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And The Winner of The Everybody Draw Mohammad Contest is...

To remind readers of the stakes: In recent months, a Swedish cartoonist that sketched Mohammed as a "roundabout dog" as part of a planned street installation was assaulted during a lecture and, the following week, two extremists attempted to burn his house down. In January, the elderly Danish illustrator Kurt Westergaard, who contributed the most memorable image (of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban) among the dozen cartoons printed in Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, narrowly escaped being murdered by retreating to a panic room in his apartment while an axe-wielding maniac hacked through his door. Just over the past few weeks, Viacom, the owner of Comedy Central, redacted a South Park episode featuring a possible representation of the Prophet after a website "warned" of violence and ordered The Daily Show's Islamic correspondent, Aasif Mandvi, not to comment on Islamic extremism (a self-described moderate Muslim, Mandvi is against it) in the wake of a failed terrorist bombing in Times Square.

These egregious events gave immediate and spontaneous rise to "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," the brainchild - or brain fart, depending on your point of view - of a Seattle cartoonist who almost immediately distanced herself from the concept ("I wanted to counter fear, and then I got afraid," she said). The concept of depicting the Prophet in both protest of violence and support of free speech remains controversial even among professional cartoonists and commentators whose contempt for political correctness, speech codes (whether imposed by states as in Europe or by state universities as in the U.S.) is unimpeachable.

But the most striking thing about Everybody Draw Mohammed Day is, in Internet parlance, its distributed nature. If you do an online search for "Draw Mohammed," you will see that, with few exceptions, it has been a vastly decentralized activity. It has taken off like wildfire among individuals, among bloggers, tweeters, and facebookers, all of whom are perhaps a bit to quick in quoting the line, "I'm Spartacus!," an allusion to a movie in which slaves stand up to tyrants by spreading responsibility for revolt across thousands, thus making it impossible to contain.

Yet that dispersed crew of vocal opponents to violent and institutional reprisals against free expression are also undeniably correct in taking a stand. And that stand is not ultimately against bomb-throwing and knife-wielding criminals (though it is that). The essential backdrop for Everybody Draw Mohammed Day is not the hideous and irredeemable thug's veto of expression, but a much larger, systemic problem that stretches far beyond questions of whether Mohammed can or should be depicted with a bomb in his turban.

Forget the hundreds of millions of Pakistanis whose government cut off access to Facebook and YouTube in order to spare its citizens the terrifying possiblity of seeing something that might offend them. Turn closer to home, to these United States. As those of us who remember the run-up to the invasion of Iraq or who still expose themselves to the obscenity of Sunday morning talk shows could tell you, our media culture has lost its nerve in the face of any threat of real and imagined disapproval from virtually any source of authority. The same outlets that were quick to cozy up to power and act as its handmaiden when it seemed propititious are similarly quick to shroud themselves in a fog of weasel words about sensitivity and prudence when it comes time to take a stand against any sort of threat.

In Europe, governments in Great Britain and The Netherlands - countries that historically articulated the rights of dissent and conscience - now fine and imprison those who offend with words while making excuses for those who attack with metal. Spain fined cartoonists not for depicting Mohammed but for picturing the country's crown prince having intercourse with his wife. Canadian bureaucrats, not Canadian Muslims, hauled the publisher of the Western Standard into court for insensitive speech. It is no small detail that one of the first acts of the imams outraged by Jyllands-Posten's cartoons was not to rebut what they took to be sacrilege but to have Muslim-majority countries petition the Danish government to apply its own hate speech laws. The Danish government responded by pleading that while its hands were tied in terms of directly controlling the press, aggreived parties should seek legal remedies provided under the country's progressive law: "Danish legislation prohibits acts or expressions of blasphemous or discriminatory nature. The offended party may bring such acts or expressions to court, and it is for the courts to decide in individual cases."

Anyone who has even flown over an American university in the past 20 years (or has read random issues of Reason over the same time frame) understands the doublespeak that courses through concepts such as multiculturalism and diversity. Rules governing every aspect of campus interaction and discourse exist not to promote or protect speech but to restrict and regulate it. At the national and state levels, legislators pass increasingly arcane laws governing specifically political speech. Regulators and the interests that control them wrestle for expanded control of the Internet's pipes and for extending content regulation to every transmitting device more powerful than a garage-door opener. Obscenity - impossible to define and hence impossible to defend - remains a cause for imprisoning peaceful men for life. Even as we live in an age of expression that was unimaginable only a few decades ago, we see on every level increasing attempts by governments, corporations, legal and educational institutions, and much more to shut down the relatively free, unfettered rights of expression that we are right to wear like a merit badge. It was only a few decades ago that terrifying works such as Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lolita, Naked Lunch, and Howl could not be freely published in America. For all our mythologizing about the First Amendment, which guarantees rights not only to speech but religious freedom and assembly, it is not simply a rare bird but an always endangered one too.

Which is to say that Draw Mohammed day is a sign of pushback, not by the groups you would expect to be at the forefront - the organized press and the elected guardians of the Constitution - but by a sea of individuals who will not stand by silently while forces of both hostility and accomodation collude in narrowing the space for acceptable speech. We are proud to be participants in a project that defends the core of our very slogan: Free Minds and Free Markets. Can free societies engage in speech that some may find greivously insulting, and in doing so can they advance both the debate and the ongoing liberal project? It's not just that they can, but that they must.

Out of the more than 190 submissions we received, we selected the following images as first and second runners up and as a grand prize winner. We hope the artists have thick skin, literally and figuratively. We have chosen not to identify them publicly since specific authorship is very much besides the point. If you need to know who's behind these images, assume Spartacus is the copyright holder.

In coming to a consensus, we discussed standard concerns such as originality of vision, playfulness, a sense of proportion (both in terms of craftmanship and message), and relevance to the goals of the contest.

The single most important element–and the thing that ties these selections together–is that each image forces the viewer to do two things.

First, they consciously call into question the nature of representation, no small matter in fights over whether it is allowed under Islamic law to depict Mohammed (for the historical record, there is no question that the idea that is always wrong is only of recent vintage; there is a long history of sacred and superficial images of the Prophet). The homage to Rene Magritte below states "This is not a pipe. This is Muhammed," playing with the surrealist's famous statement about the necessary disjuncture between a picture and the thing it seeks to represent. Just as the drawing is not a pipe (it's a drawing of a pipe), it cannot be Mohammed even as it insists it is. Even more, it is plainly not even a drawing of Mohammed or of any human figure.

Similarly, the invocation of the popular Where's Waldo? series forces the viewer to ask Where's Mohammed?, and to begin a hunt for a figure in the midst of an overstuffed scene. One assumes the black-robed character in the upper right-hand quadrant of the image is our quarry, but then what does it mean to confer on a small dot any significance whatsoever?

Second, each of the images forces the viewer to actively participate not simply in the creation of meaning but of actually constructing the image itself. This is clearest in our grand prize winner, the image below, which pushes iman and infidel alike to do the work that would condemn them to death under the most extreme reading of injunctions against representing Mohammed.

There is a deeper lesson here: Connect the dots and discover that we all must be Spartacus on Everybody Draw Mohammad Day. And that in a free society, every day is Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of and Matt Welch is the editor in chief of Reason magazine.

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