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. rich snj

    O-/|-< mohammed

    May 20, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  2. Simvast

    Face the facts, if this were pictures of Jesus or Buddha it would not even make the news. I am tired of the apologists for Islam. When I grew up I had no pre-concieved ideas about Muslims and therefore no predudice. It is my life experience and what I have seen and heard over the last ten years that leads mr to believe that Isalm is a barbaric scar of the face of humanity.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  3. karen

    While I do not share Muslim's religious views, I think it is a sad state of affairs that our country is so zenophobic that we would show other religions such intolerance and hatred. We really haven't progressed too far beyond krystalnacht, if you think about it. And WE are the ones who are supposed to be the protectors of religious freedom...... it looks like we have stooped to the level of the most intolerant countries in the world.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  4. neil

    "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."

    Athiest-Humanists are so prideful. The great Greg Epstein teaching people to love one another. He mentioned that he he believes in good without god. That's all this humanism is. Being good out of spite. Walker Percy once described English manners as arising out of kicking God out of the country and then trying to prove they could do it just the same without Him. But that's all this Althiest Humanism is. Their love is a rigid, hallow, polite love. It's not, as Flannery O'Conner might say, a violent love.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  5. pig

    ^ ^
    @ @

    I like this one!
    Muhammad "The Profet"

    May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  6. jjaz

    The more we offend muslims the better off the whole world will be. It takes almost nothing to get these fanatics whipped up into a bloody frothing rage. What are they going to do, kill everybody in the whole world? Let them try!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • Your Wrong

      JJaz want to affend people to see if they can kill everyone in the hole world......well, it might be better to just kill jjaz, i mean, he is so retarded it might just be more humane to put him down, no?

      May 20, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
  7. Cthulhufan4476

    yeah you don't harm anyone, you just keep saying that you will. The God 'we' believe in isn't real either. Neither is yours. None of them are real, i can't give you evidence of mine, and you can't give me evidence of yours. We are raised to believe these things are real, taught at home, schools, and for unlucky folks, church. Whatever we are raised to believe in, we believe and fight for. And since we are too young to think during those crucial stages of the brains development, we are tricked into thinking there are actually people in the sky and that any of the religions are about 'peace'. Sugar coated deliciousness.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  8. TuTone

    now Im upset...........they are just copying us Christians.....geez can they be original for like five minutes, c'mon we were the murderers first, even OJ got some before all of you muslims...........copy cats!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  9. Brenda Tredway

    I say draw it all over the place because I "Do hate It and It Does disgust me" We should not put up with this so called religion anymore....It is an abomination to the one true God of the Bible....and we "let these people in our country"? We, the people of the United States are the ones who need to wake up and get them out and have them take their UNPEACEFUL, MURDERING, CRAZY, SATANIC RELGION with them when they leave.... A Soldiers Wife

    May 20, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • Simvast

      You are no different than the Musilms you hate. "the one true God of the bible"???? The sooner your husband gets home and straitens you out the better.

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

    I'm offended.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  11. moe

    as a Muslim...i don't find it disturbing...i feel like some Muslims make it bigger than what it actually is..no where does it say..kill some1 because of there opinion of the prophet..all u can do is pray for that individual and move on....

    May 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  12. Nada

    "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."

    This is a sly attempt to slip in the argument used by many humanists and atheists, that they are peaceful and religion causes violence. This ignores the reality that humans, religious or not, are violent. Somehow the atheists forget about Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, et al. BTW, when did Universities stop focusing on actual avenues of learning and start supporting "humanist rabbis?" No wonder our educational testing ranks us near the bottom of industrialized nations.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  13. ken

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

    I say well if the Islamic combatants droped their weapons then the fight would be over and we'd leave.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  14. CTO

    "There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic." ~Mother Teresa

    May 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
    • Johann1965

      I will not stand by while Islamic fundamentalists and the politically correct threaten one, if not the, most important value of western society. I reserve the right to draw what I want. Think what I want. Say what I want.

      If an American is threatened with harm in this way, it is a threat to us all. I would die before I would give up this right.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  15. Mark

    You have the right to your religion but you do not have the right to restrict my freedoms. If your religion requires that you retrict my freedom, too bad. It's hypocritical to think you have the right to whatever religion you choose but I can't draw a picture if I want to. Take it to an extreme and the problem becomes obvious. What if the Muslim faith believed it was blasphemy to even speak of any other god except theirs? Then every other religion would have a fatwah on it simply because they are exercising their freedom of religion. What if the Muslim faith believed it was blasphemy for anyone to name their child "Richard" and any parent naming their child Richard should be killed, along with the child? Your freedom of religion doesn't give you the right to control or restrict anyone else's freedoms – period. If Muslims believe THEY cannot draw their leader and thus choose to follow the "rules" of their chosen religion by not doing so, that seems fine but you cannot impose that rule on non-Muslims.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  16. TuTone

    A true athesist wont draw any "prophet mohammed" or jesus, or santa, the easter bunny, or any faeries for that matter. If they are drawing any god devil or made up figure, they are not an athesist. An athesist does not reckonize religion at all, to them they are just fairy tales.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  17. J Wilson Hall

    TRASH...thank you for your response. I would challenge you to carefully consider your opinion about Biblical truth. Have you investigated the volumes of scholarly work that provide geological, anthropological, historical, and philosophical proofs validating the Biblical record? Or, do you simply parrot what you've heard and read from anti-Christian sources. No one's opinion is to be taken seriously if it isn't based on careful research that weighs both sides of an issue...I encourage you do just that. Try RZIM.org...Ravi Zecharias' site contains some of the most brilliant apologetics works ever created. Zecharias was a Hindu who came to Christ after attempting suicide and has since become one of the world's foremost philosophers.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  18. ThinkingPerson

    Freedom is the most valuable thing in the world.
    I reserve the right for myself to freely express my opinion on ANY topic in whatever form I think is appropriate.
    If you think I am wrong, or you don't like my opinion, please give your arguments, or go away PEACEFULLY.

    I am a proud atheist and I don't won't ANY religion to take us back to middle ages. Again, to my opinion, believing in any supernatural creature is WRONG. Come on, people, we are in 21 century!

    I do respect people who believe in ANY god (I just think they are wrong). But I have strong disrespect of people trying to impose their own beliefs on me or trying to restrict my freedom.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  19. Johann1965

    Peoples lives have been threatened, and some have died, because they drew a picture. A PICTURE. Put this in perspective. This is not just a few Muslims. This is a significant minority of the Islamic faith.

    It's about freedom of speech, which unfortunately sometimes trumps respect.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  20. Mak Kim Ju



    Mohammad facing the other way:


    May 20, 2010 at 2:42 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.