Draw Mohammed

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 27, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post,Islam

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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I see too much deference and submission being given these days to a principle that sees an act performed by people that one’s religion prohibits to be an attack on one’s religion, and to view it as legitimate to respond to such an act with condemnation and even violence.

Specifically, I am referring to the May 20th Draw Mohammad Day, and the types of discussions this has generated.

Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, said that those who promoted Draw Mohammad day were:

…good, smart people trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, they’re failing, maybe dangerously.

I disagree with Epstein’s moral judgment on this matter.

Let us put the act of depicting Mohammad in its proper context.

It is not at all like “using the n-word” or holocaust denial. Rather, drawing an image of Mohammad is more like working on Saturday, having bacon and eggs for breakfast, or getting a blood transfusion.

There are religions out there that condemn the eating of pork. It can be said that when I cook up some bacon and eggs, I am insulting their religion. I am certainly making it clear that, in my opinion, I consider their religions prescriptions about the eating of pork to be bunk. It is quite possible for the practitioners of that religion to be offended, and even insulted, by this clear implication of my actions.

However, it would be strange to argue that this gives them the right to condemn those of us who eat bacon.

Nor are we to be confined to the eating of bacon in our own homes. We can go to a restaurant where bacon is served, and even visit a food vendor out on the mall who is offering hot dogs to anybody and everybody walking by – where Muslims and orthodox Jews cannot even avoid the site if they venture out in public at all.

Seventh-day Adventists and Jews have to put up with the fact that, if they were to leave their home and walk down main street on a Saturday afternoon, the street is lined with store after store of people doing work on the Sabbath. Every one of them is insulting the Jew by telling him that they think his prohibition on working on the day of the Sabbath is nonsense.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have to deal with the fact that, not only is it the case that people get transfusions on a regular basis, but the government (their tax dollars) go to pay for the treatment. It is probably quite common for a Jehovah’s Witness to hold a job at a company where the company itself hosts a blood drive and encourages its employees to give blood. Though the Jehovah’s Witness employee is free to refuse to participate for religious reasons, we can imagine the reaction he would get to the claim that hosting blood drives is an insult to his religion.

In fact, if we take this claim that we have some moral obligation to refrain from drawing Mohammad seriously, it can only be taken to imply that we must refuse to do anything and everything prohibited by any religion, and we must do anything and everything required by any religion. Any time we break with the religious commandments of this or that religion, this argument states that those who belong to that religion have a right to take offense and to condemn the act.

In fact, if we take Epstein’s road, we are opening ourselves up to serious problems, as we give every religion and sect the permission to view acting against their religious commands as an insult, such that we would then be obligated to obey every commandment of every religion in existence, all at the same time.

I typically do not have much of a reason to draw images of Mohammed. But I do like (pork) sausage and the occasional hot dog, and I will work on Saturdays any time my boss asks me to. Though I have never had a blood transfusion, if the situation should arise in which I need one I am certainly not going to have any qualms over the fact that some Jehovah’s Witness might see my act as an insult to his religion.

In a properly ordered society, people should be no more afraid to draw an image of Mohammad as they are of having a hot dog at a baseball game. If people refrain from drawing Mohammad out of fear it means that something has gone morally wrong, and there is reason to take action to put the community (even the global community) back on the correct moral track.

One could object that the reason that people were drawing Mohammad on May 20th (as opposed to eating hotdogs and getting blood transfusions) was for the purpose of insulting Muslims.

Well, that was not its purpose. It’s purpose was to make a point – to take a stand – for religious freedom; one that did not involve committing any sort of violence.

Normally, the reasons why people eat hot dogs is because they are hungry and they like the taste. They do not do it to make any type of statement against those religions that condemn eating pork. The implications for those religions – the fact that the act says to those people, “I think you are wrong” – is an unintended and unvalued part of the act.

However, if one lived in a community where a sufficiently large number of people who viewed the eating of pork as religiously unclean were regularly threatening violence, and this violence was having an effect on others who were becoming afraid to eat pork in public, to list pork products on the menus in restaurants, or to sell pork at the local grocery store, then it may well be time for a community pig roast.

The people who organize the community pig roast are, in fact, doing the right thing. In a community where threats of violence against those who eat pork are common, they are making a clear and public statement that those attitudes are to be condemned. They are making a statement that obviously needs to be made – that “the fact that you have a religious prohibition against eating pork, or working on the Sabbath, or getting a blood transfusion, or depicting Mohammad, does not give you the right to threaten violence against those who do not share your belief.”

To condemn those who organized the pig roast is, effectively, to morally side with those who call for the use of violence against any who should engage in practices that are prohibited by the relevant religion. One should react to the pig roast organized as an act of protest to those who were using violence to frighten people away from eating pigs as they would to a pig roast by a group whose only interest is in having a summer barbecue. If there is any condemnation to be handed out, the condemnation falls on those whose threats were contributing to a culture of fear and intimidation.

