Monday, September 20, 2010

Drawing Mohamed : Open Call for Better Approaches

There was an episode of The West Wing in which the liberal president, played by Martin Sheen, was warned by his advisers about the potential political fallout if he didn't support an amendment to ban flag-burning. The president dismisses the frantic politicizing over the issue, getting to the heart of the matter by asking whether there's some rash of flag-burning going on that he's unaware of that requires such drastic legislation? His eventual position is simply that in his opinion, as the President, flag-burning is wrong, but no law is needed to address that opinion, as it's not something causing anyone other than lame politicians looking for a wedge issue to lose much sleep.

Ultimately, my position on the issue of drawing the Muslim prophet Mohamed is somewhat similar to that fictional President's on flag-burning. I feel it's entirely wrong to threaten someone who draws such an image (or any image they feel compelled to draw), but I don't think there's some naturally occurring need for the cartoonists of the world to draw Mohamed other than for grandstanding purposes. I understand the solidarity argument in the wake of threats against other cartoonists, but I honestly think most of this is misguided.

Specifically, given there's no real daily need for drawing Mohamed, I think it's parallel to burning the Koran to organize something as inflammatory as "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day." Yes, there's a First Amendment right at stake here, and should someone really need to draw the prophet in order to express an idea that is sincere and not immaturely provocative, I would support them through and through. But it's not like some lame imam looking for a wedge issue is going to issue any fatwas if a Western cartoonist draws any other person in the world. We're working through a strong difference of opinion over one figure here. That should be easy enough to do with some decorum and maturity.

Even Muslims I know who would never dream of supporting violence against a cartoonist still wince when they hear that someone has drawn Mohamed...it's an important part of their religion not to draw this one figure. As strange and offensive as that idea is to us (and believe me, the notion that I cannot draw any freaking thing I want to is very offensive to me), I honestly don't think the way to find common ground here is through provocation.

I do feel sorry for Seattle-based cartoonist Molly Norris, who as artinfo.com has reported was advised by the FBI to go into hiding after calling for an "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" on her blog. I hope this phase of her life is short, and I would really hope some Muslim leader would find the courage to stand up for her rights, even if he still winced at the notion of her campaign. But I also find it difficult to imagine the likelihood of this very problem wasn't obvious to Norris from the start of it. Meaning she willingly sacrificed security for a part of her life to stand up for First Amendment Rights. And for that she deserves respect and appreciation, but...I also think she could have found a better way to make her point.

Indeed, my problem from the start with "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" is that I felt the provocation was an immature response to an irrational feeling (there's nothing rational about much of what constitutes blasphemy in most religions). And as such, neither side was likely to learn anything valuable this way. To help raise the dialog above the 4th Grade level will take time and education. Again, if there were a sincere need for someone to draw Mohamed, then I'd support giving them 24-hour Secret Service protection at taxpayer's expense to ensure their rights were protected. But for everyone else who wasn't naturally going to draw Mohamed without being told it was the best way to show their support for the First Amendment, I'd ask them to hold off. Let the temperature drop. And if you really have to respond, well, then endeavor to create events that respect the way Muslims feel too, to help spread understanding.

Norris' notion of watering down the pool of targets is a particularly bad one, imho, being both disrespectful to peaceful Muslims and unnecessarily provocative and hurtful. The vast majority of Muslims will not respond violently to such drawings, but they will be insulted by them, making her event boil down, in tone, to "Let's drive another wedge here by insulting all the non-radicals so that we can teach those terrible radicals a lesson." Surely, there's a better way to respond to the radicals than this.

Consider this an open call for ideas on ways to stand up for the right to draw anything you wish without unnecessarily insulting one-fifth of the world's population.

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21 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for your balanced and grown-up comments about this. I couldn't agree more.

9/20/2010 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

There is no freedom of anything at stake here.

Both the Koran burning and the "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" were politically motivated and tacitly supported by the extreme right.

9/20/2010 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Even the extreme right are entitled to their opinion, though, George, suggesting to my mind that encouraging less provocative ways of expressing that opinion is a good exercise.

9/20/2010 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger Saskia said...

