While right wing Christians and atheist liberals may disagree on what makes the United States great, many of them agree that Islamic “extremism” threatens this greatness.
Even before the vicious Charlie Hebdo massacre, members of these groups shared a common preoccupation with what they perceive as the Muslim ban on drawing images of the Prophet Muhammad. (As with pretty much everything in every religion, Muslims disagree on whether or not pictorial representations of the Prophet Muhammad even qualify as un-Islamic.) This issue galvanizes members of both groups for different reasons. To certain of those on the left, this taboo seemingly epitomizes the irrationality and unenlightened illiberality of all religion. To those on the Christian right, it seemingly evidences the superiority of Christianity and the importance of fortifying “Christian America” from Islamic invasion. Contrasting liberal tolerance and/or Christian supremacy with the violent irrationality of Islam, these groups cite occasions when Muslims rioted, assaulted, murdered, or sought to punish desecraters with the force of law.
Both groups frequently agree on the nobility of defying the religious sentiments of these Muslims. On May 20, 2010, a group of US-American media figures celebrated “Draw Muhammad Day” during which they, you guessed it, drew Mohammed. Threats against the originator of this holiday by outraged Muslims were held up as ideological vindication.
More recently, Pamela Geller, a leading figure in the 2010 protests against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” hosted a “Draw Muhammad Cartoon Contest in Texas. Explaining her motivation, Geller argued:
“Enough is enough. They’re just cartoons. We’re holding this exhibit and cartoon contest to show how insane the world has become—with people in free world tiptoeing in terror around supremacist thugs who actually commit murder over cartoons. If we can’t stand up for the freedom of speech, we will lose it—and with it, free society.”
As Gellar predicated, gunmen attempted to attack (but fortunately did not actually succeed in doing so) those attending this convention.
But if the violent reactions some Muslims display in response to graphic representations of the Prophet Muhammad demonstrate the superiority and vulnerability of the American way of life, however conceived, what do our violent reactions to the desecrations of our sacred objects reveal about us?
U.S. Christians may not be as different from these so-called Muslim extremists as we might like to think. In this way, in September 2008, the Catholic League called for the University of Minnesota to “punish” one of its professors who publicly desecrated the Eucharist. In 2010, the National Catholic Register praised a Spanish priest who “slapped [a young man who desecrated the Eucharist] across the face and dragged him from the Church and loudly pronounced him a ‘blasphemer.’”
But, at this juncture, the critical reader rightly will interject and state the obvious: there’s a huge difference between slapping or firing and riots or murder. And indeed there is.
But, in my telling, if U.S.-Americans seem substantially more civilized than so-called “Muslim extremists,” it is largely because I have not evaluated our reactions to the desecration of the object we hold most sacred: the U.S. flag. After all, very few U.S. Catholics are willing to kill or die for the Eucharist but millions are willing to kill and die for the flag.
Beginning in 1968 and as late as 2006, Congresswomen and men have attempted to amend the Constitution to make flag burning unconstitutional. Although they were eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, 48 out of 50 states passed laws outlawing the practice. And a 2006 USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 54% of U.S.-Americans supported a flag desecration amendment.
In 2011, a mob at Louisiana State University surrounded a graduate student who had intended to publicly burn the flag as an act of protest and threw water balloons and bottles at him while chanting “Go to hell, hippie, go to hell.” An editorialist at Penn State’s university newspaper sounds very similar to those accused of victim-blaming in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when she argues “The authors of the editorial defending flag burning admit that speech should be limited if it incites violence, yet espouse a behavior that—although constitutionally defended—is a source of much anger and violence when witnessed by otherwise decent Americans.”
In 1990, a woman who burned a flag at an anti-Persian Gulf War protest spent a year in prison after being convicted of a felony count of inciting to violence. In 2007, a police officer broke into an Asheville, North Carolina couple’s home, assaulted them, and arrested them for displaying the American flag upside down.
In March of this year, “UC Irvine canceled…a student council meeting because of a threat of violence tied to the recent ban of the U.S. flag in the group’s lobby.” And just last month, a group of white women and men staged a relatively large scale protest in support of a white woman who was arrested (but not charged) for “taking a flag from a group of [predominately black] students who were demonstrating against racism by walking across an American flag.” Illustrating both the flag’s operation as a sacred object and its expressive alliance with white supremacy, these white people were angered to action not by the unpunished killing of unarmed black women and men by officers of their own government, but by the sight of people walking on top of a flag in protest of this state-sanctioned killing.
If “Muslim extremists” qualify as uncivil and irrational for seeking to harm or sanction those who draw images of the Prophet Muhammad, then so would those who seek to protect the flag or the eucharist through violence or legal penalty.
But this is not to say that people are always wrong to get upset at offenses against their sacred symbols. Those who protest by desecrating sacred symbols intend to strip said symbol of its power and unveil its power as illusory. In burning it, spitting on it, or stepping on it, protestors intend to expose the sacred symbol as just a piece of matter. Rather than giving birth to a people and sustaining their existence, these symbols are shown to be easily destroyed by them. The act of destruction suggests that the sacred symbol possesses only the power than human beings accord it.
In addition to believing the Eucharist or the flag a sacred symbol worthy of protection in and of itself, those people angered by their mistreatment rightly recognize that acts against sacred symbols also in one way or another constitute an act against the people who consider these objects sacred. The person who burns the flag or desecrates the Eucharist intends to critique, protest, or denigrate some characteristic of the people it represents.
Let us recognize that it is nearly impossible to do something purely in defense or exercise of free speech. When one draws a picture of the Prophet Muhammad, she does not simply exercise free speech or express solidarity with those killed by outraged fanatics, one also disrespects a certain interpretation of Islam. And in so doing, she announces Muslims a people not worthy of or not able to command one’s respect.
If we believe those who desecrate the Eucharist or the flag ought to be censured with violence or legal penalty but those who desecrate the Prophet Muhammad by drawing pictures of him ought to be celebrated, then we are drawing pictures of Muhammad not just to protect free speech but also to promote a certain brand of Islamophobia.
And that is our right, but it doesn’t make us innocent.