Epstein makes the argument:

…after 9/11 hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims and “those perceived to be Muslim” increased 1,700 percent in the United States, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Large numbers of innocent Muslims in the U.S. have been harmed or intimidated simply because they share a religious tradition with extremists.

This argument is as absurd as claiming that by having a hot dog at work this Saturday I am somehow morally responsible for the next suicide bomber that blows up a bus in Tel-Aviv – that my act of disrespect for the beliefs of orthodox Jews is tantamount to the endorsement of anti-Jewish terrorism.

The leap of logic required here goes beyond absurd.

I have written quite a bit about the bigot’s fallacy. Furthermore, I have condemned atheists who have committed that fallacy. I have even condemned specific cartoons for being bigoted – in that they make an inference from the wrongs of specific Muslims to Muslims in general for the purpose of using the former to generate hatred of the latter.

However, this is not one of those examples. An image of Mohammad is no more a message of condemnation of all Muslims than an image of Jesus is a message of condemnation of all Christians. There are certainly some images that qualify. However, this is a reason to condemn those images, not a reason to condemn all who make depictions of Mohammad.

Another claim that Epstein makes is:

Our country’s top military leaders are struggling to win the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide. And many of the 1.57 billion Muslims are watching CNN and many other American networks to see what we think of them. If we think they are going to perceive this as a thoughtful exercise in critical thinking, we are in serious denial.

There are other ways in which we could win hearts and minds in this case. We could institute the death penalty against any American who leaves the Muslim religion and adopts, say, Christianity. Some of them would love us more if we would institute the punishment of caning for any woman caught in the company of a man who is not a member of her immediate family or in public without escort.

There is a point at which we need to ask ourselves which hearts and minds we should be trying to win. In this case, it is the hearts and minds of those Muslims who realize that a Muslim has no more right to complain about a non-Muslim drawing Mohammad as a Jehovah’s Witness has to complain about a non-Jehovah’s Witness getting a blood transfusion. Which is to say, none at all.

We should be seeking to win the hearts and minds of those Muslims who realize that civilized society has no room for those who respond to words and images with threats of violence.

In fact, we are risking some very serious problems if we attempt to win this war by becoming a society that condemns those who stand up to people who respond to words and images with threats of violence, rather than praising them.

The hearts and minds who do not understand these principles of free speech and religious freedom simply are not the hearts and minds we are should be trying to win. And by winning the hearts and minds of those who oppose these principles of free speech and religious liberty – by becoming opponents of these principles ourselves in order that their opponents will feel solidarity with us – is not going to help us in the long run.

Epstein’s moral judgment in this case is mistaken. He has taken to condemning people that he should have been praising. In doing so, he has put his efforts into weakening moral principles he should have been strengthening – attitudes that would go a long way to securing peace in the future if they could only gain our support in the present.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

plutosdad May 27, 2010 at 6:34 am

As a Chicagoan I condemn your making hot dogs out of pork! Next you’ll tell me you put ketchup on them, and then, as a final insult, that you spell it catsup.

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 7:03 am

I wish that the analogy with eating pork would work, but it doesn’t, at least as far as Judaism is concerned. Orthodox Judaism does not condemn the eating of pork per se: it merely forbids the eating of pork by Jews. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews have been known to physically attack non-observant Jews for offending against Jewish laws (as they interpret them) on sabbath observance, dress, etc.; but they don’t care what gentiles do.

I don’t know what the position of Islam on such observances is, but I suspect that it is analogous.

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Hitch May 27, 2010 at 7:04 am

I fully agree and appreciate the careful analysis.

I am actually deeply concerned how the interfaith community around Epstein and Patel has reacted to this. Completely misunderstanding what religious imposition means and coming out against tolerance and for intolerance using rather extreme examples such as n-word and swastika comparisons.

Basically what they are saying is that we can only have peaceful coexistence is if we don’t intentionally or unintentionally offend religious sensibilities, without reflecting at all if that makes any sense.

That is not that different than saying that the play ground bullies are right and those that got beat up should have been more careful not to offend the bullies.

But instead smiling stick figures are turned into acts of insensitivity or worse.

So the critics side gets no concern or representation at all in this view. And that is deeply worrying. The most positive messages have been equated with the most aggressive.

And we are supposed to see these attitudes as conciliatory and kind, when really they are quite unfair some and completely deferential to the point of abandon to others.

Religious tolerance means that all sides gets their concerns heard and that no one view point can mandate what everybody has to do. Tolerance is not the avoidance of any possible friction. It’s to allow what one does not like or belief.

So it is equally sensible to ask Muslims to tolerate some smiling stick figures as it is to ask that secular students tolerate that Muslim express their offense taken.

So secular students who incidentally went out of their way to explain their position get zero tolerance and get compared to holocaust deniers. But Epstein and Patel say nothing about all the attempts of secular students to reach out, seek common events, seek discussion and seek compromises. Rather they have to be called heartless and misguided. Why is that interfaith exactly? It’s not.

