Dear Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
My name is Omar Fareedi and I am the president of the Muslim Students Association at UIUC. I am writing to you in regards to the event you have planned called, "Chalking it up to Free Speech" on April 29th 2010. As you may or may not know, depicting any semblance of images of the prophet Muhammad is an issue that is highly offensive to most muslims around the world. While you may not believe in or follow the religion of Islam, I ask simply out of respect for the people of this tradition that you do not follow through with your intentions on depicting the final Prophet as a stick figure or otherwise.
Earlier this school year, I partook in a dinner with Eboo Patel and representatives from several faith based and secular humanist organizations from around campus to foster interfaith dialogue that encompassed universal values that existed in each of these traditions. One of the main purposes of the meeting was to recognize and acknowledge differences in belief systems, all the while coming together to express universal values, such as altruism, that existed in each of these traditions. Just this past weekend, there was an event headed in part by Interfaith in Action, that was in many ways a culmination of all the efforts that were initiated on that day. One Million Meals for Haiti was a brilliant success due to the joint efforts of such a diverse background of people.
It is in this context that I call your attention once again to the divisive nature of your event. I believe this to be an unproductive, hurtful and potentially distressful event for many Muslims on campus. There are over 250 people within the Muslim Students Association, most of whom are Muslims. In addition to that, there is a large Muslim community that resides in Urbana-Champaign. My responsibility in my capacity as the president of the MSA is to foster an environment that is conducive to Muslims feeling comfortable on campus. This event falls directly against that goal.
As I understand it, our groups share many positive beliefs. Principles such as positive ethical conduct and bettering the world are shared by both of our organizations. And while I disagree with some of the elements of this tradition, I fully recognize the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers right to exist and would challenge anyone who would seek to purposely offend or otherwise harm the expression of the message that your organization teaches. Please understand that your actions are offensive to my tradition.
From what it appears to me, this event seems to be a reactionary and rash response to the actions of a fringe organization that does not represent mainstream Islam in any way whatsoever. The actions of this organization to threaten the lives of people who depicted an image of the prophet are not in the folds of acceptable behavior for the vast majority of Muslims. Muslim Revolution is a radical group and in no way do we lend credence to their practices and ideology. However, by responding in the way that you do, you aim to offend a much larger population of Muslims that do not support the killing of innocent people, but at the same time do not support visual depictions of the prophet.
My biggest goal is to seek to understand other people and the perspectives from which they come and I think this is a valuable goal for anyone to pursue. In that spirit, I urge you to understand the Muslim perspective and please cancel your event. I am in full agreement with you about the freedom of expression and free speech, but I implore you to understand that this event is completely unproductive. I would be more than willing to sit down to explain our tradition further in this context or in a much more general one and would hope that you would be willing to engage me. I ask only for mutual respect and understanding between our organizations and I stand directly against the bigotry and intolerance that is purported by people of both religious and secular humanist backgrounds.
On a final note, I bring your attention to a satirical article that was recently published on the Huffington Post.
This article further goes to show the ridiculous nature of the radical muslim organization that began this current conundrum. Therefore, it is in this light that I propose to you an event that we can come together to understand one another (why Muslims find visual depictions of the prophet to be particularly offensive), while eating Triscuits as a protest of the ridiculously bigoted and intolerant. Even if this idea doesn't appeal to you, at the very least I ask that you sit down and speak to us instead of holding your event. I invite the executive board of AAF to sit down with me and the board of the MSA, to come to an understanding. Communication can often alleviate misunderstanding, and lack of communication often propagates it.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
President of the Muslim Students Association
Thank you for taking the time to email me and telling me your, and your organization’s, view of our event. We put a lot of discussion in whether or not to put this event together, both because of potential harm to ourselves and because we knew that we would, indeed, offend certain Muslims who believe that visual depictions of Muhammad are blasphemous, who also do not ascribe to the violent practices of these fanatical groups.
We want to emphasize, however, that the offending of Muslims is not at all our purpose nor our goal. I also understand that the fanatical group that made these death threats are by no means representative of Muslims in general.
I, too, attended the dinner with Eboo Patel and agree to everything you discussed concerning the importance of tolerance and diversity. We live in a country where we are allowed to practice whatever religion we want and free to express whatever we want- this freedom, as you know, is exactly what these individuals are suppressing.
I’m not sure if you have read Eboo Patel’s book, but in the beginning he discusses the entire purpose of his organization- he sees that there is this “line” in religions, and people on one side of the line, such as Eboo, support diversity and tolerance, while the other side is violent and threatens individuals, like the group in question. His organization is meant to make sure that religious people fall on the “good” side. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are others who are on the wrong side of the line, and merely discussing the matter and talking about how we all have certain beliefs that are positive isn’t always sufficient to change anything. This is the case when we are dealing with these extremists.
I apologize if our actions offend Muslims who do not support the actions of the revolutionmuslim group. I hope they understand that our actions are not targeted towards them, and that our response is to counter the suppression of free speech that these groups are acting upon us. If it were a Christian extremist group giving death threats concerning depictions of Jesus on the cross, we would do the same thing. If it was an atheist group making death threats concerning a poor portrayal of the nonreligious, we would act accordingly.
Also keep in mind that, while certain Hindus find eating cows blasphemous, they don’t complain whenever they see someone eating at a McDonalds. While some Jews think it’s extremely important to keep kosher, they are not offended when certain individuals do not. People have the right to practice any religion they want, however they so choose. However, they do not have the right to impose these religious beliefs onto others, even if those other people are doing actions that counter their personal beliefs. Drawing stick figures on the quad is by no means inherently offensive, unless someone specifically adheres to that religious belief that drawing a stick figure is OK until there is an arrow with the word “Muhammad” pointing to it.
And while we appreciate your idea of sharing triscuits, we feel that it doesn’t take a direct stand against the current situation that has unfolded, which directly concerns the depictions of the prophet. It is important to emphasize that people have the right to do things that some might consider blasphemous even if certain individuals, or even many individuals, find them offensive, and just sharing crackers doesn’t illustrate that purpose very well.
Despite all this, however, we feel it very important to do this event. If people have a problem with what AAF is doing, they have the right to discuss the matter with AAF, as you have, and we appreciate it. They can complain to the school, which I’m sure people will. They can protest the event, which is always a possibility. But that’s where an individual’s rights stop. Once people threaten the lives of people freely expressing their freedom of speech (and religion), it becomes a problem; a problem we have to take a stand against. We not only find it appropriate, but just, to demonstrate that we won’t stand for it, even if it unfortunately offends certain individuals who don’t hold those beliefs. In our society it seems that we have the freedom to express whatever we want, with the exception of certain aspects of Islam under fear of violence. This is why it’s so important for us to do the event. I hope that your group can understand our actions, and that, while your group is opposed, we can get past our differences and maintain a good relationship in the long run.
With all this being said, we would be happy to do something in the future where we can discuss both why we feel it an appropriate action and why your group doesn’t, and possibly in addition do some sort of event where we protest it together. Oftentimes when a select few groups from a religion do things that reflect poorly for the entire religion, you don’t see the other people in the religion actively standing up against them, so seeing Muslims actively protesting the death threats would be excellent, and would send an even stronger message if done with a nonreligious group.