- Front Page
- Municipal Affairs
- Bon Voyage
May 18, 2010
By Justin Jalea
Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership
CALGARY, AB, May 18, 2010/ — A recent episode of the satirical cartoon South Park depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a bear costume, thus contravening the Islamic prohibition on portrayals of him. In response, American radical Islamists made thinly-veiled death threats against South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. This raises serious questions about how to best protect freedom of expression.
On her website, cartoonist Molly Norris came to Stone and Parker’s defense, caricaturing Mohammed as a tea cup, box of pasta and coffee mug, amongst other things. By doing so, an ad-hoc movement to make May 20th “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day” was born. The idea has garnered much support on Facebook. The submissions are pouring in.
In a CNN interview about the South Park controversy, Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a critic of fundamentalist Islam – also came to Stone and Parker’s defense, suggesting that if we all draw Mohammed, there will be too many people to threaten.
The spirit behind Hirsi Ali’s statement is that we must all stand in solidarity to promote the right to draw, write, say and think whatever we want. And she is right: we must show that silencing freedom of expression is unacceptable, especially if done by threats of violence.
Threats of violence should never be tolerated
The logic driving “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day” echoes Hirsi Ali’s sentiment. It is very scary to think you might be murdered – as was Hirsi Ali’s colleague Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh – for publicly defying Muslim prohibitions, but not so scary if tens or hundreds of thousands do the same. There is safety in numbers.
But is encouraging as many people as possible to violate Muslim sensibilities by drawing Mohammed a good thing to do?
There is no easy answer, but intentions are important here. If our intention is to show we will not be intimidated by hostile bullying, then we should all try our hand at drawing Mohammed, even if it ends up offending Muslims.
But if our intention is primarily to offend, rather than squash intimidation or uphold principles of free expression, drawing Mohammed unnecessarily insults all Muslims, when we only want to target the radical few.
And even if it is right to publish representations of Mohammed which we know will cause Muslims offense, should those images conform to some standard?
Legal versus ethical limits
There is a crucial distinction between the legal scope of freedom of expression and what kinds of expression are ethically acceptable.
We must have the legal right to draw Mohammed, even if it causes offense, for freedom of expression needs to be broad enough to accommodate discussion of controversial issues. If we have legal prohibitions on potentially offensive expression, such as photos of aborted foetuses, we lose the opportunity to openly discuss controversial issues such as abortion.
But that doesn’t mean, ethically speaking, that anything goes.
One “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day” submission depicts Mohammed on all fours with pigs crawling on him and a caption reading “pigs be upon him” – a play on the honorific “peace be upon him” Muslims typically apply to the Prophet. This is doubly offensive due to the Islamic prohibition on eating pork.
This is one of the more benign images. And we might think it is clever. But is encouraging intentionally offensive images the appropriate answer to threats of violence in the name of religion?
No. We must protect fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression, from violent threats, but it doesn’t follow that we are acting ethically when we exercise our maximum freedom to offend.
Sometimes you cannot adequately make your point without causing offense, for example, when showing torture photos to denounce the inhumanity of the practice. But ethically speaking, we should try not to cause unnecessary offense. We are acting ethically if our intention is to say what we think needs to be said, but not if our sole intent is to be harmful or malicious.
Reasonable people can disagree over what constitutes gratuitous rather than necessary offense, as my colleagues and I do over “Draw Mohammed Day.” But we’re agreed that in a liberal democracy such as Canada, depictions of Mohammed have to be thought of in the same way as depictions of any other cultural or religious hero – they are public figures susceptible to criticism and even ridicule.
As for whether you should pick up a pen on May 20th, I think the ethical response is best characterized by an anonymous blogger on Norris’ site who writes, “Fight for the [legal] right to draw Mohammed, but then decline [ethically speaking] doing so.”
Justin Jalea is an intern with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.
Channels: The Winnipeg Free Press, the Amherst Daily News, the Truro Daily News, the New Glasgow Evening News, the Calgary Beacon, May 19, Portage La Prairie, May 20, the Edmonton Journal, May 22, Nelson Daily News, May 25, Epoch Times Deutschland, May 30, 2010