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Adam Sherman May 27, 2010 at 7:54 am

My hero!!
This is the best, most lucid argument against running scared of these fundamentalist bullies that I have ever read. Keep up the good work, my friend.

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Joshua Allen May 27, 2010 at 9:25 am

Although I agree with him, he could’ve done a better job of organizing his thoughts. He starts with:


I see too much deference and submission being given these days to a principle that sees an act performed by people that one’s religion prohibits to be an attack on one’s religion, and to view it as legitimate to respond to such an act with condemnation and even violence.

What’s with “submission being given to a principle”. The author is not talking about “a principle”, he’s talking about a specific religion and a specific issue, something he rams home by contrasting that specific religion with others.

Likewise “prohibits an attack on one’s religion” seems to be incongruent with the rest of his post, where he correctly argues that drawing pictures of mohammed is NOT an attack.

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Ajay May 27, 2010 at 9:45 am

Very well said. Personally, this is my favorite of the cartoons: http://friendlyatheist.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Muh33.jpg

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 9:56 am

Now that I have read Epstein’s piece, it is apparent to me that Fyfe’s argument is a pure straw-man attack. His misrepresentation of Epstein’s position is so gross as to indicate either obtuseness or deliberate guile.

Epstein is not denouncing the drawing of Mohammad but specifically the drawing of Mohammad on sidewalks. The article is titled “Everyone Chalk Mohammed?”, and even someone who can’t read might have noticed that it is illustrated with a photo of one of the sidewalk drawings in question. Epstein never makes or implies the argument that the reason why we ought not to draw Mohammad on the sidewalk is that Islam forbids the depiction of the Prophet. Here is what Epstein says (bold type mine):

These chalk drawings are not a seminar on free speech; they are the atheist equivalent of the campus sidewalk preachers who used to irk me back in college. This is not even “Piss Christ,” Andres Serrano’s controversial 1987 photograph of a crucifix in urine. It is more like filling Dixie cups with yellow water and mini crucifixes and putting them on the ground all over town. Could you do it legally? Of course. Should you?

In Muslim culture, there is a longstanding tradition that to put something on the ground, where people step on it, is “the ultimate diss,” indicating “I hate you, you disgust me,” as I was told by Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America

Epstein is not denying anyone’s right to draw Mohammad on the sidewalk or anywhere else. He is arguing that drawing Mohammad on the sidewalk is a foolish and needlessly offensive way of trying to make a point in favor of free speech. Fyfe may have objections to that view, too, but he offers no argument against it. His piece only attacks a position that Epstein never defended.

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Becky May 27, 2010 at 9:57 am

Thank you for this excellent essay. Hitch also had some great comments. When someone acts out of line, whether it’s a kid throwing a tantrum or someone flipping out in the workplace, we all know the answer isn’t to give them what they want or tiptoe around them. It may be easier at first, but the longer someone is used to getting their way through force and intimidation, the harder it will be to stop them and the more demands they will make. This is exactly what is happening.

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lukeprog May 27, 2010 at 9:59 am

Becky,

Right!

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lukeprog May 27, 2010 at 9:59 am

Ajay,

Good one.

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R May 27, 2010 at 10:30 am

I really don’t think the analogy works. The three activities you mentioned are things people ordinarily do without any specific agenda in mind. I don’t think this can be equated with making a decision to go out of my way to do something that they know is offensive to others. I have many moderate Muslim friends and many were offended. I’m not articulate enough to express their thoughts clearly, but here goes; I eat pork, work on Sundays and get a blood transfusion for myself without any intent to offend anyone. I’m merely doing what I want when I want to. That is freedom. When I go out of my way to systematically offend you, I’m not merely exercising my freedom to do what I want, I’m using my freedom of expression to camouflage my freedom to insult your belief. It is the intention I’m talking about here. The intent to brazenly offend.

Secondly, there is a concern with the people behind the campaign. If this was purely a secular campaign for freedom of expression it would not have reached the heights of popularity that it did. You have to believe that a good number of people who supported the campaign were Jesus loving, resurrection awaiting, born-again-but-still-with-sin, evangelical Christians. These include people who would not necessarily apply the same logic to their own faith and would have found an analogous Christian movement abhorrent. For them to come out and mock Muslims for their irrational hogwash (pun unintended) is a bit rich. In fact it reeks of cultural/religious chauvinism of the Dinesh D’Souza/Peter Hitchens variety. It asserts the superiority of Christianity and takes advantage of the fact that this is a majority Christian nation. Anyone who had read through the messages posted on the wall of the facebook community could see that many were chauvinistic religious morons who should be jeered at themselves. These people are using the cloak of freedom of speech to blur the vindictiveness behind their comments, posts and drawings.

