Update: SHIFT has sent North by Northwestern a Letter to the Editor concerning this topic. Read it here.
The Secular Humanists for Inquiry and Free Thought (SHIFT) met by the Rock Sunday night, chalking stick figures resembling Muhammad across campus. SHIFT leadership said that the goal of the event was to promote freedom of expression.
“We wanted to express the idea that there is no policy against talking about the prophet Muhammad,” Weinberg sophomore and SHIFT president Cassandra Byrne said. “It’s become a cultural taboo because of fear. We’re trying to dispel that taboo.”
The chalking came after the creators of South Park were forced to censor their 200th episode in which the Prophet Muhammad was depicted in a bear outfit alongside other major religious figures including a cocaine-snorting Buddha. The website of the Muslim extremist group Revolution Muslim warned the creators they would “probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh” if the show aired. Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 after making a film that criticized Muslim women.
“It underscores the ridiculousness of what has happened with the whole thing,” Weinberg junior and SHIFT member Michael Sklar said.
The chalking occurred at 10 p.m., according to a statement sent over the SHIFT listserv. Initial talks about the protest stirred controversy within the group, leading to an ongoing debate about whether carry out the chalking or not. After discussions at the meeting Sunday afternoon, it seemed the group was prime for their first official protest as a group.
Secular humanist groups across the country have reacted in similar ways. Members of the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers at the University of Illinois started the trend when they drew 150 stick figures of Muhammad in support of free speech. Soon after, Atheists, Humanists Agnostics members at the University of Wisconsin-Madison responded with similar drawings across campus. According to the blog Political Cartel, the AHA faced resistance from the Muslim Student Association, which called the cartoon criticism “illegal” and a “slap in the face.”
Byrne said she hopes Northwestern’s Muslim-cultural Student Association does not misinterpret SHIFT’s motivations behind the drawings.
“It’s not directed to Muslims who are offended,” she said. “It’s to everyone else for thinking this is so offensive.”
For Sklar, the drawings were more about making a statement and not letting free speech “be subordinated.”
“If it’s truly about idolatry instead of criticism, then I am more inclined to sympathize with Muslims if they get pissed off,” he said.
Leadership from McSA said they wished that SHIFT had called for a campus conversation on the issue.
“We are just as strong supporters of free speech as anyone else,” said Noreen Nasir, Co-President of McSA.
“There could have been better ways to approach this,” Nasir said. “Had they approached us directly, we could have had some open dialogue. I mean, communication is the key in these situations.”
McSA’s other co-president, Omar Bin Khalid, shared similar opinions.
“With freedom of expression comes certain responsibilities,” Bin Khalid said. “We are a part of a diverse community and we need to be considerate of the feelings of others.”
“We understand the point they are trying to make, but we want to make it clear that it is very hurtful to Muslims,” Bin Khalid said.
Though the path along the rock emptied late Sunday night, most people walked by the drawings unnoticed. Drawings were placed in front of Kresge, the Rock, the Arch and near Annenberg Hall.
“I feel this was just drawn to get a offended reaction by people,” Communication sophomore Max Moline said. “You don’t need to draw Muhammad to express your freedom of expression. It’s just pointlessly offensive. That said, I’m not personally offended.”
“This is something that would inspire that kind of talk. That’s what I hope it would be,” Weinberg freshman Rachel Geistfeld said. “Hopefully it’s out of ‘Hey, a lot of people would find this offensive. Why would they find this offensive?’ as opposed to ‘This is offensive. Look what I can do and you could do nothing about it.’”