Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dear Muslims: It's not you - it's me.

So there's been fuss in the atheist community about how a message was conveyed. (Shock, amazement, surprise!) And I've got an opinion about it. (Further astonishment!)

Everybody Draw Muhammed Day was met with mixed results. Commenters on several blogs have tried to compare the activities to throwing around racist slurs - an analogy which falls flat when one considers the fact that religious belief is something that can be consciously chosen, and that death and violence were threatened as a means of intimidating the participants.

I've even been told (by a fellow atheist!) that, since I supported this expression of free speech, I must therefore endorse all expressions of free speech, including the history-denying insanity of Everybody Research the Holocaust Day, a reaction by a Muslim user of Facebook that invites people to deny the Holocaust as a way that we're "being emotionally blackmailed by Hollywood tales and holocaust museums which legitimize the war crimes and crimes against humanity of the extremist Atheist regime of Tel-Aviv." I'll leave it to you to determine which logical fallacies are employed in this argument.

Worst of all, those of use who participated in EDMD are being scolded, as usual, for our "tone." Ignore for the moment that we had a legitimate message to send; the mere fact that we'd dare to send a message that might offend someone means that the Niceness Police can step in and tell us, as the same person above did, that we "completely lack empathy."

What these hand-wringers don't seem to realize is that this wasn't about offending Muslims. Muslims abide by a doctrine that commands them to be offended at depictions of their prophet. (This doctrine is relatively new, by the way; there are plenty of historical depictions of Muhammed painted by Muslim artists.) For some reason, the more vocal Muslims seem to think that we should be forced to abide by this dogma as well, and must therefore forgo any attempts to draw Muhammed, lest we offend anyone. This is similar to a fundamentalist Christian insisting that since they find it offensive to claim that homosexuality is natural, we non-Christians must never make that claim, lest they be offended.

But in this case, it goes beyond that. Muslims of all stripes, including liberals and moderates, all seem to follow this doctrine. Even Aasif Mandvi of uber-liberal faux news show The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was offended:
Mandvi addressed the issue after a Muslim Web site sent "South Park," another Comedy Central show, a warning after it depicted the Prophet Muhammed in a bear suit.

A self-described liberal Muslim, Mandvi said on the "Daily Show" that he would be upset to see the prophet depicted in a cartoon, but not as upset as he was to find out someone of his faith was threatening people who did so.

When we're told that we mustn't make pictures of Muhammed because a dogma teaches that it's offensive to do so, we're being told that we should be willing to let another person's dogma control our lives. This, for me, was the core of this exercise. It is not about whether or not someone else was offended. It was about rejecting the intrusion of someone else's dogma into my life. I am not a Muslim. I reject the dogma that teaches that drawing Muhammed is offensive. I don't feel that I need to empathize with a dogma that commands people to be offended on a completely irrational, unreasonable basis. This exercise proved that it doesn't even matter what the content of the message is. Some people were obscene. Some people drew stick figures. Some people were even more abstract:

This was my contribution. It really doesn't matter what the drawing was - you were guaranteed to upset someone. The dogma doesn't say that positive depictions are acceptable; it teaches that all are offensive and must be forbidden.

To those who say we should take a different tack with this: How would you suggest we do that? Should we promise to respect people's dogmas, no matter how ridiculous they are or how they intrude into our lives? Should we engage in a pointless interfaith dialogue with a group that would never allow themselves not to be offended? Should we simply accept that things like the censorship of the South Park episode are part of being a multicultural nation, and that the religious freedoms of others are allowed to infringe upon our rights? What message could you possibly send to Muslims, other than the message that we don't want to be controlled by a dogma that we have not chosen for ourselves? And how would you send that message, if not by ignoring that dogma?

If not by drawing Muhammad, how would you assert that we won't stand to be threatened into censorship? And how is it anything but cowardice to allow yourself to be controlled by threats?