Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Everybody draw Muhammad?

"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful" is what this calligraphy reads; it's the first line of the Holy Qur'an, the sacred book of Islam. It's an invocation, meant to sanctify the words that follow. Now I am not a Muslim, and, secure in my own faith, I've not studied Islam and don't see myself ever walking down that path. But I have tremendous respect for this religion that seeks to recognize the presence of God in all we do in life, and attempts to turn the very act of living into the act of worship. In my own experience of worship, I can see how powerful the act of submission is, of bowing down to God, that Muslims are supposed to commit several times a day in reverent unison as an act of prayer.

I'm writing this post today as it's reported that American-born Yemeni cleric and spokesperson for Al-Qaeda Anwar al-Awlaki has called for the death of the Seattle cartoonist who a few months ago proposed "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." Liberals have rushed to condemn this cleric's fatwa--as it should be condemned--and people up and down the spectrum have cited this cleric's edict as proof of what a horrible religion Islam is and how they're going to stand firm against the censorial urges of terrorists. Read the comments on any of today's blogs and weep.

"Everybody Draw Mohammad Day" was the brainchild of Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris, and was championed by Seattle blogger, sex-columnist, gay activist, and racist provocateur Dan Savage in reaction to the censorship imposed on an episode of Comedy Central's shock-humor cartoon South Park, and is the latest salvo in the conflict that came to a head after a Danish cartoonist was widely protested by conservative Muslims for drawing an insulting cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

Let me say that I think censorship is wrong. Let me say that free speech is one of those few blessings we in the U.S. are lucky to have. Let me say that artists have the right to provoke us to thought, to challenge our assumptions and our prejudices; they have the right and indeed the obligation to play with symbols both secular and sacred. I contest none of this.

But I contest the willful campaign to insult Muslims by provocatively, carelessly, and wantonly violating a belief held by many Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad is not to be depicted in graven image. One piece of art, two pieces of art, a cartoon, is something to think about, to debate, maybe to embrace or maybe to protest. All of these things are appropriate (as death sentences and fatwas are inappropriate).

But what's happening with those who embraced "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" (which was to be last May 10 and seems to have passed more or less forgotten, til today's news headline), is that the ugly side of American arrogance is revealed. As people rush to defend their right to collectively lump all Muslims together with terrorists, with censorship, with fundamentalism, with those dangerous others who we must dehumanize or win to our own, morally superior vision of the world, this is revealed as a something quite different than a free-speech protest. Above all the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" movement is a racist movement, which willfully and ignorantly juxtaposes the right of Americans to insult anybody they want to. In the end, "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" is about inspiring hate, and far from proving the moral superiority of the American way, be it secular or Christian, proves only arrogant self-centeredness.

This is the arrogance that lead George Bush to attack and invade Iraq in revenge for 9/11 despite Iraq having absolutely nothing to do with that day's terrorist attack. This is the arrogance that leads America to meddle -- under Bush's predecessors and his successor Obama -- over and over again in the Middle East to the benefit of American strategic and financial interests and the detriment of the people living there. This is the arrogance that allows the Obama administration to put this heinous Al-Qaeda spokeperson (and American citizen) Al-Awlaki on a list -- not of those to be brought to justice and tried -- of those to be assassinated or executed without right of due process should the opportunity arise. This is the arrogance we must fight against. Just as much as it is terrorists standing in the way of peace in so much of the Middle East, it is American arrogance standing in that same place.

I don't know if my experience of God, of spirit, is the same as what Muslims experience. I know their religion, like so many others, says their duty is to convert me to to their vision, and I disagree with that. My faith is also strong enough to withstand that. My religion has no such moral certainty that it is the only way, and I like it that way. I know I have many theological differences with Islam, as I do with most religions I know a little bit about. But my religious convictions allow me to find common ground with other people trying to make sense of an experience of living life that is mysterious, confusing, often wonderful and sometimes hard, despite those differences, even when they seem fundamental.

So I won't be drawing any pictures of Muhammad. Peace be upon him. I extend my hand in friendship.

Salaam. May peace be upon all of us.


  1. surely though you opposed the death threats aimed at the south park creators? I think this was more of a free speech exercise,but I agree that one response from a radical cleric is not a reason to lump all muslims together

  2. Of course I oppose those death threats...by a teeny tiny fringe element. It's not a free speech exercise if the response to such is a completely out of scale assault on ALL muslims.

  3. Very well written, man. There need to be more blogs like this one, in spite of any negative attention they may potentially receive.

    I agree that freedom of speech is an important cornerstone of democratic society and must be protected, but if you're going to create an image that'll offend millions of people, you should at least have a good reason for doing it.

    If you look at those original Danish cartoons, they aren't witty or insightful and they don't seem to be making any kind of political or philosophical statement. They're just crude and rather immature etchings designed to provoke the biggest reaction possible, and unsurprisingly that's what they.

    If you have the privilege of being able to speak freely, you have to exercise a measure of responsibility when doing so. A lot of people seem to forget that we're all human beings, and we've all got to share the same planet.

  4. Salaam Ish,
    I am Christiyono from Indonesia, I am moslem.I came upon your blog by accident, when I was looking for Bismillah calligraphy...I strongly agree with you (some), what I want to explain that in Islam vision there were'nt any duty from God to moslems to convert whole world into moslem. Even prophet Muhammad PBUH only spread teaches of Islam among non-religion tribes. just want to straight that and thank you...Salaam