Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Drawing Mohammed

I hope it goes without saying that I think Draw Mohammed Day (scheduled initially for the 20th of May 2010 and then rescinded when the progenitor of the idea got freaked out by the responses to it) is an unmitigated bad idea.

"But Cat!" you say, "You blaspheme right along with the best of them! Isn't this just organized blasphemy?"

Christ on a cracker. Have we taught you nothing here at the Barn?

You do not piss on ideas that other people hold dear. Now, I will defend to the death your right to free speech and I do not think that the violence committed against cartoonists who have depicted Mohammed is justified in any way. But that being said, it wasn't a very nice thing to do now, was it?

To me, the situation at hand is not about blasphemy or free speech. It's about privilege, racism and xenophobia. This is the Western world uniting to do something deliberately incendiary towards a group of people often caricatured and marginalized within their societies.

Muslims are not an empowered group in the Western world. That should go without saying. The ghettos they are corralled in in Europe (a breeding ground for discontent, and a whole other post), the rhetoric flung at them in America post-9/11 (that has ended up affecting not just Muslims but any dark-skinned group that wears turbans), the carefully crafted news segments portraying violent and loudly unintelligible foreigners that splash across our consciousnesses - this is the position they occupy.

This is the position, underrepresented and over stereotyped, from which they are to respond to any actions taken to deliberately cause affront to symbols they hold dear.

OF COURSE SOME OF THEM WOULD FREAKING FLIP THE FUCK OUT. Not that I condone that response - but seriously, all sorts of populations lose their shit when confronted with things that contradict closely held values. We're just not constantly telling their stories as part of the "villan" bit in our societies' narrative.

This "Draw Mohammed Day"? The cartoonist, Molly Norris, has said that "this is not meant to disrespect any religion, but rather meant to protect people's right to express themselves." Fuck you Molly. Really.

Because this isn't about freedom of expression. Not by a long shot. This is about adding to the cultural drumbeat of "Muslims as bad, irrational and violent. Look! They're responding angrily to my wanting to draw something!" that's been building for a long time now. Shame on you. Shame.


  1. "You do not piss on ideas that other people hold dear."

    Its a sippery slope. There are many strange things people hold dear - racist views; genital mutilation; creationism; atheism; the need for the death penalty; love for the PAP; love for the WP and so on. Are all these ideas off-limits to criticism, even humour? Does the proclamation of endearment to a concept automatically seal off this concept from contrarian views? If so, lets stop persecuting the KKK, Nazi skin-heads, flat earthers and the rest.

    The question is: why does religion reserve some extra special immunity from criticism? Do religious people have a special right not to be offended?

  2. You know, I have learnt something from this entire episode,

    beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep!

    Isn't that a great lesson?

  3. Anonymous @ May 20 2:03pm -

    You raise a very valid point. I should clarify myself.

    In re-reading my post I can see where it looks like I'm saying that religious people have special rights not to be offended. As it is, I believe the polar opposite.

    Religion occupies TOO privileged a position in our society as it is and I'm all for dismantling oppressive belief structures, particularly those that cause significant harm to people. If toes have to be stepped on to do that, you'll see me at the front of that line with my biggest boots on.

    What I am trying to say in the post is that this whole "Draw Mohammed Day" isn't really about that. And it isn't really about that because of the dynamics at play. It's hardly a political protest against violence committed in the name of Islam (although some may claim it to be so). The way I see it, it's more of someone from a privileged Western position saying "Hey! You know what? Muslims that react strongly and threateningly to something as stupid as a cartoon should be mocked en masse!" aaaand then tacking on some trite phrases about "free speech blah blah blah" to make it sound less like the xenophobic call to arms that it is.

    To make it more explicit, this "Draw Mohammed" palaver did not emerge in a vacuum. It certainly didn't come about in a time and place where all religions are equal or portrayed equally on the world stage. It has emerged at a time where Islam is conflated with many negative and directly harmful stereotypes.

