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Art or incitement?

Art or incitement?

We haven’t yet fully recovered from the aftermath of the Danish cartoon controversy and a whole new menace is upon us. Last month, the Comedy Central show ‘South Park’ self-censored an episode meant to feature Prophet Muhammad after receiving threats from a New York-based extremist group. As a result of that censorship, artists – claiming to be defenders of free speech – have responded by organising an event they call “Draw A Muhammad Day” on May 20.

The campaign claims to be an attempt to defend the freedom of speech. But a Facebook group used for campaigning the event has been widely condemned. The blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook have been abuzz with counter-groups and protests. Facebook users are calling for a site-wide boycott to object to the fact that the social networking site has failed to remove the page, despite it being reported for offensive content numerous times.

Pakistani blogger Awab Alvi raises valid points regarding Facebook’s stance on the campaign:

I believe this might be a good case study on how tolerant Facebook administration might actually be. On one hand they are quick to delete the facebook page of a civil activist group [Peoples Resistance] which was organizing street protests in Karachi on the mere whim that we might be promoting hatred and violence, while in reality we were peacefully protesting against a military dictatorship, our democratic right – that group was deleted quickly and the administrators were issued warnings, this group continues to reign supreme raking over 34,400 fans since April 25th.

Alvi also mentions an interesting point that redefines the campaign’s claims of freedom of speech, providing a link to a radio interview by Molly Morris, the force behind the campaign. When asked if she would draw or make fun of the Holocaust, Morris replies, “No, there is nothing funny about it.” Moreover, owing to the frenzy that followed after the campaign was launched, Morris has published a disclaimer on her website declaring her disassociation with the campaign.

Laughably, the campaign website also claims that the point is not to promote certain “personal/political/religious” messages, but to show the world that “we’re not afraid to depict Muhammad.” But, the question remains, who is the target audience for such a campaign? And what is the purpose of a mass campaign that has the potential to target and offend people of a certain religion? The truth is that ‘South Park’ has a wide viewership, which includes Muslims who have remained silent or protested peacefully despite knowing about the about ‘South Park’ caricatures of Prophet Muhammad for years. It was only recently that a New York-based Muslim group lead a campaign titled ‘The Defense of the Prophet Campaign’ to condemn the caricatures.

Part of the campaign included a seven-minute YouTube video titled ‘Help Us Remove This Filth,’ showing pictures of the dead body of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gough, who was murdered in November 2002 in reaction to his film ‘Submission’. It was this campaign, which was seen as a direct threat, that led to ‘South Park’ being self-censored. No doubt, the group crossed the line by issuing such a threat to the creators of ‘South Park.’ For that they should be properly prosecuted in accordance with American law.

Given the aggressive and inappropriate content of the ‘Defense of the Prophet Campaign’, the Facebook campaign can be understood as a direct response to the extreme actions of a particular Muslim group. But doesn’t anyone realise that “Draw a Muhammad Day” is nothing more than a discriminatory campaign aimed at hurting Muslims worldwide? The Facebook campaign makes an extreme group of Muslim bloggers representative of the entire Muslim community and shows no regard for the millions of Muslims who have used their right to protest peacefully against offensive iconography. If the Facebook campaign is truly directed against those who stifle free speech, shouldn’t it target the group directly responsible, rather than the Muslim community at large?

The fact is, the New York-based group has earned quite a dubious reputation, even among American-Muslims. In the words of Ahmed Rehab, executive director, Council of American-Islamic Relations, Chicago:

The “Muslims” in this case are a group of literally 5-10 people who are widely reviled by the mainstream community for their radical and confrontational style including harassing Muslims outside mosques (where they tend to be banned) with outlandishly provocative anti-American rhetoric. Most suspect the group is fraudulent. Its mysterious leader, born Joseph Cohen, is an American Jew who converted to Islam in 2000 after living in Israel and attending an orthodox rabbinical school there. Whether true Muslims or agent provocateurs, the result is the same: they are five community outcasts.

Although it is clear that this small, fringe, extremist community chose to hit out against ‘South Park,’ the news headlines have stated, ‘Muslims attack freedom of speech once again.’ In these tense times, there should be more responsible reporting, and more thoughtful – and proportional – responses to the activities of certain Muslims of an extremist bent, who are often sidelined within their own communities.

