice

      Nobody stops u from typing I want to Burn the stars & stripes flag bcoz I hate the flag or I hate US or I hte Christians or I hate Jews. U r not going to get killed. Try this in Pakistan or Saudi Arabi or any islamic country, Go & type this in a bill board "Mohamed lied to us and I dont think there is any God". Tell me if u came back alive, all u did was to question the truth about Gods existence

      May 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
    • TuTone

      if i saw someone burning an american flag, id stop that freedom in a heart beat. PROUDLY, i wouldnt try to kill person, but Id be sure to let the beating i give them convey to them they do not belong in this country

      May 20, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • Biru

      You'd be promptly jailed, and rightfully so, TuTone.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  10. dave

    –"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. "-

    Atheist always seem to forget that some of the most peaceful and loving people in history belived in God and atheists like Stalin and Mao commited atrocities that the angriest, most aggressive Muslim I know could scarcely dream up on LSD.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • capnmike

      Also famous atherists include George Bernard Shaw, Woody Allen, Katherine Hepburn, Gene Roddenberry and Sigmund Freud, none of whom ever killed anybody...your "arguement" is nonsense.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  11. capnmike

    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,”,...
    NO, sorry, the "ultimate diss" is murdering innocent people with bombs, or chopping their heads off, because they don't believe the same religious nonsense that you do, especially in light of the fact that ALL religion is a lie.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
  12. Scott

    I have to admit, Muslims adding the boxing gloves and the "Ali" to drawings they encounter is a pretty clever & tactful solution.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
  13. Muslim Guy

    The West and Islam are at war. Iraq, Afghanistan, this...all proof of the fact.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
  14. M

    Odin, the All Father, laughs heartily at the follies of these new pseudo religions.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
  15. Dan

    It may be offensive to civil people, but threatening death in return for offense, or metting it out, are unacceptable.
    For that simple reason, which Epstein glosses over and mealy-mouths all the way around, this has to be done over and over and over until the unacceptable have been backed into a corner where they seeth, but harm no one.
    Then we can all start practicing mutual respect.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
  16. ken

    O
    /|\
    / \

    Muhammad (Muhammed or Mohammed) Spelling differs from place to place

    May 20, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
  17. Mike

    I do not understand why we cannot have an image of Mohammed, but I respect the Muslim belief that it is wrong.
    Why do faiths that are based on the common god of Abraham want to denigrate the other faith. If this was done in regard to a Jewish belief, it would quickly be labeled as anti-Semitic. If done to a Christian symbol, the right wing would quickly howl.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
  18. marfar78704

    I am a christian and people can criticize my religion as much as they want, but please leave Jesus alone. The same goes here, please leave Mohamad alone.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
    • gh34

      Why leave Jesus or Mohammad alone? When you can't question and have to blindly follow you are enslaved.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
    • Trash

      I recently had relations of a fornication kind with Mohammed, Jesus and your mamma.

      HAND.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  19. J. L.

    I think the drawings are a great idea.

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

    As a Christian I find all this talk about not insulting religion a bunch of nonsense. Religions go out of their way to insult each other on a daily basis. There will always be somebody out there who will get mad if their faith is made fun of. That is a problem for their faulty faith to deal with.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:36 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.