Posts Tagged 'muhammad'

Provocation, martyrdom, and Muhammad.

I’d planned to wrap up my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series by New Year’s, but I prolonged it so I could publish this old essay in time for the fourth anniversary of the event it was written to commemorate: January 2015’s Charlie Hebdo massacre.

In 1994 my teenage punk rock band performed a song called “Pee on Jesus” at a battle of the bands at our high school in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

As a co-writer of the song I can attest that it had no coherent satiric agenda. It was pure juvenile provocation. The first verse began,

Pee on Jesus, pee on me
How I love the taste of pee

This was one in an escalating series of futile attempts to achieve some kind of high school martyrdom, all of them thwarted by the indifference of the authorities and my fellow students. True, halfway through our song, the vice-principal jumped from his seat and hustled backstage with the intention of unplugging the speakers. But the song was only a minute and a half long, and ended before he could censor us. Afterward our singer was given a mild lecture. Nothing at all happened to the rest of us. The singer went on to be elected senior class valedictorian.

I think of “Pee on Jesus” whenever someone gets killed or threatened with death over some supposedly insulting depiction of Muhammad or the Muslim religion. A few years back, during the flap over the Danish cartoons, it occurred to me that I ought to put up some Muhammad cartoons of my own, out of solidarity with the persecuted cartoonists. I didn’t, because first off, I couldn’t think of anything witty to say. Also, as you’ll see, I can’t draw. I’m the last person who should be making cartoons for any reason.

Secondly, I was hindered by a residual sense of white guilt. Who am I to be taking a dump on Islam? I don’t really know what it’s all about. My familiarity with Muhammad is limited to a couple brief biographical sketches in western history books. Based on those sketches, and compared with what I know about founders of other world religions, Muhammad has never struck me as an especially admirable guy. I don’t know much about Jesus either, or Buddha, but their reputations aren’t burdened with stories of child brides, assassinations, and mass executions. But some of the stories in the Old Testament are pretty bloodthirsty, too, and I don’t hold those against modern Christians or Jews. Who knows, maybe Jesus would’ve taken a bunch of wives and slaughtered a bunch of people if he hadn’t gotten himself killed so early in his messianic career.

Anyhow, it struck me as kind of gratuitous, drawing a Muhammad cartoon I didn’t really care about, merely to spite some zealots I was unlikely ever to interact with. Prior to the Danish cartoon controversy I don’t recall feeling the slightest interest in drawing Muhammad. In a more peaceful world I might go my whole life without the temptation once arising. If Islamist violence stopped today, as I hope and believe it someday shall, I would return within weeks to my default state of not giving a hoot one way or another about Muhammad, and thinking about Islam maybe once or twice a year, if at all.

So I can understand, in the wake of atrocities like the murder of the editor and much of the staff of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, why western political leaders would prefer if we’d all just please stop saying provocative things about Islam. If you and I could refrain from making inappropriate Muhammad jokes, the logic goes, maybe the more humourless Muslims would lose their enthusiasm for sawing our heads off, and after a few decapitation-free years we’d forget about Muhammad and go back to making inappropriate jokes about rape and the Holocaust like we used to, and the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation would finally be broken.

I don’t know, though. What keeps striking me is how not-terribly-provocative most of our side’s supposed provocations are. Take a look at those Danish cartoons again. Only five or six of the dozen could even be considered critical of Islam, and pretty mildly, at that. Or rewatch that hilariously incompetent YouTube trailer that was blamed for the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Hillary Clinton called that trailer “disgusting and reprehensible”. Is it really? I mean, as the co-writer of “Pee on Jesus” and half a dozen other punk rock songs whose titles I am literally too embarrassed to reproduce here, I know a thing or two about disgusting. I think I could come up with some disgusting things to have Muhammad do in a cartoon. Nasty, blasphemous, deviant, scatological things. I’m imagining some pretty hair-raising cartoons right now. You’ll have to take my word for it.

