A few weeks ago I stumbled into an argument on Twitter about Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. The fellow I was tweeting with made the claim that drawing Mohammed was disrespectful, given that Muslims find it offensive, and thus nobody should do ever do it. His position was clear, direct, black-and-white, and seemingly inflexible. I countered that artists should be free to depict whatever their imaginations demand of them… that if you start placing limits on what is and is not acceptable, you eventually have 1984… that if Muslims don’t want to depict Mohammed, they don’t have to… but it all fell on deaf ears. The dude wouldn’t budge.
The dude was wrong, I believe… but let me defer that point for a moment.
I said to him—not knowing him well—that I was certain if he was an artist, he would sympathize with my opinion. To my utter astonishment, he said he was an artist: an actor and a director and a playwright. My immediate response, which I kept to myself, was uncharitable. A moment later, I was simply a bit befuddled: how was it possible that an artist might not agree with me on this matter? How could any genuine artist hold such a conservative opinion? (Kelsey Grammar is tough for me to figure out; Mel Gibson is beyond my comprehension.) It didn’t make sense to me.
And then I realized: he’s not actually a conservative, this fellow. He thinks of himself as a liberal. In his mind, he’s being supremely sensitive to others’ feelings, even people very different from him. He thinks he’s thinking nice thoughts. And I applaud him for that… even though I still believe he’s wrong.
So then I got serious, and I decided I had to write about our conversation.
A loud percentage of the citizens not only of our country, but of the world, hold a singularly dangerous belief: that their dogma must be our dogma, and it must be taken seriously and literally by us or we shall suffer the consequences. This much is true not only of the fundamentalist Muslims who threatened to kill Molly Norris—the founder of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day—for her cartoon, not to mention the ones who’ve threatened to kill any number of other artists for similar acts, but of the many fundamentalist Christians here in the United States, and similarly extremist members of other world religions and ideologies, who have done similar things.
They believe what they believe not because their opinions are rational or reasonable or informed by evidence. They believe what they believe because they’ve been told what they should believe, because their beliefs make them feel good, because they like the way their beliefs sound, because their beliefs are written down in a small number of very old books, because they can’t bear the difficulty and complexity of not believing… maybe all of the above. But not because reason and logic and evidence have played a central role in forming their opinions. Not at all.
These people number, by any reasonable estimate, in the billions. Here in the United States alone, 15o million or so citizens do not believe in evolution. Of that number, a significant percentage would rely on that belief to dictate not only how their own children are taught, but how all children everywhere in America are taught. They would prefer that those of us who disagree with them keep our ideas to ourselves.
Beliefs derived from reasoned examination of evidence make them uncomfortable. Undermine their dogma. Remove the veils from their eyes and make them face the world’s complexity and difficulty head-on.
If a given idea isn’t sanctioned by their clergy or holy books, it simply isn’t welcome. They want the story of the universe and humanity’s place in it to be told in the established way. No permutations allowed.
This makes us, as artists, their enemies, because our job is to tell new stories, or to take the old stories and transform and adapt them to fit the callings and needs of our age. By doing that, we keep the world’s mind fresh and re-invigorated. We give the world a new vocabulary to use in grappling with our evolving understanding of the universe. We are performing a service for our fellow citizens. Extremists see us, however, as assaulting the battlements of their belief systems.
Extremists like the Muslims who would kill an artist for depicting Mohammed.
They think of us as their enemies. We must not, however, think the same of them. We must instead think of them, I believe, as potential audience members.
We must create the stories we need to create to help their minds open, to help them ask questions. And sometimes, that’s going to mean depicting Mohammed in our work, if only to ask questions about him.
Some of our fellow artists have already taken this brave step—think about our hero in this matter, Salman Rushdie—and paid a steep price for doing so. But his work has opened tremendous dialogue and, in the process, softened more than a few extreme minds.
I say it again: we must think of extremists as potential audience members. The surest way to lose an audience is to condescend to it or insult it. It doesn’t make sense, in other words, to depict Mohammed just because it will ruffle a billion people’s feathers. It has to be done with good intentions and compassion. As a Jew, I get enraged when a member of Ku Klux Klan hangs a swastika flag somewhere; when I see the same flag in, say, Inglourious Basterds, I have no problem whatsoever.
In neither case, of course, would I be justified in killing anyone.
Ms. Norris created Everybody Draw Mohammed Day in response to the censorship of an episode of South Park that depicted Mohammed. Her thought was that if everybody drew Mohammed, the futility of murdering countless heretics would deflate terrorists’ ambitions… and, perhaps, invite them to question the wisdom of their intent to do so. As of last week, she’s been forced to go into hiding due to the number and seriousness of the death threats against her… for standing in solidarity with her fellow artists.
We need to defend her, not accuse her. I have a great deal less interest in defending the creators of South Park, who strike me as hopelessly juvenile in virtually everything they do—they seem like the artistic equivalent of the KKK—but I think we need to defend them, too. Ultimately, it comes down to this: we simply have to side with creating new stories over protecting the old ones, because creating new stories is what we do.
And that’s exactly why, if my creativity demanded it, I would write a play that depicts Mohammed. I wouldn’t do it lightly. I wouldn’t do it to spite or belittle or mock people. I’d do it out of compassion for whatever subject I was wrestling with. I’d do it with full awareness of how it might affect my life (and the lives of my family and friends) once it hit the stage, but I would do it nonetheless. I wouldn’t consider myself a true artist if I wasn’t willing to take that sort of stand. I don’t romanticize what Ms. Norris must be living through now, or what Salman Rushdie has been living through now for quite a long time, but I do want to think I’d have the courage of my convictions… and perhaps I would.