Now the first point may in itself may not be offensive, but when it is combined with the second point, it begins to take on a darker hue. I think most secularists fail to grasp this at all. I can understand why moderates would view this as some sort of persecution. People have equated this to the satires on Christ on Family Guy. I know Muslims who couldn’t care less if someone on TV drew Mohammad. There is a difference between that and this. That is opinion, freedom of speech. This is intentional offense in a pure unadulterated form. There are Muslims who don’t care about the details, the mildly religious ones who water down their beliefs to the extent it resembles spirituality more than religion. These are people who would themselves draw Mohammad. But they too are hurt by the fact that so many in the country would want to willfully offend them and make it seem as if their religion is inferior. There is an insensitivity in the methods employed that is jarring. It sends out the wrong message and offends, for the most part, the wrong people.

But the unbelievers don’t seem to see this at all because it is not how they think about the issue. Most illogically assume that everyone supporting the movement is supporting it for the same reason, which is patently untrue. The rest have bought into the Harris-Hitchens variety of polemic and think it is ethical to go only after Muslims as they are the most violent religion in the world today. The targets, however, are the wrong people. Breeding a persecution complex is not a healthy way of achieving your aim of establishing the fact that freedom of speech is vital. There aren’t any new people who are agreeing with you and some of who did, don’t anymore.

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Eneasz May 27, 2010 at 10:39 am

MKR – Are you saying that Epstein has no problem with people drawing Mohammad generally, he only objects to drawings that are specifically on the ground because of the relevance of putting things on the ground in Muslim culture?

If that’s the case then Epstein is simply lying. How many Dutch cartoonists publish in newspapers that are printed on sidewalks?

In fact it’s a silly position to argue, because no Muslims that I’ve heard of have said “Drawing Mohammad is ok, but if you draw him on the ground then we will murder you!”. If this is Epstein’s argument, then he’s deranged. I think it’s a generous reading of his argument that would assume he’s not deranged and therefore extending the argument to “drawings of Mohammad in general”. It’s a strange criticism to say that the OP was assuming too much sanity/intelligence on Epstein’s part.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 27, 2010 at 10:44 am

Epstein is not denouncing the drawing of Mohammad but specifically the drawing of Mohammad on sidewalks.

There is nothing specific in Epstein’s comments.

Such as this statement:

There is a difference between making fun of religious or other ideas on a TV show that you can turn off, and doing it out in a public square where those likely to take offense simply can’t avoid it.

This is a generic condemnation of “making fun of religious or other ideas . . . in public.

Of all of Epstein’s arguments, only one (the one you quoted) is directly applicable to chalk drawings on a sidewalk. All of the others are applicable on a much broader scale. So, I hold that the interpretation that he is making a broader statement is the more reasonable.

And if not, then there is yet another problem with the arguments that I have already identified as invalid. That is to say, the arguments are “overly broad” and would, if valid, imply the legitimate condemnation of much more than drawing pictures of Mohammad on a sidewalk.

So, either way, Epstein’s arguments failed.

As for that one argument, you would need to explain to me why my objections are sound if Epstein was talking about drawing pictures of Mohammad, but not if we are talking about drawing pictures of Mohammad on a sidewalk. Why is it legitimate to ignore Muslim prohibitions against drawing Mohammad, but not legitimate to ignore Muslim prohibitions against ddrawing Mohammad on a sidewalk.

Epstein is not denying anyone’s right to draw Mohammad on the sidewalk or anywhere else.

This is true. He did not – and I did not accuse him of doing so.

Epstein stated explicitly that such acts should remain legal – but that they were still morally wrong (worthy of condemnation, but not punishment).

In making these remarks, Epstein followed a principle I have often defended – that the right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence, but not a right to immunity from criticism.

So, yes, Epstein did not deny that there was a right to draw such images. However, he argued that those who did so deserved condemnation. It is the second point with which I disagree. And the arguments are just as applicable to the Muslim prohibition on drawing Mohammad on a sidewalk as it is to drawing Mohammad in public.

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 10:47 am

Eneasz: If you think that Epstein has an objection to drawing Mohammad in general (not just on the ground), then please furnish a quotation from his article that supports your interpretation. I have read through the piece more than once, and I can find nothing that supports it.

Your second paragraph — “If that’s the case [viz., that Epstein has no objection to drawing Mohammad in other forms] then Epstein is simply lying. How many Dutch cartoonists publish in newspapers that are printed on sidewalks?” — seems to me a complete non sequitur. I cannot discern anything in what you have written that supports the conclusion that “Epstein is lying,” and the rhetorical question that follows is completely irrelevant as far as I can tell. Once again, if you have textual evidence to support your attribution of these views to Epstein, the onus is on you to provide it. For my part, I find only evidence that his view is quite the opposite, such as this passage:

The “South Park” episodes, of course, should have been left alone. The show makes fun of everyone, often brilliantly. There’s no reason for Islam to get off easier. Comedy Central seriously erred, kowtowing to extremists or to the small minority of American Muslims who oppose freedom of expression.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 27, 2010 at 10:48 am

Eneasz

Epstein does argue for the moral permissibility of drawing Mohammad where Muslims could avoid the drawing – such as a television cartoon that can be turned off or a newspaper one can refuse to buy.

So, he did not condemn the drawing of Mohammad in general. He condemned the drawing of Mohammad in a public place.

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

Alonzo: “Why is it legitimate to ignore Muslim prohibitions against drawing Mohammad, but not legitimate to ignore Muslim prohibitions against ddrawing Mohammad on a sidewalk.”

Epstein invoked “Muslim culture” to explain why drawing a picture of someone whom they revere on the ground is offensive to Muslims. I am not sure if there is any such thing as “Muslim culture”; it may be just a confusion between “Muslim religion” and “Arab culture.” But I think that what he meant was that it is part of the culture of (many? most?) Muslim countries that putting things on the ground has this implication of degradation. You will remember the man who threw his shoes at President Bush: in Arab countries, shoes and the soles of feet have this implication of extreme insult. So that, I take it, is why he thinks that drawing Mohammad on the sidewalk is different from just drawing Mohammad in general. The latter offends merely against a religious prohibition; the former is, for Muslims, specifically a way of insulting The Prophet.

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Hitch May 27, 2010 at 11:06 am

MKR, my problem with Epstein’s article is simply that he doesn’t portrait the secular’ students position and behavior accurately. Is there any sign for discussion? Any sense that the secular students invited compromise solutions? Any sense of reaching out?

Not at all. One leaves the article feeling that the secular students are insensitive, have no sense of humor and were flat wrong for anything that could offend. And on top they are ignorant for not knowing that drawing on the side-walk might play a role.

It’s simply an incredibly one-sided piece that mischaracterizes the situation and takes side with one and only one outcome. And that is religious insensitivity is bad. No mention that secular students switched to flyers and were no less vilified than the chalking student. No this wasn’t about the side walk. No discussion that perhaps it is the public sphere and we cannot have one culture dictate what happens in the public sphere. That was just yet another argument why everybody can never ever do anything that someone might consider offensive in their culture.

Heck every day stuff happens that offend me. Anybody want to take care of my sensibilities and shame everybody who doesn’t care for my feelings being hurt?

If we apply that principle we have to apply it symmetrically, and in fact our lives will very quickly become unlivable.

I have lived in many different cultures. It is simply not viable that I had demanded in every culture where I lived that people adopt my traditions. At least not with out some sort of parity in the consideration of that change. Here we are asked to accept the prohibition of drawing Muhammad without so much as a discussion or a fair presentation of all sides. And without consideration what that does to dialogue, free expression and the marketplace of ideas. So satirical art is OK about anything, well except for this list of things that are going to offend. This list, if we ever allow it to exist, will soon be populated by anything that has power and wants to be beyond criticism. I’m not one to participate in that. And interfaith is not mutual silence, it is an attempt at mutual understanding (mutual meaning also atheist’s perspectives are allowable!) and tolerance meaning that both sides (wow!) are willing to accept something that isn’t core to their culture.

Is it too much to actually teach both sides? How about telling the Muslim community that the secular students do not consider it a diss when they draw on the floor? Perhapts that’s too far fetched an idea? Is that interfaith? Lecture and scold one side and shield the other from any criticism or learning?

Greg and Eboo promote the rights of only one side on this issue and that’s simply not something we should be silent about. Not only but especially because they work to cross divides. You are not crossing divides if you demonize and paint bad one of them. In this case the secular students.

What irks me most is that intelligent people like Eboo Patel seriously promote the notion that a smiling stick figure is the same as a swastika. Greg doesn’t repeat that but praises Eboo’s response. Is that an interfaith response? Hardly.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 27, 2010 at 11:12 am

MKR

The former is, for Muslims, specifically a way of insulting The Profit..

Then Muslims may have good reason to condemn other Muslims who draw a picture of Mohammad on a sidewalk.

However, if some religion (or culture) should decide on an absolutely arbitarary rule that the eating chocolate is specifically a way of insulting the garden fairies, I am not immediately and suddenly obligated to give up chocolate.

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Eneasz May 27, 2010 at 11:18 am

MKR – I misread you, I thought you meant that Epstein said the Muslim’s outrage was specifically about drawings on the ground, rather than any drawing at all. Now I see he meant that “Even though they get outraged about all drawings, they aren’t justified in outrage over most drawings, but are justified in outrage over drawings on the ground (in my opinion) due to their culture.”

Offense is a complicated topic, and I’m not going to argue about whether or not someone “should” feel offended by any particular thing. However I am going to say that if someone threatens me with murder for drawing a cartoon (or a line-drawing on a sidewalk) then I will gladly and intentionally seek to offend him as much as possible by repeating this action.

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 11:23 am

Alonzo, I did not write the words that you represent as a quotation from me. I wrote “Prophet,” not “Profit.”

Your idea that cultural norms are arbitrarily “decided on” is, to put it mildly, not realistic. Let us try to think of how human life actually works. There are obvious ties between the ground and degradation, as the very derivation of the latter word suggests. It happens that in what Epstein calls “Muslim culture,” which I take to mean “the cultures of Muslim countries,” this connection is much more prominent in people’s thinking and feeling than it is in ours. Think of spreading shit on a picture of someone, for instance: I believe that such an act would be regarded as insulting to the person in the picture in any culture, but perhaps not. There could be peoples among whom it had no particular significance. If the Muslim view of the meaning of drawing someone on the ground is an “arbitrary rule,” then so equally is this one. If the proposal were not “draw Mohammad” but “smear shit on pictures of Mohammad,” would you consider Epstein equally out of line for decrying such a performance as needlessly insulting to Muslims?

