© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Muhammad and the Middle

Meh

There’s a tactic that we self-imagined reasonables are prone to, and it just kills me, especially when I do it, and I too-often do. It’s the Knee-Jerk Middle. A controversy erupts, and we, in an effort to show how reasonable we are, declare that the truth lies “somewhere in the middle.”

Sometimes it does, of course. But just as often, it’s a pose that helps us avoid taking a position.

There was a lot of this going on Thursday, which (in case you’ve been living under a rock) was Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a day on which all are encouraged to answer violence with nonviolent action by simply drawing a picture.

It’s wrong for Islamic extremists to kill those who draw the Prophet, say the reasonable middlists, but it’s also wrong to offend for the sake of offense by intentionally violating the rule against drawing the Prophet. So a pox on both houses. It’s the way to appear reasonable without the bother of doing any real thinking or offering an alternative. I consider free expression to be not just fun and interesting but essential to progress. There exists a serious threat to free expression. If not EDMD, what response is best?

The focus on the extremes avoids the much more interesting conflict between regular old Islam, which forbids depictions of Muhammad (not just among Muslims, but by anyone anywhere) and people who find silly the idea that any group can dream up a prohibition and enforce it on the planet (“Respect our Prophet!” demands the FB Group Against ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’).

Add the violence perpetrated against those who ignore the prohibition, and ignoring it is about much more than “offense for the sake of it.” The idea has then gone from silly to obscene, at which point I’d say challenging it becomes a moral imperative.

MehMuhI may be wrong about that. But don’t try to keep me from raising the question in the first place.

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day raises fascinating and worthwhile questions, my favorite kind. Add to that the fact that it’s silly for any primate to think any other primate is obligated to get moony over the same things. Sprinkle on a bit of collective courage in diluting the fatwa (“I am Spartacus!”) and I’d say you’ve got yourself a thing well worth doing.

It would be nice if we’d all do it thoughtfully and well, but we are what we are, and many have taken the opportunity to depict Muhammad grotesquely. I don’t prefer these because they confuse the issue. Far better have been a handful of drawings from the day that test the question itself in creative ways. For a collection of those [plus some that stupidly muddy the message], plus every other point I had planned to make, damn him, click over to Friendly Atheist.

Not all opposition to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was knee-jerk middlism, of course. So for those who opposed it, a question:

Members of one culture insisted that those of another culture set aside one if their highest values (free expression) out of respect for a value of their own (non-depiction of Muhammad). A few responded with violence, and the threat of it continues. What response do you think would have been more appropriate?
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UPDATE: A terrific conversation in the comments, on Facebook, and elsewhere has me clarifying my position. I should have made a much clearer statement against grotesque, racist, or intentionally repugnant depictions of Muhammad. They don’t just “confuse the issue”; they fuel hatred and misunderstanding, and while supporting the right to do it, I condemn the choice.

This critique goes to my heart. I am on record criticizing (e.g.) moderate Christians for not speaking out more forcefully against those who do harm in the name of their faith. By failing to directly address the ways in which EDMD was used to further the cause of hatred and misunderstanding — by saying, in essence, “Yeah yeah, some people are doing this stupidly, but back to my point…” — I am guilty of precisely the same lapse. Thanks for setting me straight(er).

I’m a bit of a fundamentalist when it comes to free speech, and that includes stupid speech. But that position can cause me to gloss over other valid concerns. I think I’m coming out of this EDMD thing re-convinced that mass actions of this kind are nearly impossible to pull off effectively because of the difficulty of controlling message and method. They are a victory for free speech that often loses so many other battles they may not be worth doing.
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ADDED MAY 21: A fascinating article recommended by a friend in Malaysia.

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This was written on Thursday, 20. May 2010 at 16:54 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, diversity, fear, Kerfuffles. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Well said. As far as statements like
    “…but it’s also wrong to offend for the sake of offense…”

    There’s nothing contradictory about someone objecting to the content of someone else’s comments or cartoons, while simultaneously supporting their right to make them.

    -Paul

    Comment: obsciguy – 20. May 2010 @ 9:48 pm

  2. @yinyang: Oh no, I’m sorry yinyang! I accidentally deleted your comment while deleting a huge raft of spam. Not intentional. In fact, I had just written a reply, which doesn’t make sense without your comment.

    Yinyang had pointed out that the difference between this and the Cracker Fracas is that one was minority v. majority, while the other is majority v. minority — mostly white US v. mostly non-white non-US — and that there is a power imbalance combined with Islamophobia that makes this “an assholish move.”

    I think yinyang makes a good point (though the power imbalance is a stronger position than the majority/minority, since there are 800 million Muslims). But what about the idea of diluting the fatwa by having millions stand with the few who have been victims of violence? Not everyone participated out of Islamophobia — should they be tarred by the fact that some did? I think it’s far more complex than simple labels like “assholish” can capture. That’s what makes it interesting.

