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. Secular Humanist

    Let's make a deal, when Islamic extremists stop killing non Muslims, non Muslims will stop drawing Muhammad
    / | \

    May 20, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  2. Scott

    I've heard the Muslims do not approve of ANY religious figure being drawn (to prevent idol worship) Where were these people when South Park started making fun of Jesus or Scientology or whatever?...We take ourselves so seriously that in order NOT to offend we often say nothing worth hearing...

    May 20, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  3. JoeP

    If the other deities are open for drawing in a demeaning way, I say fair-game to draw Mohammed. The can is already open. You can't put it all back in and expect it to go away. The commentary is a bit narrow in my opinion.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  4. Jocco

    Dang wish I knew it was draw Mohammed Day a little earlier. Now that I know Im gonna draw the hell outta him. Matter of fact I'm going to make every day draw Mohammed Day. Maybe I'll throw Jesus and Krishna up in the peice too.

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

      It won't work. Don't you know that allah is all powerfull and also has a bigass eraser. He'll just erase your drawings.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  5. Reality Check

    Noble motives but your not going to "open any minds" or enhance freedom of expression by provoking a religion that compels a strict compliance with 6th century nomadic concepts. Humanistic and/or western concepts simply don't apply here. I'm sure a fatwah has already been issued seeking the end of Rabbi Epstein. That he happens to be Jewish (even a humanist Jew) merely adds gasoline to the fires of those who would preach religious intolerance.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  6. Dianne Foster

    I wouldn't begrudge those Moslem students a single kudo for their brilliant response.
    But I find it (again, as in so many instances) baffling that an actual rabbi seems not to understand that there must be common roots between his religion (with or without G-d) and that of the Moslems. I have respectfully taken out the "o" in the name of that diety in order to make my point: both Islam and Judaism have issues with exact representations of things which they consider sacred. In the case of Islam, it is the person of the Prophet, and in the case of Judaism, it is the name of the creator. Both cultures usually prize calligraphy over figural drawing as well.

    So here I go again: it is high time that Moslems and Jews understand that they are far more alike than they are different, in many areas, most of all the history they share in the thousands of years of civilization and culture BCE.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  7. Bad Apple

    Let me get a few things straight. First, there is an outcry in this country about drawing stick figure Mohammeds while in many Muslim countries the mere possession of a bible can get one imprisoned or worse. So, whose religion is in fact more tolerant of others? Second, if Allah is such a powerful God why would he need human intervention to physically scare other humans away from drawing a picture of his prophet Mohammed? Finally, a Rabbi at Harvard with a Ph. D. in atheism (that must have been one tough curriculum)? Well, just another good reason I sent my son to Yale, Class of '09.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  8. Data1000

    One large sect of the Hindu religion teaches that we should refrain from eating meat, especially beef. Do Hindus insist that the rest of us not eat beef? At least I can respect Hindus and Budhists for not demanding others to respect their beliefs.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Jessica

    I have watched South Park for almost 10 years, and now I will never watch it again, or anything on Comedy Central. When Matt and Trey leave that cowardly network I will end my boycott. I will give their website no hits, and not one website or search engine will get any searches related to it from me.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
    • An Atheist, oh no!

      Awwww, your poor widdle sensibilities. So tragic. I hope you can someday recover from this terrible episode.

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

      Im sure your breaking their hearts.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  10. dave

    lol @ religion. i feel bad for u people

    May 20, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  11. jim

    Demanding other people accept your religious precets is not respect in any way shape or form. Let's be clear here. I can only show respect for you, I cannot demand or threaten you to show respect to me, that is just bullying. If I am so foolish as to draw Mohammed, in order to make fun of Islam, I have done no diservice to Islam, Mohammed or Muslims. The act reflects only on me. For all we know God may or may not exist, Jesus may or may not be the Son of God, Mohammed may or may not be a prophet. Whther these things are true is a matter of faith, and the very definition of faith means that you may be wrong. It's taking a risk, a leap of faith is you will. Demanding other people knuckle under to your belief system, which my or may not be correct, is intolerant, disrespectful of other's freedom to believe what they wish and a sign that your beliefs are so fragile to you that you need to bolster them with violence, threats and tantrums. Means what you believe in ain't worth doodly-squat. Only when you can tolerate the ridicule and misunderstandings and revulsion of others aaaaaaaat your beleifs, and can laugh with them and still live your life, as though your beliefs were true, but not condemn them for falling short so you actually have something worth believing in.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  12. An Atheist, oh no!

    Is it just me, or is Islam a real buzzkill?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  13. David

    Finally ... a few Muslims with a sense of humor.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  14. Scott

    Simply because your religion prohibits you from doing something, it does not do so to me. In a free country you are going to find things offensive to you. Tough tah tah. I am going to go out of my way to draw muhammed now. Intentially lower case. I would insult jesus too, but the vatican does that for me.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  15. J.R.

    Any religion incapable of criticising itself is a dead faith.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  16. Muslimsarescrewedup

    The difference between all religions and Muslim religion is when someone draws our God we don’t threaten to kill, bomb, and sacrifice ourselves over it. There is something fundamentally wrong with that belief.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  17. Bradley

    The true irony here is that the steps taken to keep a religious figure from becoming an idol have instead done just that, created an invisible idol. To commit sacrilege against the idol is to make it visible. Then all the usual " you desecrated our idol" behavior follows suit.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  18. Valarie

    I think this is an extremely disrespectful act. This is something I would have done in the second grade. What is this world coming too? We are giving the extremists the invitation to kill Americans and hell ya I'm afraid because those people are nuts and they will attack us again. This is a major issue. They are probably planning another attack because of it. This is ridiculous! This is real! I'm surprised our government isn't doing more to stop this hateful act because in the end it only makes more work for them.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  19. Mike

    Sam- In principle I agree. However, you are implying that there is no way to show solidarity to those threatened & stand up for freedom of speech without insults. It seems to me that it is lazy, immature and sheep-like behavior. If you want the world to be better, you have to be willing to raise the bar yourself.

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

    This reminds me of another SP episode... One regarding sand in people's v*ginas. I wish everyone on the world would ease up a little and give it a rest. This is really what everyone should be spending their energy on? I know Jewish people that eat pork too...

    All of these so called religious folks on all sides of the fence should start focusing on the important things in life, namely taking care of your fellow man.

    Unless of course you're a devil worshipper, than you can carry on like everyone else who "claims" to be religious but doesn't follow the positive teachings of their own so called beliefs.

    Most people who claimed to be religious in my life, act the least. FACT

    May 20, 2010 at 2:48 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.