Monday, May 4, 2015

"Draw Muhammad" Contest Draws Fire

Yesterday in Garland, Texas, a "Draw Muhammad" contest was targeted by two gunmen, who were promptly shot and killed by police after injuring a security guard at the event.

According to Islam, images of the Prophet Muhammad are taboo, and such images are deeply offensive to most Muslims. So why host a contest in which the whole point is to produce such offensive images?

It was touted as a free speech event. Events of this sort have occurred several times recently, and appear to be part of a response to highly publicized terrorist acts--most notably the brutal attack of Charlie Hebdo--in which Islamist extremists have responded to violations of their taboos with deadly violence. This event was sponsored by the so-called "American Freedom Defense Initiative," whose executive director had this to say:

"This is a war. This is war on free speech. What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?"

I struggle with what to say about cases like this. Clearly, people should be able to mock what others find sacred without being the targets of violence, without being murdered for it.

But that doesn't mean we should mock what others find sacred, at least not without excellent reasons. Standing up for free expression, something we in the West find sacred, might be an excellent reason to do something offensive. But I worry that this reason serves as cover for some who just want to indulge in sticking it to their Muslim neighbors.

Islamophobia is a real issue in this country. Muslims I know worry about being the targets of Islamophopic attacks--if not of violent ones, then of more subtle assaults on their dignity as human beings who wish to live out their faith tradition in peace. The vast majority of Muslims are not going to strike out violently against a "Draw Muhammad" event. But they will be offended by it. In part, they will be offended because it violates what is sacred to them. But the deeper issue here is that figuring out what offends someone and then doing it just because it offends them is a gesture of disdain. It is a way to say, "I do not value you."

An event like the one in Garland offers the perfect context in which bigots can indulge their Islamophobia while feeling self-righteous about it.

Apparently, two men decided to strike back with violence. In so doing, they didn't just die. They valorized the participants of this event. While I fear that many of those participants were motivated more by Islamophobic nastiness than by any real interest in standing up for freedom of speech, the attempt to violently target such an event helps to transform them into symbols of the latter. At the same time, such an attack reinforced the prejudices that lead to the false vilification of all the Muslims who, in silence, endure without violence the mockery of their deepest values.

This is the absurdity of violence in all its blatant and subtle forms. It feeds what it aims to stop, producing feedback loops of violence and abuse. The overt acts of violence of a few are invoked to justify organized programs of mockery in which what a whole group finds sacred is belittled. This triggers a few more to act out with brutal violence (or attempted violence), triggering even more in-your-face, mean-spirited, and self-righteous mockery.

And there is collateral damage--emotional as well as physical--on all sides. A wounded security guard. Thousands of peaceful American Muslims who feel as if their neighbors are symbolically spitting in their faces.

Where can this lead? Nowhere good.

The right to free speech includes the right to mock. But just because we have the right to do something doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, pressing up against what offends people, may be necessary in a struggle to affirm our deepest values. But sometimes offensiveness moves beyond what is necessary and become gratuitous.

Being new to Twitter, I attempted to express these feelings with a tweet that went like this: "You have the right to mock what I hold sacred just for the sake of offending me. You shouldn't die for it. Also, you shouldn't do it." Not sure if anyone got the reference. So here it is in blog-post form.  


  1. What if someone were to say, "You have the right to marry someone of the same sex (though it offends my religious belief greatly). You shouldn't die for it (though it is my religious belief that you should). Also, you shouldn't do it (because it is my religious belief that you shouldn't)." Would you be okay with that? And if not, why?

    1. The three statement-forms in play here don't always connect in the ways I think they do in the case at hand. Much hinges on the substance of the actual statement.

      So, in your hypothetical I would agree with the first two statements and disagree with the third. Why? Because I think the first two are true and the third false. In other cases, I'd think all three we're true. In some cases, all three would be false.

      Anyone is free to state their views according to this formula. Whether I think the triad is a true conjunction will vary.

      In short, I'd be fine with someone expressing their beliefs in this way, since it would nicely clarify where we agree and where we disagree. I'd say, "Okay, I'm glad we agree on one and two. So let's focus on three. Here's why I think you're wrong about that."

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    3. Jon Stewart is well-known for his caricature and mockery of devout conservative Christian beliefs, the latest being just Monday this week with regard to same-sex marriage. Using the same formula, would you say he has the right to do it and he shouldn't die for it but he shouldn't do it? After all, those beliefs are sincerely held by millions of conservative Christians all over America, not to mention the world over, who are no doubt offended by his satire. I'm sure you get my point, which is simply this: who gets to draw the lines of (morally and legally) acceptable speech? It seems to me utterly arbitrary, which is why the well-meaning but ultimately illiberal position of progressives such as yourself seems more like "flight/treason of the intellectuals" ( to classical liberals like myself, who, by the way, is also a Muslim, who, needless to say, condemns the Islamophobia of Pamella Geller and her ilk and the predictable Islamist violence that attended it, but also, it saddens me to say, this growing tendency among liberals and progressives in the West to sacrifice liberal principles at the altar of identity politics. And I have quite the identities to play politics with if I wanted to, because in addition to being a Muslim, I am also gay and Asian. But I don't, and many others don't too ( The question is, why do you?

