Thursday, May 20, 2010

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day Under Attack

At InsideHigherEd.com, Eboo Patel condemns college administrators for failing to condemn students who are participating in “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Considering that the day hadn't happened yet, his pleas may be premature.

But I suspect that real reason that administrators are unlikely to speak out against the drawing of Muhammad cartoons is because they're afraid of drawing attention to their campus for fear that it might lure violence and threats. That's because violence and threats have been among the responses to these drawings, which the entire reason for this day.

I've printed the Muhammad cartoons in two different newspapers along with articles about the censorship of them, and although it has caused some outrage, so far I have yet to receive even one letter to the editor trying to make an intellectual defense of censorship. That's because there isn't one, and even Patel fails to make one.

Instead, Patel insults the students (“who believe they are crusaders for free speech” and operate under “the cover of darkness”) and proclaims, “A college quad is a public place where there is an implicit promise by the university that students of all backgrounds will feel safe and accepted.”

No, it isn't. Safe, yes. Accepted, not necessarily. Not if feeling “accepted” is conditioned upon not having your beliefs challenged. There is no right to be free from offense. And that's what is at stake here.

Patel claims, “the only identity you can openly insult on a campus without inviting social outrage is religion.” That's absolutely not true. It is also important to remember that Patel's generalizations certainly don't apply to religious colleges, where there is the worst regime of censorship among all campuses. After all, the Vagina Monologues are banned at dozens of Catholic colleges; St. Louis University recently banned David Horowitz from speaking because of his hateful statements about Muslims.

And even at secular colleges, administrators are just as quick to condemn hateful actions against Jews, Muslims, and Christians as they are to condemn hateful actions against racial minorities. In fact, FIRE details cases at NYU and Century College where administrators not only spoke out but actually engaged in censorship over the cartoons, even though there was no hatred expressed against Muslims.

FIRE has also rightly condemned UCSD's repressive response to the racist “Compton Cookout,” which Patel invokes as his ideal for how college administrators should react to the Muhammad drawings.

The difference here is that drawing a picture of Muhammad is not the same as a cookout invoking racial stereotypes. Drawing this picture is a statement about free speech, not expressing hatred of Muslims. If anything, administrators should be speaking out to defend free speech.

Religious identity, like political identity, can be insulted because it is essential to free exchange of ideas to allow such criticism. Religious identity, unlike race, gender, or sexual orientation, is (or should be) freely chosen.

This is not an attack on Muslims; it is an attack on censorship by a fringe group of authoritarians. Even if the ban on the depiction of Muhammad was a genuine Koranic doctrine (and it's not), it still isn't acceptable to demand censorship. On a college campus, everyone should be free to criticize religious or political doctrines.

Plenty of homophobes love to redefine their hatred as religious devotion; so do a lot of sexists and, until recent decades, so did racists. Should drawings of gay men kissing on campus be condemned by administrators because it offends the religious beliefs of certain Christians (and Muslims)? Should denouncing genuine Christians (or Muslims) who believe in homophobia as a Biblical (or Koranic) doctrine be deemed an insult to their religion?

Patel claims, “Shouldn’t universities be boldly advancing the narrative of actions that build an inclusive campus vs. actions that marginalize a community?” Yes. Universities should have an inclusive campus where everyone is free to express themselves, whether they are offended Muslims or “aggressive” atheists. They should defend freedom of speech, and they should organize events to discuss ideas, not condemn the discussion of ideas. They should promote understanding of Islam, and understanding of free speech. And “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” is a great example of that.

2 comments:

ZackFord said...

This is an effective and articulate response to Patel's article. I was similarly disappointed by his take on the issue. Thank you for writing this!

i-History said...

Great posting.

Authors like Patel don't defend censorship because the "real issue" is always something else -- a "teachable moment" for "inclusiveness." That is a useful term (and attitude) but in the hands of dogmatists, it becomes the End All and Be All of education. God save us from this Dramamine view of real present dangers, both to 1st amendment freedoms and personal security (it was the threat of violence that led to censorship).

Long live the heckler's veto, eh, Patel? I notice Patel took a swipe at a few "crusaders" for free speech who are troublemakers. . . . Isn't "crusader" the term that got the same defenders of interfaith dialogues into a tizzy when GW used it?

Keep up the good work.