Yesterday The Friendly Atheist reported that a student group, the Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics (AHA) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is engaging in a “Draw Muhammad” project today. They are not the first; other campus groups have done the same. But this group did something a little different — they reached out to the Muslim Student Association on their campus one day in advance with this letter warning that they would be drawing images of the Prophet Muhammad in chalk on their campus in response to the protests of extremist Muslims over a recent South Park episode.
The MSA responded, saying that they were, in fact, offended. The MSA’s response was thoughtful and patient, pointing out that sending a warning does not absolve one of being disrespectful: “To slap someone in the face, despite warning the person in advance and assuring them of you good intentions, does not make slapping someone in the face ok.” Their letter did nothing more than point out that the AHA’s planned activity was misguided — “Why do you not direct your protest to the groups in question instead of engaging in acts that you yourself acknowledge will offend the vast majority of Muslims, on this campus and off” — and suggest that it was in violation of the campus’ discrimination policies. How did the AHA respond? By saying that the MSA was “using fear and intimidation to suppress criticism of their religion.” Did I miss the fear and intimidation buried in there somewhere?
The idea behind the campaign is to advocate for free speech. It seems to me, however, that the campaign is masking an attack on religious identity with a martyrical “free speech” claim. There are other ways to go about this that don’t knowingly target a specific belief of a particular identity. The Friendly Atheist blog wrote, “It’s a stick figure drawing. Chill. Out.” Instead of recognizing the ramifications of offensive images — let’s say they were chalking swastikas or, more specific to this issue, something anti-Atheist — we secularists seem far too keen to tell people to “just get over it.” Because that’s an effective approach, right?
The AHA at UW Madison has made an enemy where they could have had an ally. And over what? “Principle”? It seems like a way to stir up negative feelings, an immature approach to a complex situation. Why not instead reach out to the MSA and plan an activity that condemns the extremists who threatened the creators of South Park while still acknowledging that it is a complex issue? Oh, right — because then you couldn’t draw pictures of Muhammad in chalk and create controversy on your campus.
The American Atheists wrote on their “No God” blog on April 29th that “Muslims have been in the news lately with their ridiculous behavior… One thing we need to keep in mind is that Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive.” This isn’t just bad and oversimplified writing; it is lazy, dangerous, and divisive. Two entries before they too promoted “Everybody Draw Mohamed [sic] Day.” It seems so basic to ask: is this really the best use of our time and resources?
People who engage in such activities are drawing a line (or as Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel might say, a “faith divide“) between themselves and others, and it is not something as impermanent as one made in sand or etched with chalk. It cannot be so easily erased.
We secularists need to think long and hard about what lines we’re drawing — and who we’re boxing out in the process. We say we want “free speech;” now let’s recognize that with freedom comes responsibility and the need for respectful dialogue despite differences. In other words, as my mom might say: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Chalk may wash away but the divides we build often don’t.
Let’s talk the talk, not chalk for shock.