Why is depicting or dressing up as Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, a constructive thing to do?
I am writing this because one individual has been commenting on this post about the zombie Muhammad incident.
It is true that depicting the prophet offends many Muslim’s sensibilities. They feel that their prophet should be respected and to depict him is often punishable by death – sometimes in a legal sense and others simply in a cultural one. Accordingly, when people depict Muhammad they often receive threats of physical violence or death.
In the United States, the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of speech. Under that freedom falls blasphemous speech, including speech that some people find offensive. It protects an individual’s right to depict Muhammad, Jesus, or any other religious figure. It protects an individual’s right to express opinions or do certain things that others might find offensive. Just as Serrano’s “Piss Christ” is a legal expression of free speech, so should be regarded Perce’s decision to dress as a zombie Muhammad for a Halloween parade.
I want to stay on topic here, so I’m not going to go into talking about Serrano’s work. I want to focus, instead, on depictions of Muhammad and why we should continue to depict Muhammad despite that doing so offends people.
Many followers of Islam, especially very vocal followers, have tried to bully people into not depicting their prophet. The Jyllands-Posten controversy is an especially good example of this. It is not okay to try to bully people into compliance with your personal beliefs.
If this were a different world, and the vast majority of Muslims responded to any depiction of their prophet by saying, “That actually bothers us, and we’d prefer if you wouldn’t depict Muhammad,” the story would be different. An acceptable social response would be to reduce attempts to depict Muhammad, not because society is afraid of offending Muslims, but because we do not wish to be insensitive for the sake of being insensitive.
Instead, though, when their prophet is depicted Muslim countries erupt in anger. Death threats are made and assassinations attempted. Some Muslim organizations and countries attempt to bully Western countries with well-developed free speech into limiting blasphemy and curtailing that so-very-important freedom.
This is unacceptable. It is this reaction that justifies anyone’s decision to depict Muhammad. It is this reaction that means depicting Muhammad is not insensitive for the sake of being insensitive. It instead becomes insensitive for the sake of sending a message: as long as you behave in such an uncivilized manner, threatening and physically attacking people because they drew a cartoon or dressed in a costume, you do not deserve sensitivity.
People today do not depict Muhammad to hurt feelings or just to be a jerk. They depict him to say, “Because you so forcefully tell me I cannot do something in this free world, because you psychologically mess with me and sometimes physically attack me, because as long as this happens, my ability to share any and all opinions of the government, of religion, and of anything else is not safe, I must show you that I will stand up for my freedoms.”
Certainly sometimes there are further messages accompanying such depictions – often they are used to criticize Islam, especially radical Islam. That, to me, is actually a different issue for a different post (I do not think religion should be free from criticism, but I think that is different than the issue of depicting Muhammad because a dislike of criticism is the penchant of most religions).
Ultimately the idea to walk away with is that depicting Muhammad is a valid activity in today’s society and will continue to be such until civil responses prevail over threatening ones. When Muslims accept that depicting their prophet does not give them a right to attack or threaten and that people are free to do things even if they do not like it, depicting Muhammad will no longer be very worthwhile as a stand alone activity* (lacking any further criticism or statement, I mean). Unfortunately, that acceptance looks to be a long time in the future.
*It should, of course, always be protected speech.