by Nick Gillespie
The deadline for submitting work to Reason’s Everybody Draw Mohammed contest has passed; winners will be announced at Reason.com on Thursday, May 20.
All that remains is anticipation, both of the artwork that will be displayed and the possible threats of violence that will likely follow. Or should that be “the likely threats of possible violence”?
Before the calendar page turns to Thursday, it’s worth meditating on the whys and wherefores of the contest, which was inspired by a jihadist death threat against the creators of South Park and was originally suggested by Seattle artist Molly Norris. Soon after asking everyone to draw the Prophet in solidarity with the arguably millions of people repressed by threats of theologically justified violence, Norris herself went into ideological hiding, suggesting instead that everyone draw another target of South Park satire: former Vice President Al Gore.
While Gore, who likes to credit himself with understanding the architectonics of cyberspace (if not creating them) and who way back when convened Congressional hearings to discuss the dread menace of satanic heavy metal lyrics (via con diablo, Ronnie James Dio!), is certainly worthy of the sort of ongoing abuse that only a fully distributed Internets can deliver, the obvious reason that Norris changed her target is real and potential violence.
Who can blame her? People have been killed for representing Mohammed in ways that displeased Islamic terrorists. People have been punched and kicked and forced into hiding. No wonder, then, that Norris, like Galileo in front of a Catholic tribunal, apologized to ”everyone of the Muslim faith who has or will be offended” by her drawing (visible at the right). This conditionally unconditional language is the language of the forced penitent, of the prisoner in a totalitarian world, of the sad sack on the Catherine Wheel who will say anything, will confess anything to get off the rack. We all understand exactly why such language is being used: The threat of violence.
Attacking iconoclasts (meant here in its literal meaning) has been a constant throughout human history. It’s one of the great dividing lines, like laughter and face-to-face copulation, that separates man from beast. Indeed, I’m betting it was a fundamental element of even pre-human history. Can we doubt seriously that some gang of Neanderthals didn’t crush the skulls of others who decorated cave walls in “offensive” ways? In the 20th and 21st centuries alone, all sorts of human expression have led to brutality and murder. The ground of Europe and Asia and all the continents with the (possible) exception of Antarctica is fertilized with the blood and bones of martyrs who have done nothing more than make tangible their thoughts in words, music, and pictures. Yet even in a country like ours that threatens consenting adults for making dirty movies with effective life sentences, or in European countries where speech codes imprison malefactors for “hate speech,” there is a massive gulf between “mere” censorship and death threats, between the answering of “bad” speech not with more speech but with the blade, the bullet, or the bomb.
There comes a point in any society’s existence where it must ultimately, to paraphrase Martin Luther (who himself was more than happy to see opponents put to death), dig in its heels and say here we stand, we will do no other. We don’t need to be perfectly consistent philosophically or historically or theologically to assert what is special and unique not just about the United States, with its bizarre and wonderful articulation of the First Amendment, but the greater classical liberal project comprising not just the “West” (whatever that is) but human beings in whatever town, country, or planet they inhabit. And at the heart of the liberal project is ultimately a recognition that individuals, for no other reason than that they exist, have rights to continue to exist. Embedded in all that is the right to expression. No one has a right to an audience or even to a sympathetic hearing, much less an engaged audience. But no one should be beaten or killed or imprisoned simply for speaking their mind or praying to one god as opposed to the other or none at all or getting on with the small business of living their life in peaceful fashion. If we cannot or will not defend that principle with a full throat, then we deserve to choke on whatever jihadists of all stripes can force down our throats.
This is not about U.S. foreign policy, or trade policy, or aid to Israel or Egypt, or the creation of a Palestinian homeland. This is about the right to have the conversations that might inform all that and more. We live in a time of paradox: Never before have so many been so empowered to speak their own minds, to produce and consume whatever form of expression when they want, where they want. The impact on those seeking to regulate and control thought is as predictable as it is depressing and, ultimately, ineffective: Whether they are governments or corporations or religious or ideological groups, they want to stamp out the ability of people to say and think for themselves.
