Saturday, January 10, 2015


I'm filled with doubts about just about everything right now.

I've taken down the last couple of posts, including the comic, although I know the internet is forever.

And I doubt just about everything right now.


  1. Why? What could possibly be wrong with your last post?

  2. You are a good person. Never doubt that.

  3. I am a lurker who has been reading for a while, but this inspired me to comment. I hope all is well or well enough and that the doubts ease soon. I value your blog - and you.

  4. The representing Muhammad pictorially question has been on my mind since I saw your post and the comments (well, several comments--might not have seen later ones) on it. I read your cartoon as an expression of understanding that the violent acts of radicals don’t represent the values of the prophet Muhammad and of Islam. But I had trouble taking in the response that representing Muhammad with a circle and several straight lines was an act of hate speech. (What if I drew a cube and wrote “This is the prophet Muhammad”? What if I went all Magritte and reproduced an image of an Ottoman miniature of Muhammad and wrote underneath “Ceci n’est pas Muhammad”? Would those be hate speech, too?)

    Might as well say this first: In the public sphere, civil discourse does not require that speakers respect the taboos of every belief system. The First Amendment protects my right to desecrate the flag in an act of free speech, for example. And so it should.

    I'm more worried that It is hard for me to construct an emotional analogue that helps me understand how attacked or disrespected individual devout Muslims might feel when viewing a cartoon like yours or the ones I described above. I want to understand better how my free speech (or yours, in the case of your cartoon) might be received as hate speech, even if I didn’t mean it that way.
    And that is what matters to me (and I suspect matters to you too)--am I giving offense without realizing it? Would a reasonable person feel attacked in a way that strikes at who they are, as opposed to what they choose to believe?

    A useless analogue: in Judaism, you're not supposed to represent God pictorially (it's idolatry), although it has happened in Jewish art. It doesn’t happen to be a hot-button issue in the 21st century (although Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev centers on an aspiring figural artist whose Orthodox Jewish family rejects him). I don't know anyone who gets upset at, say, a New Yorker cartoon of God as a guy with a white beard at the Pearly Gates. So this is not helpful to me in understanding why people might feel personally attacked by a depiction of Muhammad.

    I do get that many depictions are, frankly, ugly; they are not only mean and distorted, they are essentially personal attacks on the holiest human in Islam, the last human to whom God personally spoke. If I were Christian, I would probably find a useful analogy in the idea of ugly cartoons about Jesus. I can imagine feeling uncomfortable, even outraged, if you drew a cartoon of the Jewish God clapping His hands in delight at the babies freezing to death on the Gaza Strip, to give a very sad but appropriately provocative example. I would find it provocative, but not at the level of hate speech. And your cartoon wasn’t ugly.

    I get that it might be distasteful--look, I'm doing this thing that you (reader) are specifically forbidden to do. But if we avoided distaste, there would be very little scope for people to use cartooning for political or social commentary. And it’s a powerful, important form. I don’t like seeing a writer/thinker/teacher/commentator pressured into deciding that a pictorial subject is taboo because one interpretive tradition within one belief system says it is.
    I respect your decision to take the post down—it’s your blog and you get to do what you want with it. I appreciated seeing the post and comments, though, and I will keep thinking about this.

    1. The swastika is just a set of lines that used to be a fertility symbol. And yet, it is racist to draw it everywhere. If a Jewish person shot up a neo-nazi gathering because they drew swastikas everywhere, would you then think it was in good taste to start drawing swastikas? Black-face is just paint. The Washington Football team is just a name and feathers. It boggles my mind that there are *humanities PhDs* who don't understand that sometimes symbols have meaning.

      And just because a micro-aggression isn't aimed at you doesn't mean it's harmless. There is zero reason to draw a picture of Mohammed or a swastika EXCEPT in order to hurt a marginalized group. Don't punch down. Punching down is something that racists and sexists do. It's not something that good people do.

    2. I understand what nicoleandmaggie are saying, but I can't hear it because of the trollish tone. For the love of god... "It boggles my mind that there are *humanities PhDs* who don't understand that sometimes symbols have meaning." WTH? Something that humanities PhDs understand better than most is that proper tone accomplishes a lot more than an attack that essentially accuses a good person of being an asshole.