    Equally important (and often lost) is that fact that I am not challenging someone else’s right to his/her culture and norms — only his/her right to force that norm on me at the expense on one of my highest values (free expression). This reframes it entirely for me.

    Comment: Dale – 21. May 2010 @ 6:38 am

  3. I’m at work, so just stopping by to leave my comment again:

    The difference between the Cracker Fracas and Draw Muhammad Day, though, is that Cracker Fracas was a minority striking out against a majority. Whereas Draw Muhammad Day is more of a majority (mostly white, U.S. citizens from what I can see) striking out against a minority (mostly non-white, non-U.S. citizens). The difference in the power balance, combined with general Islamaphobia – and specifically U.S. violence in the Middle East – makes Draw Muhammad Day seem to me, quite frankly, to be a assholish move.

    I will add that I’m using majority/minority in the sociological sense, and focusing on the U.S. (and I could extend it to the whole Western world) and the way we treat Muslims. When I have more time I’ll come back and respond to your comment.

    Comment: yinyang – 21. May 2010 @ 12:41 pm

  4. “Not everyone participated out of Islamophobia — should they be tarred by the fact that some did?”

    No, but by associating yourself with the movement and not speaking out against others who did participate out of Islamphobia, it makes you look like you don’t have any problem with it. Just on the Friendly Atheist page you linked to, Muhammad is depicted as an animal and an angry bomb-wielding terrorist, both of which strike me as racist, stereotypical, and meant to malign Muslims in a way that goes beyond protesting death threats.

    “Equally important (and often lost) is that fact that I am not challenging someone else’s right to his/her culture and norms — only his/her right to force that norm on me at the expense on one of my highest values (free expression).”

    Right. But most Muslims aren’t trying to force their norms on us, and aren’t sending death threats to artists who depict Muhammad. And yet Draw Muhammad Day is contributing to an already hostile environment for all Muslims in the West, and that’s unacceptable to me. There has to be a better way to stand with fatwa victims in protest against radical Muslim violence than this.

    Comment: yinyang – 21. May 2010 @ 8:10 pm

  5. I too think that the EDMD is a poor response, partly because it is such an easy outlet for Islamophobia (despite the many clever drawings).

    If you had an “Everybody Post a Picture of the South Park Mohamed Day” it would achieve the same fatwa-diluting effect without adding fuel to the who “America hates ALL of Islam” perception. It would much more indicate that “America doesn’t back down from Muslim extremists who try to intimidate it”.

    I’d like to make a non-religious analogy. Every few years there are movements to add an Anti-Flag Burning Amendment to the US Constitution and whenever someone does burn the US Flag there are cries of outrage and often threats. I find that idea repulsive and in conflict with the 1st Amendment (Freedom of Speech). However, I think that most people can agree that burning flags on an “Everybody Burn a Flag Day” would be a poor way to express that opposition or to show solidarity whenever a flag-burner is threatened, no?

    http://www.marinij.com/ci_9545227

    Comment: nonplus – 22. May 2010 @ 7:32 am

  6. @nonplus and yinyang: It’s reasoned responses like yours that make this issue, like most freedom of expression issues, a rich and complex one without easy answers. A few closing thoughts:

    (1) I have spoken out against those who participated out of Islamophobia in several venues, but I agree with yinyang: in my eagerness to discuss my own points, my protests have been far too mild. I’m going to update my post to more clearly reflect my feelings about that.

    (2) I think the flag burning analogy is brilliant, nonplus, as is the more specific South-Park-based response, which feels like a step in the right direction. I guess part of the inherent problem with any large-scale action like this is the lack of message control.

    (3) @yinyang: “There has to be a better way to stand with fatwa victims in protest against radical Muslim violence than this.” As noted in the post, I’m interested to hear that better way, not just a suggestion that there has to be one.

    You’ve helped me re-think my position, and thanks for that. A problem remains: Virtually all mass action includes individuals who act stupidly or for the wrong reason. What are the implications, then, for mass action? This is a real question to which I have no clear answer.

    Comment: Dale – 22. May 2010 @ 7:48 am

  7. I think nonplus has a great idea – reprinting a specific picture that originally incited threats or violence is more targeted and to the point. Which was what Danish newspapers did to stand in solidarity with Kurt Westergaard after he received death threats (although his cartoon seems to have originated the problematic “bomb as a turban” idea that popped up a lot on EDMD).

    “A problem remains: Virtually all mass action includes individuals who act stupidly or for the wrong reason. What are the implications, then, for mass action? This is a real question to which I have no clear answer.”

    I think that small groups of people acting stupidly is just something we have to take into account and fight back against. What I find really problematic are when mass actions are overtaken by people doing more harm than good, or the structure leads to them being co-opted for a bad cause, because then it becomes hard to reclaim them. And unfortunately I don’t have any answers either.

    Comment: yinyang – 22. May 2010 @ 11:02 pm

  8. You two and several others have led me to reconsider my position on this. Post coming shortly.

    Comment: Dale – 24. May 2010 @ 12:15 pm

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