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 11:24 am

Eneasz: “I am going to say that if someone threatens me with murder for drawing a cartoon (or a line-drawing on a sidewalk) then I will gladly and intentionally seek to offend him as much as possible by repeating this action.” Yes, that is fair to say, as long as we are clear that Epstein is NOT defending the right of Muslim kooks to issue death threats and go on murderous rampages.

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 11:27 am

Hitch: “It’s simply an incredibly one-sided piece that mischaracterizes the situation and takes side with one and only one outcome.” You may be right. I went as far as to read the piece by Epstein to which Fyfe was responding, but I have not looked further into the occurrences to which Epstein was responding.

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Hitch May 27, 2010 at 11:40 am

MKR, I would recommend going through the secular student group web pages to see what they actually did. Some actually emailed the Muslim groups beforehand and invited interfaith dialogue. And some invited dialogue afterwards. All expressed quite clearly what the purpose and scope was (freedom of speech not to demonize Muslims etc). Of course one wouldn’t know from Greg’s piece.

Here is a link of the email of the Wisconsin group that went out before the event.

http://wiscatheists.blogspot.com/2010/05/letter-to-muslim-student-association.html

Eboo ought to like what they actually say:

“Finally, one of the most important goals of AHA is to engage in constructive interfaith dialogue with other religious groups. ”

Now I think one can sensibly still think the secular students are wrong.

But they at least deserve a fair hearing and a fair representation. Eboo made them out to be cloak of the night activities in his Higher Ed piece, when they clearly weren’t and he certainly should know.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 27, 2010 at 11:59 am

MKR

…as long as we are clear that Epstein is NOT defending the right of Muslim kooks to issue death threats and go on murderous rampages.

Epstein is NOT defending the right of Muslim kooks to issue death threats and to on murderous ramgages.

Clearly.

Epstein is not criticizing the moral legitimacy of making anti-Muslim claims in “private” (in a medium that Muslims cannot avoid). However, his arguments are massively flawed in this regard. His “hate crime” argument would be as applicable to private depictions as public. And his “hearts and minds” argument are at least applicable to “private” depictions such as South Park that he would permit as it is to those he condemns.

Epstein defended the condemnation of public depictions of Mohammad – and even here he defended the condemnation of those depictions, but not the use of violence against those who created them.

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Hitch, I have read the statement by AHA. The writers are either disingenuous or ignorant and foolish. They write: “Finally, one of the most important goals of AHA is to engage in constructive interfaith dialogue with other religious groups.” If they are not aware of the inherent offensiveness to Muslims of drawing Mohammad on the ground then they are ignorant and foolish, because that is something that they could easily have found out about and ought to have found out about before proposing this protest. If they are aware of it, then they are disingenuous to profess that their goal is to engage in constructive dialogue. It is one thing to do something in public that you know to be offensive to certain people, but to pretend that you are thereby seeking “constructive dialogue” with the persons in question only compounds the insult.

I think that, once we have set aside all the confusions about rights versus merits — whether I have the right to do X versus whether it is unobjectionable for me to do X — the whole issue comes down to the question of whose sense of what is offensive is to be respected. I gave the example of smearing feces on a picture of someone as an act that pretty much anyone, including anyone reading this page, would consider insulting toward the person in the picture; so anyone (most anyone?) who held that person in esteem would be offended by the act. Underlying this response is a cultural norm, which is not something arbitrarily instituted but something deeply ingrained in the thinking and feeling of people. Yet it is conceivable that the cultural norm could be different. So offensiveness is always relative to a cultural norm. The question, I take it, is whether this or that cultural norm should be respected by people who do not belong to that culture.

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Eneasz May 27, 2010 at 12:34 pm

MKR – that is not the question at all. This weaseling around to apologize for Epstein looks like just the contortions and distractions that Apologists use for god.

Let me explain via Alternate Universe why Epstein should be ashamed of what he wrote.

In Universe A, Danish cartoonists draw/mock Mohammad to knowingly offend muslims. Muslims protest, point out that this is spiteful, offensive, and the cartoons make bigotted or racist claims. It causes unnecessary strife simply for xenophobia’s sake. Reasonable people around the world look down on the immaturity and disrespect displayed by the cartoonist.

In Universe B, Danish cartoonists draw/mock Mohammad to knowingly offend muslims. Muslims make death threats, attempt to carry out death threats, and attack people who look like the cartoonists. There is violence, and people are killed. Reasonable people around the world are shocked by this barbarism and assault on free speech.

