Monday, October 8, 2012

from both sides

Media event    “Today you are going to do something illegal,” I told my class. “Please write your names on a sheet of paper.”

It was 8:01 a.m., Friday morning. In fifteen minutes, a young Democratic campaign executive would come to speak about political bias in the media. Questions I would ask my class would serve as a warm up.

“First,” I instructed them, “draw or sketch an important religious figure. Your image can be of anyone you think of as an important religious figure, not necessarily one you believe in.”

A minute later, I addressed a question about art. “What is it?” I asked. “Should we be allowed to draw anything we want to draw? Is that a kind of free speech addressed by our First Amendment?”

“Take a look at this.” I said, as I pointed to an article from the Net that I’d projected onto our room’s huge screen. “This is from a trial about the right to pay to hang a sign in a subway station in D.C.” The article had been posted on AtlasShrugs. “The lawyer for the defendant argued that it’s a First Amendment issue. Attorney Muise said this:

…[he] reminded Collyer that there is no law against "hate speech" in America, so that even if she did think the ad was "hate," that should have no bearing on her ruling. Speech is only considered inciteful, he said, if the speech itself is calling for the lawless, violent action. WMATA's argument about the threat this video posed to the safety of the passengers, he pointed out, rested entirely on riots that took place not in the U.S. but in Muslim countries, and not because of this ad, but (supposedly) because of the Muhammad video. The video and the ad, he said, did not have remotely the same content. There was one email that the WMATA received that apparently contained threats related to this ad, he said, but he explained that we cannot allow those who threaten violence to restrict our First Amendment rights, and cannot have the government acquiesce in the restriction of those rights in response to threats. [Free Speech Under Siege In U.S. District Court in the Nation's Capital]

“If creating art and free speech are protected in America, do you consider those freedoms to be essential? Please tell me why or why not in one sentence,” I told them. As they wrote hurriedly, I added, “Now, please draw a picture of the Prophet Mohammad. You have one minute.”

I watched as all of them drew. “Final question. While in this class, have you committed any crime? If you haven’t, please raise your hand.” All but one, a woman in the second row, held their hands high.

“What crime did you commit?” I asked her.

“Shortly after I came into the room, I cursed,” she said.

“Did anyone hear you?” I asked.

“No. It just slipped out.”

“Not guilty!” I said. “Of that. But, according to Islamic law, by drawing a portrait of the face of the Prophet Mohammad, you have committed a blasphemous act punishable by death!” I mentioned the cartoons in a Danish newspaper that resulted in murderous rampages.

“Let me have your papers,” I said, “I won’t show them to anyone. In fact, I will hide them in this book, a huge twelve-pound copy of 30,000 Years of Art, The story of human creativity across time and space. It’s more than a thousand pages long.”

With that, they quickly passed their papers to me. Dramatically, I slipped them into
30,000 Years just as our guest arrived.

I introduced him and, just as I was about to move away from the lectern, I asked my class whether I could tell our speaker about the crime they’d committed.

None wanted me to. I sat down.

After a brief introduction, our speaker flashed a YouTube video on the big screen.  It featured John Stewart performing a strenuous satire about a right leaning newscaster. For fifteen minutes, our young lecturer discussed the political approaches of major media outlets. Ultimately, after he made a remark about media extremism that exaggerated the threat posed by Islam, I joined him on the podium.

He seemed appreciative of that. “Let’s show them the difference between Left and Right on that issue,” I suggested. He agreed and basically repeated what he’d said.

I thanked him, then read from a copy of a booklet that Dave Gaubatz had given me. It had been given to him when he’d visited a mosque in the southern U.S. “Its title,” I said, as I held it high enough for everyone to see, “is Jihad In Islam, written by Syed Abul A’la Maududi and printed in Pakistan. I’ll read from page 24.” And I did.

“The objective of the Islamic ‘Jihad’ is to eliminate the rule of an un Islamic system and establish in its stead an Islamic system of State rule,” I paused. “This morning you broke a law, not ours, but an Islamic law. Some of you may dismiss what you did as having been, at its worst, a religious crime. And you’re right. The problem is this: when the government and the religion are the same, as in a theocracy, your crime becomes a punishable offense. And that’s how it is in Muslim countries where Islam rules.”

They were silent until, after a moment, I asked, “Now may I show your drawings?”

Not one said “No!”
                                           B. Koplen  10/8/12

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