Across the political spectrum, Saturday Night Live is being praised for its skit about the haram nature of drawing Islam's prophet, Muhammad. Unfortunately, rather than serving as a brilliant satirization of this taboo, the skit simply reaffirmed what is grimly clear by now: those who depict Muhammad make themselves a target for violence.
We were reminded of this once again last weekend when two jihadists attempted to shoot up an event in Texas hosted by Pamela Geller, who was giving an award for the best drawing of Muhammad. And of course, we hardly need to review the havoc wrought at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January.
The skit featured a Pictionary-style game show in which contestants had to draw objects so their partners could identify them. A contestant (played by Bobby Moynihan) was given "The Prophet Muhammad," and quite understandably he recoiled at having to draw that so that his partner (played by host Reese Witherspoon) could try to guess correctly. After this demurral, Kenan Thompson, who was playing Reginald VelJohnson ('Carl' from Family Matters) went to draw the item, only to find out that it was Muhammad. He too, refused.
While this segment has been a big hit with many on the Left and the Right, the truth is that the broader context makes it no laughing matter. From the perspective of the writers who wrote the sketch, it can certainly be viewed as an admirable critique of their own network and the mainstream media, which have capitulated to religious fanaticism by not showing images of Muhammad. However, whatever meta-commentary might have been at play, it's overshadowed by the immediate takeaway -- that drawing Muhammad is considered an act of poor taste that can mean death for those who do it, even by non-Muslims in countries where the vast majority of people aren't followers of Islam.
As we were reminded after the Texas shooting, many supposedly free speech-loving Americans have been more than a little confused on this issue. Take The Daily Beast's perpetually clueless Dean Obeidallah, for example. Last week he ludicrously claimed that Geller giving a prize to someone who draws "despicable cartoons of Muhammad.... is akin to offering a prize for people to draw the most anti-Semitic or racist images imaginable.”
Yet less than a week later, after the SNL skit aired, Obeidallah declared, "I truly hope for day when SNL can actually draw an image of the Prophet Mohammed with the only concern being the typical objections via phone calls to NBC, emails, etc. And to be honest, I think we are just about there, at least from point of view of mainstream Muslims."
So which is it? Is drawing Muhammad a racist act, or could it be a watershed moment in network television history that's to be welcomed? And should it really make a difference whether Muhammad is drawn in a banal or in a "despicable" fashion? If so, who is to decide, and on what grounds? Indeed, I invite the reader to judge whether the "despicable" cartoon that actually won Geller's contest is in any way "racist" or bigoted:
This drawing took far greater courage than the skit we witnessed on SNL, which simply skewered the fact that they couldn't draw Muhammad by not drawing Muhammad. A truly ground-breaking sketch would've challenged this taboo by actually doing the very thing they're not supposed to do. Imagine if SNL had shown Muhammad giving food to the poor. Doing so would be considered by many Muslims to be an act of idolatry and disrespect, even though he'd be engaged in what is universally considered a benevolent act. Such a flattering depiction of Muhammad would've highlighted the absurdity of the situation far better than an image of Muhammad engaging in something unsavory.
Great comedy is often irreverent and fearless. This SNL skit was the opposite of that, and it stands as a sad reminder that merely drawing a cartoon can make one the target of scorn, ridicule, and violence.