Last week it was Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. Originally begun as a protest against a South Park episode was censored after a threat (or was it a warning) not to depict the Prophet Muhammad (as a bear) in the series. The protest started with an announcement on the internet by cartoonist Molly Norris calling people to create a drawing representing the prophet Muhammad in order to protest against what was framed as (violent and/or threatening) efforts of Islamists to limit the freedom of speech or even as religious thuggery. The call received support from different sides who saw it as a celebration of the love of free speech and to protest against those who try to dictate the limits of a fundamental right.
As is the case in many of the cartoon-like controversies of recent, the complexity of political and religious issues pertaining to depictions of the sacred key symbols and freedom of speech, was reduced to a polarization of two antagonistic and mutually intolerant activisms: islamist groups vs. free speech. Referring to Islam as a religion that prohibits depictions of the prophet is neglecting the rich traditions in different parts of the world that do depict the prophet. The statement by Revolutionmuslim (the ones behind the threat)was quickly taken up by the mass media effectively supporting the production of such stereotypes and thereby supporting the claims of Revolutionmuslim that they represent Islam. It also serves to support the free speech protagonists’ claim of free speech as an unassailable virtue beyond all criticism and dismissing Muslim sensibilities and critique without any attempt to understand them and without any minor inquiry and reflection. Some even go so far as to use the picture of a Dutch Muslim politician in the Muhammad Cartoon of Muhammad with the bomb turban as to celebrate the love of freedom of speech (and to win votes for the upcoming elections). The claim on free speech in current European and US societies seems to be a reduced to a claim of freely reinforcing stereotypes and ignorance about Islam and an easy, shallow public performance of expressing solidarity with Enlightenment values; showing off that you are really on the good side. Somehow I think the protesters would be happy of this event would provoke violent reactions; it would ‘prove’ not only their case but also their righteousness. The Everybody Draw Mohammad Day as a means to stand up against people wanting to limit free speech is not so innocent as it may seem. By deliberately desecrating a key religious symbol of many Muslims (not only the radical ones) it by definition pushes Muslims (not only the radical ones) outside the circles of restraint and consideration; not worthy of the respect we think we should pay to those inside those circles. By taking the symbol of the prophet Muhammad the cartoonists are in fact saying we do not care about your sensibilities and your feelings and critique have no place in public sphere. It is not only aimed anymore at the radical Muslims of Revolutionmuslim but at all Muslim bystanders.
Besides my impression that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day is a rather childish form of political vandalalism many of the statements concerning free speech also seem to be based upon the assumption is that Islam is the last religion standing; the last religion that is not submitted by satire and humor. In the weeks leading up to the Everybody draw… however, Belgium has moved to ban niqabs and burqas, Italy is fining women wearing niqab, Quebec has set a ban for women wearin a niqab in public places, France has decided it will ban the niqab and burqa. In all cases because wearing one is seen as an offense of the nations’ traditions and public morals. The burqa has become a signifier or an icon so you will of the Islamic threat to society and attempts to civilize Muslims in our moral order. While many women wearing the niqab or burqa (in very small numbers) state they do so because God asks them to, other definitions are imposed on them even if they do not want to. They are seen as out of the realm of ‘our’ culture’, out of state’s attempts to gain more control over public space and out of the sexist gaze of men reducing women in public as objects of sexual desires. Not all these definitions are imposed of course; some of the women claim them too rendering burqas and niqabs probably even more problematic as an ostentatiouss form of cultural and political critique). It doesn’t really matter. As with the cartoons their is no criticial engagement with the question as to why some women wear the burqa or (perhaps more important) why most women don’t.
Banning female face covering is a piece of social engineering meant to bring the public domain back into compatibility with ‘our’ values of freedom and democracy. Both the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day and the burqa bans have in common that they are attempts to express and affirm a moral superiority over Muslims that need to be freed from their patriarchic religion that limits people’s freedom. It is a form of culturalizing citizenship whereby Muslims have to comply with our standards of reason, openness and freedoms. Both may be aimed at so-called radical Muslims but it imposes its intolerance on all Muslims. If the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day were to be directed only against radical Muslims why not, for example, invite people to draw caricatures of radicals instead of a key symbol of all Muslims? If the burqa ban were directed at radical Muslims why not only target those ones instead of claiming that veiled women are oppressed and backward (and women with a burqa the most of course) which has been refuted many times by now? And if these women are really oppressed, why punish them for that? And why is forcing someone to veil worse that forcing someone not to veil?