In Universe A Epstein should write an op-ed that says just what this one did. It supports the insulted against arrogance and bigotry. In Universe B Epstein should write an op-ed condemning the violent and murderous barbarians, and include a cartoon of Mohammad as well in solidarity.

As I find it hard to believe that Epstein is mistaken about which Universe he’s actually in, I can only conclude that he is a coward who would rather pretend he’s in Universe A (thus making the problem worse) than take any risk of being harmed. In fact, rather than simply be cowed into silence, he actually embraces the barbarians by publishing a piece that acts as if they had responded as they should have to the insult, to ensure that he won’t be targeted. This is pure cowardice, and he should be made to feel ashamed for it.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 27, 2010 at 1:04 pm

MKR

The question, I take it, is whether this or that cultural norm should be respected by people who do not belong to that culture.

That is not the question I wrote on.

It is not a question I COULD write on. It would take a book.

For example, should a cultural norm of apartheid, slavery, or genocide by respected by people who do not belong to that culture?

Is it an act of disrespect for another culture that one does not adopt its norms?

Is there a right to respect that justifies creating an environment of violence and fear against those who do not, at all times, whether they are a part of one’s culture or not, follow the prescriptions of one’s culture?

If that’s the question, we can never get it answered in this context. So, it’s not the question.

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Hitch May 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm

MKR, we have to stop arguing straw man. The secular students did not smear feces on anything. There is a context, there is an intent and there is two cultures. You only allow one culture to decide the norm. I will always oppose that.

Let me repeat my challenge: Why not teach Muslim students that painting on the ground is not meant as a diss by secular students? Why only teach one side? You have yet to answer this challenge?

Or why can secular students not be offended when they are not allowed to live by their belief system?

And for the record I am pro free art. If someone wants to do actionist art where he does smear feces on a depiction Muhammad. Go do it. If they want to smear feces on a picture of my face, go for it. Perhaps the artist wants to explore or self-perception and there is actually a nugget of an insight. And if they just say it’s to offend, I know how to think of it. But context is all. It’s simply not viable to blanket ignore context and allow universalizing mandates that are a silly as forbidding smiling stick figures.

We need people who push the boundaries so we know where the shoe hurts.

And I absolutely reject that religions can be beyond criticism. We have to be able to advocate your side without being silenced. Else we lose the free marketplace of ideas and religious ideas are to on a higher ground automatically. I don’t want religions to have less opportunity to express their views either. But lets at least keep it fair, shall we?

But let me bring this back. To compare smiling stick figures to swastikas is as despicable than to imply that all that is going on here is tolerance for feces being used. I reject that strawman. The secular students had no intention to do the equivalent of smearing feces and they didn’t.

But there are some grown people who are happy to have that supposed intention stick on these students. Shameful.

Vilks’ art is shock, but it’s not shock for no sake. It’s shock to address directly the most confined aspects of religions. The question of the treatment of homosexuality in Islam is a real one, one that affects people’s lives and on which people get hurt. We need people who address this. But instead of having dialogue about that, we keep talking about how awful people are who are insensitive.

Vilks’ could never talk about what he addresses without being labeled all the horrible things he gets labeled with.

Same for the secular students. So OK smiling stick figures are swastikas. I think we have to live with that. I can accept that from someone who is extreme and could never understand the secular position. But Greg and Eboo should know better, at least if they take interfaith seriously.

“The question, I take it, is whether this or that cultural norm should be respected by people who do not belong to that culture.”

No, the question is, if you can negotiate both and what mandates can work in a pluralistic society and which cannot. I would argue that universalizing mandates about expression will never work. Here is an example “never draw figure X in public”. This cannot work, because it goes counter to an open discursive democratic society where we can discuss each others ideas, in word or other forms of expression.

I for one accept any religious expression that does not undermine democracy. It’s about that simple. This is not my norm, this is the norm of freedom of religion and freedom from religion encoded in the first article of the bill of rights. Now if you want to have another democracy, one that perhaps is not based on enlightenment principles and mutual toleration and open discourse, let us know. At least we have a sensible point to argue stuff.

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MKR May 27, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Hitch, your argument in terms of universe A and universe B is persuasive (by which I don’t mean compelling; just persuasive). I’ll have to think further about it.

I can’t respond to everything in your second comment, but the last paragraph — the one that begins, “I for one accept any religious expression that does not undermine democracy” — seems to me beside the point, since Epstein’s argument is not about freedoms or rights but about the moral merit or demerit of certain acts.

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Hitch May 27, 2010 at 1:44 pm

See I just disagree that there is any moral question in depicting religious figures. Religious people want that to be true or are taught that. I’m not sure if we want to go there because it’s a very difficult wrangling of what moral means. Catholic moral theologians will declare happily that homosexuality is immoral for example. I would consider that declaration immoral.

The point I’m trying to make is that there is no open society where a group taking offense can lead to the whole system accepting that as social norm. This not an open society.

