In April, Comedy Central received a (partially) veiled death threat against the creators of South Park from a New York– based group called Revolution Muslim. Their tort? Portraying Mohammed in a bear suit (a scene that Comedy Central, capitulating to the bullies, censored). In response, Molly Norris, a Seattle artist, suggested denominating May 20 “Everybody Draws Mohammed Day.” Nick Gillespie at Reason magazine took up the challenge and mounted an everybody-draws-Mohammed contest. By the time you read this, the winner will have been announced and, who knows, perhaps Revolution Muslim or some sister organization will have issued another round of death threats.

The conjunction of the words “cartoon” and “Mohammed” inevitably brings to mind the phrase “Danish cartoons,” the dozen images of Mohammed published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten five years ago. Everyone remembers what happened then: an excess of Muslim rage that left some 150 people dead and a goodly lot of Danish property trashed worldwide. What is not quite so well known is that the rampage was deliberately fomented by Danish imams who brought the cartoons to the Middle East to stoke the fury of their co-religionists. In fact, they brought not only the Jyllands-Posten cartoons but also three coarse images of Mohammed that they had created themselves. One portrayed Mohammed as a pedophile, one showed him with the face of a pig, the third we will forbear from describing. “It is,” Gillespie notes, “nothing less than amazing that holy men decrying the desecration of their religion would create such foul images, but there you have it. It is as if the pope created ‘Piss Christ’ and then passed it off as the work of critics of Catholicism.”

There is another aspect of the episode that that bears noting. We live in a culture in which bargain-basement outrage is a coveted ticket to artistic notoriety. Whenever you see the words “challenging” or “transgressive,” you know you are in for something repellent, which the “progressive” cultural establishment will reflexively hail as a brave assault on conventional thinking. The irony, of course, is that nothing could be more conventional than the pseudo-radicalism of this coddled faux avant garde. Exhibitions like “Sensation” do not challenge established taste: they are established taste. Hence the devolution by which the repellent became the tedious. “Provocation for its own sake,” as Mark Steyn recently noted in National Review Online, “is one of the dreariest features of contemporary culture.” But “Everybody Draws Mohammed” is not about gratuitous provocation. It is about standing up for freedom, for the liberating values of Western civilization, in the face of blatant efforts to crush that freedom. The real provocateurs are not the contestants in the Everybody Draws Mohammed contest. No, the real provocateurs, as Steyn observes, “are the perpetually aggrieved and ever more aggressive Islamic bullies—emboldened by the silence of ‘moderate Muslims’ and the pre-emptive capitulation of western media.” Hence the value of initiatives like “Everybody Draws Mohammed.” Their aim is not so much to offend as to defend: to defend freedom and Western culture against an aggressive ideology that slyly exploits liberal fecklessness. When the demonstrations against the Danish cartoons first erupted, the English journalist Charles Moore had the right idea: every newspaper in the West ought to have republished the images that had first appeared in Jyllands-Posten. Steyn recommends a similar response now: “The only way to stop this madness destroying our liberties is (as Ayaan Hirsi Ali puts it) to spread the risk. Everybody Draws Mohammed Day does just that. Various websites are offering prizes. I only wish we could track down those sicko Danish imams who drew their prophet as a pig, and send them the trophy.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 10, on page 1
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