Free Speech, Coexistence, and “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”

I support this self-congratulatory blogosphere holiday begrudgingly and therefore omit any drawing.

As someone who knows the history, and just how thoroughly Islam saved much of what we today call “The West,” while my erstwhile co-religionists were trying their hardest to destroy it, I bear the utmost respect for Islam. I am fully cognizant of  Islam’s independent value not just as a faith that’s won many adherents, but as a tradition without which the world would be a dimmer place. I don’t just “have Muslim friends,” in the Stephen Colbert sense; I have Muslim best friends, whom I love dearly, and miss, because they’re far away, and whom I’ve defended personally from those who held their faith against them. I believe in respect in debate to a fault, and honor and decency in all relations. Thus, the “South Park” notion that all taboos must be plumbed for comedic value, because offense is its own value, strikes me as wrong-headed, destructive, and juvenile — the kind of thing that most of us outgrew in, say, ninth grade (though I do enjoy “South Park” occassionally).

I hardly need add, too, that as someone who’s thought about the issue for more than a second, I can readily parse the difference between an idea taken to its extreme, violent end, and the idea itself. Fundamentalist Islam is not Islam, no more than Fred Phelps is Christianity; and, as a resident of the Financial District, living in the shadow of the Towers’ absence, when New York builds a mosque near Ground Zero, I’ll cheer its construction as a symbol of that vital understanding. Although some never will, I hope my countrymen eventually see it that way, too.

But.

To the extent that the injunction against drawing the Prophet applies even in the mainstream, it has to end. It’s possible and necessary to engage a faith positively, from a different perspective, and from one of respect, while not also participating in the faith. That’s all artists do when they draw Mohammed, and, like dancing in the company of a Baptist, that should be fine. If participation in a foreign faith is a prerequisite to interfaith dialogue, the dialogue is already lost, because at that point, respect is only flowing in one direction, and beneficial mutuality is thereby destroyed. Just so, when typing “Mohammed” or “the Prophet” in this post — or in the papers I wrote on Islam in college, e.g., — I do not and did not add “blessings and peace be upon his name” after every instance. Not out of disrespect, but because while Islam is a faith I care for, it’s not my faith.

Therefore I support those who would use today to draw Mohammed, but decline to do so myself, partly because I’m not convinced the actual act adds anything to the debate, and might detract from it, and because many who will set pen to paper over this will do so for the wrong reasons, perhaps to relish and feel superior to the outpouring of criticism. To the rest of you, good for you for taking a stand, but be cautious of the means to your end. Mainstream Islam is our ally, and where the method of opposing radical Islam risks pushing those allies away, we fail doubly.

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2 comments

  1. …many who will set pen to paper over this will do so for the wrong reasons, perhaps to relish and feel superior to the outpouring of criticism.

    Absolutely true. I completely support an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” where the images are only drawn with all due respect. Draw Mohammed quoting your favorite, most inspiring line from the Qur’an. Draw Mohammed leading his followers. Draw Mohammed in a key moment of Islamic history. Draw Mohammed hanging out with Allah and Jesus and Moses and Abraham. But nothing harshly critical and nothing deliberately confrontational aside from the likeness of Mohammed.

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