Monday May 20 is "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" (read) a day when people draw together to protest against threats to artists who portray Mohammed, and to protest against censorship.
They can't kill us all. And they can't silence us all, either. Or so one would hope.
The good news: The University of Utah will prominently depict Mohammed in the rotunda of the Park Building, the U's administrative showcase.
The bad news: The university will deliberately pretend otherwise.
When it comes to religion, the university, like all too many institutions and all too many people, prefers censorship to truth, obfuscation to reality, and accommodation to principle.
But first, let's back up a bit.
In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published several cartoons lampooning Mohammed (read), knowing that Muslims consider images of Mohammed to be blasphemous. The result? Violent protests that killed hundreds of people, international boycotts, and death threats and attacks against the cartoonists.
Cowed into silence, most U.S. newspapers and outlets have refused to show the original cartoons (read). Likewise, Comedy Central, the distributor for the TV show "South Park," repeatedly censored the show's own cartoons of Mohammed (read), while allowing cartoons of Jesus defecating on the American flag (read). Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City temporarily removed its images of Mohammed from public display (read).
Sadly, the University of Utah too has tried to cover its tracks.
There is no question that that the Park Building portrait represents Mohammed. Mohammed's name originally appeared beneath his image. Multiple newspaper accounts from the time explicitly state it is Mohammed. Ironically, the ever-respectful Deseret News, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also included Mohammed's picture (read).
But the university has now painted over Mohammed's name, deliberately obscuring that history.
"The viewer can interpret the figure as they wish," weasels University spokesman Fred Esplin (read).
If so, that's only because the university covers up the truth.
What's next? Redacting Mohammed's name from Dante's Inferno, where he is portrayed in word and image as "ripped from chin to where we fart" (read)?
Unthinkable? Not so. Censorship in the name of religion is all too common, even in academe, the purported bastion of radical free thought and expression.
In 2005, the university imposed a mandatory Accommodation Policy, which explicitly permits deletion of required course content that conflicts with students' sincerely-held religious beliefs (read). The policy arose when Christina Axson-Flynn, an acting student, refused to say the words of a well-known script as written--and then sued the University under the guise of religious freedom. Frightened by public opinion, the university caved, settled out of court, and instituted the Accommodation Policy.
More recently, Ryan Rotela, a self-described "very religious" Mormon student at Florida Atlantic University, allegedly physically and verbally threatened to hit a professor because of a by-the-book classroom activity on the power of cultural symbols (read). Rotela had found the exercise disrespectful of his religion (read), although neither Rotela nor any other students were required to participate, according to the university. Nonetheless, as with the Mohammed cartoons, the professor reportedly has been subjected to death threats for his purported blasphemy (read). And, bending once again to religious outcry from politicians and others, the university unilaterally banned the textbook exercise from use throughout the institution, for time and eternity (read). To my knowledge, the university has not yet decreed an official book-burning of the offending text.
Let's face it. The Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon are, in my opinion, demonstrably false. Accurate histories and sciences will necessarily conflict with students' religious beliefs, as repeated attacks on the teaching of "evil-ution" show. (read) Students will find -- and have found -- sacrilege in a wide variety of other disciplines too, such as art, film and fiction, including even the Harry Potter novels (read). But that is no reason to doctor the data.
So, too, in the larger world, there is no legitimate reason for newspapers, other media, or any individual to give undeserved deference or respect to religious beliefs. Or any other beliefs.
Beliefs should be shaped by evidence, not the other way round.
Yes, depictions of Mohammed will conflict with many Muslims' religious beliefs. Yes, Muslims may find them offensive. And yes, some Muslims may again resort to violence, just as the mythical but revered Moses slaughtered 3,000 people for the blasphemy of the golden calf (Exodus 32:26-28) (read).
But that should not stop us. Religion must be subject to the same scrutiny as other ideas and traditions. As Salman Rushdie remarked, "the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible" (read).
To some readers, the headshot accompanying this column may look like Mohammed, not me. But who's to say? After all, according to the University of Utah, "the viewer can interpret the figure as they wish."
It's "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," people. Which will you choose: Intimidation? Or freedom?
Gregory A. Clark, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Bioengineering at the University of Utah.