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Interview: Administrator Says 'Draw Muhammad Day' Facebook Group 'Decided To Draw The Line'

Demonstrators in Hyderabad, Pakistan on May 19 hold banners and shout sloagans against the "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" Facebook event.
Demonstrators in Hyderabad, Pakistan on May 19 hold banners and shout sloagans against the "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" Facebook event.
The "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" event on Facebook, organized by a group bearing the same name, attracted 80,000 members for its May 20 online campaign, resulting in more than 4,000 cartoons being uploaded to the site.

Islam prohibits the depiction of any prophet as blasphemous, and some Muslims rose up in protest over the publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in European newspapers in 2006, with some of those protests turning violent.

Supporters of "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" said they were uniting against Islamic extremists who threaten those responsible for controversial speech concerning Islam. They also said they were taking a stand against self-censorship in the West, pointing to the controversial South Park episode that recently featured the Prophet Muhammad but was subjected to severe editing after Comedy Central, the television channel that aired the program, said it had received threats.

Pakistan responded to the May 20 campaign by banning Facebook on May 19.

An administrator of the Facebook group "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" spoke with RFE/RL about the online campaign, in which users were asked to submit cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. Speaking from Germany, 28-year-old Andy Freiheit, a German citizen using a pseudonym for safety reasons, discusses freedom of the press, religious sensitivity, and the global attention given to the Facebook campaign. The interview was conducted by RFE/RL Central Newsroom correspondent Kristin Deasy and RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Maliha Amirzada.

RFE/RL: When did you become in charge of the group? How long ago was that?

Freiheit: I [was put] in charge of the group probably the 10th or 11th of May.

RFE/RL: Has Facebook contacted you?

Freiheit: Oh yeah, but not in a negative way. They've just tried to verify that we are who we said we are. So we had to make a blog -- because the initial information, basically, was [attributed] to Molly Norris [a Seattle cartoonist who drew a poster of a fictional group, Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor, declaring May 20 "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day"], and she [later] left the group [and withdrew from the campaign], so we had to just change that. But anything else than that, no. I know the group's been reported like 100,000 times, but Facebook did not block the entire thing, like Google would have done, or whoever else cares more about money than civil rights.... I think it was because...our earlier moderators' accounts got hacked and they had to verify, because suddenly one of the guys, instead of logging in from Madrid, was logging in from Karachi, Pakistan. And you don't move 5,000 miles in an hour.

RFE/RL: Have you received any direct threats?

Freiheit: No, not me personally. I haven't received any threats to my person. They don't know my name. But we've received general threats to the admins and moderators of the group. But we take measures.... We have fake accounts.... We have proxies on our Internet and stuff.

RFE/RL: I'd just like your reaction to what happened in Pakistan. Were you taken off guard by how quickly things developed?

Freiheit: Well, Pakistan is an interesting case.... I don't think we can expect them to react in the way we would react....

We encourage our members to draw humorous and creative depictions of Muhammad. And since we know that many moderate Muslims will also get offended by the depictions, instead of the hateful ones that will generate more anger, we want to make easy-going depictions instead of the hateful ones many people are making. Well, the overreactions many Muslim extremists showed the world in 2006 [during the caricatures furor] were despicable and cannot by defended by the Koran, Muhammad, or Allah.
Since we know that many moderate Muslims will also get offended by the depictions, instead of the hateful ones that will generate more anger, we want to make easy-going depictions instead of the hateful ones many people are making.

[But] we have decided to draw the line, literally. We don't tell anyone to kill anyone; if they [Muslim extremists] do it, it's their actions, and we can't be blamed. We hope that they won't overreact. And if they want, they can have a peaceful protest -- which they have all the right to do, and express themselves in such a way. Freedom of speech is at stake, and freedom of expression, which we deem as the same thing -- from the Human Rights Act to the United Nations Article 19. And we free men, we've drawn a line.

In the "South Park" episode, we had Jesus watching child porn, and you had Buddha snorting coke, and then you have Muhammad, supposedly inside a bear costume. The comedy channel [U.S.-based Comedy Central] gets death threats for that. And you have to attack the ones giving out these threats.... You have to rally around that which you see, and you can confirm that this is an actual problem.... Now at least we started controversy, and through there's more media to take this case, because a lot of people are just scared because of political correctness and afraid of being called all Islamohobic and whatnot. And yeah, we just can't accept this reaction from them. The Muslim religion doesn't stand above the rest of the world.

RFE/RL: So where do you draw a line between freedom of speech and hate speech when it comes to these cartoons?

Freiheit: That's subjective. That depends on the person watching [monitoring the Facebook group]. We don't have the capacity to watch every single photo [of a cartoon]. And if it's really, really offensive, I hope people report it so they can get removed. But right now, I'm watching a photo of Muhammad being on a surfboard, [and it reads] "My surfboard points to Mecca." That's a funny photo.

We have a standard, but we just can't watch through every photo. We just don't have the time or capacity to do it. So there's a lot of photos that get uploaded that are really, really offensive, and we just have to apologize. If you watch the main site, the comments from the administrators, they haven't written anything directly offensive -- the last week at least. We had some moderators who started with hate speech, but they got kicked out.