    So I'm not defending religion as something above and beyond criticism or opposition (sorry the original post was unclear). And as blasphemy goes, I'm probably one of the top ten offenders in my district (and proud of it). But I'll say this now (and I'll have to say it many more times again, I'll wager) stuff like this doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in the kyriarchy which has all this intersecting points of privilege and oppression made buoyant by the constant reinforcement of reductive stereotypes (for more, read this).

    Today, this is what's reinforcing one of those stereotypes.

  4. @cat in the cream:

    thanks for the clarification. so what you're essentially saying is - because muslims are predominantly found in 3rd world countries and have been victims of western imperialism, we should not piss them off.

    i'm not sure which is worse, believing that the religious have a right not to be offended, or that we should patronise (or cower from) people from the 3rd world.

    if we do not want to indulge in lazy sterotypes, then should not the subjects themselves refrain from filling the boots they have been baited with? its like saying, "stop calling me a violent person. i dont like it. and if you persist, i'll smack you and it'll not be my fault". i'm not a pacifist by any stretch but visual or textual provocation alone, especially when its over something as ephemeral as an idea, does not justify violence or destruction of property. and this point is made all the more poignant by the thousands of muslims who, though offended, shrug off the cartoons as one of the many side-effects of living in a secular, media saturated society.

    of course the saga is about free speech and expression, even if its clumsily articulated in this particular episode.


  5. Cat hasn't excused in any way violent responses to drawings. That is obviously unjustified. But that doesn't mean deliberately setting out to offend Muslims is beyond criticism.

    The point isn't just that many Muslims have been screwed over by Western imperialism. The point is that many Muslims are subjected to xenophobic and imperialist abuse precisely for being Muslim, even though for many of them their practice of Islam is an entirely private matter without any form of problematic effect on anyone else. Organising an event which is designed specifically to deride the very characteristic which has been singled out as grounds for abuse is really Not On.

    Personally I would see this exercise differently were it conducted by people who actually live among predominantly Muslim communities, or indeed by Muslims themselves.

    This business does have a free speech component - all instances of hate speech do - but that's far from the entirety of the picture.

  6. @groundnotes

    I think a more apt analogy is "stop calling me a violent person. i dont like it. because you're encouraging people to treat me badly." Unfortunately, casual stereotyping and perpetuation of it has very real effects in people's lived experiences. This is again not entirely about freespeech or losing liberties, but more about imbalance of power and accommodating people who have been disadvantaged for very elusive reasons.

    Also, I personally am not convinced that there's any real "cowering" involved in giving way to people in disempowered states. I find the underlying sense of indignation over this both very unfounded and unkind. I think we operate slightly differently here at the Barn; we care a great deal about being kind if we can afford to.


  7. Yup, see what Pig and Chicken have said.

  8. @chicken, cat and pig,

    thanks for the response. i just want to return to the points that compelled me to make my initial post.

    1. the cartoons, whether ill advised or not, should not be responded to with violence or destruction of property. protest and public criticism - sure, of course; but not threats of bodily harm.

    2. religious people have no right not to be offended.

    3. claiming that a particular idea, value or belief is dear to one does not give this idea, value or belief immunity from critique, even humour.


  9. groundnotes:

    I agree completely with those three bullet points and I wasn't trying to say otherwise in my post. My point form summary looks something like this -

    - Reinforcing negative stereotypes under the guise of campaigning for free speech is a pretty underhanded and contradictory thing to do.

    ...that's it really. :)

  10. OT, but in case you hadn't seen this (and I can't blame you, it's 8.05am, I just have a morning off), here is disgusting, transphobic, seeks to enforce a rigid gender binary, and makes my flesh crawl.

    *your average Angry Feminist supporter of the Barn - keep ripping into these folks!*

  11. @beka:

    Thanks for the link! There's so much tosh in the ST forums that a little bit of me dies every time I look in that direction (that's why you don't see me doing the shooting-fish-in-barrel ST forum takedowns).

