Draw Mohammed and Reform Islam

Pamela Geller’s “draw Mohammed” contest in Texas was provocative, but the problem is not with Geller or the contest organizers, it is with Muslims who insist that they were provoked because it violated a Muslim taboo against representational art.   Muslims should not have been provoked by a contest that was about free speech.  In the West free speech and activities that are offensive but don’t infringe the rights of others, are not only tolerated, but often celebrated.  They are part of the fundamental fabric of society. 

Muslims are entitled to their taboos; every religion has them.  Religious taboos emerge, evolve, change or dissipate over time, and Islam is no exception to this process.   Islam began without an accepted taboo requiring women to veil themselves, the practice becoming widespread only after the conquest of Mesopotamia.  And over time, and depending on place, that taboo has waxed and waned. 

Art has always been a part of religion, and beliefs about art within religions are not static.  Western Christian iconography changed dramatically over time as Christianity grew from a small Jewish cult to an imperial faith.  Byzantium celebrated icons, broke them, and celebrated again.  In Buddhism, as the faith moved along the Silk Roads from India to China, Buddha changed from an aesthetic priest into a chubby party animal.

Islam has not been immune to this process.  Depictions of Mohammed, while never widely popular, were not always banned, nor has representational art been banned universally throughout Islamic history.  There is no prohibition against drawing Mohammed in the Koran.  Mohammed himself violated his own taboos against idolatry following his conquest of Mecca, when, during the comprehensive destruction of pagan shrines he spared the ka’aba, and the sacred stone within.  Not only that, in a politically savvy move, he made that popular but idolatrous shrine the pilgrimage center of his new faith.

Mohammed’s political insight is the crux of the matter, for he conflated the theological and the political in Islam.  Islamic taboos should be a Muslim theological affair.  What is problematic is the political manifestation of the taboo.  A taboo is religious when you say “images of Mohammed offend me, so I do not draw them.…”  A taboo becomes a political matter when you say too “…and it offends me when you draw Mohammed, so you should not draw either.”  This is how taboos morph into tyranny.  

Moderate Western Muslims, if they really are tolerant and not interested in imposing their view on others, need first to recognize that they cannot, and should not attempt to impose their taboos on other people.  Muslims might consider rethinking the parameters of acceptable Islamic art.  At the very least, they must abandon the idea that their taboos against representational art should be respected by non-Muslims.   

Some Muslim organizations condemned the attack in Texas because it was violent, but also labeled the contest hateful, which it was not.  But since Muslims are repeatedly told that the contest was intended to provoke them (not to support free speech) who can blame them?  They are offended in part because they are told -- by non-Muslims -- that they should be deeply offended.  This raises the question of why a Muslim should be deeply offended by the actions of a relatively obscure group of non-Muslims promoting 1st Amendment rights. 

Muslims should brush such things off, as Christians, Jews and others have done throughout American history, putting the Constitution ahead of religious affiliation.  The contest did not violate a taboo unless we are living under sharia, which at least for now we are not.   

It is extremely unlikely that any prominent Muslim organization would publicly espouse simply ignoring contests like the one in Garland, as opposed casting aspersions about alleged hatefulness or launching protests.  Not only would this contradict prevailing attitudes in the most outspoken precincts of the Islamic community, it would be dangerous.  One of the ironies of the Texas attack is that despite its spectacular tactical failure (two well-equipped but incompetent fanatics drive 1000 miles only to be put down in fifteen seconds by a cop with a Glock), the very fact that they tried is terrifying to a lot of people.  And unfortunately, the loudest voices in Islam today are Salafist, insisting on the most atavistic and limited interpretation of Muslim learning on this subject. 

Certainly, no prominent Muslim will espouse brushing off events like the Garland contest as long as non-Muslim American commentators and politicians apologize for Muslim sensitivities.  Muslim spokespeople are not going to appear on FOX at personal risk, and admit that a Mohammed cartoon contest is not worth getting upset over, if Bill O’Reilly and many of his associates on that conservative network are lambasting Pamela Geller for provoking Muslims.  And of course, it is far worse on the regular broadcast networks, not to mention CNN or MSNBC.  This tendency to cater to Muslim sensitivities speaks to the absurdity of the West’s approach.  Either Islam will reform, or it will be in constant conflict with the West until one side or the other gives up. 

Western pundits and politicians ought to do what they can to encourage reform, not hinder it by parroting Islamist positions in an attempt to assuage Muslims.  This not only leads to moral absurdities -- like blaming the victims of the terror attack in Texas instead of the perpetrators and their sympathizers -- but it gives Muslims little reason to reform their religion. 

Reforming Islam is the best hope of avoiding a constant state of conflict between it and the West in the coming decades.  An unending “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” (an idea devised in 2010 that ended with the originator going into hiding due to death threats) would be helpful step in that direction if it succeeded in desensitizing Muslims to perceived violations of their taboos.   That would put Muslims on an equal footing with everybody else in modern developed societies.   This would help cleave the theological from the political in Islam, which would be good for Western societies and their Muslim citizens.  That this will likely never happen, partly because people (Muslim and not) who are mortally afraid of afraid of Islamic terrorists -- competent or not -- is what is truly provocative. 

