Mocking Muhammad: a shallow Enlightenment

Of course people should be free to say ‘I shit on Muhammad’. But here’s a question: why are they so keen to say it?

Brendan O'Neill
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Topics Free Speech

Tomorrow is ‘Draw Muhammad Day’. Bloggers, cartoonists and artists around the world plan to publish sketches of the Prophet in all sorts of weird poses. And of course they should be absolutely free to do so, free to depict the bossman of Islam with a bomb in his turban, a bee in his bonnet, or a carrot up his arse. Or even to draw a picture of themselves taking a dump on Muhammad’s head if they want, inspired, perhaps, by the American writer who responded to the recent attempted bombing of Times Square in NYC by writing: ‘I shit on Muhammad.’

But while they go crazy with their doodles, which is their right in free, secular societies where we should never have to bow down before religious sensitivities, I’m going to raise some questions: Why are you so keen to mock Muhammad? Why has it become the fashion to draw silly-funny-bizarre pics of the Prophet, to the extent that leading hacks such as Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan are backing Draw Muhammad Day? Why do some people want to shit on Muhammad?

Muhammad-baiting is a shallow, theatrical performance of Enlightenment values. It is a simple (in both meanings of that word) and shortcut way of demonstrating that you are for Freedom and Truth at a time when those values actually lie in tatters in Western society and few seem to know what they really mean or even whether they’re worth defending. For those who find the thought of really standing up to cultural relativism and anti-Enlightenment backwardness too terrifying a prospect, drawing Muhammad has become a quick-and-easy way of demonstrating that you’re a secular, liberal kinda guy.

Draw Muhammad Day is the brainchild of a Seattle-based cartoonist called Molly Norris. She announced it on the back of the censorship last month of an episode of South Park in which Muhammad, alongside other religious leaders, was depicted in a less than flattering light (as South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone say: ‘We’re equal-opportunity offenders.’) This follows five years of Muhammad-depiction controversies, starting with the Danish cartoon scandal of 2005 and moving on to various journalists causing outrage by referring to Muhammad as a paedophile (he apparently got hitched to a nine-year-old) and the pre-emptive censorship of Sherry Jones’ novel The Jewel of Medina after an academic said it would offend Muslims.

The censorship of any piece of art, humour or journalism on the basis that it might offend religious people is a disgrace. Muslims – like Christians, Scientologists, environmentalists, dentists, sheep-farmers and any other section of society – don’t have a right not to be offended. The deal in properly free societies is that you have the freedom to follow whichever religion you choose, and everyone else has the freedom to mock that religion. However, the main mistake made by the supporters of Draw Muhammad Day is to assume that Islam is the main barrier to free speech today, that gatherings of irate Muslims annoyed by pictures of their Prophet are singlehandedly demolishing hard fought-for liberal values.

So, one Muhammad-knocker claims there is a ‘jihad against free speech’. He says ‘the West once again has been forced to confront the clash of cultures’, where the ‘threats, the burning of embassies, the killings and the destruction of property in the Islamic world [in response to Western depictions of Muhammad] are an insult to the most basic civilised standards’. One of the websites backing Draw Muhammad Day says ‘the threat of violence [is] infringing on the free speech of artists’ and in such circumstances there is only one thing for ‘artists who care about free speech to do: Draw Muhammad.’ In short, freedom and Enlightenment are threatened by foreign agents, and thus the best way to defend freedom and Enlightenment is to ridicule those foreign agents.

This completely misunderstands the dynamic of the recent half-decade of Muhammad controversies. It was primarily the contemporary, very Western culture of relativism, multiculturalism and risk-aversion that sustained those controversies, not any uniquely Eastern super-sensitivity to being insulted. From the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy (when European imams actually took the cartoons to the Islamic world to see if people felt offended by them) to the decision not to publish The Jewel of Medina (which Random House took on the basis of one academic’s warning, not Muslim threats), the driving force of the Muhammad controversies has been pre-emptive cautiousness in Western society itself rather than significant uprisings ‘over there’ against Enlightenment values.

The oft-stated idea that some book, play, film or cartoon might agitate Muslims, and therefore we’d better censor it, is best understood as the externalisation of Western societies’ own cagey, censorious instincts, a projection of our own doubt about what is sayable and unsayable these days on to foreign bodies, on to potentially marauding Muslims. Our own societies’ deep discomfort with offending Others is re-presented as an earnest effort to placate mobs of fragile Muslims. Even when some Muslims have protested against depictions of Muhammad – and they have, from Kabul to Cairo to London – their fury has been informed more by the culture of inoffensiveness, where multiculturalism has convinced us that we should never tolerate any slight against our culture, religion or lifestyle, rather than by a Koran-induced madness.

However, presenting the undermining of freedom and Enlightenment as a result of a foreign ‘jihad against free speech’ is far easier than facing up to the reality – which is that it is not barbarians at the gates but institutions inside the gates that have denigrated Enlightenment values. The ‘jihad against free speech’ idea is more thrilling, too, giving the secular, liberal lobby a feeling that they’re involved in a life-and-death, cross-continent struggle to defend the soul of Western liberalism from baying gangs of religious types. When in fact all they’re doing is drawing pictures of Muhammad with his knob out.

Indeed, the most striking thing about the Muhammad-knockers is that some of them seem to relish the reaction their ‘blasphemy’ provokes, especially if it’s protests or riots, because it makes their commitment to Enlightenment values feel real, urgent, true. That is why one British journalist could boast that ‘after I wrote an article criticising the “Prophet” Muhammad for having sex with a pre-pubescent girl, there was a three-day riot by over 3,000 people in Calcutta calling for me to be imprisoned or killed’, before asking his critics: ‘What risks [have you] ever taken to oppose Islamic fundamentalism?’ Here, a riotous response to a journalist’s labelling of the Prophet as a paedo – which safely takes place a few thousand miles away – becomes a badge of honour for the journalist, physical evidence that his commitment to liberal values is a really real thing.

This points to a powerful irony in the shit-on-Muhammad lobby: it is far more reliant on irate Muslims than it realises. Indeed, these two camps – the Muhammad-knockers and the Muslim offence-takers – are locked in a deadly embrace. Islamic extremists need Western depictions of Muhammad as evidence that there is a new crusade against Islam, while the Muhammad-knockers need the flag-burning, street-stomping antics of the extremists as evidence that their defence of the Enlightenment is a risky, important business. And as this mutually masturbatory performance of a new culture clash continues, the true threat to freedom and Enlightenment goes unanalysed and unexplained.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume saw the row over the Danish Muhammad cartoons as a caricatured argument. Munira Mirza said the press should be free to ridicule Islam. spiked republished a cartoon by two Spanish cartoonists who were convicted of ‘vilifying’ the Crown Prince of Spain. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

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Topics Free Speech