    We may or may not address it in a post, depending on personal constitutions, but I do agree that it's very flesh-crawly.

    -Cat in the Cream

  12. Hi,

    I disagree with the article (and the comments clarifying it). A contradictory position is taken, which if i may summarise, is that:

    a) "You do not piss on ideas that other people hold dear."; and

    b)religious people do not have immunity from being offended (at least that i what i gather from the author's comment).

    Now the first thing is that (a)and (b) are mutually exclusive propositions. It is not a logically tenable position to advance both (a) and (b), with the result that the final position taken by the author seems to be: "religious people have no immunity from being offended, but hey, if you happen to be a marginalised minority then yes you do have a right not to be offended because now it becomes incitement.".

    Now,i must also mention that, ironically for an article which disparages the act of perpetuating sterotypes, it is itself also guilty of characterizing Muslims as disenfranchised minorities, and not only that, miniorities who will necessarily react violently in response. It is implicit in the article that the author does believe that such a "Draw Mohammad" act would indeed incite a violent response.

    Now, the "Draw Mohammad" act is indeed incendiary. But, does such an act perpetuate what the author calls "Reinforcing negative stereotypes under the guise of campaigning for free speech is a pretty underhanded and contradictory thing to do."???

    But lets take a step back. What is the "negative stereotype" we are talking about? It is the stereotype that religious Muslims are basically fanatical and will react with violence at the slightest insult. Now, does the act of drawing Mohammad perpetuate such a stereotype? The answer, is evidently no. But what actually reinforces the stereotype? It is only when Muslims actually react with violence that the stereotype is reinforced.

    In short, it is not the PROVOCATION which creates or reinforces any stereotype. It is the REACTION which reinforces such stereotypes. The author has fundamentally blurred both concepts. Indeed, it is also the REACTION which can also dismantle such stereotypes, because if after the act, NOBODY gives a damn, and life goes on as normal, then it would have diluted the stereotype.

    To draw an (admittedly imperfect) analogy, criticising the act as a form of western imperialism meant to incite violence from minorities is like saying that women who wear skimpy clothing and are sexually molested are in the wrong for being "incendiary".

    In both situations we are criticising the perceived provocation when the real condemnation should be for the action.

    While the author has sought to characterise the act as a form of imperialistic oppression, this is also undeniably an issue of free speech, and if free speech is to be indeed free it necessarily must mean the freedom to criticise, even if such criticism is provocative. Otherwise, you would only be paying lip service to free speech.

  13. nevin,

    "Now,i must also mention that, ironically for an article which disparages the act of perpetuating sterotypes, it is itself also guilty of characterizing Muslims as disenfranchised minorities, and not only that, miniorities who will necessarily react violently in response. It is implicit in the article that the author does believe that such a "Draw Mohammad" act would indeed incite a violent response."

    Characterising a group as a disenfranchised minority is not a "stereotype". It is a statement of fact which can be true or false. In the context of the Western societies in which this draw Mohammed and burn Quran nonsense are taking place, this statement is true.

    That some Muslims react violently when people who have privilege over them go out of their way to spit in their face is also not a stereotype, but something which may be true or false.

    Your choice to take the reactions of some Muslims and then generalise to "religious Muslims are basically fanatical and will react with violence at the slightest insult" on the other hand - now that, that is a stereotype. A nasty, pernicious, oppressive and insulting stereotype.

    The fact that some individual Muslims react badly - and in a way that we've all made clear we don't condone - does not justify the initial act of deliberately and provocatively trampling all over something which is sacred to a marginalised group of people.

    Neither Cat nor anyone else here is advocating taking away the "freedom" of these nasty anti-Muslim bigots to express their nasty anti-Muslim bigotry. We are just calling it anti-Muslim bigotry. Get it?


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