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.