Advice for Everyone Draw Muhammad Day
Controversy exploded late April after South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker received death threats for including a depiction of Islam's prophet in a recent episode. To show solidarity and support free speech in the face of these death threats, Secular Student Alliance affiliates at UIUC, UW-Madison, and Northwestern each sponsored events in which they went around campus chalking stick figures labeled "Muhammad." These actions were controversial within each group and drew responses from the respective schools' Muslim Student Associations.
Other secular student groups have expressed interest in participating in "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" on May 20th, 2010. Deciding if and how your group wants to get involved is obviously completely up to your group. However, since it's an event which can easily elicit negative feelings and divide groups if you're not careful, here are some suggestions which will help you effectively convey your message if you choose to participate:
- Decide if you want to do this:
While there are lots of good reasons to stand up for freedom of expression in the face of threats of violence, doing this constructively is likely to take a lot of time. It is also difficult for some people to make the distinction between deliberately insulting Muslims and standing up against threats of violence (e.g. Eboo Patel's blog about this). It's an important task, but not an easy one. Also, let's face it, threats of violence have been made. We obviously don't want anyone to get hurt.
Even if you don't want to engage in chalking Muhammad, there are other ways you can engage these issues that we've listed below.
- Discuss what, exactly, your message is:
Discuss with your group what you hope to achieve. Are you setting out to offend Muslims, or protesting the use of threats of violence to project certain ideas from criticism? (Hint: the latter.) Make decisions with that in mind, and the event will go more smoothly. You don't need to post images that would be tasteless whether they featured Muhammad or not - the South Park version or smiling stick figures labeled "Muhammad" do the trick.
- Respect people even if you don't respect ideas:
Don't make your event about atheists against Muslims. That would only distract from the intended message. You can assert the right to draw Muhammad without going out of your way to insult Muslims. Invite everyone to join you in condemning using threats of violence as a tool of persuasion!
- Make your intentions apparent: [Suggested Talking Points]
Many people won't understand why you would go out of your way to do something that Muslims find offensive. Talk to people when you can! You can't stand at every flyer, chalked image, or talk to every passer-by, try to make it clear what "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" is about: protesting the notion that it is okay for anyone to use threats of violence to protect ideas from criticism. So think about other ways to let people know what you're doing. For example, next to the image, you could write "This shouldn't bring death threats" or "We stand with Matt & Trey (South Park)." We really like the statement of purpose that Chris Calvey, leader of the University of Wisconsin - Madison groups, wrote:
"We must all eventually come to the agreement that no religion, person, idea, or sacred cow should be granted immunity from criticism. In a free society, even opinions which the majority may find reprehensible have the right to be heard. Among these is the right to criticize religion and to perform actions considered "blasphemous." When that right is under threat, as it clearly is today, we have a moral obligation to exercise it to ensure that it is not lost. We cannot tolerate limitations to our freedom of expression, whether they come from violence, intimidation, or self-censorship out of political correctness."
You might want to post something like this on your group's Facebook page, blog or website.
We have created a list of suggested talking points that you may find useful for talking with people about what you're doing.
- Encourage a constructive dialogue:
Don't just put up images of Muhammad and think you're done. Use the event as the beginning of a conversation! Talk to people about free speech and the controversy surrounding the South Park episode. Consider inviting representatives from the Muslim student groups - or many religious groups - on your campus to participate in a panel discussion about taboos, sacred cows, and censorship.
The group at UW - Madison made contact with their campus Muslim Student Association to let them know what was about to happen. Reading about their experiences will likely be helpful. The other two groups have also been in touch with their respective MSAs.
The group at Northwestern used their drawings as a way to promote two discussion meetings which were open to everyone in their campus community. They also submitted an excellent op-ed in their campus paper about their actions. An op-ed or letter to your campus paper is an excellent way to express you views on drawing Muhammad if you agree or disagree with chalking Muhammad.
- Be mindful of your school's policies:
Find a way to hold your event while following your campus' rules. If your campus doesn't allow chalk drawings, perhaps flyers are the right way to go. Get permission for what you need permission to do. The last thing you need is for a procedural controversy to detract from your message.
- Get Informed:
Know the facts of the situation. The editorial by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the Wall Street Journal is a good overview. The threats against Parker and Stone occurred within a long-standing history of both threats of violence and actual violence in response to criticism of Islam, as described in this 2006 Washington Post piece. It's worth reading the Wikipedia article on Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.
- Alternative to Chalking:
Some Secular Student Alliance affiliate groups want to address this issue without chalking Muhammad. There are lots of ways to do this.
At least one group is planning to print out depictions of Muhammad from the middle ages created by Muslims who did not believe depicting Muhammad was a problem. They believe that this will make their point in a less distracting way.
South Park Marathon
Have a South Park Marathon. You can legally watch most of the episodes at http://www.southparkstudios.com Of course, the Super Best Friends (from 2001) episode and other episodes with depictions of Muhammad have been taken down.
Letter Writing Campaign to Comedy Central/Viacom
Although they were responding to veiled threats of violence, it was technically the decision of Viacom to censor the depictions of Muhammad. Your group call all write them letters telling the why you think they should have made a different decision.
Contact your local Muslim Student Association and host a joint event
It is unlikely that your local MSA will be willing to cooperate in any event that has a depiction of Muhammad at it, but your MSA may be willing to join you in hosting an event that denounces using threats of violence in response to depicting Muhammad. Whatever you end up doing, reaching out to your local MSA is a good idea.