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. Friend of Mohammad

    I have a friend named Mohammad, who asked me to draw a picture of him. I don't know his last name. If I draw the picture and put the word Mohammad on it, am I gonna die? I don't want to die.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  2. kevin

    pretty soon all these religions will be gone, the false ones anyway!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
    • No Jesus = Know Happiness

      all of them, yup!

      May 20, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  3. David Duke

    Israel First, America second. Support Israel or you're a Neo-Nazi.

    "We support Israel! 6 million died in the Holocaust!" – Typical American Zombie

    "Yes, My Goyim..6 million..Oy Vey these Gentiles are so easy to sway..We'll have Menorahs in their houses by 2020!" – Typical Israeli Jew

    May 20, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  4. Joshua

    Why didn't Rabbi Epstein request restraint and respect when the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at Univ of Calif Irvine set up a large demonstration on campus portraying Israelis and Jews as modern day Nazis, and used bull horns calling for the destruction of the" Zionist cancer"? Those campus preachers who irked Epstein ... today they are the MSA and they are threatening violence against non-Muslim students across the US. Respect is a 2-way street.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  5. Sakura

    I am an atheist and a humanist, and while I agree that freedom of speech has definitely been tainted in the situation with South Park, I don't agree with the childish way that other atheists and humanists have responded with the Draw Muhammad Day. Now, it's perfectly within their right to do so, but a MUCH more constructive way could have been done.

    Also, with the Muslim students drawing on boxing gloves and adding "Ali" after the name is equally childish in that it goes to the level of the original artwork. A much better way of dealing with the drawings could have been found.

    Now, I personally (this is just me and nothing to do with atheism or humanism) found the event to be tasteless and as such did not participate in it, mostly because this will be more an incite to retaliation and not necessarily by the "militant" individuals either. I would rather, again personally, see religion...ALL religion be turned into the equivalent of Greek mythology so that the entire human race could just progress forward and not having anything at all that could hold it back, a la religion.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  6. Mark

    Greg Epstein: Your "Good without God" philosophy is nothing but rebellion against God.
    How foolish that you have forsaken your Jewish heritage! Judaism and Israel's history is synonomous with the existance of God almighty, who gathered your people from all corner of the earth in 1948 back to Israel, long after prophecied by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zakaria, and other Old Testament prophets! To give God your back after all that is to be ungrateful!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  7. Ligaya

    Who wants to belong to a religion (That they call Islam) if their founder is a pedophile. read the Quran. He took a nine year old girl who is still paying a doll as his wife. A leader who order the mass murder of the whole entire villages who refused to be converted to his new religion? The tree and its fruits are not different from the seeds.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  8. JLP

    Comedy Central should of had the guts to put the shows on without censor. If Muslims get special treatment, then it is time for Christians to start threatning anyone that makes a derogatory statement or drawing about Jesus. If we kowtow to the Muslims then we should kowtow to the Christians.,

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

      It is not a question of getting special treatment but rather treated with respect and dignity, whoch everyone deserves.

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

    I dont think this is considered freedom of speech. It how people with no manars and values behave. What is it with you people and our prophit? why when everyone wants to show thier freedom of speech they start talking about Muslims? Do you every see Muslims talk or drawing or doing anything that will harm Jesus or Moses or any other Prophit? Your freedom of speech is not by drawing a prophit, butby telling your goverment to lower taxes, help those who are unemployed, prevent them from bailing out bank and companies with billions of dolllars while you live paycheck to paycheck, Helping the environment, more assistance for senior citizens (or you think you will be young forever). this does not show freedom of speech. it just shows how stupid and ignorant the poeple who are drawing these pictures are.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  10. Bill

    It is hard to believe why people are questioning why muslims are getting upset.
    It is a slap on their faces yet they are supposed to accept it without having any reaction which actually is the reason behind drawings of these images.
    I am sure many Christians and other religion individuals feel upset with these images as well. These "ignorant drawers" and this group on facebook is not justified in my humble opinion.

