The “Good Life”: The right of expression, religion, and thought.

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was a reaction to an angry mob of  Muslim  attacking Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, as well as a reaction to threats of death made against political satirists/creator of the TV show South Park. Lars Vilks is the Danish cartoonist whose cartoon drawings of Muhammad fired up a small number of muslim extremist in 2007. Wikipedia provides a good background to the controversy. According to Wikipedia, Lars Vilks was attacked for attempting to show a banned YouTube video made by an Iranian artist Sooreh Hera entitled “Allah ho gaybar”. The artwork is a montage of religions and homoerotic imagery set to the tune of “I want to take you to a gay bar” by the band Electric Six (YouTube video).


The video below shows the reaction of the protesters.


My initial reaction to seeing the YouTube video was a sense of outrage and anger. But I wanted to understand exactly why I was angry. That is, to go beyond the simple “fucking Muslims! here they go again.” that is most people’s reaction and really does not help anyone, to a more reflective analysis of my own moral position that causes me outrage (well, enough outrage to sit down and “blog-it-out” here). I knew on the face of it that what angered me was that people would react violently towards homosexual imagery and towards Lars Vilks – doubly outraged in an academic institutional setting, which establishes itself as a place of tolerance, debate, dissemination of knowledge, diversity of ideas, and scientific inquiry (things that are a direct affront to religious dictates, which are generally inward looking and discourage questioning and self analysis – I don’t need to give examples of religious persecution of science, women, other religions, etc., as they are so common in history). Upon reflection, to me, the purpose of art is to challenge the viewer and to seek an aesthetic reaction – that reaction may differ from one individual to the next. However, to suggest that attacks were simply motivated by an aesthetic reaction to what was on screen is of course naive. It is clear that the crowd had already gathered there with the intent on disrupting the talk that Lars Vilks was about to give and had no intention in engaging in a well-mannered debate about, well, anything.

In order to understand my outrage, I need to frame what to me constitutes “the good life”: that is, that highest moral authority and rights to which I must afford all human beings in the way I interact with them, and what I expect back from all human beings – something that is clearly at odds with Muslim protesters, for why else do I feel outrage? For this I turn to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDoHR). Faith-wise, this means that I believe that globally applying the UDoHR would yield a better world in which I want to live and in which I want others to live (for an atheist who is influenced by Immanuel Kant, this is a matter of faith). What this also gives us a simple set of criteria by which we can judge our own actions and the action of others upon us in terms of justice, rights, and morality. The assumption being that the UDoHR are, in fact, universally applicable and do not seek to impose a higher (read religious or “god-given”) moral authority, and that the declaration is timeless. It also does away with intermediaries (God, churches, religions) and puts the responsibility of just action and behaviors on individuals: to be clear, you do things because it is the “right” thing to do at the individual level, and not because it suits the norms of a particular time or pleases some community (e.g,. “everyone in my church says abortion is wrong”), commercial entity (e.g., “I signed an NDA”), nature (e.g., “I’m hungry, so I must eat you”), or some constructed moral authority (e.g., “God said being gay is wrong”) – I give the examples because they demonstrate subtle forms of coercion – in each case, the individual is not free because something is influencing what they do. From my understanding of  Kant, turning to innate sense of human rights provides a sound basis on which to makes  particularly if you apply a “maximizing principle”:  simply take a situation, like suppressing someone speech, and maximize it globally. The act can only be moral if it does not violate someone else’s right – that is, justify an action on socio-economic terms, or in the interests of “the good of the people” is immoral (see the deeply flawed Utilitarianism, which seems to dictate much of American foreign policy). It is also fundamentally  different from “do to others what you would like to be done to you” (the Golden Rule), for, as stated nicely by George Bernard Shaw and quoted in the criticism section in the  Wikipedia article, “The golden rule is that there are no golden rules … Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” Lastly, what is nice about the UDoHR is that it provides us some clear text to point at and quote from, as one would quote from a religious text.

What is clear from the video is that the protesters seem to be angry about some lack of respect for their particular moral norms (by Lars Viks specifically, and by Western Society in general). To show these images or videos seems to affect them as, for instance, an atheists being shown the video of Lars Viks being attacked by a group of Muslims (!) – that is, my reaction of moral outrage is because I see them attacking something that is normal, just, and right to me: the discussion and presentation of art and politico-religious satire within an academic context. This is where a point is drawn about what is just (in the sense of justice) and where religion though and institutions begin the threaten the liberties of individuals. In other words, when one group of people start to attack another group of people on the basis of religious morality (rather then human rights), religion breaches its boundaries and threatens, basically, everything (in the sense that “religion poisons everything”, as Christopher Hitchens puts it ).

The angry protester’s reaction then is framed as one that challenges another norm that is held as a pinnacle: that of freedom of expression. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights declares that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The protester’s violent attack and violation of norms within a university setting certainly violate that right. The protester go on to violate  their right, and other’s participants right to peaceful assembly – Article 20 “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” They take the right away of Lars Vilks to speak, and for others to listen, and even from themselves.

This outrages me: someone (Muslim protesters) has violated someone’s rights. Violation of rights are not just- they are immoral and not in line with my view of “the good life”.  If someone’s rights can be violated by this group (Muslim protesters), then one day they might come and violate my rights. And I need my rights to do the right thing by people.

Response: A Picture of Muhammad

Prophet MuhammadArticle 18 states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” But religion cannot be used to violate people’s rights.

Exercising my right to freedom of expression I give you a picture of the Prophet Muhammad. I drew this picture to portrait Muhammad just standing there. I don’t seek to mock the “prophet” by drawing him as an animal or something offensive.