Monday, November 19

Cartoonist criticized for creating “˜Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’ should have defended her right to First Amendment


There are, I’ve heard, no atheists in foxholes. Nor would it seem are there blasphemers. In the land of the free and home of the brave, the world’s most touchy, victimless crime has had the unfortunate pleasure of being the most repercussive. When I say “repercussive,” here, I really mean “life-threatening.” So when the unhappy unbeliever dares mock the heavenly figures she sees as fiction, she had better prepare for the worst.

The history of blasphemy is a lesson in cold feet. Where it has been met with scorn and censure, those committed to damning their own souls face the options of biting the bullet or taking it back. And those who take it upon themselves to defend heaven’s honor have oft resorted to silencing the heathens, not engaging in dialogue.

Cartoonist Molly Norris found her unhappy self in the dregs of this sad state of affairs when, in a lapse of what would soon be shown as cowardice, she declared May 20 Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. It had been a dilettantish act; part juvenile theatrics, part declaration of rights, but to the bone it had been crass, immodest and unapologetic. In short: everything good about free speech. And that is precisely what had been ““ and what is ““ at stake when she unthinkingly sparked a veritable viral movement of blasphemy across the Internet.

As students of college age should know by now, dispensers of delinquency Matt Stone and Trey Parker have always used their brainchild “South Park” to push the limits of decency. Miss Norris must have fashioned herself yet another champion of speech; her proposed day of effigy stands in solidarity with the Misters Stone and Parker. Their story is familiar: Upon gracing the airwaves with their trademark wit and slander, our humble hooligans faced potential death threats for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in an episode of “South Park.” Perhaps from fear of further backlash, Viacom took the liberty of censoring the next episode’s references to the Prophet, even more than the creators’ self-censorship.

But what, those who dwell beneath rocks might ask, is all this fuss about? Islamic tradition, as established by certain chains of he-said-he-said’s, forbids any visual depiction whatsoever of any living creature. When this rule of thumb is broken, and especially when involving Muhammad, many in the Muslim world take deep offense ““ to the point of slaughter, threats and ideological bullying. Indeed, the “South Park” episode in question was itself a critique of the public outrage that proceeds such depictions.

So when Miss Norris proclaimed a day of art devoted exclusively to He Who Must Not Be Drawn, it was but a political statement, a demonstrable exercise of the First Amendment. And somewhere in that albeit adolescent mentality lay the firm message that in America, we will not suffer violence against words or pictures. I use the past tense because no sooner did outrage ensue did Miss Norris rescind her proposal.

It is a truly sad day when those who stand for free speech balk at the nearest sight of disapproval. The corresponding Facebook event was rechristened Be Super-Nice to Everyone Day; Norris’ own website currently contains apology after apology, while claiming she never meant it at all.

In her defense, she might not have foreseen the orgy of hate that would spawn in her wake. For since her announcement, the weeks leading up to May 20 have afforded Internet Islamophobes a chance to flex their artistic muscles like never before.

But whether it was fear of inciting the wrath of radicals or merely offending your everyday Muslim that brought about her change of heart is neither here nor there. One ought not think as petty vandals do and mistake this crime for anything more than what it is: blasphemy. However noble the intention ““ as a bona fide F-you to violent Islamists ““ this day of desecration must and will offend Muslims of all shades of faith. To be sure, it is offense of the highest order.

Those who understandably oppose this event, however, have been doing it all wrong. This issue is of a primarily artistic, not political nature. To demand respect (a euphemism for silencing all slights) is to go about peacefully what has been historically done violently ““ that is, fending off the infidel through constraint, not conversation.

In the marketplace of ideas, in the arena of thoughts, we do not stifle opposing views, no matter how insulting. Winning is a matter of persuasion, not coercion through fear or force or muting the voices of mutiny.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day is a chance to reinstate offense and sincerity to their proper place, freed from terror or silence. It is a chance for the faithful to defend Islam without resorting to the ploys of scoundrels.

For someone well-versed in the art of blasphemy and known to regularly incur religious rebuke, it is a chance to see how much we truly value intellectual freedom, ideological bravery.

The proper (and, at the risk of looking jingoistic, American) way to combat bad speech is with better speech. To silence and be silenced are the refuge of cowards.

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