    4. Maybe I'm being obtuse here, but on what basis do you conclude from my post above (or other posts, perhaps?) that I am "sacrificing liberal principles at the altar of identity politics"? Liberal principles focus primarily on rights and freedoms--and when it comes to rights and freedoms, my post above falls very clearly on the side of liberal principles: You should be free to offend the sensibilities of others, and you have the right to be free from violent reprisals when you do so.

      But classical liberalism also affirms a concept of good citizenship that encourages a kind of vigorous but civil engagement with others in a pluralistic context. And civil engagement means, among other things, not gratuitously offending others' deepest values. Liberalism affirms the RIGHT to offend those values. But it does not praise all such acts of offense--because some such acts are extremely detrimental to the kind of productive public discourse upon which successful liberal democracies rely.

      That said, offending others' values might very well be justified within the framework of political liberalism. For example, it might be justified if causing such offense serves core liberal principles such as equality under the law or freedom of expression--in which case I would not merely affirm the right of someone to offend those values without fear of violent reprisal, but would say it is the right thing to do. Here, I would say that *core liberal principles* serve as the basis for deciding, *nonarbitrarily*, whether a particular exercise of protected free speech is not only protected but praiseworthy (or blameworthy, or neither). If the Draw Muhammad contest really served core liberal principles--and this is a matter we could debate, but I think it doesn't--then it might be the right thing to do. (I think there's more of a case for endorsing what Charlie Hebdo does in this respect than there is for these "Draw Muhammad" events, in part because Charlie Hebdo operated as a social gadfly picking away at a diverse range of sacred cows through satirical commentary).

      Another thing that might justify offensive speech would be that the speech advances social discourse in helpful ways. For example, inhibitions about causing offense can operate as an impediment to serious critical engagement with views that warrant critical attention--and a carefully chosen bit of irreverence could break down that inhibition. I think Jon Stewart routinely serves the public interest in promoting meaningful discourse through his pointed irreverence and satire--and because it has this effect, we might not MERELY say he has the right to say what he says but that he should be doing it. His commentary on same-sex marriage, while offensive to conservative Christians, opens avenues of conversation about an important social issue where liberal values are at stake.

      I just don't see that the Draw Muhammad contest is a case in which liberal values are meaningfully served, or a case in which public discourse is advanced, by the offensive behavior. Rather, it seems a deliberately calculated attempt to stick it to a group of people based on hostility born of false generalization. The conversation it stimulates is all about itself, as opposed to breaking open discourse about pressing social issues. It's a kind of solipsistic exercise in bigotry masquerading as a free speech event.

      Maybe I'm dead wrong about that--but whether I am or not has little to do with "identity politics" (which, by the way, strikes me as an extremely vague and unhelpful phrase that is mostly thrown around as a pejorative label for arguments that pay attention to group identity--even though one can pay attention to group identity in a whole range of different ways, and even though it is clearly relevant for clear thinking on social issues that we pay attention to group identities in *some* ways).

    5. Ah, but the right to offend -- especially gratuitously -- is precisely what's at stake here, because by normative standards of classical Islamic law still in use virtually universally by mainstream Muslims today, blasphemy -- interpreted very broadly, by the way, from depiction of the Prophet to disputation of Islamic doctrines, e.g. the sinfulness of homosexuality (, the validity of the shari'a (, etc. -- is a criminal offense punishable by death. That many progressives like you fail to recognize the sheer magnitude, importance, and relevance of an event as admittedly odious and obviously Islamophobic as the contest is precisely the problem, because you see offense and you ask what's the point. Well, that's just it: the pointlessness is the point, that you can do that in liberal democracies but you can't do it in Muslim-majority societies. The organizers recognized that, reprehensible as they were; and so did the shooters. What's scandalous is that you don't. Time and again all that progressives like you seem to see is, in your own words, "a deliberately calculated attempt to stick it to a group of people based on hostility born of false generalization (cf. the Bill Maher incident)." In other words, identity politics. Look, my purpose here is not to place blame, but to seriously understand the reasoning of progressives like you. Coming from where I come from, the kind of liberal democratic decency that you stand for is exactly what I admire most about the West, because in a society where you can be as indecent as Pamella Geller, you choose to be just the opposite. But, and it pains me to say this, she has a point, too: that you ought to have the freedom and liberty to be either way, gratuitously and prodigally at that. That's it.

    6. " ought to have the freedom and liberty to be either way, gratuitously and prodigally at that."

      I agree with that. As I said in the original post, the right to be offensive, gratuitously offensive, is something I affirm. That is at the heart of the liberal defense of freedom of expression. What freedom of speech protects, if it protects anything, is offensive speech, speech that outrages.

      And if anyone tried to prevent Pamella Geller and her American Freedom Defense Initiative from having the event, I would stand up for their right to have it. When I say she shouldn't have it, I am not making a claim about her rights. I am making a claim about the moral principles should guide her in the exercise of the freedoms she ought to have.