That said, this can also be an occasion for self-reflection for the Muslim community at large. The truth is that there are plenty of people out there who will be willing to support the death threats against the creators of ‘South Park’ and join violent protests to register their condemnation. We, too, need to pause and re-think our options. Are death threats, violent outbursts, burning tires, and other acts of aggression really the way forward? Don’t they simply add more fuel to the controversy, draw more publicity to fringe activities, and further malign the image of the global Muslim community? The fact is, the best response to free speech campaigners is an attempt by the Muslim community to use its own right to freedom of expression to register protest and call for an end to offensive campaigns.

Let’s act rationally once and for all, and help change the trend of the freedom-of-speech excuse being used to justify discriminatory campaigns. Most importantly, let’s sort out the issue of representation. The Muslim community at large – and not a fringe, extreme element – should retain the power to decide how to react to such situations. If our stance is that of peaceful condemnation, then we must rid ourselves of those who behave otherwise. The “Draw a Muhammad Day” campaign appears to be nothing more than a desperate attempt to incite and provoke Muslims – let’s not give them the satisfaction.

sanasaleem80x80 Sana Saleem is a Features Editor at BEE magazine and blogs at Global Voices, Pro-Pakistan her personal blog Mystified Justice. She tweets at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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90 Responses to “Art or incitement?”

  1. Nabil Saleh says:

    a balanced and comprehensive article …agree with you views..hope most of us do as well.

  2. Eddy says:

    If the Muslims that are over reacting to this thing are so faithful, do you really think that the caricatures or drawings make so much as a speck of difference on the character and personality of the Prophet (PBUH). The more we create this circus the more we ask for it from those perpetuating this fiasco.

    Banning Facebook, Youtube and even Wikipedia is not the way to go. Severing communication and locking ourselves isn’t the solution to the problem. At the end of the day we would be the ones being laughed on.

  3. Rational Thinker says:

    Why protest and resort to violence ? Dont you think Allah has the power to punish them ? By resorting to such protests you yourself prove that you have no belief in Allah and his powers.

  4. Kamran says:

    The most balanced article that I have read on this issue… Great job Sana Saleem… I’m thankful to you for this…

    Most sane people will vouch for freedom of speech, and advocate it… but freedom of speech doesn’t mean that we can stand in the middle of a road and start calling people names just because we can “say” whatever we want… freedom of speech doesn’t give us the right to abuse… If the West differs with us on this issue, I would love them to respectfully tell us that… tell us that they don’t think it’s offensive… But actually drawing a caricature; or arranging “events” like this amounts to abuse… We’d not tolerate being abused… we’ll protest against it… peacefully… in whatever way we deem appropriate…

  5. BTG says:

    As someone said earlier in the flood of comments on this topic, if one religion tells that COW is sacred and should not be slaughtered for BEEF, can it be applied to ALL the religions of the world?? It is not possible, right?? Then if Islam prohibits its followers not to depict their Prophet in any sort of physical image, let the followers of Islam refrain from doing it.. Why it should be forced on ALL the people of this world, who don’t normally follow Islam?? I don’t understand this point…

    And regarding protesting, I haven’t seen (or) heard (or) read of any protests (Peaceful (or) Violent) conducted by so-called “MODERATE and PEACE loving” Muslims, against the “VIOLENT” followers of Islam. So does this mean that “MODERATE and PEACE loving” Muslims implicitly / passively encourage the “VIOLENT” followers to do what they wish against the followers of other religions? Can someone please be kind enough to answer these 2 questions for me… I would really appreciate it…

  6. Adil says:

    Sad state of Muslims – so many posts about the drawings and how it hurts our sensibilities. Silence on suicide bombings, sectarian violence, women oppression, lack of education, inability to deal with the modern world etc.

    • dilip mehta says:

      Well said ADIL could not agree more wish there were more Muslims like you.

  7. annie says:

    This ban is a ridiculous and an insult to the people of Pakistan. It reeks of fascism!!

  8. Molly says:

    Yes, this has been horrible. I regret doing that radio show on April 25, before my cartoon went viral — my ego took me there and I let myself get side-swiped. I never did commit to making a place where people could send drawings; others have built facebook pages and I can’t do anything about it.

    As to the holocaust stuff — I would make a cartoon about anything if it served a larger purpose.
    My cartoon (of a poster backed by a fictional group) was specifically about Comedy Central’s censorship of South Park due to Revolution Muslim’s threat. I felt strongly that Comedy Central overreacted and sent a message of fear, leading America down a slippery slope toward censorship for artists. My ‘concept’ behind the original cartoon was about more people than just Matt Parker and Trey Stone (of South Park) drawing Mohammed so that the pool of targets would be watered down for Revolution Muslim’s aim. That’s all! I never meant it to leave my home town. None of my cartoons ever have!

