A few days back, small groups of college students at Northwestern, Illinois and Wisconsin -- angry that Comedy Central had been intimidated into censoring a South Park episode depicting the Prophet Muhammad -- chalked their quads with stick figures and labeled these drawings "Prophet Muhammad."
One of the members of the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers (AAF) group leading the event at the University of Illinois wrote a letter explaining his actions: "No one's sacred cow unwrites basic human rights. You can cater to the whims of fundamentalists, or you can cater to fundamental rights, but you can't do both."
Sounds like another battle in the war pitting free speech against fundamentalist Islam. Or is it?
Muslim Students Associations (MSA) on all three campuses said they believed in free speech and were opposed to fringe groups who threaten violence, too.
The President of the University of Illinois MSA, Omar Fareedi, wrote: "It appears to me, this event seems to be a reactionary and rash response to the actions of a fringe organization that does not represent mainstream Islam in any way whatsoever ... Revolution Islam is a radical group and in no way do we lend credence to their practices and ideology."
"I assure you we believe in freedom of expression just as much as you purport to do," wrote the Vice President of the University of Wisconsin's MSA.
One of the arguments that the Muhammad chalkers seem to be making is that attacking sacred cows protects free speech.
This seems to me largely a trick of language. When something gets called a "Sacred Cow," it must be attacked. When the mantle of free speech is raised, it must be defended. And when Muslims are in the picture, all 1.5 billion of us somehow get linked to the Dragon Threatening Civilization rather than being viewed as your neighbors just trying to go about our business.
It's always interesting to see which items get labeled sacred cows and therefore invite attack.
Is a sick grandmother a sacred cow? If you staple pictures of that image on bulletin boards and write, "Isn't cancer hilarious?" are you defending free speech, or are you just being a jerk?
Is the "N" word a sacred cow? If you walk into the middle of Harlem and scream that slur at the top of your lungs, are you a First Amendment hero, or just a bigot?
Is someone's mother a sacred cow? If you saunter up to a random dude in a bar and say, "Your mother's a fat whore," are you exercising free speech, or are you just being an offensive idiot? And if he chases you down, will people say that this proves he is inherently violent, or only add to your credentials as an idiot.
Will the free speech cloak protect you from social outrage if you went to a party dressed in blackface? If you chalked a swastika on the sidewalk leading to the campus Hillel? If you stood on the college quad and chanted "fag" at every male with blow dried hair who walks by? If you applauded as champions of free speech the handful of Palestinian kids horrifically dancing in the streets after 9/11?
The key issue here isn't free speech -- it's actions that intentionally and effectively marginalize a community.
It seems to me that there's another dangerous sleight of hand going on here -- a pretense that by chalking Muhammad you are bravely taking on the Dragon Threatening Civilization when in fact you are just hurting your Muslim classmates. It's a little like sticking your chest out and claiming you beat up the school bully, when all you really did was pick on the little kid on the playground. The former may make you a hero. The latter makes you a jerk. Doing the latter while claiming the former, that just makes you a joke.
Let's not pretend that Islam is somehow beyond offense in 21st-century America. Does anyone remember the 2008 Presidential campaign? When our nation was proud that a black man and two white women were breaking race and gender barriers by running for high office, while the whisper campaign about Barack Obama being a Muslim kept getting louder and louder until Colin Powell finally went on national TV and called it what it was -- not free speech, but unacceptable, un-American bigotry.
It is true that fringe Muslim groups are quick and public with their ugly threats. Mainstream Muslims spend an awful lot of time saying we have nothing to do with those groups. Part of what's disturbing about the Draw Muhammad campaign is its implicit attempt to draw a direct line between mainstream Muslims and violent fringe groups. It's the "We have to stand up against you people" message.
You people? That line ought to make us a little uncomfortable.
It's not so different from saying that the black students on your campus remind you of the armed robber you saw on the five o'clock news because they share a skin color. That's called bigotry when it involves race, and it's called bigotry when it involves religion.
If there are heroes in this situation, it's the Muslim student leaders who are not only keeping their heads but trying to use this situation to advance understanding and cooperation on their campuses. Omar Fareedi, in his letter responding to the actions by the AAF group, didn't threaten violence and didn't demean secularists. He lifted up the higher value of pluralism, cast a light on the overlapping principles shared by secular humanists and Muslims, and suggested that they join together to do something useful for the broader society:
My biggest goal is to seek to understand other people and the perspectives from which they come and I think this is a valuable goal for anyone to pursue ... As I understand it, our groups share many positive beliefs. Principles such as positive ethical conduct and bettering the world are shared by both of our organizations ... I am in full agreement with you about the freedom of expression and free speech, but I implore you to understand that this event is completely unproductive. I would be more than willing to sit down to explain our tradition further in this context or in a much more general one and would hope that you would be willing to engage me. I ask only for mutual respect and understanding between our organizations and I stand directly against the bigotry and intolerance that is purported by people of both religious and secular humanist backgrounds.
Sounds more like a guy who is getting the issue right than a Dragon Threatening Civilization.
Come on folks, this isn't about Free Speech vs. Fundamentalist Islam.
This is about Actions that Build an Inclusive Society vs. Actions that Marginalize a Minority Community.
(Click here to read a related piece by a Secular Humanist blogger, Chris Stedman.)
This piece originally appeared on the Washington Post's "On Faith."