It seems to have gotten serious in 2005, when a Danish writer, Kåre Bluitgen, wanted to write a children’s book about Islam. He was having trouble finding people to illustrate it — apparently, people were rightly worried about violence. That his intentions were not demeaning is obvious from the cover that was eventually drawn.

Bluitgen coverThe book itself seems pretty benign, though I’ve read only a few pages of it. (You can get it on the Kindle for $5.)

(Oh: I will be posting several depictions of Muhammad, Peace be Upon Him. I understand that this might be upsetting to Muslim readers. If you are Muslim and you believe that it is wrong of me to depict Muhammad, then you are welcome to try to convince me that your religion is true and that it forbids such depictions. You are also welcome to tell me that I am behaving offensively, though as I already know that, you wouldn’t be very informative. Finally, it is of course possible to avoid the offensive content by closing the browser window, though I would prefer that you endure the offense and engage in a constructive conversation. Go with your god, my friends, and peace be upon you.)

Word got out about Mr. Bluitgen’s problems, and the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten commissioned a set of depictions of Mohammad; I think that the most aggressive of them is this one:

bombheadmuhammadThe pattern is that someone wanted to depict Muhammad in a way that is offensive only if depictions of Muhammad are offensive by nature, they were (or at least felt) threatened, and in response to the threats, someone depicted Muhammad in a way that would be offensive to pretty much any Muslim. It’s a sarcastic gesture.

This pictorial escalation was matched with an escalation in violence: over two hundred people were killed in anti-Danish riots across the Muslim world. Some people don’t get sarcasm:


Later came the “South Park” fiasco, the Charlie Hebdo attack, and the defeated attempt to massacre the attendees at a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, TX, a few weeks ago. The winner of the contest was former Muslim, supporter of Ayn Rand, and Eisner-nominated cartoonist Bosch Fawstin, and here is what he drew:


(Muhammad seems to be a cybernetic organism that has replaced its original right-hand-shaped endoskeletal appendage with a small garden rake and pulled its artificial skin over that. — …so maybe this isn’t actually a depiction of Muhammad at all?)

In this case, we have the issue presented in the form of a short dialogue between a cartoonist and his cartoon. The cartoon demands not to be drawn; the cartoonist insists that he will draw the cartoon just because it doesn’t want to be drawn. That’s the original pattern from Denmark: we’re only making offensive images of Muhammad because some Muslims violently freak out when we make any images of Muhammad, for any purpose at all.

So let’s think about this. Imagine that you know a man called ‘Tiny’. Imagine that Tiny’s beloved mother has just passed away. Now, the thing with Tiny’s mother is that she was a meth-addled, crack-addicted prostitute. Also, Tiny is in a little bit of denial about his mother’s unsavory behaviors.

Should you, at the wake, point out to Tiny that his mother was a whore? Probably not. That would be crass and rude of you. Why insult people?

But let me fill in a couple of blanks about Tiny. He is a very large, very strong, somewhat ill-tempered man; this wake is at a biker bar. If you puncture his illusion about his mother, he will get angry and you are liable to get beaten up.

Does that change the calculus about whether you should point out to Tiny that his mother was a whore? Does the fact that the offended person would become violent constitute a reason to offend him? Surely it does not.

Switch the case. Imagine that Tiny believes that his mother has gone to Heaven, but you, as an atheist, think that that is a silly fairy tale. Is the wake a great time to point that out? Maybe not, and the fact that Tiny might get violent about it probably doesn’t make it a great time to point that out.

The fact that something would be offensive to someone else is a reason not to do it or say it or draw it.

The fact that the someone might get violent about it is not a reason to do it or say or draw it.

The fact that drawing Muhammad is offensive to many people is a reason not to do it: all other things being equal, one ought not to do it. But all other things are not equal. Drawing Muhammad might be really funny. It might be educational. It can serve a wide variety of purposes, and once in a while, those purposes are worth the offense. Of course, the people performing this calculus are almost never the ones who would suffer the offense. It’s easy to say that what is beneficial to me is worth whatever harm it causes someone else. People depicting Muhammad ought to consider how they feel when their own beliefs, if they have any, are similarly insulted. For instance, we flag-waving patriots might consider that we don’t take kindly to people who burn the flag, and then realize that, while people might have reasons to burn the flag, they also have a pretty good reason not to; if you take up your pen to draw Muhammad, consider that what you’re doing is the equivalent of someone else taking up our flag to burn it.