Pamela Geller’s “draw Mohammed” contest in Texas was provocative, but the problem is not with Geller or the contest organizers, it is with Muslims who insist that they were provoked because it violated a Muslim taboo against representational art.   Muslims should not have been provoked by a contest that was about free speech.  In the West free speech and activities that are offensive but don’t infringe the rights of others, are not only tolerated, but often celebrated.  They are part of the fundamental fabric of society. 

Muslims are entitled to their taboos; every religion has them.  Religious taboos emerge, evolve, change or dissipate over time, and Islam is no exception to this process.   Islam began without an accepted taboo requiring women to veil themselves, the practice becoming widespread only after the conquest of Mesopotamia.  And over time, and depending on place, that taboo has waxed and waned. 

Art has always been a part of religion, and beliefs about art within religions are not static.  Western Christian iconography changed dramatically over time as Christianity grew from a small Jewish cult to an imperial faith.  Byzantium celebrated icons, broke them, and celebrated again.  In Buddhism, as the faith moved along the Silk Roads from India to China, Buddha changed from an aesthetic priest into a chubby party animal.

Islam has not been immune to this process.  Depictions of Mohammed, while never widely popular, were not always banned, nor has representational art been banned universally throughout Islamic history.  There is no prohibition against drawing Mohammed in the Koran.  Mohammed himself violated his own taboos against idolatry following his conquest of Mecca, when, during the comprehensive destruction of pagan shrines he spared the ka’aba, and the sacred stone within.  Not only that, in a politically savvy move, he made that popular but idolatrous shrine the pilgrimage center of his new faith.

Mohammed’s political insight is the crux of the matter, for he conflated the theological and the political in Islam.  Islamic taboos should be a Muslim theological affair.  What is problematic is the political manifestation of the taboo.  A taboo is religious when you say “images of Mohammed offend me, so I do not draw them.…”  A taboo becomes a political matter when you say too “…and it offends me when you draw Mohammed, so you should not draw either.”  This is how taboos morph into tyranny.  

Moderate Western Muslims, if they really are tolerant and not interested in imposing their view on others, need first to recognize that they cannot, and should not attempt to impose their taboos on other people.  Muslims might consider rethinking the parameters of acceptable Islamic art.  At the very least, they must abandon the idea that their taboos against representational art should be respected by non-Muslims.   

Some Muslim organizations condemned the attack in Texas because it was violent, but also labeled the contest hateful, which it was not.  But since Muslims are repeatedly told that the contest was intended to provoke them (not to support free speech) who can blame them?  They are offended in part because they are told -- by non-Muslims -- that they should be deeply offended.  This raises the question of why a Muslim should be deeply offended by the actions of a relatively obscure group of non-Muslims promoting 1st Amendment rights. 

Muslims should brush such things off, as Christians, Jews and others have done throughout American history, putting the Constitution ahead of religious affiliation.  The contest did not violate a taboo unless we are living under sharia, which at least for now we are not.   

It is extremely unlikely that any prominent Muslim organization would publicly espouse simply ignoring contests like the one in Garland, as opposed casting aspersions about alleged hatefulness or launching protests.  Not only would this contradict prevailing attitudes in the most outspoken precincts of the Islamic community, it would be dangerous.  One of the ironies of the Texas attack is that despite its spectacular tactical failure (two well-equipped but incompetent fanatics drive 1000 miles only to be put down in fifteen seconds by a cop with a Glock), the very fact that they tried is terrifying to a lot of people.  And unfortunately, the loudest voices in Islam today are Salafist, insisting on the most atavistic and limited interpretation of Muslim learning on this subject. 

Certainly, no prominent Muslim will espouse brushing off events like the Garland contest as long as non-Muslim American commentators and politicians apologize for Muslim sensitivities.  Muslim spokespeople are not going to appear on FOX at personal risk, and admit that a Mohammed cartoon contest is not worth getting upset over, if Bill O’Reilly and many of his associates on that conservative network are lambasting Pamela Geller for provoking Muslims.  And of course, it is far worse on the regular broadcast networks, not to mention CNN or MSNBC.  This tendency to cater to Muslim sensitivities speaks to the absurdity of the West’s approach.  Either Islam will reform, or it will be in constant conflict with the West until one side or the other gives up. 

Western pundits and politicians ought to do what they can to encourage reform, not hinder it by parroting Islamist positions in an attempt to assuage Muslims.  This not only leads to moral absurdities -- like blaming the victims of the terror attack in Texas instead of the perpetrators and their sympathizers -- but it gives Muslims little reason to reform their religion. 

Reforming Islam is the best hope of avoiding a constant state of conflict between it and the West in the coming decades.  An unending “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” (an idea devised in 2010 that ended with the originator going into hiding due to death threats) would be helpful step in that direction if it succeeded in desensitizing Muslims to perceived violations of their taboos.   That would put Muslims on an equal footing with everybody else in modern developed societies.   This would help cleave the theological from the political in Islam, which would be good for Western societies and their Muslim citizens.  That this will likely never happen, partly because people (Muslim and not) who are mortally afraid of afraid of Islamic terrorists -- competent or not -- is what is truly provocative.