One of the great strengths of the internet is that it allows broad-based actions and thus can undermine hierarchical control of messages. It has become very easy for like-minded people all over the world to quickly connect up and act in concert in support of any particular cause. Furthermore the considerable anonymity afforded by the internet means that people can defy taboos with impunity.
Take for example, the absurdly hysterical response of Muslims whenever someone draws an image of their prophet Mohammed. They go on riots and rampages and even threaten to kill the perpetrators. Just recently Lars Vilks, a Dutch cartoonist who drew an image of Mohammed as a dog, was attacked while lecturing on free speech. Fortunately he was not seriously hurt because police rushed to his rescue but during the assault other students chanted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). If they thought they were bringing honor to their god and religion by this disgusting display, they were greatly mistaken. It is a truly pathetic god who needs thugs to beat up people who are merely exercising their right to speak.
In the past, there was little that anyone could do about this kind of thuggery in the service of religion because access to the media was limited and because the major media do not want to alienate their advertisers, they were likely to self-censor, the way Comedy Central did with its show South Park and the Mohammed controversy.
But things are different with the internet and it looks like Muslims have gone too far with their demand that everyone (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) adhere to the ban on drawing images of Mohammed. There has been a backlash and this taboo has been violated on a grand scale. For example, May 20 was declared to be “Everyone draw Mohammed day”, where people around the world were encouraged to submit their entries. There were many Facebook pages such as this one.
As one can expect when amateurs enter the scene on a mass scale, some of the resulting images are far more insulting to Muslim sensibilities than the ones that triggered the initial protests.
As a result of this response, Pakistan, which is rapidly going down a theocratic road, has banned YouTube and FaceBook because of its ‘growing sacrilegious content’. But this will also fail because the internet is hard to corral and people will find ways to get around any fences that governments try to set up.
The AAF (Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers) student group at the University of Illinois decided to counter this by chalking stick pictures of Mohammed. They have been joined by other student groups at other college campuses. (This act had its own amusing unintended effect with some students, unaware of the controversy or even of who Mohammed was, saw the stick figure chalking campaign as some kind of show of support for a seemingly very popular student with that name.)
Were all these actions gratuitously provocative? Yes of course. Were they rude? Certainly. Were they even juvenile? No doubt. But this is the kind of response that people should expect in the internet age when they try to enforce their peculiar taboos on everyone. The internet allows widespread yet concerted and anonymous action and religious people should realize that they can no longer control the message and decide what everyone should consider sacred. Trying to do so only makes things worse for them, a la the Streisand Effect. They should just learn to act like adults.
No one has the right to force devout Muslims to look at such drawings. If Muslims stumble across one, they should do what we all do when we encounter a visual image we do not like, and look away. But none of us have the right to prevent other people from drawing things and viewing them and the sooner religious people realize and accept this and leave it to their god to defend his honor, the better.
POST SCRIPT: How religions began (language advisory)