I am always advocating respectfulness towards other people, religions, things-- I down right preach it to my children as an approach to life. However to really work, respect needs to go both ways. I know I do many things in my daily life that are bound to be considered disrespectful in other cultures, sometimes even my own. an example: I never had an issue breastfeeding in public, because I figured my right to do that outweighed anyone else's reason to be offended by it. In that case, it is me & my child who need to be respected.

It all boils down to intention. I can't live my life wondering if everything I do could be disrespectful to someone, somewhere. To me, it is a totally different story if a Muslim draws Mohamed or burns the koran than if someone does it simply out of spite, or out of ignorance, or just to get a bunch of attention. To a Muslim those items are sacred, to the people at the heart of all the news stories I've heard lately, it's just mean. Disrespect for no reason at all.

9/20/2010 11:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

There is no edict in the Koran or any Hadith that calls for death for someone drawing Mohammed. The notion is a contemporary fabrication by extremists and people who believe that the right to free speech should stop short of the defamation of Islam (which is a widely held view among Muslims).

Let's be clear about the problem: every instance in which someone draws Mohammed, for amusement, satire, political expression, or any other reason, is now a potential death sentence. You know what would bring the temperature down on this issue? If the pious Muslims issuing those death sentences would shut their fool mouths and go back to worrying about their farts or whatever. Let the peaceful Muslims demonstrate their peacefulness in response to unremitting provocation. After all, we'll only know that they're peaceful when we fail to provoke them.

9/20/2010 12:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"An appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last."

Winston Churchhill

9/20/2010 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Ed, my point is that these events were designed to produce the response they did. A simple case of cause and effect which was intended only to be provocative. Starting from those assumptions incites confrontation and suppresses rational discussion. We all have the freedom to walk up to a stranger and call them an asshole, but we think twice.

9/20/2010 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Good Lord, there's enough wrong with that statement to write a tome of a response.

Let's start with the easiest:

every instance in which someone draws Mohammed, for amusement, satire, political expression, or any other reason, is now a potential death sentence

This is wildly overstating the case. In fact, only in high-profile cases or clearly provocative cases have drawings led to any objections at all. Therefore, there's no reason to believe every instance is a potential problem. All the evidence suggests that it is the intent to insult or provoke that results in the high-profile objections. Which does still leave open the difference of opinion on the matter of free speech, but doesn't suggest, as your statement does, that this represents some global threat to doodlers everywhere.

If the pious Muslims issuing those death sentences would shut their fool mouths and go back to worrying about their farts or whatever.

Every religion has its obsessions that strike others as silly. I know of a sect of Amish who violently broke apart to begin new separate churches because they couldn't agree on the "correct" width of the brim of their hats.

The imams issuing death sentences are fanatics, I'll agree, but your example is cherry picked to be insulting...you might consider your own role in bringing the temperature down.

As for your assertion that peaceful Muslims should perpetually turn the other cheek in order to convince you that they're truly peaceful, I can't imagine a more hypocritical load of crap. The underlying hostility in your comment may be correctly directed at the tiny percentage of Muslims who have ever been non-peaceful over such an issue, but in my opinion, your entire tone in this comment is highly provocative, making you no one to demand that others prove their peacefulness to you...start with that plank in your own eye.

9/20/2010 01:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Churchill-quoting Anonymous:

Ice cream has no bones.

9/20/2010 01:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

what befuddles me is this

I doubt anyone had taken a polaroid snapshot of Muhammed , so drawing His portrait or image is near impossible. So we've no way of knowing if what was drawn was Him or His long lost pet camel. So what is taken offense to, is really essentially assigning His name to an image.

Which okay, taking something sacred in vain is not something to be done lightly. That I can grasp.

So then why can people be named after him? Why can this be named such but not that?
Is the schism between those two attitudes that befuddle me.

9/20/2010 01:28:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The one thing I should clarify (and agree on with regards to Franklin's point) is how this is an issue selectively insisted on by Muslims throughout history and as such represents more of a contemporary insistence than a historical one (although that doesn't make the contemporary insistence any less heart-felt).

I don't actually know if appears in the Koran or not, but the evidence suggests the ban was created by people wanting, for political reasons, to control others, like so many of the "rules" Christians must follow (that just so happened to benefit some Pope or who-have-you but show up nowhere in the Bible).

Images of Mohamed once created by Muslims are abundant: http://zombietime.com/mohammed_image_archive/islamic_mo_full/

The question today is not, however, whether the contemporary Muslim sentiment is rational, but whether provocation is the appropriate way to reach common ground with regards to free speech, which I have always assumed is a global work in progress and not something we get because we're obnoxious enough to toss our teddy and stomp our feet when we encounter those who disagree on its finer points. The question of flag-burning, which some Americans would argue free speech should not cover, being only one example of the work yet to be done here.

9/20/2010 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A female member of my family, dated a follower of Islam. We are Italian Catholics and welcomed him into our family. However, he was incredibly intolerant toward our observances and customs. For the entire time that my relative dated this gentleman, he made our family gatherings hell. The most incendiary practices we as a family seemed to indulge in was our diet. We ate pork and a follower of Islam does not eat pork and apparently a whole spectrum of other dietary restrictions that we were to be schooled on.

We as a family were willing to compromise on this situation, but he was not. He demanded, often vehemently, that we all begin following the dietary restrictions of Islam. He not only became loud and belligerent, he threatened violence and tried many times to provoke the male members of the family into fighting - often out in public.

He expected the female member of our family who was dating him to wait on him and wear a veil. She actually did wait on him and try to please him, but she refused to wear the veil. She was publicly ridiculed in front of her family for this.

His object as he told us, was to convert her and us to Islam. We endured this as a family for about 2 years, when our family member finally broke off dating him.

The kicker to all of this was that he refused to bring our family member to meet his family, because his family would never accept her.

Compromise takes both sides and the problem with a compromise is that no one is happy. Our Moslem guest could not accept a compromise because to do so would leave a space for evil to take hold and invite sin. This has been my experience with most strong believers of religion. They can tolerate you, but cannot tolerate your sin and therefore must either stay away from you or convert you.

How do you show respect, when your respect is not wanted and you are not respected in return?

9/20/2010 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Anonymous,

I'm sorry that your most memorable contact with a Muslim was with this obvious jerk, but in contrast to him I could personally introduce you to dozens and dozens and dozens of my friends and Muslim acquaintances whose adherence to the most strict forms of Islam varies, but who still do identify as Muslim, and don't care what you eat, would happily participate as much as any non-believer can in your traditions, and would never dream of thinking you should change how you live or worship God.

In other words, the guy you met is not representative of all Muslims. Please meet a few others before you conclude you know what they're all like.

9/20/2010 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I realize that if this were obvious, someone would have suggested it already, but I am (in addition to beating the snot out of anyone foolish enough to come here and suggest all Muslims must change who they are) truly interested in what alternatives there might be for gaining common ground on why the ban against drawing Mohamed is so offensive to us non-Muslims who cherish free speech.

I'll admit...it really pisses me off that some imam would issue a death warrant over something that I consider a basic and perhaps the most important human right. But I don't think the in-your-face approach that most Westerners who've gotten upset enough to make an issue of it (on South Park or elsewhere) are taking is that well considered. It's evidence of true anger (and I understand that anger), but it's not evidence of a sound argument ("You're wrong to react violently to this, so I'm going to keep doing it." It has all the intellectual integrity of the "floggings will continue until morale improves" sort of sentiment).

The best (most political productive) argument, as I see it, is that the ban's goal of showing respect toward the prophet can only mean something to those who willingly practice Islam. That not drawing the prophet is a self-imposed indication of faith and respect that shouldn't mean anything to the true believers if not adhered to by the non-believers.

In other words, we should return to what was, until fairly recently, the widely held belief that non-believers cannot be blasphemous, as the entire concept of blasphemy presupposes a shared agreement that this or that is sacred. It is the willful violation of that shared agreement that creates the offense. If you never believed, you can't be held responsible for holding something sacred.

My best guess at how to address this issue is to work toward a return to that (much more sound, IMO) kind of thinking on all sides.

9/20/2010 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Therefore, there's no reason to believe every instance is a potential problem.

