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Muhammad Cartoons vs. Piss Christ

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law of the prophets. Matthew 7:12

This past week the creators of Comedy Central's edgy cartoon series "South Park," wrestled, as they have in the past, with their network over their depiction of the Prophet Muhammad on their show. Why? Because the 200th episode of the show included a caricature of Muhammad disguised in a bear suit. Muslims do not allow Muhammad to be represented as an image, and they consider it a great insult when someone does it.

When a non-believer shows Muhammad as an image, extremists have been known to resort to revenge murder. When 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, worldwide protests ensued. The result was shooting deaths and the burning of Danish embassies. One of the artists, Kurt Westergaard, has had to fend off at least two murder attempts since the publication of his drawing.

A radical Muslim group last week suggested that "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone may end up like Theo Van Gogh, a newspaper columnist and movie maker gruesomely murdered on a city street in Amsterdam for his criticism of Islam.

While I condemn the violence and threats, as a Christian I’m obligated to follow the teaching outlined in the book of Matthew. I must at least consider the insult Muslims are feeling when Muhammad is drawn. When I ponder this, I wonder how I would react if the sacred icons of my religion were similarly disrespected (it matters not that I don’t understand how a drawing is disrespectful, it matters to them). I can think of two times in my own lifetime where similar insults happened to Christian images.

In 1987 the artist (I use the term loosely) Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix in a bottle of his own urine, and titled it “Piss Christ.” It caused a public uproar, first because of the insulting treatment of the symbol of Christianity and second when it was revealed Serrano received a $15,000 prize, partly from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment of the Arts.

In 1999,  New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made news when he cut funding to the Brooklyn Museum after it displayed a painting by the artist (again, I use the term loosely) Chris Ofili. The painting depicted the Blessed Mother Mary surrounded by pornographic images and covered in elephant dung. A judge later reinstated the funding.

As a Christian I was no less outraged by the disrespect of the symbols I revere than Muslims are when they see any depiction of Muhammad. I find an insult to religion as unnecessary in discourse as they do.

The difference, of course, is that unlike extremists, I’m bound by a religious covenant against violence, a legal covenant against violence and a personal morals covenant against violence. When my religious symbols are disrespected, I suffer the great frustration of not being able to do anything about it. It hurts. Muslim extremists do something about it.

This leads to the question, why should Muslims or I be put in the position of having to do anything about it? The beginning of our inquiry into this problem should not start with what the reactions by the insulted will be. The first inquiry is – what do the folks hurling the insults get out of doing it?

What does it bring to the cartoonist drawing Muhammad or the painter disgracing Mary for them to do those things? I can’t think of a benefit to them or anyone else when those things are done. The hurt and pain to the religious are obvious.

Some will argue the non-sequitur: “They have the freedom of speech to do it.” So what? With freedom comes responsibility. I’m free to say a whole wide mess of things that can insult and hurt people. I don’t. I live in a society with others – and while I’m not going to curb my behavior for subjective claims over arguable insults – when something is widely understood as being hurtful to many, I’m a better person to refrain from doing it. I don’t use racial epithets, and I wouldn’t draw Muhammad or put Christ in a glass of urine. Why not? It would hurt others, and I gain nothing.

One can criticize Islam without drawing a picture of Muhammad. One can criticize Christianity without creating horrid images of Jesus or Mary. The purpose of criticism is persuasion, and not one person has ever been persuaded by being insulted.

I’m certainly not suggesting anything be outlawed. It shouldn’t be. Here’s what I am suggesting:
Fight like hell for the right to draw a picture of Muhammad – then choose not to.

Tommy De Seno is a writer and attorney. Read more at JustifiedRight.com.

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Tommy De Seno contributes to ricochet.com and is the editor of www.JustifiedRight.com. An attorney and proud Catholic, he hails from Asbury Park, N.J.