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Faith column: Why we needed to have “Draw Muhammad Day”

June 11, 2010

Latest faith column in the Statesman.

And full text:

Why American Muslims must take a stand for free speech even when it hurts

The recent flare-up over the depiction of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad on the Comedy Central animated TV show “South Park” got me thinking about the First Amendment and what we hold sacred in this country.

In case you missed it, “South Park” writers, known for mercilessly mocking everything, including holy figures such as Jesus and Muhammad, received an indirect death threat from a New York-based radical Islamic website. In response, Comedy Central censored the show that depicted Prophet Muhammad.

Amid the backlash that accused Comedy Central of caving to extremists, a Seattle artist suggested that millions of people draw a picture of Muhammad to send Muslim extremists a message. “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” went viral on the Web, and thousands of people posted their own depictions of the prophet on Facebook profiles.

In one way, it was a silly stunt. In another way, drawing a picture of the prophet was a profound statement against the censorship, intimidation and violence we’ve recently witnessed around the globe — from the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the riots that followed a Danish newspaper cartoons of Muhammad to last month’s attack on Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had drawn the prophet as a dog.

“Draw Muhammad Day” also profoundly offended the religious sensibilities of Muslims who consider it blasphemous to create an image of God or the prophet. American Muslims felt unfairly attacked. What started as a celebration of free speech devolved into a anti-Muslim smear fest on the Draw Muhammad Facebook page.

There are people I respect on both sides of this argument. One of them is Shahed Amanullah, editor of, an Austin-based online news site. Amanullah wrote in a blog entry on the Huffington Post website: “If free speech advocates want to target someone, why not target Comedy Central, who exhibited self-censorship in the face of a mere web post? Or better yet, why not target the Revolution Muslim group, who issued the warnings that brought this whole crisis to bear? (I know plenty of Muslims who would join in this effort.)”

Matt Dillahunty, president of the Atheist Community of Austin, who posted his own drawing of Muhammad — a pleasant-looking bearded man in a turban — on his Facebook page, justified the event in the comments section on “There is no right to impose your ignorance, fears and superstitions on the rest of society. … If there had never been a gross over-reaction to cartoons, do you think anyone would have organized people to draw Muhammad?”

As unpleasant as “Draw Muhammad Day” was for Muslims, I’m glad it happened and that it prompted this discussion. It’s a reminder that in this country, we have no sacred cows. Or shouldn’t.

Christians have endured crude and obscene artistic depictions of their holy figures. Remember the protest of Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ” in which Jesus was portrayed as sexually active. Or the 1989 “Piss Christ” art installation — a photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine? (That artist received death threats, too.)

Currently, Christians are up in arms over plans for a new show on Comedy Central called “JC,” which will reportedly be about Jesus Christ trying to live a normal life in New York City. Some are crying double standard.

“It’s not certain what is more despicable: the nonstop Christian bashing featured on the network, or Comedy Central’s decision to censor all depictions of (Muhammad),” William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, told the Associated Press.

This just shows there is a good deal of anger out there, not only among our country’s Muslims who feel singled out by the “Draw Muhammad Day,” but among non-Muslims who abhor the quashing of free expression taking place around the globe in the name of Islam. To be sure, most Muslims abhor those things, too. But we are dealing with perceptions here, and the perception is that, while other religions can be satirized, Islam is off-limits unless you want to invoke the wrath of extremists.

Amanullah was right to point out that American Muslims have tolerated the jabs at their religion on “South Park” in the past and that, like other Americans, they support free speech and oppose censorship. I hope more American Muslims will raise their voices on that front, even in the face of being offended.

Then I hope the next protest of violent extremists who threaten our freedoms will engage Muslims rather than alienate them.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. mary hill permalink
    June 12, 2010 10:01 am

    Eileen: Excellent article on muslims and free speech. One problem: Islam doesn’t condone free speech. Some muslims, like S.A., allude to free speech, but they don’t dare SAY “free speech” because they are afraid of being targeted for fatwah death by the Muslim Brotherhood. No muslims expressed outrage over the murder of filmer Theo van Gogh by a muslim jihadist, no outrage over the fatwah against author Salmon Rushdie, no outrage against fatwahs on Dutch political leaders, no outrage over the Danish cartoon riots, no outrage over the stifling of free speech vis a vis “everyone draw Mohammad day.” Where are the muslim voices for free speech? Nowhere. They are silent, as they are commanded to be in the Koran and Hadith. My free speech is their blasphemy, and they are very willing to kill me over it.

  2. Ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi permalink
    June 24, 2010 10:48 am

    Dear Eileen:

    Pace to be upon who followed the guidance. First of all, I’d like to express my appreciation for your interest in touching some hot-controversial topic like that. I my viewpoint, the foremost problems come from the misunderstanding for others’ ideologies and backgrounds. The dilemma is established, because of the writing about Islam and Muslims, with the lacking of enough awareness. Unfortunately, most of those who write about Islam have not give themselves chance to read the major reliable sources for Muslims; Quran and the Hath; the speech of Prophet Muhammad (peace and mercy are upon him). Instead, most people read some random articles online, and then their opinions and judgments are based upon them.

    In the contrary of what the commenter, Ms. Hill said about Islam, the freedom of speech is a main concept in Islam. Allah Almighty ordered His prophet – peace and mercy are upon him – to consult his friends. As a matter of fact, if there is a consultation, it should be a freedom of speech, and diversity in opinions about different things.

    The translation of the meanings of the Quran
    {3:159 So, (O Prophet) it is through mercy from Allah that you are gentle to them. Had you been rough and hard-hearted, they would have dispersed from around you. So, pardon them, and seek Forgiveness for them. Consult them in the matter and, once you have taken a decision, place your trust in Allah. Surely, Allah loves those who place their trust in Him.}

    There are many events that need tens of papers to write them down, and they illustrate the freedom of speech in Islam. For example, during the trench battle, a friend of the prophet – mercy and peace are upon him – advised him to change his planning for the defense location for the war. Moreover, the prophet – mercy and peace are upon him – listen to his wife’s advice, Umme Salama, when his friends show some disobedience.

    Reading in the Sunni – the prophet’s way of life – peace and mercy are upon him – will show that he never stopped anybody from talking to him in person. It is such a thing can never be applicable in our world, even if with the religious leaders as the Pope himself.

    On the other hand, Quran, asked us for not swearing or mocking others anyone, other than Allah Almighty

    The translation of the meanings of the Quran
    {6:108 Do not revile those whom they invoke other than Allah, lest they should revile Allah in transgression without having knowledge. This is how We have made the deeds of every community attractive in their sight. Then, to their Lord is their return, after which He shall tell them what they have been doing.}

    Swearing and mocking are not the best dialogue that should be built among people, especially with something related to their holy and sacred symbols. Actually, in many circumstances, people who their symbols are mocked, feels with a lot of disrespect and marginalization in their society. They may think that their society offer them nothing, even if a simple respect for what their belief.

    However, you have the right to criticize a rule of jurisprudence, ruler, way of life, etc. In short, you can criticize what you want about Islam, and Muslim, but with respect. Is that too much to be asked? Just show a respect.

    Finally, I hope Ms. Hill to give herself a chance to read “How Rushdie Fooled The West” – by Sheikh Ahmed., to check how the Sheikh asked Muslims to handle the situation, and to know how she was wrong about her thoughts.

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