Online 'Draw Mohammed' Campaign Triggers Protests

The Pakistani government has blocked access to Facebook and YouTube over a campaign encouraging users to post images of the Prophet Muhammad online.

A group of free speech advocates declared May 20 "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" to protest censorship of an episode of South Park that featured illustrations of Muhammad. In 2006, the show poked fun of a controversy over Danish cartoons with images of Muhammad. For Muslims, it's blasphemous to show an image of him, but the episode aired without much notice.

Then last month the prophet appeared on South Park, again, this time in a bear suit. In response, a radical Muslim website posted a warning to the show's creators saying they could end up like Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was shot and stabbed to death after making a film that protested domestic violence in Islamic cultures. Comedy Central censored all references to Muhammad in the following South Park episode.

That sparked cartoonist Molly Norris to establish "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" in protest; a Facebook page was created for people to post drawings, and the campaign spilled over into YouTube.

"The reaction of people drawing cartoons and encouraging people to draw cartoons is to make the point that one group cannot impose its ideology or its theology on others simply by saying we don't allow that or it offends us," says Liam Fox, who writes for the website News Junkie and says he supports the protest.

But many of the drawings and comments posted on the Facebook page weren't just depictions of Muhammad; there were some very anti-Muslim comments. That prompted Norris and many other professional illustrators to withdraw their support for the protest.

"It may be a sincere attempt at trying to make a statement about free expression," says Rex Rabin, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. "It just kind of strikes me as unnecessary and childish."

Rabin says he believes in free speech and he thinks cartoons can be a great way to make a statement. But he says he sees no point in cartoons that are simply meant to offend an entire religious group.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has condemned the threat of violence against the creators of South Park. But a spokesman for the organization, Ibrahim Hooper, says the protest has created a worse situation.

"It was being taken up by Muslim bashers and Islamophobes and those who have a deep hatred for the faith of Islam and that's what we're seeing today," he says.

Still, Hooper and CAIR are asking Muslims to respond to the situation by organizing educational events about Islam.

Fox thinks all groups have to have a thick skin in a free society, so he stands behind "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day."

"That's part of the freedom of speech. It's not always neat and clean. It's not always nice and smooth," he says. "Sometimes it's a little ugly and a little bit dirty, but it's free speech."

Facebook briefly took down the "Draw Mohammed" page, but then put it back up. By Thursday afternoon it had more than 100,000 members.

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