But it’s not just those disgusting imaginary cartoons that the guardians of sanctity would like me not to draw. It’s stuff like Muhammad petting a kitty cat:

kitty cat

…Or licking an ice cream cone:

ice cream cone

…Or receiving word that he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize:

nobel prize

That’s how easy it is to be edgy nowadays.


After scratching out the above masterpieces I checked out Peter Hitchens’s blog to find out how he would tweak our liberal pieties about the Paris massacre. He didn’t disappoint, reminding readers that the free-speech heroes of Charlie Hebdo were quite willing to enlist the power of the state to muzzle those whose opinions they found offensive:

The French Leftist newspaper Libération reported on September 12, 1996, that three stalwarts of Charlie Hebdo (including Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier) had campaigned in their magazine to collect more than 170,000 signatures for a petition calling for a ban on the French National Front party [the right-wing, anti-immigration party of Jean-Marie Le Pen]. They did this in the name of the ‘Rights of Man’.

In his Radio Derb podcast this weekend John Derbyshire mentioned an incident a few years back where a gang of leftist protesters assaulted some white nationalists who were meeting in a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Maybe I’d have heard of this event if the victims had died, instead of merely being hospitalized, but I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been much in the way of “I am a white nationalist” social media sloganeering afterward. Derbyshire’s point is that our culture has taboos too, and we’re willing to look the other way when our own hotheads act up, including in violent ways, in defense of those taboos.

In light of that, is it hypocritical of me to belatedly clamber onto the Muhammad cartoon bandwagon? While acknowledging it was brave of Charlie Hebdo to provoke Muslims as it did, Hitchens asks:

And what was the purpose of this bravery? What cause, anywhere in the world, was advanced by it?

It’s a question that deserves answering. I don’t claim any allegiance to, or knowledge of, whatever idiosyncratic and contradictory cause the Charlie Hebdo artists thought they were pursuing. Let alone a share of their undoubted bravery. My own cause is merely that a kid in Mogadishu or Damascus or Peshawar or Prince Albert ought to be able to get up onstage at his high school battle of the bands and sing “Pee on Muhammad”, or something equally stupid, and nothing gets burned, and no-one gets killed. I honestly don’t know if drawing Muhammad is helpful to that cause. But our current strategy, repressing and censoring ourselves in deference to Islamic sensibilities, doesn’t appear to be yielding great results either. I think we should try the alternative: free expression and open debate.


April 2018’s Toronto van attack made me reflect on how my teenage surliness might have taken a dark turn in the internet age; also last year I tried to take an empirical approach to Hollywood’s purported stereotyping of Muslims; and in 2017, re-reading Kurt Vonnegut prompted some thoughts on the blurry line between principled free expression and just being an a-hole.

Um, has anyone noticed this Muhammad video is hilarious?

The sadly unsurprising lunacy on display in the Middle East over the last couple days has cast a morbid shadow over the online artifact that supposedly triggered it all, Muhammad Movie Trailer.

That’s too bad, because if the video hadn’t gone viral in the course of triggering demonstrations, riots, and maybe the killing of the American ambassador to Libya, it deserves to go viral for being hilarious.

Muhammad Movie Trailer supposedly shows highlights from a feature film called Innocence of Muslims, which presents a silly and sensationalized account of Muhammad’s rise to power.

Germany’s Foreign Minister calls the trailer “unspeakable”. Hillary Clinton says it’s “disgusting and reprehensible”. Bloggers and journalists are examining it with the same solemn rigour they’d apply to documentary footage smuggled out of a war zone. I guess that’s their job; the trailer is news now, and it’s associated with some very grim events. But all this fake seriousness is counterproductive, because it reinforces the idea widespread in the Muslim world that the movie is something not to be giggled over.