Unfortunately, you can't know which one will be. Norris called for everybody drawing Mohammed on her blog as a protest, but somebody else put together the official EDMD via Facebook, and Norris spent the next two months issuing takedown notices because she thought it was a bad idea once she started to see it implemented. The poster republished at Artinfo.com was her drawing but largely somebody else's text (note the use of Comic Sans). Too bad for her.

your example is cherry picked to be insulting...you might consider your own role in bringing the temperature down.

Ptth. Anyone who believes that his gas interferes with his proximity to God and has to ask experts about the degree to which he can or cannot fart during prayer ought to stand up and be counted when the mere existence of such observances is pointed out. People who do not subscribe to such idiocies need feel no offense. And yes, it is an idiocy. Who am I to say? A modern person and a skeptic.

...your entire tone in this comment is highly provocative, making you no one to demand that others prove their peacefulness to you...start with that plank in your own eye.

You fail to see the asymmetry here. First of all, I never claimed to be beyond provocation. On the extreme contrary. Secondly, using only that which is permissible under the First Amendment, you could at worst provoke me to produce an angry response under likewise permissible terms. Anwar al-Awlaki and his minions do not subscribe to any such limit. So there's an open question here about what constitutes provocation, and the degree to which the provoker is responsible for the behavior of the provoked.

Since you don't scare me: Muslims must change who they are, at least the ones who are not sufficiently modern to countenance secular, free society. We should not be afraid of offending their values. They should be afraid of offending ours. And what has happened to Norris is an outrage.

9/20/2010 06:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Name one NYC art exhibit that has showed a balance of how Christians feel. The extreme left in the art world mock Cristianity because they know they can raise brows without ending up with their gallery blown up.

Even Muslims who explore their religion with art end up threatened. Anyone recall Sarah Maple's show in London and how it was closed because of threats? That was just because she was holding a hog in a photograph and is Muslim.

It is sad to think that the barbaric aspects of an old religion can shape the direction of free expression today just because a relatively small group of those who follow the faith would rather kill than turn a blind eye from something that offends them.

If you don't like it don't look. Christians have had to learn that. Maybe Muslims should do the same. If some of the art that mocks Christianity focused on Islam it would be stamped as hate and the artist would probably be arrested.

9/20/2010 08:27:00 PM  
Anonymous betta said...

Edward, it's been awhile since I read your blog. I return to find the thoughts here as exciting and relevant as ever.

On non-believers cannot be blasphemous:
Agreed. In the Qu'ran there is emphasis on welcome and empathy with non-believers. This thing about fatwas is a load of hogwash. However, that said, while someone may not be blasphemous, they may be dim-witted, self-indulgent, insensitive jerks. I think it's incumbent upon people of all cultures and faiths to call out this kind of behavior, not out of fear of repercussions, but out of respect for our neighbours.

As to how we might move forward. I think dialogue is the key. When starting this 'everybody draw the prophet' project, did the person consult anyone from the Muslim faith? Sometimes you don't actually need to go ahead with that project - you could publish interviews/dialogue transcripts with others AROUND that project. Research. Collect ephemera. Exhibit. Have a fucking dinner party. WORK IT OUT. Now wouldn't that be so much more instructive and productive? That's the kind of freedom of speech worth believing in.

Not only is the described project really stupid (morally, intellectually), it's also unbelievably lazy.

I advocate the equivalent of blindfolding everyone and letting them run their hands over a big elephant. Who really can see the whole and declare they are right?

9/21/2010 03:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Bo said...

Edward, thanks for the opportunity to discuss this issue. As artists we are called on to respond to issues and events in a creative and productive manner. We are not statesmen. Artists are by nature provocateurs. Molly is not a politician, a statesman, or a religious leader. She responded in a way common to activists and many artists today; she called us to come together in a ludicrous action to, expose what she felt was the ludicrous nature of a policy. Art is meant to wake us up. Her call was a wake up call. Obviously, we are currently in the middle of a major clash of cultures. We can hold the conflict between respecting someone's beliefs and having freedom of expression. It is giving in to fundamentalist thinking to propose that one should give up one freedom that is (excuse me) more evolved, for a dogma that is (excuse me) anachronistic. It is the willingness to accept the consequences of the conflict which allows the continued growth and development of the species. Not many artists are willing to make what they call on the news "the ultimate sacrifice", but Molly was. One may have chosen to participate in "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day", because they felt that it was a creative solution to a complicated struggle within the cultural clash. Many of the depictions that day were, if you remember, intentionally derogatory and insensitive. But some were insightful and serious. One may have chosen to represent Mohammed in a manner similar to that which one would choose to paint any historic, religious, spiritual, or mythological figure. With respect and an intense searching into the deeper ramifications as to why this figure holds so much power for us (or for a specific group). Thusly, one may have found it to be a rewarding experience. If one is not familiar with Islamic culture, it would be an opportunity to study the subject, and this study certainly would bring with it a certain level of empathy. Empathy with ones subject brings a modicum of understanding.

