Friday, July 16, 2010

Art and Sacrilege

Back in April I discussed how, in the wake of the South Park censorship flap, some cartoonists attempted to show solidarity with the Park team by concocting "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day"  (That'll show 'em!  Show who?  I dunno).  Anyway, I mentioned back then how wrongheaded an idea this was, and I'm grateful that the Big Day came and went quietly on May 20th with the antis doing their thing (which they would do with or without a "holiday" to justify it), but the American Muslim community -- for the most part -- knowing better than to feed the trolls.

For the most part, that is, until last week, when self-proclaimed scholar Anwar Al-Awlaki (and our government's newest booga-booga of choice) declared open season on Molly Norris, the Seattle-based cartoonist who got the whole "Draw Muhammad Day" ball rolling (unwittingly, says she).  Now, since he gained notoriety in the last year, Al-Awlaki has done a pretty good job of confirming every negative stereotype of Muslims with his every utterance, but the issue at the center of this isn't whatever new whackadoo proclamation he has to make.  In fact, it's not about the extremists at all.  

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression as concepts are meaningless without the folks using them exercising the good judgment not to turn them into bludgeons.  And despite Norris' stated intentions to the contrary, this is exactly what "Draw Muhammad Day" inevitably (and predictably) became, leaving "regular" Muslims in the position of having to thread the needle between art and sacrilege.  On this point, I'll cede the floor to  author G. Willow Wilson, one of the few practicing Muslims working in comics, who pinpoints just how razor thin that line can be:
What Norris failed to understand is that by creating events like "Draw Muhammad Day", artists hurl rhetorical stones that go straight through their enemies and hit Muslims like me. Al Qaeda isn't hurt by Draw Muhammad Day. Its entire PR campaign is built on incidents like these. Without the Molly Norrises and Jyllands Postens of the world, Al Qaeda would have to get a lot more creative with its recruitment strategies. Artists who caricature the Prophet inevitably claim, as Norris has done, that they never meant to hurt ordinary Muslims, but ordinary Muslims are the only ones who are hurt. As a Muslim in the comics industry I spend more time than is good for my mental health defending the art and the religion I love from each other. Events like the fallout from Draw Muhammad Day make me think I'm wasting my time--the hate runs too deep on both sides. My conscience won't let me support the criminalizing of art, but neither will it let me support a parade of cartoons depicting lurid, racist stereotypes of Arab men and passing them off as satire of a holy figure.
It would be helpful, I suppose, if people on both sides of this artificial ideological divide could introduce some complexity into their thinking, but as Wilson notes, that can seem like a tall order at times.  You can read the rest of her op-ed for The Washington Post here, and check out her book The Butterfly Mosque here.  Both are well worth a read.  I also had the opportunity to discuss this very issue at length in my conversation with Wilson last Saturday, video of which should (hopefully!) be up very soon.


Anthony Camilo said...

Hello Zaki:

I do not participate in or condone sacrilege. Telling from your post it seems to me that you miss the real point of the "Draw Mohammad Day" exercise. The "PR" of Islam and all other religions are often high-jacked by their fundamentalist extremists. In the comic book world, real art is always under-appreciated, specially art that goes for the strongest emotional reaction. That's what art is supposed to do, it is supposed to move you and take you out of your comfort zone, even when it infringes upon your beliefs. The prophet will not be any less holy if someone draws him, or uses his image in anyway. Your relationship with him will not be diminished by what anyone else thinks, says or does about any part of your religion.

I am an atheist I whole-heartedly believe in Marx's axiom, but I am also keenly connected to the human element of religion and THAT is what I respect and value.

We all have to discover and chose our path and examine what we find lest we lay prey to a modification of the communist creed by saying that: Dogma is the opium of religion.

Peace be with you and yours.

Anonymous said...

Well all I have to say is, welcome to the party, Muslims.

Since becoming a Christian over 30 years ago, almost every single day since I've heard the name of Christ immediately followed, or preceded by, a profanity or some sort of incendiary curse.

I regularly see Jesus portrayed as a stoner, a buffoon, a charlatan, a clown, a dupe, a moron, a victim. His values and His teachings are mangled and His words are misquoted and misappropriated by people who could care less about scholarship or accountability to truth or even accuracy.

So... it's tough to be sympathetic here, because frankly, Jews have endured this, and Christians have endured this, for millennia. And at least for the last several hundred years, nobody's had to worry about Christians as a culture murdering people who drew a cartoon of Jesus. Though both are guilty, to some degree, of that sort of thing in epochs past, Jews and Christians EVOLVED.

And rest assured - when the majority of peace-loving Muslims in America and in Europe and in the Middle East actually STAND UP against the sort of obscenity and bigotry that characterizes their most militant and bloodthirsty extremists, and when the MULLAHS en masse condemn the same sort of behavior, then I don't think you'll have to be too concerned about such events as a “Draw Mohammed Day.” It’s an expression of frustration for a disproportionately sensitive people group we treat with kid gloves, for fear of having our cultural icons assassinated and our cities vaporized.

Christians and Jews TEND to police themselves. I recommend that Muslims start doing the same, and do it with some hint of organization, sincerity and zeal.

In other words... catch up and stop whining.