RFE/RL: Here's a tough question for you: How would you feel if there were some deaths related to this activity?

Freiheit: We've actually discussed it, and we discussed if that was a risk we were willing to take. And, to be honest...if those guys kill anyone, then that's not something we've done. That's something we just have to put forward and show people. They wanted to kill Lars Vilks, the Swedish professor, just a few days ago! They've killed [Dutch film director Theo] van Gogh. They've tried to kill [Danish cartoonist] Kurt Westergaard. This happens; it has to be shown to get reactions. I actually think they will kill someone.... Someone will...make [someone] a scapegoat or whatever.

That's just the problem. If we say no, we have to stop the group, because we've gotten death threats and people are going to be killed. What message does that send? That sends, "Oh, yeah, we can get our way if we come with death threats, if we just kill someone, then they will stop." It's a dilemma; I can be honest about that. It's not something that's easily decided. But we've come to the conclusion that if someone is killed, then we're not to blame.

RFE/RL: I think the question here is whether inciting it and asking for possibly unnecessary deaths is worth it for a sort of in-your-face freedom-of-speech campaign.

Freiheit: Yeah, but you should know. In the West, the extremists like the Nazi movement, the communists -- they are actually able to express themselves.... Because you have freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech. And even though you don't like it, you have to accept it, because people are so different. And people throughout history forever have been offensive to one another, and you can't just say, oh, this is too offensive, you have to stop.

Radio Mashaal: What, exactly, do you know about Muslim culture?

Freiheit: I lived in Turkey for 2 1/2 years, so I know about the Turkish Muslim culture. While Turkey is quite secular compared to the rest of the Muslim world, I would say I have more than average knowledge about Islamic culture. But I can't say I'm an expert.

Radio Mashaal: What was the motivation behind this campaign?

Freiheit: It was a response against the self-censoring of artists due to Muslim threats. Like artists like the comedy channel, Kurt Westergaard, Lars Vilks, who were either threatened or had to censor themselves because of threats from extremist Muslims.... I can start with Van Gogh. Van Gogh made a movie about female life in the most conservative Islamic cultures, like Saudi Arabia. And he was murdered because a Muslim man felt offended. He was [nearly] beheaded on the street.

Radio Mashaal: What does that have to do with this campaign? I mean, getting death threats from somebody is one thing, right? And on the other hand, it's a very sensitive issue. If you already know about Muslim culture, you say you are familiar with that, what's the connection?

Freiheit: In the West, we had to conform a lot to Muslim needs -- like easy things, from things like making halal meat to accepting traditions and such. But there are some things we just can't accept. And when a country like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia comes talking to us about respect, then that's quite funny. Because they haven't even signed the human treaty act. And in the West we have something called freedom of speech....
There are some things we can accept quite easily. It doesn't matter to me if you want halal meat, and it doesn't matter to us if British Muslims have to make their own banks because they can't take loans.... [But] we don't accept threats.

Islam is more than just a religion, it's a whole way of life. There are some things we can accept quite easily. It doesn't matter to me if you want halal meat, and it doesn't matter to us if British Muslims have to make their own banks because they can't take loans. Such things are acceptable, it doesn't affect the rest of us. But when you want to come with your morals and your values and say your morals and values are something we have to respect, when our history says that we need to have freedom of speech, we need to have freedom of expression, we need these things that we've developed as a society through our history,...we can't accept that people should change their minds through threats. We don't accept threats.

Radio Mashaal: So if you talk about the freedom of speech, what do you think, would you also go for this "Draw the Holocaust" campaign [organized by Iranian newspaper "Hamshahri" in early 2006]? Because I guess, supposedly, there is a reaction to this "Draw Muhammad Day." What do you say to that? Would you join that as well?

Freiheit: Well, I think you're right.

I don't believe you should be banned from speaking about the Holocaust in Germany. I think that's despicable. If you knew about the political environment in Germany, you would accept -- no, yeah, you wouldn't accept. I think it's despicable that we don't allow freedom of speech in every area. I could talk about the Holocaust, I could scream out my window, "It never happened!" and I could get arrested. And that's despicable. But...[regarding] "draw Holocaust day," well, the Jews won't start giving me death threats for this. But that's what the Muslims do. What's the point in drawing the Holocaust?

Radio Mashaal: Why are you connecting Prophet Muhammad -- someone very special to all Muslim people -- with Muslim extremists?

Freiheit: Because they call themselves Muslims. Muhammad is the reason they give us death threats. If it was Chinese communists giving us death threats, we would draw Mao. If it was South African people giving us death threats, we would draw Nelson Mandela. If it was people from Argentina, we would draw [Juan or Eva] Peron. If it was Americans, we would draw [George] Washington, if it was French, we'd draw Napoleon [Bonaparte], if it was German, yeah, we've already drawn [Adolf] Hitler. If Australian, Indian, Mahatma Ghandi, whoever. If you think you can get your way by making death threats -- any group -- then they're going to have to face the fact that you're not, and you're going to get opposition.