But what happens when the fact that something is offensive brings it about that we have a reason to do it? For instance, the fact that something is offensive might be precisely what makes it funny — the offensive can be shocking, and the shocking is sometimes the surprise that gets a laugh. And the fact that people are threatened with violence for doing something offensive might make doing it into a statement about free speech.

So offensiveness can be a double-edged sword: it constitutes a reason not to do something, but it can sometimes underlie a reason to do the very same thing!

Think about the Danish cartoon above. It has several levels of meaning. On the first level, it says that Islam is violent. That’s just a direct insult to everyone who is Muslim. At a higher level, given the context in which it was created, it’s intended to be a statement in defense of free speech. But it isn’t. It doesn’t distinguish Islam from Islamism, or Islamic fundamentalism, or Jihadism, or Islamic terrorism, or Islamic theocracy. Its higher-level meaning is the fact that its lower-level meaning is offensive to Muslims is a reason to create the image. It treats Muslims as people who need to be offended, as an end in itself. But that isn’t true: it is not true that, all other things being equal, if something will offend Muslims, then you ought to do it. Violence and threats of violence have nothing to do with it.

Think about Mr. Fawstin’s cartoon, though. It says, right in its content, that it exists exclusively as a statement about free speech. It says that the fact that it is offensive isn’t a reason to create it; it says that the fact that some Muslims respond so badly to being offended is the reason to create it. It doesn’t say anything about Islam as such. It says something about how some Muslims act and whether their actions warrant respect: it says that their violence does not constitute a reason not to depict Muhammad. It doesn’t say that their being offended constitutes a reason to depict Muhammad. On its own, then, that cartoon should be celebrated and displayed widely.

But let’s add some context. The contest that Mr. Fawstin won was organized by Pamela Geller. Ms. Geller is a fan of Ayn Rand who became prominent by trying to prevent the construction of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. She produced a “documentary” on the subject:

second wave

Building a sanctuary of religion X near where some self-described practitioners of X committed an atrocity is not the second wave of the atrocity. It could be, of course. Had al Qaeda conquered Manhattan, torn down City Hall, and put a mosque in its place, then that would be an insult added to the original injury. (Many churches in western Europe were built on sites of pagan worship, in direct affront to the pagan religions; the relevant pagans were no doubt horrified and disgusted, and rightly so, at the desecrations.) But building a mosque in southern Manhattan is not, remotely, the same thing. The Catholic church nearest my home is not a wave of the Inquisition.

Who benefits from this sort of advocacy? If I were writing propaganda for jidahists, I would be overjoyed by Ms. Geller. “The Americans say that they have freedom of religion, including for our religion. But they don’t! They won’t allow a mosque to be built! Americans hate Islam! Flock to the banner of jihad!” I know that Ms. Geller’s advocacy is an expression of stupidity, rather than treachery, but good heavens.

Likewise, Mr. Fawstin asserts that all Muslims are jidahists. Check out his twitter feed for such gems as, “In reality, jihadists are the scum of the earth, capable of committing unspeakable violence, but in Islam, they’re what passes for ‘heroes'”. It’s true that, in reality, jihadists are scum. But why on Earth would you insist, to a billion and a half Muslims, that jihadists are their heroes? Again, jihadists must be thrilled at such rhetoric: “Even the Americans say that we are the only true Muslims! Flock to our banner!” How many people do we want to have to kill in our “war” on terror? Do we want to actually risk the destruction of western civilization? Why go out of your way to tell your potential allies that they are hypocrites and that if they were sincere, they would be trying to kill you?

The threats and violence against Mr. Fawstin and Ms. Geller are indefensible, wicked, evil. No one should convert Mr. Fawstin’s and Ms. Geller’s persecution fantasies into reality. They have a right to speak freely, they should not allow threats of violence to alter their messages, and they must be protected from violence with the full force of our legal systems. Violence shouldn’t affect what they say — but reason should. Instead of exercising their right to speak freely by blithering nihilistic nonsense, it would be grand if they would exercise their right to speak freely by saying things worth saying. Mr. Fawstin’s cartoon is a great example of that — but in general, these people just ooze a desire that the world be cleansed with fire and blood.

(Addendum 6-25-15. The flag-burning/Muhammad-drawing analogy isn’t very precise, since Islam isn’t a country [ISIS allegedly to the contrary notwithstanding]. Putting a crucifix in a jar of urine is more closely analogous. Drawing a misogynistic, obscene cartoon of Ayn Rand or something might be analogous.)