Monday, May 24, 2010

If we don't draw Mohammad, the terrorists win

Here's a fact about Mohammad: he was a pedophile who in contemporary society would deservedly be sent to jail. (He consummated his marriage to Aisha when she was 9, and apparently regularly "fondled" her before then). Here is another fact: Mohammad was a fraud or, more charitably, delusional. (The angel Gabriel, manifestly and obviously did not narrate the Koran to him). Oh, and Allah does not exist.

These are facts that I have no doubt deeply offends most Muslims. Does this mean I should be prevented by law from expressing them? Obviously no. (If you disagree do yourself a favor and read On Liberty. If after reading On Liberty you still disagree, do the rest of us a favor and move to Saudi Arabia where you can see your opinions put into practice). But maybe I could but shouldn't? That is, even if we agree I shouldn't be punished for expressing these facts, maybe I should self-censor? Given that Muslims will find the above propositions so insulting and upsetting, perhaps out of reasoned self-restraint or compassion I should rather keep quiet? I say hell no. Truth is valuable in its own right and no one's feelings - no matter how deeply felt or how numerous the offended - should prevent its discovery and propagation. Moreover, there is almost always someone or another who is offended by every idea, so touchy-feely let's-not-hurt-anyone's-feelings freedom of expression is hollow. If all it takes to shut you up is someone wailing "I am offended" you give everyone a veto over your expression and, worse, incentivize taking offense.

So why bring all this up? Simple: Everybody Draw Mohammad Day. Very briefly, the South Park creators received death threats for depicting Mohammad because some Muslims think all depictions of the prophet are forbidden. (These prescriptions are not found in the Koran, only in the reliable-as-Chinese-whispers hadiths). As a result of these threats, a bunch of people organized a mass drawing event for May 20th. Unsurprisingly, this pissed off a lot of Muslims. So how about drawing Mohammad? Should non-Muslims respect this taboo and self-censor? Again my answer is (mostly) hell no. And the arguments are nearly identical to the ones for written works, above. For clarity, let's distinguish between four broad types of images: (1) straightforward, neutral, depictions, (2) deliberately insulting or crass depictions that don't make a larger point, (3) satire, and (4) depictions that make some sort of point or argument. Some examples:

(1) Neutral
(2) Deliberately insulting
(3) Satire
(4) Making some larger point or an argument.

So what can we say about these images? The case for ignoring Muslim wishes when it comes to images like (1) is, I think, rock solid. The Wikipedia article on Mohammad should obviously carry such depictions (well, like the one on the right at least): the educational and illustrative value are high, and their neutrality blunts any objective worry about offense. However, images that are crassly, purely, meant to offend, poke fun and which make no real point (like 2 or 3), are appropriately subject to self-censorship under normal circumstances. By analogy, I am of course free to insult the race, mother and sex of anyone who disagrees with, say, my contention that The Telegraph has done very bad science reporting, but that doesn't mean it's the polite or charitable thing to do. Even if you feel like swearing and yelling, it's often appropriate to bite your tongue. That is 'under normal circumstances' though. Deliberately causing offense - even doing so crassly - is exactly the right response when it is not self-censorship that is under debate, but the very right to freedom of expression that is under threat. That Islamic radicals issue death threats against artists - writers like Salman Rushdi or cartoonists like Jonathan Shapiro - calls for a response. Issuing threats over some sketches is preposterous and, in the fullest sense, uncivilized. And the only way to respond to threats like these is to stand in solidarity with those who were thus threatened and refuse to be cowed. Appeasing terrorism invites it. Everybody Draw Mohammad Day is, therefore, exactly, precisely, how we should respond, whether the drawings are neutral, satirical, crass or thoughtful. Exercising freedom of speech, in this case, is defending it. As Greta Christina concluded in her excellent defense of the Day: "If we don't draw Mohammad, the terrorists win". Or as good old PZ Myers put it:
This is not simply a dismissal of the Muslim religion — it's a humorous response to a gang of thugs who have threatened to kill people over a few sketches. You do not surrender to bullies. You also do not respond in kind, threatening to kill people who believe in the sanctity of stick figures. What you do is ridicule and weaken the blustering insistence on special privilege by showing repeatedly that they are powerless and look hypocritical and silly.
But here is the crazy thing. Many Muslims aren't just offended by crass depictions like (2) or silly satirical ones like (3); they are also offended by (1) and (4). Even positive depictions of Mohammad are forbidden. What's more, radical Muslims demand, and some moderates expect, all non-Muslims to comply with their silly rule. Not only is this unacceptable when terrorists are issuing threats, it's unacceptable even under 'normal' circumstances. Using images like (1) in educational contexts is a no-brainer. And with respect to (4), no religion should be free of thoughtful criticism - even biting, harsh criticism. Whether such criticism takes the form of a cartoon, a book, or a list of propositions like in this post, such expression should be protected and even praised. No one has a right not to be offended, and Muslims cannot demand such a right.

So, in conclusion:


  1. Brilliant. And agreed on every point.

  2. Great stuff. I've just finished my Maverick column on this, which had to pull a few punches, but basically concurs.

  3. Thanks, Jacques.

    I'm looking forward to your piece. (I can totally see how toning down arguments for a mainstream publication is necessary, by the way. I doubt I'd start a column - as opposed to a blog post - with 'Mo was a pedophile').

  4. Yep, I *so* wanted to include that detail!

  5. Hmmm. Your argument sounds like a false dilemma. Surely there aren't only two things that can happen if 'we' do not draw Mohammad?

  6. Your objection sounds like a false continuum. Either we do, or we do not, draw Mohammad. Given that the latter is what terrorists want, failing to draw Mohammad is indeed letting them win. (In two senses: those who want to draw him and don't are surrendering; those who don't want to draw him and don't are acquiescing).

  7. A false continuum? How so?

    Anyway. It does not need to be a zero sum game. It can be the much needed catalyst for some dialogue between secularists and people who identify with Islam.