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PA: Charlie Hebdo — Be the Bigger Person

÷“Regardless of freedom of speech, can’t we just be respectful
and not draw Muhammad?”÷

For those who aren’t so attached to the concept of freedom of speech, avoiding drawing cartoons of Muhammad seems a small price to pay for a more harmonious world. However, those who hold freedom of speech to be one of the keys to harmony see it not just as a betrayal of their beliefs, but as a bad precedent of voluntary submission to violence.

Ostensibly it looks like a good trade: the modern world removes only one thing from its artistic repertoire, dogmatic Muslims have one less thing to make them feel alienated and, to top it all off, Westerners can pat themselves on the back for trading lambs for lions.

However, the trade becomes less attractive when certain aspects are scaled. For instance, if it was a bigger cost, would we consider giving it up? If a band of murderous Jainists appeared who believed that the competitive nature of sport offended them deeply, would we kowtow to them? Those members of secular society without the constitution for sport (nerds, your humble authors) would probably be willing to trade, however we have the feeling that others in the West (jocks, normal people) would not budge on the important issue of throwing balls around, especially if such a game doesn’t even make a political point. Playing political football with football would be merely vulgar.

We must also ask if it is even possible to not draw Muhammad. For example, if one were to draw something that represents all men or even all humans — categories into which Muhammad falls — then you have drawn something that represents Muhammad implicitly. Immediately we realise that much of our previously innocuous symbolism becomes dangerous. Take the innocent toilet door whose standard, inclusive decal welcomes all men. Such a representation could be offensive, unless it’s edited to exclude the Prophet, placing the placating placard “*Not pictured: Muhammad”.

If this toilet door example is bad, the ultimate embarrassment is still out there. If such caveats existed in the 1970s, our kitsch, embossed message intended for aliens on board the Voyager 2 probe would have been blighted by an asterisk and disclaimer. The gold-plated, permanent message to other intelligences shows our alien brethren an effigy that “represents all men and women united in their humanity”*. *Not pictured: Muhammad. Even worse, the caveat would only prove to confuse the beings whose very existence disproves the divinity upon which the concern is based.

Such mappings of representation lead to interesting logical combinations. If, rather than an inclusive AND (drawing something that represents all men and so includes Muhammad as a consequence), what if we used an exclusive OR? This would mean drawing an image and mentioning that it is either the Prophet Muhammad or someone else very specific (say, Reza Aslan of University of California, Riverside). Then there is a 50/50 chance that Muhammad has been drawn. If this drawing is placed in a sufficiently obscured context, then would the author†? be both dead and alive? This big version of the famous physics gedankenexperiment we call Schrödinger’s Aslan.

Perhaps the West should give in and observe total aniconism. Some sects won’t even draw humans or animals, let alone Muhammad, which is likely to mean human/animal hybrids such as fauns and satyrs would be off the table. This would also take anthropomorphic satire off the table, sating those who fawn to humans acting like animals, although you wouldn’t know because they couldn’t be drawn as such.

Banning images of Muhammad puts his image, along with swastikas, in the same, small category of images the West proscribes. The ban on swastikas is to suppress the belief that encourages violence, though with the Prophet it’s to suppress the violence that belief encourages. Unfortunately, the only other proscribed image in the West is that of a sexualised child. Grouping Muhammad with child pornography may have some Internet filtering advantages, but doesn’t seem to offer much to those seeking respect, or the defenders of freedom of speech and least of all devout Muslims.÷