Our Draw Mohammed contest is not a frivolous exercise of hip, ironic, hoolarious sacrilege toward a minority religion in the United States (though even that deserves all the protection that the most serioso political commentary commands). It’s a defense of what is at the core of a society that is painfully incompetent at delivering on its promise of freedom, tolerance, and equal rights. It’s a rebuttal to the notion that we should go limp in the clinches precisely because bullies and bastards can punch or blow us up. It’s a rebuttal to the mentality evinced in the recent interview between liberal intellectual Paul Berman and Joel Whitney in the May 2010 issue of Guernica, where the sound you hear in the background is the sound of the interviewer pissing his pants:
Guernica: In the short term, don’t we want to avoid triggering something like that [the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamist terrorist] with incendiary language? Isn’t it mere prudence?
Paul Berman: [Scriptwriter and Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali] didn’t trigger it. They triggered it. What she did and what she continues to do is to go to those people and people who might sympathize with them, and rebuke them. The whole meaning of her career is to say, “There’s a serious problem. I’m gonna deal with it by speaking to it directly. And I’m not gonna mince my words, I’m gonna make an argument.” I think this is great. Some of the arguments that she makes are not my arguments, some of them I would disagree with; my impression is that if I were Dutch I’d be in the Labor Party. I wouldn’t have moved to the other party. And so it’s not that I’m following everything that Ayaan Hirsi Ali says. But I follow the main thing. I follow that totally. The main thing is [that] she is saying to people, “I, Hirsi Ali, am thinking for myself and I want you to think for yourself.” And the way to think for yourself is not to revere authority, the way is not necessarily to guard your tongue. The way is to speak your mind.
Guernica: So to put scriptures on a naked woman’s body in her film was not incendiary or reckless, in your reading, it was merely direct.
Paul Berman: That film is not even one millimeter a violent film. And the purpose of the film is to make the viewer recognize that violence against women is being committed by fanatics in the name of Islam. This should be opposed. And she’s done a brilliant job of opposing that. As a politician, she brought to the Dutch Parliament the issue of honor killings. She proposed to Parliament that the police make records of honor killings, which is the first thing the police department had to do to recognize and solve the problem. She brought about a significant reform. And I’m guessing that quite a few women are alive today as a result of this reform.
Guernica: So she’s not only not responsible for Van Gogh’s death, but she’s saved uncounted lives.
Like Berman, I don’t agree with everything Hirsi Ali says (read this remarkable interview she gave Reason, in which our interlocutor teases out more than a little contradiction within her own views). For starters, I reject emphatically what might be called a fundamentalist atheism, which always and everywhere fingers religion and religiosity as the motive force in all that is bad with human beings and human history. To me, that sort of comprehensive reaction is no different than Islamists or Christians or whomever sees the Jews or the Masons or whatever as the villain in every passion play. But Berman is right, not just about the film Submission, which is as incendiary as an After School Special about recycling programs, but the larger idea that we should apologize for triggering violence in serial killers. Why not blame J.D. Salinger for the shooting of John Lennon by a deranged reader of The Catcher in The Rye?
Our Draw Mohammed contest is, hopefully, an exercise in truth-telling. It’s not about revelation, of course, of divinely inspired Truth with a capital “T.” It’s an existential thing, a participatory thing, a living thing. And it’s not something that I expect those inclined to violence in the face of free expression to understand.
Nor do I expect them to realize they are part of the problem they hope to bludgeon into submission. Consider this tremendous irony. For all the discussion about whether it is forbidden to figure Mohammed in visual form (an art form that has a long and glorious Islamic history), three of the most gratuitously insulting images of the Prophet ever disseminated were not created by devil-horned Jews or American women wearing pantsuits or even Danish or U.S. cartoonists. No, they are the work by imams residing in Denmark who went on an outrage tour of the Middle East after Jyllands-Posten published its dozen cartoons in the fall of 2005. Some sources suggest that it is precisely these three fake images, on display in this very blog post as a public service and testament to free speech, that ignited the furor that lit the fuse that ultimately begat Draw Mohammed Day.
Which is worth keeping in mind come May 20 and every day after. Because the cause of free expression, just like the misguided, pathetic, and ultimately-doomed-to-fail attempts to shut it down, is a long, hard slog that begins again every day the sun rises.