Today (well technically yesterday) I found out about the Everybody Draw Mohammed Day from the Comic Riffs blog. What a very interesting and controversial event this is going to be! This all started with South Park’s 200th and 201st episodes. Following on from their protests against censorship in 2006 with their Cartoon Wars episodes, again Matt and Trey revisit the issue of censorship exploring just how far they can go with depicting the prophet Mohammed, and why they should have to censor their depictions at all. Unfortunately a group of radical Muslims took offense at this. While they did not outright threaten the South Park creators they made an implied threat by suggesting they look at what had happened to the last person to publicly offend the Islamic faith. Even this would have been absolutely fine, except for the fact that someone posted the addresses of the production houses for where South Park is made.
This stirred up a bit of controversy in that South Park was not permitted to air their depiction of Mohammed while a radical Muslim group is able to make implied threats and post the addresses of companies involved in the production of South Park. It is important to mention that Comedy Central, the network that South Park airs on is privately owned and so they have the right to air or not to air whatever they like. Comedy Central choosing to censor South Park is not the issue at hand but is rather representative of the larger issue at hand. A Seattle artist then made a small cartoon to show her support for the South Park creator’s cause which went viral. The creator states (as per the blog entry linked above) that she had no intention the picture would become so popular and has chosen to distance herself from it due to not having any control over which direction things go. The result of all this is a rapidly growing movement and support for the Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, currently set as May 20th.
Most of the discussions I have seen regarding the idea seem to be in a US context. This is certainly reasonable as Comedy Central is an American company and the event was started in the US. In my opinion however the issue that the event represents transcends the borders of any nation. It isn’t limited to Freedom of Speech in the USA, it’s about the fact that under no circumstances is it acceptable to make death threats to people for drawing pictures. I also saw people comparing this to a hypothetical “Everybody Draw Jesus Day”, pointing out that this would not be seen as acceptable. First of all this is a false analogy as Christianity has no restrictions on depicting Jesus as does Islam with depicting Mohammed. Secondly Christians have never threatened death to people for drawing Jesus, and people have been mocking Christianity and other religions around the world without having to worry about being killed for it quite a while.
The issue here is quite unique and questions how much leeway we should give the customs and rules of religions and beliefs we ourselves do not subscribe to. People should be able to say what they want to say and draw what they want to draw without a fear of death. One of the main arguments against this event is that responding to the extreme minority of violent extremist Muslims in this way is not going to have any meaningful effect except to offend the millions of Muslims who have done nothing wrong and understand that in a system that enables freedom of speech there must be compromises. While many people will be offended I don’t think it will be needlessly. In fact quite the opposite, it is for a legitimate cause raising awareness. With enough people depicting Mohammed then it will become impossible to censor each of them and slowly the networks, news outlets etc will have to accept that and the current censorship problem will go away. The only way to defeat censorship is to spread what is being censored to as many people as possible until it becomes impossible to censor or nothing would be solved by doing so.
Drawing or creating a depiction of Mohammed is violating a religious taboo and should not be considered anything more than that. This Taboo can be placed in the same category as other taboos such as dietary restrictions or fasting requirements. These doctrines apply to people who subscribe to the associated faith and should never be forced on people who don’t. People of any religion have absolutely no right to force their beliefs on other people. Muslims have no right to forcefully prevent anyone from depicting Mohammed just as Jews have no right to force non-Jews not to eat bacon. Imagine if that were the case! I have no problem with Muslims criticizing depictions that are obviously meant to offend and perhaps even taking legal action depending on the circumstances. What I do have a problem with is a small minority attempting to force non-Muslims to adhere to the rules of the Islamic faith. I’m not a Muslim and the rules of Islam mean nothing to me – and I will not be bullied into accepting them. This is why I wholeheartedly support “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”. Rather than just being a childish response to the controversy highlighted by South Park, it demonstrates that no religion should be allowed to force its beliefs on people who do not subscribe to that faith under any circumstances.
Some people are just using the day as an excuse to attack all Muslims which is obviously not the point of the day. I do hope that those people are a minority and that the event is successful in raising awareness rather than just being seen as an unjustly harsh attack on Muslims and their faith. It was also a pleasant surprise to see The Simpsons supporting South Park in last Sunday’s episode. This really is an important issue and I think the South Park guys are amazing for standing up for what they believe in and helping to raise awareness. Check back for Part 2 on May 20th where I will present my contribution to the cause.