Wisconsin Atheists Draw Cartoon Muhammad
The Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics of the University of Wisconsin – Madison drew stick figures of Muhammad around the campus tonight as a protest against the violent threats made in response to the recent South Park controversy. For the show’s 200th episode, the prophet Muhammad was portrayed in a bear costume, inciting threatening responses from Revolution Islam and other groups.
The Wisconsin group evidently got the idea to criticize the strong Islamic reaction with chalk stick figures from the Atheists, Agnostics & Freethinkers at the University of Illinois, who used the same technique last week, drawing over 150 images of Muhammad. The Wisconsin group, however, is facing resistance from the Muslim Student Association (MSA), which calls the planned cartoon criticism “illegal” and a “slap in the face.”
The Wisconsin atheist group sent a letter to the MSA, informing them of their intent and explaining their reasons.
We are aware that depicting images of Muhammad is a controversial issue that is highly offensive to many Muslims around the world. We acknowledge that you may view this as an unproductive, misguided, or hurtful event. We are very sensitive to these facts, and want to ensure that this event is done in a way that does not lead to Muslims feeling uncomfortable on campus. That is why I want to explain our position and our intentions as clearly as possible before the event takes place.
These drawings are not intended to mock, intimidate, or harass anyone – rather, we aim to make the following statements:
1) We have the right to criticize religion and to perform actions considered blasphemous, even if many individuals find this offensive.
2) A free society cannot tolerate violence or threats of violence which seek to limit our freedom of expression.
Further, we fully understand that Revolution Islam is a radical, fringe organization that does not represent mainstream Islam in any way. It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, in the U.S. and across the world, do not view their tactics as acceptable.
The MSA could have responded in several ways or could have just let the cartoon criticism go. They could have joined in criticizing violent threats and radical suppression of free speech while still maintaining their own views about blasphemy. Instead, they responded with a threat to challenge the legality of the cartoon criticism.
I would like to inform you that, as far as we understand, the event you are planning is illegal by the constitution of the University of Wisconsin (88-12 RACIST AND OTHER DISCRIMINATORY CONDUCT POLICY). Deviating from this law will offend not only the UW Muslim Students Association but the entire Muslim community on this campus and other organization of similar culture and faith. The Dean of Students shall be contacted immediately.
The university discrimination policy states that “racist and other discriminatory conduct toward students… will not be tolerated.” The policy defines such behavior as follows:
Racist and other discriminatory conduct means intentional conduct, either verbal or physical, that explicitly demeans the race, sex, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, or age of an individual or individuals, and (1) has the purpose or effect of interfering with the education, university-related work, or other university authorized activity of a university student, employee, official or guest; or (2) creates an intimidating, hostile or demeaning environment for education, university related work, or other university authorized activity.
The Wisconsin atheists’ plan to draw Muhammad tonight may come close to the boundary demarcated by university policy, but it seems to fall short of what would be prohibited. The policy exists to prevent hate speech and harassment, not political and social criticism that offends some who hear it. The MSA’s interpretation of the discrimination policy fails both prongs. Drawing cartoons of Muhammad does not demean the religion of any individuals, nor does it create a hostile university environment. This is clearly protected political speech, and university campuses need this kind of open criticism more than anyplace else.
In another ripple eminating from the South Park controversy, there is speculation that the Times Square bombing attempt may have been motivated by the show’s blasphemous depiction of the prophet. The man believed responsible for the failed attack has been arrested, and authorities will not rule out the South Park controversy as a possible motive.
After their original comment sparked intense criticism, Revolution Islam posted a clarification defending their right to free speech, ironically, as they try to deny that right to satirical cartoonists:
[A]s Muslims we do not define speech which has no place in a moral society as ‘free speech.’ Furthermore, we will never tolerate the mocking or insulting of any one of the prophets, peace be upon them.
This view of free speech may be alarmingly typical of even mainstream Muslim organizations. Muslims have the right to abide by their own religious commands and prohibitions, but they do not have the right to impose those laws on others, by force or by using the legal system. Hemant Mehta makes an excellent point, noting, “You don’t see Jews getting this upset when other people eat pork.”
h/t: the Friendly Atheist