Public Square has invited me to take part in an Everybody Draw Mohammed Day debate about the ethical implications of needlessly offending one-third of the world’s population. I was given the opportunity to write the first post. I’ve cross-posted my essay below.
I’m told that the ethicist Jack Marshall will offer his views on the same topic. Keep an eye on the Public Square blog to see the debate as it unfolds.
It seems they allow comments over there. If any of our regular readers decide to pay Public Square a visit, please wash behind your ears and put on a clean shirt before you knock on the door. And play nice — we don’t want to leave a bad impression, now, do we?
Everyone Draw Mohammed Day
Greetings to all the readers of Bloggerheads at Public Square.
The owners of this site have invited me to debate the ethical implications of what so many people will be doing today: drawing Mohammed.
Some of these drawings may be respectful of Allah’s messenger. Some will be neutral in content. Others will insult or mock Mohammed. But all are likely to offend Muslims.
As the Danish Mohammed cartoon crisis of 2005-2006 demonstrated, “insulting” images of Mohammed are used as an excuse for mass rioting and violence. Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who created the iconic “Turban Bomb” cartoon, was later the subject of at least two plots on his life.
Comedy Central’s recent suppression of South Park over material that mentioned Mohammed — which is what inspired the woman who initiated Everybody Draw Mohammed Day — brought the issue to the attention of the general public. In the weeks since the South Park kerfuffle, more incidents of “Muslim Cartoon Rage” have been featured in the news. Last week the Swedish artist Lars Vilks was physically attacked in Uppsala while giving a seminar on freedom of speech — illustrating his lecture with a video containing sexually provocative images involving Mohammed. A few days later his home in Skåne was vandalized and firebombed by two young Muslim men.
The case of Lars Vilks is an interesting one, because the Danish cartoon crisis prompted Mr. Vilks to find out how far he could go before Sweden’s regime of political correctness stifled him. He knew that he could be as “transgressive” as he liked with the sacred symbols of Christianity, or even Judaism. But it was obvious that the same tolerant rules would not extend to the mocking of Islam.
In the summer of 2007 he created a little test of the system: when invited to contribute images of animals for display in an art exhibit, he drew several free-form line drawings of a dog shape with a human-looking head that sported a beard and a turban. He titled his works, “Profeten som rondellhund” — “The Prophet as a Roundabout Dog”. A rondellhund is a Swedish folk custom, a statue of a dog made of wood or metal that is placed in the center of a roundabout or traffic circle.
Mr. Vilks was very careful in what he drew. The dog in the drawing did not represent a real dog, but a statue made of wood or metal. And as, he stated in the early interviews, the prophet whose visage adorned the rondellhund was non-specific: it was some prophet or other, but he declined to say which one.
As he expected, the committee in charge of the gallery hastily took down his drawings when they realized the potential problem. Mr. Vilks responded indignantly that there no longer seemed to be any right to free speech in Sweden. He proceeded to draw more roundabout dogs in various styles, and added a few other variations such as “The Prophet Visits a Gay Bar.” He took a picture of two lawn chairs and titled it “Two Prophets”. He drew a crude face on a shoe and labeled it a “prophet”.
His doings caused only a minor stir until a month later, when the editor of the local newspaper Nerikes Allehanda published the first mainstream media depiction of the Prophet as a Roundabout Dog. Then the trouble started in earnest: death threats, directed both at him and at the newspaper editor; condemnation by prominent political figures; outrage and demands for apologies from Muslim organizations. The brouhaha continued for months, and through it all the artist continued to draw more dogs.
The fuss gradually died down, and the issue lay dormant until early this year, when several Muslim terrorists — including the notorious American “Jihad Jane” — were arrested for plotting to kill Lars Vilks. His name returned to the newspaper headlines, and not just in Scandinavia, but all over the world. From the Muslim world came a rising drumbeat of calls for his death, matching in intensity the fatwas and threats against Kurt Westergaard. Unlike Mr. Westergaard, however, Mr. Vilks lacks any bodyguards or state protection at his home. His only defense against murderous intruders is an axe.
The case of Lars Vilks has demonstrated — as he fully intended from the very beginning — that there is no such thing as free speech in Sweden, if that speech offends Muslims. His drawings depicted neither Mohammed nor a dog, but the perception that they did assigned him a permanent descriptive label as “the Swedish artist who drew a cartoon of Mohammed as a dog”.
Reality played no part in what happened to Lars Vilks. Only perception mattered, especially what was perceived by Muslims.
Lars Vilks and the creators of South Park share something in common: they all set out deliberately to demonstrate that free speech does not apply to anything that might offend Muslims. They also proved that actual government censorship is not necessary: private foundations and media companies are eager to suppress anything that carries the possibility of causing offense to Muslims. When editors and publishers and producers and gallery owners see any work that involves Mohammed or Islam, they smell the burning cars in the street and hear the glass breaking their building lobbies. Nobody wants to lose his life or his career for the sake of creative principle, so almost everyone caves in and self-censors.
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In the United States we have the First Amendment, which assures of us the right to create controversial and unpleasant material, even if it offends someone else. Most European countries don’t afford their citizens the same protections; many have laws against blasphemy and incitement to racial hatred that limit speech. The latter principle — in Sweden the crime is known as hets mot folkgrupp, “incitement against an ethnic group” — has been extended to cover religious belief, so that laws against racism are used to crack down on anyone who defames a religious group. Needless to say, the religion in question is invariably Islam — no one gets arrested in Europe or the United States for defecating on a crucifix or depicting the Virgin Mary as a bondage queen.
The remarkable thing, however, is that the force of law rarely needs to be applied in cases that cause offense to Islam. Internalized social controls do the job better than the police ever could. Schoolteachers, pastors, office managers, business owners, minor municipal bureaucrats, editors, bookshop managers — all play a part in making sure that Muslims are never, ever offended.
Theo Van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam in 2004 for making a movie that insulted Muslims. He was the first martyr for the right to offend Islam, and there will undoubtedly be more. The list of artists and writers who have been harassed, threatened, intimidated, attacked, and prosecuted for offending Islam includes Lars Vilks, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Gregorius Nekschot, Kurt Westergaard, Salman Rushdie, Jussi Halla-aho, Paul Ray, and others too numerous to mention.
Freedom of speech in is being eroded in Western countries, and it is being eroded selectively. Causing offense to Islam — or even behavior that might lead to situations that offend Islam — is stamped out by social, political, and legal means. This is a result of creeping Islamization, and in Western Europe Islamization is no longer creeping, but has stood up and is starting to gallop.
This is why Everybody Draw Mohammed Day took off and spread virally at such an astonishing rate — it was an idea whose time had come. It was spread from computer to computer, from blog to blog, by ordinary people who were willing to do what famous and powerful people are unwilling to do: shake a fist at Muslim bullies and say, “Enough is enough!”
To draw Mohammed is to assert that one’s right to free speech is God-given and unalienable. It is not granted by the State nor permitted by law, but is inherent, and its suppression constitutes tyranny.
Today is the day when everybody draws Mohammed. And when they do, they are saying, “This is our right, and it cannot be taken away from us!”
Does this offend you? Very well, then — it offends you!
Deal with it.