Let me make this concrete. Here is a youtube video depiction smiling stick figures. It’s not on the ground and so forth. Is that in any conceivable way disrespectful?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wuiu4ZzDrE

I say no, but I know people who say yes. We can agree to disagree. But to accept that this is universally bad, in my mind is agreeing that positive things are bad. In my mind there shouldn’t even be a debate about this. There are much more serious topics.

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Bill Maher May 27, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Alonzo, great post man. The best since your practical morality post.

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GG May 28, 2010 at 1:08 am

Hey, your welcome to post about the event of
“A” Week on Facebook.

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lukeprog May 28, 2010 at 1:25 am

huh?

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cl June 3, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Now that I have read Epstein’s piece, it is apparent to me that Fyfe’s argument is a pure straw-man attack. His misrepresentation of Epstein’s position is so gross as to indicate either obtuseness or deliberate guile. Epstein is not denouncing the drawing of Mohammad but specifically the drawing of Mohammad on sidewalks. The article is titled “Everyone Chalk Mohammed?”, and even someone who can’t read might have noticed that it is illustrated with a photo of one of the sidewalk drawings in question. Epstein never makes or implies the argument that the reason why we ought not to draw Mohammad on the sidewalk is that Islam forbids the depiction of the Prophet. (MKR)

That’s exactly right.

I really don’t think the analogy works. The three activities you mentioned are things people ordinarily do without any specific agenda in mind. I don’t think this can be equated with making a decision to go out of my way to do something that they know is offensive to others. I have many moderate Muslim friends and many were offended. I’m not articulate enough to express their thoughts clearly, but here goes; I eat pork, work on Sundays and get a blood transfusion for myself without any intent to offend anyone. I’m merely doing what I want when I want to. That is freedom. When I go out of my way to systematically offend you, I’m not merely exercising my freedom to do what I want, I’m using my freedom of expression to camouflage my freedom to insult your belief. ( R )

Well said, and kudos to you, too.

However I am going to say that if someone threatens me with murder for drawing a cartoon (or a line-drawing on a sidewalk) then I will gladly and intentionally seek to offend him as much as possible by repeating this action. (Eneasz)

Gee thanks: as if the rest of us want to deal with the impending skirmishes known to result from consistent provocation of religious nutjobs. This is exactly the immature, irresponsible attitude I’m with Epstein in condemning. The one who provokes the bully does just as much disservice to society as the bully.

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cl June 3, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Alonzo,

I typically do not have much of a reason to draw images of Mohammed.

Nobody does, especially not on a sidewalk, except of course those who get a rise from pissing off Muslims under the guise of protecting free speech. That’s why Epstein is on point, IMO, and that’s why comparing the drawing of Mohammed to eating hot dogs or bacon and eggs for breadfast is silly. About that, you write,

One could object that the reason that people were drawing Mohammad on May 20th (as opposed to eating hotdogs and getting blood transfusions) was for the purpose of insulting Muslims. Well, that was not its purpose. It’s purpose was to make a point – to take a stand – for religious freedom; one that did not involve committing any sort of violence.

There is no such thing as “it’s purpose.” There are only specific purposes of specific individuals participating, and these will differ. Though I’m open to a persuasive argument, I currently fail to see how drawing Mohammed on the ground equates to taking a stand for religious freedom. It’s childish. It’s provocation for provocation’s sake, and practically invites the very violence you imply need not be committed. I see little difference between drawing Mohammed on public sidewalks and badgering a pissed-off tiger.

But enough of that. Here’s the real issue, at least for me and my understanding of desirism as a moral theory:

There are religions out there that condemn the eating of pork. It can be said that when I cook up some bacon and eggs, I am insulting their religion. I am certainly making it clear that, in my opinion, I consider their religions prescriptions about the eating of pork to be bunk. It is quite possible for the practitioners of that religion to be offended, and even insulted, by this clear implication of my actions. However, it would be strange to argue that this gives them the right to condemn those of us who eat bacon.

Your last sentence clearly articulates my confusion at some of your own moral prescriptions. I’ll try to rerun your words with smoking and pederasty:

There are anti-smokers out there who condemn smoking. It can be said that smokers insult their morality. The smoker is certainly making it clear that, in his or her opinion, their moral prescriptions about smoking are bunk. It is quite possible for the anti-smokers to be offended, and even insulted, by this clear implication of the smoker’s actions. However, it would be strange to argue that this gives anti-smokers the right to condemn smokers.

There are anti-pederasts out there who condemn pederasty. It can be said that pederasts insult their morality. The pederast is certainly making it clear that, in his opinion, their moral prescriptions about pederasty are bunk. It is quite possible for the anti-pederasts to be offended, and even insulted, by this clear implication of the pederast’s actions. However, it would be strange to argue that this gives anti-pederasts the right to condemn pederasts.

What’s the difference?

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Mailk khan June 6, 2010 at 10:37 am

I want to send my message that I wanna fuck to all their mothers who participated in this contest…………….fuck u bantered…………fuckin ass hole u timid motherfuckrs..

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lukeprog June 6, 2010 at 10:47 am

Ah, Islam, did you screw up another kid?

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cl June 9, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Alonzo?

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