Thank the Friendly Atheist for sparing you from another Things post (though I have been itching to inflict the full extent of my uninteresting life on all approximately 3 of you, so it may be forthcoming anyway). Here’s a post more befitting of this blog’s tl;dr tagline and such-a-late-response-to-everything-that-no-one-cares-anymore theme instead.
There is a problem with Islamophobia in atheism. We have Ayaan Hirsi Ali condemning “Muslim rage”, we have Sam Harris defending profiling, and we have Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD) – and quite likely a lot more that isn’t immediately coming to mind. I’m embarrassed by all of them, but I’m going to talk about the last one here.
The basic idea is that no one should receive death threats for drawing a picture that is offensive to a religious group. I agree with this sentiment and I think it’s safe to assume that – non-Muslims and Muslims alike – the vast majority of people agree. Regardless, ostensibly in support of free speech, atheists draw Muhammad.
In terms of pure practicality, this accomplishes nothing. The people who had the problematic response to the drawings in the first place are not going to be swayed by “but look, it’s a stick figure.” Nothing is going to change there, because the point is not and never has been the actual content of the drawing. The people doing EDMD know this, and then, when other Muslims take offense, no matter how calm the response, the subtext kicks in – aren’t Muslims crazy? It’s just a stick figure. With a smiley face! Crazy.
And that, to me, is what is so ugly about EDMD. Unless you identify as Muslim, you are probably not going to find any drawing of Muhammad offensive, least of all one that is – in any other context – totally innocuous. You haven’t been immersed in the necessary culture and faith for you to have developed anything other than a “whatever” response, and that is to be expected. It is profoundly insensitive, though, to take a response that is rooted in a certain culture and religion and history and present it out of context in order to paint a large and diverse group in a negative light.
The Friendly Atheist did an AMA on Reddit last week, and I (of very original throwaway account name fame) commented* asking him about EDMD:
- Click to go to the Reddit link, where the text isn’t microscopic.
My school’s Campus Atheists group held an EDMD event this past fall, and according to this badly written article in the school newspaper, it was not appreciated. They said it was “disappointing that people got so offended by just a drawing or a word” and actually, it is our event that Hemant refers to when he says that Muslim groups “flipped out” – though comments from members of the Muslim Students Association were polite and the group made a point of reminding members to react peacefully:
The Campus Atheists claimed, incredibly, that causing offense was not their goal and that they “strive to be inclusive and respectful of all people”. Do you strive to include and respect Jews by wearing yellow Stars of David, and then act disappointed when they’re offended by just a shape? Do you strive to be inclusive of the LGBT community by using gay slurs, and then act disappointed when they’re offended by just a word?
I understand that drawing analogies to symbols of the Holocaust or homophobia may not hold water for people who support EDMD. Hemant says “no one would be ‘celebrating’ EDMD if the reaction from Muslims wasn’t so over the top and ridiculous” – but does that really matter? If you wouldn’t do something deliberately insulting to any other group, regardless of their reaction and regardless of whether you could claim to be sending a “bigger message”, why do this? Recognizing that others will be offended by things you find meaningless is not just a matter of being considerate; developing a theory of mind, an understanding that your vantage point isn’t the only one, is a basic part of being human. You can say all you want that you have the right to criticize religion (how drawing Muhammad could ever be construed as “criticizing” religion, I don’t know), but you have to also accept that others have the equally valid right to be offended by things that don’t offend you.
For what it’s worth, not all of the internet atheists are for EDMD. Chris Stedman wrote a genuinely excellent post against the event (it’s worth reading the whole thing):
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.
We accomplish nothing when we claim we want dialogue, but cry foul when our efforts to offend aren’t met with applause. In valuing the freedom to gratuitously insult over the people on the receiving end of the insult, atheists discredit themselves as a group capable of rational, adult discussion. If we want anyone to take us seriously, we can’t delude ourselves that we have the moral high ground when we seek to offend a group that will, all but very occasionally, respond tactfully and respectfully. Truly, even though we can, we shouldn’t.
* Where I said that I thought I understood the rationale of participating EDMD, I admit I was being a bit too accommodating – I’m incredibly non-confrontational in real life, and while I find it a lot easier to be opinionated and combative on the internet, I still often find it hard to carry on a real argument when I really do respect the other person.