    3. n&m: Your original comment is what prompted my thinking so much about this over the last day or so. Because of that, I have definitely become less likely to accidentally offend or hurt someone by, say, drawing three smiley faces on the board to represent Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. And I understand better how provocative ANY representation of Muhammad is, particularly right now.

      I’m disappointed that you think my attitude is dismissive toward people who might be hurt because the action “isn’t aimed” at me. I am truly trying to understand, in part because I would like to avoid perpetuating microaggressions (or macro- ones, of course). When someone tells me they are hurt by something I perpetuated or didn’t recognize as a problem, I a) believe them and b) try to understand so that I don’t do it again or can help stop the thing next time. For the record, it is perfectly clear to me why the Washington football team’s name and blackface are offensive. Also for the record, I do not have a Ph.D., but as a teacher and writer I am aware that the power of symbols is real.

      “There is zero reason to draw a picture of Mohammed or a swastika EXCEPT in order to hurt a marginalized group.” Well, I don’t agree with that. As you say, the swastika symbol has acquired new layers of meaning (and old representations, like the ones on Navajo pots or some public buildings in the US Southwest, now look rather odd to us). Just because it means one thing scrawled in paint on a synagogue door doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t use it in a political cartoon of Rush Limbaugh or on the cover of a WWII thriller like the ones my father read compulsively while I was growing up…I now think he was working out some of the emotional experience of being one of the fortunate Jews growing up in America during the war, but when I was a kid, seeing all those swastikas on the covers of paperback novels freaked me out a bit. Go ahead and put “swastika in political cartoon” into Google Images and you’ll see that most of them have nothing to do with hurting a marginalized group, although some of them are offensive and a lot of them are criticizing Israel. Or George W. Bush.

      But with Muhammad, the argument is different. Your whole point seems to be that context doesn’t matter, intent doesn’t matter, the history of representation doesn’t matter, the aims of art and political discourse don’t matter. There was a person, a tremendously important historical figure, who actually existed, but out of respect for a belief in the tradition he founded, no one ever anywhere can represent him pictorially EVEN AS A STICK FIGURE.

      [Side note: It seems to me a stick figure is about the farthest you can get from genuine pictorial representation; it’s like saying “Instead of drawing something that would be even marginally identifiable about this person, I’m going to represent him as a few lines that communicate nothing specific about him except that he had a head, a torso, and extremities, and a tear that signifies I think he would weep to know about some of the things done in his name.” (Which reminded me of the Onion’s 2001 piece “God Angrily Clarifies Don’t-Kill Rule.”) The cartoon didn’t even label the figure, leaving open the possibility that the figure was just a person. Maybe Jesus (because of the allusion to “Jesus wept”). Maybe the cartoonist.]

      Anyway you seem to be saying that no matter what, you cannot use this method of human expression—pictorial representation—in any form, because to represent this real person who actually lived and whom we continue to discuss because to do so is to insult a belief that must not be insulted. I always try to be aware of the context in which I am speaking, and I care about not hurting people, both individually and in groups, but I can’t follow you to that place. To me that is anti-intellectual and anti-artistic. Art and writing should not submit to belief, retreat from challenging people’s ideas, or knuckle under to taboo. And I’d say that in any context I can think of.

    4. Meansomething has nailed it. You've articulated what I have been feeling but haven't had the words for. You're awesome, meansomething.

    5. Ah, a tone argument. Really?

      Also, I get a bad vibe from responses like 'don't worry, you're a good person.' What's the implication, 'therefore you can't possibly have said anything offensive, even inadvertently'? Good people question themselves when told they've offended, so I'm more impressed by Bardiac's willingness to do so, than these defenses.

      Finally, grasping at the straw of suggesting that an image titled Mohammad... with only one figure in the image might actually represent Jesus or some other person...I just don't even know what to do with that.

    6. If only we could all be as perfect as the people who criticize us.

    7. Fie, I appreciate your pointing out that the tone sounded inflammatory to you. Tone doesn't invalidate good points, but a respectful tone makes it easier to have a good discussion. And an element of personal attack is never helpful. I think even those who have had the "tone argument" aimed at us and resented it can agree on this.

  5. Terrorists don't need an excuse to kill people.

  6. Meansomething, thank you for articulating my difficulties so much better than I can.

    Redzils, thanks, I'm fine, just thinking, and doubting.

    J. Otto, That's a very good point.

    Sisyphus, The two post sort of go together.