    I have been sick over this and if I had wanted it to happen I would be thrilled. I only hope this entire thing will eventually bring Muslims and non-Muslims closer together in understandng. Dang-it! Thanks, Molly Norris

  9. Kashif Reza says:

    Freedom of Speech:

    In Denmark, Europe and Western World, they protect there so called Freedom of Speech but they did not define there boundaries or limitation of Freedom of Speech.

    They Insult Islam, Our Beloved Prophets and Our Believes after doing all this when our Muslim Scholars want to talk on this issue with the European authorities they regret to meet with them.

    Are this Denmark, Europe and Western World Freedom of Speech?? ?? waooo what a Hypocrites they are ???

    Now from Denmark, Europe and Western World point Freedom of Speech is the right of every person and he has a right to say any thing and anywhere even there Constitution Protect this (Freedom of Speech is bigger then someone Believes, Religious, Respect and it’s allow you to insult anyone).

    If we (Muslims) follow the Denmark, Europe and Western World so-called Freedom of Speech, We have right to debate on HOLOCAUST , Assassination of there Innocent Citizens before Revolution in Europe and many things …….,

    But we can’t do cause we did not learn from Islam to insult anyone (Believes, Religious…… …..)

    Noted we did not have any problem with the people of Denmark, Europe and Western World, we have problem with there Government Policies and there Dual Standards.

    So All Muslim must condemns the every insulting move anyone take in the rest of World against Islam or Our Beloved Prophets.

  10. khurram says:

    Apparently the purpose of caricatures in the past and this Drawing competition at present is to ignite anger in Muslim Community, Inciting them to react creating a chain reaction and further publicity of this event.


    Think twice before countering this campaign, don’t you think you will also become the part of this global circus.

    Open up links at your face book pages resembling those of this competition and disseminate saying, sermons and deeds of our holy Prophet (Sallallahoalaihewasallam).

    Utilize this event in spreading the message of our prophet (Sallallahoalaihewasallam) instead of trying to register your protest.

    Show the world the beautiful manners of our holy prophet, the respect Islam gives to all prophets.

    Do not react but try to find ways to affect people……..

  11. Zulfiqar Haider says:

    The conclusion is very appropriate; we must not react, because this is what they want, all of us must condemn it peacefully.

  12. Shahzeb says:

    Very nice article by respected Sana Saleem. I wish whole world should respect our religon and should undestand our feelings and our love for Holy Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH).

  13. Ali says:

    The US government should prosecute these people for hate crime. This is not freedom of speech. It is certainly inciting hate and hate preaching.

  14. Mansoor Khalid says:

    Pakistan has already suffered much at the hands of violence and in my personal opinion; this thing is going to turn very ugly. Agreed that its might be art or anything else but with ‘freedom of expression’ comes great responsibility. Freedom of expression can become an intrusion very easily.

  15. Altaf Sheikh says:

    Congratulations to all Muslims.
    PTA has banned facebook on the order of LHC against drawing blasphemous caricatures of Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H).


  16. shahab says:

    This is the time we should be more assertive then being reactive to the situation. Look around and decide yourself what change you can bring (at all level) to counter such campaigns aim to malign our identity as a muslim.

  17. khoula khan says:

    Yeah.. she is absolutely right in the sense that let not response in the way which they want, let not fulfill their devilish hopes by creating violence.. Lets remain and condemn peacefully but to do is to gain strength economically. Today economic of mostly Muslim countries are captured by west, lets try to play other way round, lets try to bound their economy, and it is possible. The only power require is the power of strong belief on our selves and education. Let be optimistic and think in long run… hopes should be there.

  18. adeelkunwar says:

    Truly said, a desperate attempt to hurt Muslims.

  19. vg says:

    It is nice to see Muslims are sensitive about being accused and to dwell into issue of freedom of speech. But has any Muslim has done any introspection about how mullas and imamas are preaching the Islam and issuing fatwas? If they can say Muslim woman can not work and accepting woman’s earning is haram and Muslims can not have insurance, Muslims can’t celebrate Birthdays? How we non Muslims are supposed to feel about Muslims in general? You guys need to be thinking more about your institutions and try to reform those before you can expect other to be open about Muslim community. One fact is clear that more and more people are becoming suspicious about Muslims in general and Mullas and Imamas in particular. The reform comes in withing and has to come sooner that later.