Being raised in a fundamentalist culture, Southern Baptist, I understand, an inherent reverence for (the power of) depicting a holy figure. The sanctuary space in many Southern Baptist churches are devoid of imagery. Many denominations express a respect for the divine by limiting imagery in the sanctuary; images of Jesus being reserved only for sunday school classes. Sacred imagery is also traditionally limited in Jewish culture as well, think of Chaim Potok's remembrances of his childhood struggles in 'My Name Is Asher Lev". All religions have their laws, rules and sacred imagery. But artists have from the beginning of time been intimately involved in creating, defining, and redefining these images. Artists are as responsible for the perpetuation of deity's as organized religion itself. Think of Michaelangelo's depictions and how they influenced western culture. Art and religion are intimately intwined.

If ART itself, is a religion, as some suggest, then it would be acting outside the laws of that religion to ask an artist to do anything other than what they feel called, provoked or compelled to do. Excuse the expression, but God bless Molly, for asking us to have the courage to stand up for what 'we' believe. We live in a multi-cultural, post-modern, whole-systems world. We can understand the importance of science, myth, religion, the economy, politics, history, our own psychology, our personal emotional and biological histories, all simultaneously, without issuing fatwas or death sentences on anyone or any group who believes or thinks differently than we do. May we all grow in empathy toward one another and understanding for one another. Thanks for this forum. Peace.

9/21/2010 08:29:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Sometimes you don't actually need to go ahead with that project - you could publish interviews/dialogue transcripts with others AROUND that project. Research. Collect ephemera. Exhibit. Have a fucking dinner party. WORK IT OUT.

Precisely. I appreciate what Bo notes with regards to "We are not statesmen. Artists are by nature provocateurs" but Betta's suggestion sound so much more productive to me if the artist is truly seeking mutual understanding and not just grandstanding.

9/21/2010 08:33:00 AM  
Anonymous betta said...

I beg all to read these two level-headed responses from rational Muslims:

'Hijacked Art, Sidetracked Peace' by G Willow Wilson, a fellow cartoonist and a Muslim:

http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/a/3857/

She says: '...the only explanation I have is too simple to satisfy anyone: they happen because hate sells. It sells in the West, where anti-Muslim hate groups feed on incidents of Muslim rage; it sells in the Muslim world, where extremists are only too happy to use examples of Western intolerance to win over new recruits.

This is the reality we live in: any satirized depiction of the Prophet Muhammad feeds into a global propaganda war, whether the artist intends it or not. There is no longer any such thing as artistic immunity in the battle of images, and to think otherwise is fatally naive.


'What Can the American Muslim Community Do to Protect Molly Norris' by Sheila Musaji:

http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/molly_norris/0018237

How she could have been unaware that such a proposal could bring out the extremist element on both sides who would use the event to pursue their own agendas (having nothing to do with free speech) is difficult to understand.

Anyone in the American Muslim community which is perennially caught between the extremists on both sides could have told her that she was being naive.


Norris later spoke to Arsalan Bukhari of CAIR-Seattle and apologized. They went to dinner and became friends. Arsalan himself calls upon all Muslims to 'stand by her [Norris'] side'.

I truly wonder how much differently this situation would have turned out if Molly Norris and Arsalan Bukhari had had dinner before any pen was put to paper.

9/21/2010 09:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Bo said...

dinner is dinner and art is art...

I believe in art. And I believe you gotta eat.

...so, are there other proposals for creative solutions... besides dinner?

9/21/2010 10:27:00 AM  

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