  7. I saw both the cartoon and the following post, but didn't read the comments (but did see some in the comment threads of other blogs), so I may or may not completely understand the conversation that has already taken place, but --

    I really liked the message of the cartoon, but/and also understand the argument against representing Mohammad in any way, because Muslims find it offensive. I don't think there's a simple answer to what is and isn't appropriate in a multicultural/multireligious (and non-religious) society (though I think that taking the cartoon down is probably a wise choice, even though it was meant in a sympathetic way).

    I'd love to have a conversation with a willing Muslim (over whom I have no power, so, not one of my Muslim students) about why, exactly, there are such strong feelings about non-Muslims depicting Mohammed, since I think I'd learn something about how Islamic theology (or at least one branch of/one individual's take on it) works, and how it differs from my own (Reformed/Calvinist Protestant Christian) faith. Oddly, I think I understand pretty well Muslims' basic disagreement with Christianity: if you believe in one God who is emphatically not human, then, yes, it's blasphemous -- and no doubt offensive -- for someone to suggest that a particular historical human being was also God (and also God's son, and that there's yet a third manifestation of a God who is nevertheless one). I'm not going to go around deliberately causing such offense, but if asked/invited to talk about my own faith, I can't avoid making some version of that possibly-offensive statement (any more than I can avoid offending more-conservative Christians by suggesting that the Bible needs to be read as a whole, and in its historical/literary/cultural context, because that understanding is central to my own, faith-based stance on such hot-button social/religious issues as the ordination of women and same-sex marriage). But the Muslim emphasis on God being entirely different from humans (and on Mohammad being a prophet of God, *not* in any way God) strikes me as somewhat at odds with insistence on extremely reverential treatment of the prophet (who is, after all, a human like the rest of us, and like other prophets such as Moses and, in the Muslim tradition, Jesus), or, for that matter, the physical object the Koran (as opposed to the tradition/belief system it represents). Those beliefs, practices, and prohibitions seem somewhat at odds to me, but I'm sure that's because I'm viewing the question through my own tradition (which is, among other things, big on not setting up/worshiping idols, and once went around smashing icons and other religious images -- so maybe there is some parallel there in concern over images, though if I'm remembering my history correctly, Protestants were mostly concerned with what they considered overly-reverent ones, not irreverent ones). I'd genuinely like to understand how all the pieces fit together for a devout Muslim (and I'm sure they do).

    In somewhat the same way, I'm finding it interesting to try to understand Charlie Hebdo's satirical approach (which strikes me, from the cartoons I've seen, as rather juvenile) as a part of a long French tradition of anti-clerical satire, which is, in turn, part of France's approach to free speech and freedom of/from religion (which is markedly different from the U.S. one, despite the countries' shared/intertwined revolutionary histories).

    tl;dr: none of this stuff is simple, and if all of us want to better understand our fellow-participants in a multicultural/global society, we're probably going to need to avoid both giving offense where it can possibly avoided, and taking offense where none was intended (and to recognize that worldviews are incredibly complex systems, hard to understand from the outside, and hard to step outside from the inside).

    1. "if all of us want to better understand our fellow-participants in a multicultural/global society, we're probably going to need to avoid both giving offense where it can possibly avoided, and taking offense where none was intended (and to recognize that worldviews are incredibly complex systems, hard to understand from the outside, and hard to step outside from the inside)"

      Well said.

  8. Issues of tone aside, this has been a very interesting thread, and I appreciate Bardiac's initial self-questioning and the thoughtful comments of those who responded. I do think it's dangerous to argue that art must always avoid offending; political or social literature almost always offends some people in some way, and that crossing of boundaries is what gives this art its power. At the same time, it behooves us all as well-intentioned people to be careful to avoid intentionally causing harm by treading on what is sacred to others. These are complicated questions, and any argument that is simplistic is clearly taking the easy way out.

  9. Some interesting background from this week's interfaith voices (

    "At least 12 people were killed this week when masked gunmen attacked the offices of the French satirical news magazine, Charlie Hebdo. While the motive is still unknown, the paper has published insulting cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in the past. A Muslim cleric and a scholar of Islamic art clear up the misconception that it's forbidden to depict the prophet, and consider how this extreme act of violence might affect France's Muslim community."

    As is often the case, humanistic scholarship ends up arguing that history is a bit more complicated than the current common understanding assumes.