Picture This: When We Draw Muhammad, We Draw a Line (a re-post)

Some in the atheist community are planning to participate in Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, a campaign that seeks to promote free speech by inviting people to create drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, again this year on May 20th.

EDMD began last year and created a good deal of controversy — particularly when several college atheist groups decided to create depictions of the Prophet Muhammad with chalk on their college campuses’ sidewalks. Unlike drawings posted to the internet, where people can elect not to view them, those were done in a shared public space, and thus created a lot more tension.

Still, I have major concerns and reservations about a campaign that could easily be seen as targeting an already marginalized community, whether it occurs solely online or not. And, as I’ve written about in the past, it has very real ramifications — Terry Jones cited it as an inspiration for “Everybody Burn a Koran Day,” and Molly Norris, the initiator of EDMD who later backed off the campaign and asked for Muslim-atheist dialogue instead, was forced to go into hiding as a result of the controversy.

To explain why EDMD concerns me (aside from the violence or threats of violence mentioned above), I’m reposting one of several blogs I wrote on the topic last summer. Below is a piece I wrote for the Secular Student Alliance:

Picture this: you’re headed to the final exam of your least favorite class. If you’re anything like me, you’re stressed out and running late. You miraculously get there with a minute to spare and stop to catch your breath. You close your eyes and collect yourself. When you open your eyes you notice something scrawled in chalk at your feet. This isn’t just another campus group trying to recruit members; this chalking is a direct affront on your identity and values. Suddenly a final exam doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about something that started as a joke but has become larger than life: Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD). Near the beginning of the EDMD fray, I wrote a blog post on my website, NonProphet Status. In it, I identified several problems with the campaign, but the crux of my critique was this:

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.

In my work for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) I’ve labored alongside Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. My biggest takeaway has been the notion that people of different religious and philosophical identities have a lot more in common than we instinctually imagine. Sure, my Muslim collaborators think Muhammad was the prophet of a God that I don’t even think exists. But, I don’t care much about that difference between us. Our deeper convictions—that all people have the right to dignity, that we need to find a way to achieve a more peaceful world—are the same and, frankly, they matter more.

One of these Muslim collaborators, IFYC founder and White House advisor Dr. Eboo Patel, wrote in an op-ed on EDMDThis isn’t about Free Speech vs. Fundamentalist Islam. This is about Actions that Build an Inclusive Society vs. Actions that Marginalize a Minority Community. Similarly, Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein wroteAs a Humanist, I hope I do not exist solely to advance the Humanist cause. I want to advance the human cause. In this case, the way to do it is to keep the chalk on the blackboard, where, perhaps one day soon, Humanist and Muslim college students will use it together in inner-city elementary schools, teaching understanding and cooperation between members of different religious and moral traditions. What both Epstein and Patel rightly suggest is that this is about priorities; it’s about people, not just principle. Epstein highlighted in his post that Muslims have experienced challenges to their freedoms in recent years, from hate crimes to decreased citizenship rights in Europe. This context informs how actual living, breathing people will interpret the intent of EDMD, and it cannot be ignored.

This campaign is intended to take a stand against extremism, which I applaud, but I’d like to propose an alternative. A more powerful statement would be to reach out to Muslims who also disagree with such violent threats. Combining resources through coalition-building results in a wider impact. When we move forward with an initiative while knowing it will alienate people who would be our collaborators, we can only blame ourselves for the missed opportunity, and have only ourselves to blame when they decline to advocate for us in the future. We have every right to draw Muhammad, but realize that by doing so we limit our community’s ability to make real change on issues like anti-atheist bigotry and free speech by alienating potential allies.

The significant disagreement among secular folks around EDMD isn’t a new phenomenon. Our community is an oft divided bunch. This diversity can be an asset as often as it is a weakness. But the only way this will be a source for strength is if we can come to a consensus on some ground rules. The first of these must be respect for our ideological differences, a respect we must extend to communities beyond our own.

I hope that someday free speech will be a universally allowed human right. To that end, there is no question in my mind that everyone should be free to draw Muhammad. But, if we are empathic and engaged citizens, we will take that right and choose not to exercise it in a way that divides. We ought to seek to build bridges whenever possible, not draw the lines darker and darker until even the most ardent eraser cannot remove them.

Picture this: someday we live in a world where none of us feel the need to do things knowing that they’ll offend just because we can. Where we stand alongside peers and see them as worthy of listening to when they say, this offends me, even if we don’t understand why.

Now that’s a picture I’d like to draw.

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