What if they held a Draw Mohammed Day and nobody came?

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day is an annual event celebrated on May 20. With the third DMD newly in the can, thoughts turn to DMD 4. My thoughts turn to whether there ought not to be another one.

DMD 1 and 2 were libertarian extravaganzas, protesting Muslim vigilante harassment of free expression outside the Muslim world, ranging from the murder of a European filmmaker to the commercial censorship of a South Park episode. Although many of the cartoons offered in reprisal were pornographic scrawls, many were witty. My own favorite was a parody of Magritte’s iconic pipe, with the legend, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe, c’est Muhammed.”

In the best game theoretic tradition, the protest was tit-for-tat, a picture made for a picture destroyed, and a de-escalation in which violence was answered with resolve. Shoot an image maker, and find your world filled with image makers. It was the scene in the POW movie where the commandant demands that the mischief-making prisoner step forward, and all the prisoners step forward together. It was occupied Holland, where the Nazis told Jews to wear yellow stars, and everybody else wore yellow stars along with them.

DMD 3 was different. There are only so many witty ways to portray Mohammed, and more suprising perhaps, only so many witless ones, too. Besides, the previous DMD’s may actually have made a dent in Muslim opinion. There was no fresh assault on the visual arts to rail against. The poster child this year was a poet of sorts, Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari. He had twittered three tweets on Mohammed’s birthday, which when put together read (courtesy of the Daily Beast site):

On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.

On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.

On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

What is only slightly too edgy for a Hallmark card carries a possible death sentence in Kashgari’s homeland.

The matter is still pending. Good, then, that friends of liberty and decency should let the Saudis know that the whole world is watching. But what to do, exactly? Draw yet another cartoon of Mohammed? How is that going to help Kashgari? And perhaps this distinction is a bit subtle, but is there no difference between Muslim vigilantes imposing their mandates on non-Muslims worldwide, and Muslim states imposing their norms on their own citizens? Do I really have the same standing in both cases? Ought I do the very same thing in both cases? Shouldn’t freedom-loving Saudis be in the van on this one, along with other Muslims? And if so, how is my alienating them helping Kashgari?

In any event, the Kashgari affair explains how the hub of DMD 3 came to be Twitter, the scene of his non-crime, rather than the previous years’ headquarters, Facebook. Thus, DMD 3 morphed into TMD 1, the first Everybody Tweet Mohammed Day. On the plus side, everybody can tweet Mohammed:

This is Mohammad: O-|–<

or

O}-<

It’s not Magritte, but it surely is democratic.

Nor did the day pass entirely without notice in the Muslim world. Pakistan unplugged itself from Twitter for several hours, possibly in protest, then plugged itself back in. In perspective, Pakistanis lost access to Twitter for about as long as many of them regularly lose access to electrical power altogether. See, for axample, this story from two days before DMD 3-TMD 1,

http://tribune.com.pk/story/380542/no-respite-power-outages-to-continue-for-next-two-years/

There was nothing fromn Saudi Arabia, where Kashgari actually is.

DMD 3 also differed from its predecessors in its antipathy to Islam at large. YouTube’s all-star atheist activist Thunderf00t vigorously promoted all three DMD’s. For many people, his is the face and voice of DMD. While he may well be libertarian in his own way (and what’s the point of being libertarian if not in one’s own way?), his catch phrase is that the internet is “where religions come to die.” That’s not new, but as fewer people with other concerns observe DMD, this cheerleader’s message inevitably becomes louder. Thuderf00t’s agenda, that parts of Muslims’ religion are “dumb,” begins to crowd out a message that everybody, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, should mind their own business and tolerate speech with which they disagree.

What began as a demonstration for basic human rights, in other words, is in danger of becoming just more atheist carping against anybody whose opinion about God differs from their own. People who participated in DMD 1 and 2 could credibly say that they were not motivated by any desire to insult Islam for insult’s sake. If there is a DMD 4, will its participants be able to say the same? How many of them would even want to?

A lot will happen in a year, and maybe holding a Draw Mohammed Day will make as much sense as an appeal for general human rights in 2013 as it did back in 2010. But it didn’t make nearly as much as sense that way in 2012 as it did in ’10. Worse, this year’s Draw Mohammed Day had a different, narrower, meaner sense than 2010’s. If present trends continue, then we might do best to skip it next year. If DMD 1 and 2 made their point about tolerance, and it is more than merely possible that they did, then might we not settle for victory?

Update: Hamza Kashgari was released from jail in Ocober 2013.

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