      I do recognize the importance of the freedom to offend. And I recognize that this freedom is not everywhere protected. And were a group to organize an event like this in a part of the world where the freedom to offend is denied, I would regard that as an heroic act of civil disobedience whose meaning is clearly about standing up to repressive constraints on liberty.

      But what does it mean when you have the freedom to offend and you exercise that freedom in relation to a small minority group that is socially marginalized and subject to prejudicial stereotyping? And you do it with law enforcement acting on your behalf to pump bullets into any rogue extremists who might come after you? Yes, it is still risky--because there are extemists out there and those extremists might still get through, might still cause injury or death. But my guess is that participants in this event perceived the threat as remote, were almost cavalier about it--and that they exercised the freedom that they absolutely should have to act on immoral motives rather than heroic ones.

      Here, I am not moved by identity politics but by neo-Kantian ethics.

    7. I take it that your point is that, in a global context, the fact that such an event can transpire communicates something, conveys a message of profound significance in the face of repressive regimes where such events are prohibited and souls who dare to defy the prohibitions face government-sanctioned death. I appreciate that point.

      My point is not to say that this freedom should be in any way diminished. Nor do I think that, granted such freedom, it will never be exercised in mean-spirited and vindictive ways. But I want to call out examples of such mean-spirited and vindictive use of freedom while standing up for that freedom, in the hope that people will exercise their freedom in more generous ways.

      In effect, I want to separate out two questions: 1. What social policies should we have? 2. What kinds of moral principles should guide private parties when they exercise the freedoms that social policies afford to them. With respect to the first question, I endorse policies that protect broad freedom of expression, including the freedom of Westboro Baptist Church to picket progressive churches with their "God Hates Fags" signs, etc. WIth respect to the second question, I think that when Westboro Baptist Church shows up with their hateful signs, they are acting contrary to the moral norms that ought to guide their choices.

    8. I think it is clear from my comments that I do not deny the ethically repulsive nature of Pamella Geller's intentions. How could I? I'm a Muslim: her hate only hurts me and harms my people (and because I'm gay, obviously, the Westboro's does, too). My chief concern, rather, is the equally dubious non sequiturs and the whitewashing -- my God, the whitewashing (! -- that tend to follow such ill intentions. At the end of day, though, I think our differences are those of emphasis, not of essence; of translation, not of preference ( Our perspectives, after all, are literally, geographically diametrical. Now, that I can abide. The treason -- of which I am glad to see you are innocent -- not so much ( As an aspiring intellectual myself, such treachery against reason is unforgivable, one that, as a millennial, "I can't even!"

  2. I am sadden by the willingness in the country to bend over backward in the name of tolerance and hand over (without a fight) our freedoms, which we have fought hard for. I say, love people but don't be afraid to call sin what it is. You may have misguided beliefs, but don't threaten our freedom and then ask us to change our rights for your beliefs. If you come to America, you have a responsibility to become a part of OUR country with our constitutions and laws and freedoms. NO ONE that threatens this, should be catered to or agreed with. Be an American. And as a believer in God, I say, if their ideals do not line up with our "God given rights", they are not to be tolerated or excepted as "just a religious view".

    1. I am trying to understand this comment and, honestly, can't figure it out. I am not suggesting that we hand over our freedoms to anyone. I am suggesting that there are irresponsible ways to *exercise* freedom--and deliberately spitting on what an entire community holds sacred, just to wallow in self-righteous disdain, is an irresponsible use of freedom.

      Refusing to spit on others is not bending over backwards in the name of tolerance. "Bending over backwards" implies effort. And while it took effort to organize an event devoted to expressing intolerance, it would have taken little effort to simply refrain.

      I am not opposed to calling what I think is sinful a sin (although we may disagree about what is sinful). For example, I just called something sinful in the previous paragraph: misusing our God-given freedom to spit on what others hold sacred, just to delight in their degradation, is a sin. (Note: I'm not claiming that everyone involved in the Draw Muhammad contest was guilty of this, since motives in this case may be more varied--and at least some may have been genuinely motivated by a desire to symbolically affirm freedom of speech as opposed to wanting to stick it to Muslims.)

      Here's an even bigger sin: extremists, who don't represent Islam as a whole, lashing out violently in the name of Islam at those who spit on Islamic beliefs. Attempted murder is a more profound offense than insulting someone's values. We should not cater to those who perpetrate such sins, or agree with them, or anything like that.

      But these extremists do not represent Islam and are repudiated by every Muslim I know. It is NOT an act of capitulating to extremists when you respect the dignity of a vast community of decent human beings by choosing NOT to desecrate what they value.

      Think of it this way.Suppose some satirical magazine insulted American values in rather extreme ways, and a couple of right-wing "patriots" responded with a mass shooting at the magazine's offices. Now imagine that, in response to this, a group organized a "Desecrate the Flag" contest, inviting people to gather to desecrate the American flag in creative ways as a way to "stand up for free expression." Now suppose two more extremists show up with guns and are shot and killed by police.

      What would we say in a case like that? Here's what I'd say: The organizers and participants in this "Desecrate the Flag" event have a right to spit on and defecate on the sacred symbol of our country. They should not die for it. Also, they should not do it.

      Am I bending over backwards to show tolerance for the right-wing extremists if I say this?