Thursday, May 20, 2010

How About Making Today Interfaith Respect Day?

Today, apparently, is "Draw Mohammed Day" as jokingly announced by cartoonist Molly Norris, who now says she doesn't stand behind the idea as a movement, that it was a specific response to a specific incident, the pulling of a South Park Cartoon from Comedy Central's website.  Apparently the South Park cartoon included Mohammed as a character, and Comedy Central pulled it out of fear of retaliation against their employees.

Despite Molly Norris' intent, this has started a movement on college campuses of drawing Mohammed today in stick figures labeled "Mohammed" in chalk on the sidewalks, and launched some Facebook pages, "Draw Mohammed Day," and "Against Draw Mohammed Day," among others. 

A number of thoughtful articles have been written about this.  I want to point to a few from writers I particularly respect.

A well-reasoned article by Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain in the thick of things at Harvard, concludes:
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.
Over at the blog NonProphet Status, the blogger writes:
We secularists need to think long and hard about what lines we’re drawing — and who we’re boxing out in the process. We say we want “free speech;” now let’s recognize that with freedom comes responsibility and the need for respectful dialogue despite differences. In other words, as my mom might say: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Chalk may wash away but the divides we build often don’t.
Let’s talk the talk, not chalk for shock.

The Interfaith Youth Core has put out a very good resource kit on this issue.  It says: 
This is not about Free Speech vs. fundamentalist Islam. Muslim Students Associations (MSA) on all three campuses where chalking has occured so far said they believed in free speech and were opposed to fringe groups who threaten violence. This is about Actions that Build an Inclusive Society vs. Actions that Marginalize a Minority Community.
It also says:
Part of the responsibility of free speech is recognizing that speech has consequences. In this case, the consequences are pain and further marginalization of local Muslims who have never threatened anyone’s rights. There are better ways to support and defend free speech.
That's the issue at the heart here.  Absolutely we all believe in freedom of speech.  Students have the right to draw these kinds of chalk images, and nobody should be threatened with violence because of drawing any image of Mohammed.  On the other hand, what we should be focusing on is ways to increase interfaith cooperation and respect.  The Muslims I know in my community would never condone violence against people for drawing Mohammed.  They routinely and publicly denounce violence done in the name of Islam.  They also work hard to build interfaith cooperation and work to educate the community about Islam.  Doing something that is clearly disrespectful to their religious beliefs is not the way to show our mutual respect and desire to build a civil and interfaith society. 


Today I will not be drawing Mohammed, nor will I be boycotting Facebook because it allows a page for people calling on people to draw Mohammed.  Today I will be working for interfaith cooperation and respect.

3 comments:

villemezbrown said...

I think promoting interfaith cooperation and respect is a great thing to do on May 20, today, and everyday. However, that is a completely separate issue from freedom of speech. One of your quotes says "there are better ways to support and defend free speech". Well, what are they? And even if there are, I think drawing Muhammed is still a good or at least ok way to do this. As hard as it can be to accept, when defending free speech it is most important to defend speech we ourselves find hateful or offensive. Otherwise the argument can always be that the content of the speech does matter to whether is is, or should be, free or not.
Also, I find calling the drawing of Muhammed about respect or lack thereof for Muslims dubious at best. Muslims believe they should not draw Muhammed so it is respectful of me to not ask Muslims to do that even though I don't agree with this belief. To ask non-Muslims not to draw Muhammed is, to me, the equivalent of saying GBLT people should never have public displays of affection or draw or otherwise generate images of same-sex affection because doing so is disrespectful to people who believe homsexuality is a sin. To me, the Draw Muhammed Day is very similar to a "kiss-in" in the way it tries to demonstrate against an oppressive attitude in a basically light-hearted and fun way, but knowing that, yes, some people are going to be offended no matter how "nice" participants are about it, and some participants are going to try their hardest to be offensive even though that does not help the cause.

Cynthia Landrum said...

@villemezbrown - You say, "when defending free speech it is most important to defend speech we ourselves find hateful or offensive." I said, "Absolutely we all believe in freedom of speech. Students have the right to draw these kinds of chalk images," and absolutely I defend their free speech here. I defend the right of Nazis to have free speech, too. But when I see something that is hate speech, I not only have to argue in favor of the right they have to say it, I also have to argue that what they're saying is not right. Drawing Mohammed isn't hate speech; I don't think it goes that far. But it's speech that's done to be purposefully disrespectful to a specific minority group. That's not the right thing to be doing, in my book. Absolutely anyone has the right to do it, but doing it is not respectful.

It's not the same as asking same-sex couples not to demonstrate their affection in public; I'm not asking people not to do anything that is natural and part of their own self-expression. People don't normally go around chalking Mohammed on campus sidewalks. They're doing it deliberately to provoke a reaction. And yes, I am saying, "Doing something deliberately to show disrespect to another religion is your protected right, but it's not a nice thing to be doing, in my opinion, so I won't do it."

I won't be, for the record, drawing Mohammed. I won't be drawing pictures of a cross or Jesus being urinated on. I won't be drawing pictures of a flaming chalice being doused with water. Did I lose freedom of speech by deciding to use my freedom respectfully? I don't think so.

adelev said...

Note: I am VillemezBrown. I couldn't get my Google account to work today for some reason.

I agree that we should choose to use our freedom of speech respectfully. I do not support people who drew pictures of Mohammed prior to EDMD because I think you are right that the purpose was to be disrespectful to Muslims. I am not a fan of South Park because I believe it gets its humor from being as offensive as possible to as many groups as possible. This is not the kind of humor I enjoy. I think where we differ is that I don't see EDMD as being about religion and respect at all. It's about censorship. Yes, college students drawing stick-figures are trying to provoke a reaction, but I would hope for most of them the target is people who would restrict free-speech, not Muslims. There were death threats after ep 201 of South Park and then Comedy Central censored the episode and refused to show it anymore. I don't think EDMD was supposed to be about attacking a minority. It was supposed to be about standing up to a powerful media corporation and people who use threats of violence and invoking fear to oppress and control others. Of course, some, perhaps many, people used it as an opportunity to attack a religious group. That is wrong. But I also know some people made real effort to stand in solidarity against censorship while still being respectful to Muslims. Here is a video from a Muslim who supported EDMD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bvgb7SuxD8g

For the record, I did not draw Mohammed on EDMD, or any other day either.

Interesting side note: I found the example of a flaming chalice being doused thought-provoking and I tried to imagine how I would feel about that. I wear a chalice necklace all the time because I am proud to be UU, but I couldn't work up any offense at the idea of an image designed to be disrespectful to UUs. It's just not my personal thing. I was offended by the facebook group about "Drag Women Back into the Kitchen Day" and many of the images on that page depicting approval of violence toward women. I certainly wasn't touting support for that group's freedom of speech, so I will admit to holding a double standard. I tried to rationalize that that group was promoting violence so it was different, but I'm sure that day did not incite violence anymore, or less, than EDMD. I will have to think about my position on this issue some more, but I'm not sure I will ever truly resolve my internal conflict on it.