When Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Laurent Sourisseau, announced a few days ago that the he would no longer draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, I wondered how the self-proclaimed champions of “free speech” would react to this statement. In a couple of days time,Daniel Payne came out with a clamorous article, titled “If Charlie Hebdo Won’t Draw Muhammed, Who Will?” As if the sky is falling and the only way to uphold freedom of speech in the world is through drawing cartoons of Muhammad. Payne called this a “win” for terrorist, who murdered eleven of Charlie Hebdo’s staff members for drawing Muhammad’s cartoons, and vowed not to “give in” and “give up” the “right to freedom of speech”.
Before I proceed to a direct response to this article, let me state outright that what the terrorists did at Charlie Hebdo earlier this year has no moral or religious justification whatsoever. Neither the Quran nor the practice of Muhammad sanctions any such act. There is not a single example from the life of Muhammad where he even said harsh words or harmed anyone for mocking him, let along cold-blooded murder. In fact, on many occasions during his lifetime Muhammad was verbally and physically abused but purposefully refrained from responding violently. Those terrorists did not represent Islam or the Prophet Muhammad.
However, drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is not an issue of freedom of speech it’s an issue of basic human decency that any civil society should demand. Just like a racial slur is offensive to African Americans or a homophobic comment is hurtful to gays, depicting Muhammad in a derogatory way is painful for Muslims. To this, Payne and his like-minded colleagues would say don’t play the “feelings” card. We will express ourselves because it’s our “right” and sensitivities do not take any precedence.
Reality, though, is far from it. Everyone has a tender spot and it is noticed only when it’s poked. This was evident in Payne’s recent article titled, “Why Can Ta-Nehisi Coates Get Away With Racial Slurs?” Coates, an American writer and a blogger, was recently profiled in the New York Magazine in which he said, “When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised, I don’t know if it’s my low expectations for white people or what.” Coates’ comment certainly pinched a nerve for Payne. He labeled the comment as an “ugly form of bigotry” and lamented “that many people actually believe it’s acceptable to think about and treat white people differently because of the color of their skin.” For him it is a “crude and loathsome regression,” instead of “racial progress.” It is obvious that Payne’s freedom of speech is only at the expense of other people’s sensitivities, but when it comes to his own, it’s conveniently bigotry!
For argument’s sake, let us assume for a moment that everyone has a right to say and express what they want, no matter how crude and loathsome it is for others. Imagine what kind of society will emerge from this practice. There will be no mutual respect for each other’s belief, lifestyle, culture or ethnicity. Our differences should not give us a free pass to smear and mock others just to show that we can. Payne himself pointed out that “one of the great American success stories since our country’s founding has been the incalculable improvement in race relations in this country over the past 50 years or so.” I agree, and it happened by drawing a line as a society, and agreeing on what is acceptable and what is off limits. Similarly, while exercising our freedom of speech, we need to act responsibly and demonstrate civility. I am not denying Payne’s right to express himself. Neither Islam nor Muhammad is above criticism. What I am saying is employ good moral judgment. His conscience should tell him what’s right and what’s not.
Drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad serves no real purpose and is unnecessarily offensive. It will not change Muhammad’s reality or the conduct of his true followers. He will still be revered as the spiritual leader of over a billion people in the world and the majority will remain peaceful anyways. However, the decent faction of society will always perceive this rigid and provocative stance, under the guise of freedom of speech, as hateful and bigoted.