  20. Cherish says:

    I feel that at least a part of the Pakistani/Pakistani origin society in the United States do not put in an effort to understand the workings of the civil society of the country of their residence. What is stopping them from protesting in a peaceful manner? I have seen a number of groups protesting against different governments and organizations in New York City- the Kurds, the Saudi Shias, the sympathizers of the Indian Maoists etc.

  21. paagle says:

    It is not simply an attempt to incite Muslims. Islam is entirely based on Mohammed. It is the Islamic religion that is the basis upon which non-Muslims in Muslim countries are oppressed. It is the Islamic religion upon which Muslims base often offensive criticisms of their host cultures in non-Muslim countries (not long ago women in Denmark felt compelled to march through Muslim neighborhoods to proclaim that they are NOT whores because they don’t satisfy Muslim standards of modest dress).

    This is not to say Muslims are not wronged. Clearly they sometimes are. But from the outside the religion seems to inculcate a tribal, us-vs-them mentality. Muslims will go bonkers defending Muslim rights or the “honor” or Islam anywhere in the world, but couldn’t give a toss about the conditions of non-Muslims next door. And all this, we are told, is based on the words and deeds of Mohammed. Any criticism of Islam is an offense to Mohammed.

  22. BushraS says:

    Well written. I had not listened to Molly Norris’ interview with Dave Ross. It is interesting that she thinks it’s a cartoonist’s job to poke fun at everything but there’s nothing funny about Holocaust. Also, those who make draw cartoons about Holocaust are, by implication, “neo-Nazis”.

    Every community has its line of tolerance. While exercising the right of free speech is the only way to counter acts which cross these lines, it is also important for one group (with its own off-limits areas) to respect the other’s sentiments.

  23. Nabeel says:

    You’re right again. I don’t like to think of it as a discriminatory anti-Muslim campaign – it is just something started and promoted largely by the Western cousins of the extremists here. What I mean to say is that hatred and intolerance are feelings held by a few hateful and intolerant people, both in Lahore and in New York City. Ignoring them is the best response – they WANT the kind of furious reactions that they are provoking. For most others who joined the groups, it’s about freedom of speech – a principle they will fight tooth and nail for. However they often seemingly fail to realize that freedom of speech ends when you are being offensive – it turns into hate speech, which is illegal.

  24. Shahzeb Ismail says:

    Would banning of facebook as a social networking forum by all the muslims be the answer? I mean if its all muslims it can hit them hard, their freedom of speech our freedom of choice

  25. Atheist says:

    Strange that there are no peaceful protests in any Islamic nation by the “ordinary non-radical Muslims” against the restrictions on other religions or “for” freedom of speech.

    May I ask the moderate Muslim community at large (which according to this article forms the vast majority of Muslims) why such discriminatory laws – like the Blasphemy law – are passed – even by democracies like Pakistan which supposedly act according to the will of the majority?

    Evidence sometimes doesn’t support the assertion that “majority Muslims are moderate”. I might be mistaken if we are dealing with a new definition of “moderate” here.

    I would be glad if my modest comments are published.

  26. Behind this whole propaganda is to give Islam and Muslims a bad name, It is not so innocent as it is depicted, but a deliberate campaign against the teachings of Islam run by the Jews and the Nu con Christians.

  27. Ali Raza says:

    What Facebook and the West doesn’t realize is that “free speech” is a double edged sword. They start this, more and more people from the Muslim world will try to poke fun at the Holocaust.
    With particular regard to Facebook defending the rights of people supporting this day, perhaps they need to look behind the irony of their other actions in reaction to this. A few friends of mine, took a litmus of the other side by praising Hitler and starting a campaign against the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, their accounts were soon deleted from Facebook for good. My question, is that why the double standards?! If group finds talk against the Holocaust as offensive and leads to a certain individual being immediately condemned, why not in this case?
    Surely, free speech is a universal right but its one we all must exercise responsibly. Its not a matter of being a Muslim,Jew or Christian, its about playing fair.

  28. Obaid says:

    well, agreed. thanks !

  29. Minto says:

    Good advice for the hatemongers. Keep writing!

  30. Talha says:

    Agreed, Wonderful article …

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