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

      They ARE expected to have a reaction. It is just not okay for it to be physical or violent reaction. They are free to express their disapproval in a nonviolent way.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  11. Network

    "Good without God" = oxymoron

    May 20, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  12. VR

    Every time that Mohammed has been depicted on a large scale (cartoons in print, TV, etc.), there has been a real threat of violence directed at the person who did the drawing. There are currently half a dozen people that live under full-time police protection for this. I have yet to hear any prominent Muslim stand up and criticize this. As a Christian, who has many Muslim friends, I have often asked them 'why does the Muslim community not speak up, and LOUDLY, that extremism is not acceptable'. I have yet to hear a good answer. Yes, there are certainly instances of this, but by and large, the Muslim community does not actively reject the violence perpetrated by the extremist, WHY?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  13. DayDreamer

    I think this is not about "Free Speech". It is about right to have "Free Insult", b/c we know it for sure that this act will insult a muslim. We may or may not understand why it isinsultive to a muslim. But we know it will and we want to our freedom to do that. Plain and simple. This society has gone mad!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  14. ali

    The one thing I am absolutely positive of, is that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would not have done what we are doing now: making an international public spectacle of ourselves. Most likely he would have just walked away and ignored (the ‘look the other way when someone throws garbage at you’ model), he might have negotiated with Facebook on the basis of their own stated rules (the Hudabia model), he might have reasoned with detractors (the discourse and discussion model). Nearly certainly Muhammad (PBUH) would have handled it with grace, with composure, and maybe even with a touch of good humor. Most importantly, the Prophet (PBUH) would have kept focusing on his own actions and proving his point with his own deeds rather than with slogans, banners and naara-baazi.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  15. Nice

    MohMad is the firts name for most Muslims and everyday a Mohmad goes and blows up some poeople on the streets. But that is okay for the Muslims as it comes closest to their prophets deeds

    May 20, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  16. Sam

    I am the one who drew the stick figure of Mohammed Epstein is using in this article. You can see that picture and more on our website.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  17. ali

    Regardless of what your belief or religion might be, to throw out offensive and hateful vitriolic for the simple and primary purpose of hurting someone else’s feelings – when you know that (a) those feelings will be hurt and (b) when hurting those feelings is really the only purpose of doing what you are doing – is inhuman, cruel, and clearly offensive. If Facebook does not recognize that, then it knows nothing either about “social” or about “networking” and certainly not about “community.”

    May 20, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  18. Jake

    Why is it wrong to disrespect other peoples' beliefs? We disrespect peoples' political beliefs all the time. We disrespect peoples' beliefs about mathematical and scientific matters when they are profoundly incorrect. We disrespect peoples' beliefs when they are racist. Etc.

    Oh, I get it, you meant hat it is wrong to disrespect other peoples' religious beliefs. You think religious beliefs should get special treatment, kid gloves. Even though many religious beliefs are held on the basis of no evidence whatsoever (or, more commonly, in the face of all evidence to the contrary). Even though religious people tend to hold onto these irrational beliefs with incomprehensible strength and defiance. Even though religious beliefs often include disrespecting the religious beliefs (or non-belief) of others – often calling these others inferior, saying they can't be moral, damning them to eternal torment, etc. Even though in this country, people increasingly try to use these irrational beliefs to shape law and policy. Even though lots of people in this world want to kill name Americans due to religious beliefs.

    Well, sorry, it doesn't seem rational – or, indeed, moral – to give such beliefs cart blanche.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  19. Josie

    It seems to me crude and immature to poke fun at revered figures. Creating stick figures on the sidewalk hardly asserts the right to freedom of speech very effectively. This kind of thing on campuses has its day and then people move on to the next "issue". Sometimes it pays to ignore the momentary fad. There are other, much more pressing issues we confront on this planet.

    May 20, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
    • felicia

      College students think they're all liberal and for change and making a difference in this world, trying to prove a point. They're just immature sheep looking for a cause to rally for.

      May 20, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  20. Devil's Advocate

    all those questioning about why drawing Prophet's picture is prohibited, well every religion has a set of limits, boundaries and restrictions and if Islam has that kind of restriction, why does it bother you? why can't you respect other people's faith and beliefs? Freedom of speech my foot, this is more of provoking a group of people without any reason and then these educated athiest morons wonder why Muslim world hate us??
    I'd love to see these self-styled psuedo freedom of speech protectors taking up the same issue with European governments where its actually against the law to deny holocaust. Try chalking up a cartoon on a sidewalk in Austria or Germany which says "I don't believe in holocaust" ... any takers? any defenders of freedom of speech? raise your hand please!!

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

      " Try chalking up a cartoon on a sidewalk in Austria or Germany which says "I don't believe in holocaust" ... any takers? any defenders of freedom of speech? raise your hand please!!"


      I don't believe in the holocaust.

      How's that. Now let's see if the jews start rioting, planning too kill me, blow up my home, burn down my embassy or issue a fatwa against me. Probably not going to happen because jews are not muslims.

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

      Well for one thing, I do respect other peoples right to observe whatever religion they want to. However, I don't believe that I have to follow the same customs they choose to follow in their religion.

      May 20, 2010 at 3:23 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.