But how can you not giggle? The makeup, the costumes, the special effects, the acting, and especially the script attain such heights of unbelievable badness, I’m half-expecting a sheepish announcement that the whole thing was actually the work of some alternative comedy troupe. In a more sensible world, we’d all be celebrating the emergence of a classic of found comedy – the Birdemic of religious satire.

I like to think Muslims would acknowledge its ridiculousness, too, if they simply allowed themselves to watch the stupid thing. Maybe once everyone over there is done breaking stuff – or rather, once they resume their customary posture of readiness-to-break-stuff-on-a-moment’s-notice – they’ll put aside their piety for a few minutes and we can all join together in mocking some of the most incompetent filmmaking ever seen.

But I’m not holding my breath.


It’s possible the trailer’s incompetence will actually make it more effective as anti-Islamic propaganda. I clicked to it out of curiosity, planning to watch just enough to get the gist, not expecting to actually sit through the entire 14-minute clip. But it was funny enough to hold my attention to the end.

Afterwards, curious to see how much this silliness really owed to the historical tradition, I flipped open my copy of H.G. Wells’ Outline Of History to the chapter on the life of Muhammad, and read the following:

Near Medina was a castle of Jews, against whom Muhammad was already incensed because of their disrespect for his theology. … Muhammad now fell upon them, slew all the men, nine hundred of them, and enslaved the women and children.

Nor was his domestic life … one of exceptional edification. Until the death of [his first wife] Kadija, when he was fifty, he seems to have been the honest husband of one wife, but then, as many men do in their declining years, he developed a disagreeably strong interest in women.

This led to much trouble and confusion, and in spite of many special and very helpful revelations on the part of Allah, these complications still require much explanation and argument from the faithful.

One of his wives was a Jewess, Safiyya, whom he had married on the evening of the battle in which her husband had been captured and executed. He viewed the captured women at the end of the day, and she found favour in his eyes and was taken to his tent.

These are salient facts in these last eleven years of Muhammad’s career. Because he, too, founded a great religion, there are those who write of this evidently lustful and rather shifty leader as though he were a man to put beside Jesus of Nazareth or Gautama, or Mani. But it is surely manifest that he was a being of commoner clay …

This critique, which sticks to the acknowledged facts of the prophet’s life, is a lot more damaging than Muhammad Movie Trailer, with its bedroom antics and goat innuendos. Wells goes on to say that in spite of all the above, Islam is in his view a pretty good religion, one which

created a society more free from widespread cruelty and social oppression than any society had ever been in the world before.

One of the precepts of Islam in its currently ascendant fundamentalist form is that, in order to prevent idolatry, the human form must never be depicted. This taboo is particularly acute in the case of Muhammad, who was not a god or supernatural being, Muslims emphasize, but only a man. The antique term “Mahomedans” they reject because it implies they worship Muhammad.

But the violent obsession with defending Muhammad’s honour, on display yet again these last few days, is more idolatrous than merely setting up a shrine could ever be. It’s possible, in fact it’s essential, to separate Muhammad, the sometimes horny, sometimes vengeful human being, from Islam, the faith that he created. That faith ought to be strong enough for its adherents to shrug off petty insults to their prophet. Sometimes I suspect these dauntless defenders of Islam of being mere Mahomedans after all.


In March 2005 I wrote a lengthier post on Wells’ Outline of History.

H.G. Wells in the Archive.

This is a landing page for archived posts about H.G. Wells.

Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.
July 4, 2005

“So the question re Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is: Does he keep the original, anticlimactic ending? And if so, how does he dramatise it? Or, does he come up with a brand new, more crowd-pleasing ending – and turn the movie into Independence Day II?” …

H.G. Wells’ Outline of History.
March 15, 2005

“I’ve just reached the Prophet Muhammad, whose vaunted moral perfection the author delineates with an endearingly dry sarcasm. Wells was an opinionated guy, who viewed modern man as the inheritor of all the world’s civilisations, and who was therefore untouched by any cultural sensitivity which might restrain him from pointing out the failings of other races and religions.” …

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker