ReligionSkepticism

Zombie Muhammad vs. Zealot

Last Halloween, an atheist named Ernest Perce dressed up as Zombie Muhammad and joined a parade in Pennsylvania that also included a Zombie Pope and Zombie Jesus. A Muslim man, Talaag Elbayomy, decided that this was so offensive to him that he had to take action; he claimed that he thought there were laws against offending him. According to the officer who responded to the incident, Elbayomy admitted to initiating physical contact with Perce  and thus should be found guilty of the assault. Furthermore, the incident was caught on camera.

So Elbayomy was convicted, right?

He was not. Instead, Judge Mark Martin chastised the atheist in question for his misinterpretation and lack of understanding concerning Islam. He then found Elbayomy innocent of all charges, claiming that there was not enough in the way of evidence.

There are several separate issues in this case that have been conflated in many of the write-ups about it, and, indeed, by the judge himself. In order of relative importance, I would say that the first is Perce’s understanding of Islam, the second is Elbayomy’s understanding of the law, the third is the perspective of Judge Martin, and last, but not least, is whether or not Elbayomy is guilty of a crime.

For all of my knowledge of Islam, I had no idea what Perce was talking about when he claimed that the Quran says that Muhammad rose from the dead. He might be referring to the story of Muhammad’s “miraculous night journey.” Of course, whether or not Zombie Muhammad is an actual thing in the Quran does not matter at all. Just as I am not legally permitted to smash someone’s computer when they parade the tired stereotype that atheists are all amoral douchebags (pro-tip: it simply isn’t true), Elbayomy is not legally allowed to tear at someone’s costume while they are wearing it because they dressed up as something that is inaccurate to Islam.

In the audio recording of the case, Elbayomy says that he thought it was against the law to dress up as Zombie Muhammad. Even if that sincerely were the case (which I would find bizarre given that many immigrants come to the U.S. because of things like freedom of speech), the man had no right to take the law into his own hands. Self-defense is only a legitimate defense if your bodily integrity is in question, not when you and your family are upset by something.

In terms of the judge in this case, Perce’s title for his Youtube post of the audio for the case, as well as others’ articles, say that Mark Martin is highly sympathetic to Muslim causes. He admits as much in the audio, discussing a bevy of issues before issuing his decision, including his personal opinions of Perce, his views on how he feels the First Amendment should be used, the treatment of blasphemy in Muslim countries, and Perce’s lack of understanding of Islam and Muslims. He then claims to put all that aside before stating that there is not enough evidence to prove Elbayomy guilty.

While the outcome of the case cannot be evaluated solely based on the judge’s views, the fact that he aired them is disturbing. As for the views themselves, they are irrelevant to the case and by stating them, the judge reveals his deep biases, no matter what he claims about putting them aside before issuing his decision. The idea that American law should be at all influenced by anti-free speech values is abhorrent.

Furthermore, he, as an ally to the American Muslim community, has done it a great disservice. Already, people are claiming that this is an example of the implementation of sharia in the United States and necessitates anti-sharia legislation. It is now going to be far harder to argue that sharia is not the threat in the U.S., I have done so in the past, as Judge Martin’s comments are the first real example to which those who fear sharia can point and say, with some basis, that Islamic viewpoints are being favored over Constitutional ones.

In the case of the final issue, i.e. the only truly relevant one for this case, you can decide for yourself, based on the video as well as the testimony of the officer who responded to the incident. According to Perce, physical contact took place; according to the officer, Elbayomy admitted to it. While I am inclined to say that I would take the testimony of two people, one of whom was not directly a part of the incident, over the testimony of a single person accused of assault, I, unlike Judge Martin, will freely admit that my biases influence my decisions: I have been the target of overzealous, offended Muslims enough times to where I would consider them capable of a lot of things when upset, assault being one of them.

Main image via.

Update (2/26/12): According to this source, the judge is not a Muslim. Thanks to Critical Dragon1177 for the heads-up.

Update (3/2/12): More sources have emerged that say that the judge was presenting a hypothetical and is, indeed, not a Muslim. I have edited accordingly.

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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31 Comments

  1. Given the fact that far too many people already believe that they have some sort of Conststutional protestion from being offended I am truly not surprised by Mr. Elbayomy misunderstanding but it in no way excuses his actions.

    The judge however should know what laws actually exsist and his ruling here proves nothing beyond him being a terrible judge, it’s too bad some will take it as proof of more than that.

  2. Once i would have said yes, Elbayomy should go to jail, straight up. I am less sure now.

    Here’s a situation: a white guy walks through Harlem dressed in blackface. How long before someone gets angry? What would you say to someone who went up to that guy and smacked him?

    Now, I don’t think it’s right to assault someone, but in that situation I can’t say that a part of me wouldn’t be thinking “that guy deserved it, he did something insulting and dehumanizing.” I understand that policy-wise that’s not great but I am not going to pretend I don’t feel that way. (Just like if you asked me whether I believe in the death penalty I would say no, but if you asked me what I would do to the guy who killed a family member I would say I’d shoot the bastard. What we feel and what makes good policy aren’t the same thing).

    Elbayomy is an ignorant fool, but he reacted in a way that to me isn’t out of line with what I might expect. And I was never clear on Perce’s idea and motivation here.

    Again I am not saying that Elbayomy has the right to assault people. But context sort of matters here.

    I honestly think that the judge should have kept his opinions to himself, but keeping everybody involved out of the system seems like a good idea. Would it really help anyone if Elbayomy was in jail? I don’t get the impression he is a wealthy or powerful guy.

    Elbayomy did something stupid — as far as I can tell from the video he didn’t inure anyone. And it looks like the cops stopped the situation before it got really violent. And my sense is that the judge wanted to defuse things and get everybody out of each other’s hair as soon as possible. Certainly the whole situation points to how we have to tell people ways to deal with speech that is “offensive.”

    And being Jewish — I just get really wary when someone says “I am satirizing X religion not the people that hold it.” That always strikes me as a too-easy out of situations that just don’t work like that. In a US context, can you really separate Islam from the people that tend to be Muslims? It’s been racialized a lot in the last 10 years. Much as I would rather it wasn’t we may have collectively lost that battle.

    (And I am not saying Elbayomy would necessarily be conscious of this kind of racialization process, BTW, or free speech laws, or any of that. Most of the time we aren’t and his reaction was simply not rational).

    So I am not so “hang ’em high” on this as I might once have been. I certainly don’t see this as a blanket attack on free speech — I think it’s illustrative of some things that are a lot more complicated than that.

    1. I agree with your comment.
      You can’t really ignore the racialized and dehumanizing depictions of Muslims in the media; it’s clear that people see it as being an “us vs them” issue. I’m sure it wasn’t the intent of Perce to convey that message (he was probably just making a joke about religious figures etc), I’m not at all surprised at the fallout.

    2. Would you say the same if a Catholic had attacked Zombie Pope? It’s not like they specifically went to an area populated with Muslims to mock them directly, it was a city’s Halloween parade.

        1. Atheists are also villified in our country – arguably as much as, if not more so, than Muslims. Does this mean that if I see a Christian wearing a shirt proclaiming that all atheists are amoral baby-eaters who are going straight to Hell, I should be allowed to express my offense at that sentiment by assaulting him with impunity? IMHO the answer to that is an emphatic no: there is no right not to be offended in this country (i.e. ths USA), and physical assault to counter views that one disagrees with, however strongly, is out of bounds, period. Otherwise we open the door to people who don’t like atheists (practically everyone) assaulting US because they take offense at our views.

    3. “Here’s a situation: a white guy walks through Harlem dressed in blackface. […] What would you say to someone who went up to that guy and smacked him?”

      That sounds dangerously close to the “he was asking for it” defense. Change the words “guy” to “girl” and “blackface” to “skimpy dress” in your situation, then ask yourself the same questions.

      Assaulting someone is against the law, and it’s wrong. Nobody “deserves” to be assaulted. The actions of the victim are irrelevant.

      The rationale the judge displayed is the same as that used by people who justify rape because the victim was “asking for it” – and it’s absolutely wrong.

      1. Agreed.

        It’s not Elbayomy’s right to assault the “Zombie Mohammad” under these circumstances.

        I don’t necessarily buy his claim that he thought it was illegal for someone to mock Muhammad, but even if he did, it’s not his place to physically confront the offender. If he thinks a law is being broken he should report it to the police. That his only legal recourse.

      2. The actions of the victim, tho, are relevant. A guy in blackface or in a KKK robe is acting in a way that is pretty threatening. It is designed to intimidate, you know? How are people supposed to defend themselves against that?

        Again, I didn’t say it was right that he was assaulted or that he deserves it. I only said that pretending your free speech happens in a vacuum is just as dangerous as allowing zealots to much control over other people. The position of Muslims and Christians in the society — and women and men, for that matter — is vastly different and you can’t just ignore that fact.

        I don’t know Perce’s personal feelings. Bu I do know that at some level he ignored that. Well, someone got ticked off at him.

        The reputation that Heina was speaking of — atheists as amoral douchebags — comes in part from a lot of the more libertarian-minded of that set ignoring stuff like that. And we have run into it a dozen times around here. See the fallout from the girl who posted the Demon Haunted World on Reddit. Was all that free speech? If you’re going to take the position that issues of power and such matter, then you have to face these kinds of questions.

        1. No, free speech does not happen in a vacuum – offensive speech in a free, civil society is countered by – more speech, not assault, bombs, guns, etc. That is the difference.

          I’ve read people who say a lot of horrible things about atheists – I’ve read some of the things they’ve said about Jessica Ahlquist (spelling? – sorry), Christopher Hitchens, etc. I don’t recall any atheist physically assaulting their critics.

        2. You seem be engaging in a form of question begging; you assume that the act of wearing blackface or a KKK uniform is universally threatening (it’s not, it could be merely insulting), and therefore if someone is being threatened, then hey, they gotta defend themselves, right? [Why? Because they were being threatened, of course.]

          You’re right, though; the victim’s actions are very relevant. When you can show reasonable proof that the person wearing the blackface or KKK uniform was engaging in more explicit activities with in the intent to incite another person to violence then it’s less clear that the “victim” is the victim. The critical thing is having that proof that it was the intent to incite violence. Otherwise the law is normally pretty cut and dry that simple threats or insults are not sufficient permission to engage in vigilantism against your antagonist.

          I personally don’t believe that Perce was ignorant to the offensiveness of dressing up as a parody of Muhammad. So in that sense he’s kinda being a jerk; it’s very crucial to remember that it’s not against the law to be a jerk. It’s also reasonable that a United States citizen who is physically within the United States should have the right to blaspheme against any religion without the threat of violence. Just because the country you came from had certain laws doesn’t mean you should be able to wave those around when you break the laws of the country you emigrated to.

  3. Heina

    If Elbayomy really wanted to fight bigotry and intolerance towards his religion, he did something really stupid, not that it would have been a good idea for him to do anyway. Its not like there isn’t already a negative stereotype of Muslims as violently intolerant of any criticism at all.

  4. Satire and offensive humor are fine with me and anyone who’s offended is entitled to their feelings, and not much more than that. So fuck the pope, Mohamed, Buddah, but not the fourteen year old they rode in on.

  5. Good post, though I do have one issue:

    “There are several separate issues in this case that have been conflated in many of the write-ups about it, and, indeed, by the judge himself. In order of relevancy to the case, I would say that the first is Perce’s understanding of Islam, the second is Elbayomy’s understanding of the law, the third is the perspective of Judge Martin, and last, but not least, is whether or not Elbayomy is guilty of a crime.”

    No, the only thing relevant to the case is whether Perce was assaulted by Elbayomy. He clearly was, and should have been found guilty. Perce’s understanding of Islam is irrelevant, as freedom of speech applies even to those who are stupid or don’t know what they are talking about (which fits him to ta tee), Elbayomy’s supposed ignorance of the law is no excuse (I highly doubt he didn’t know he couldn’t attack someone based on an offence), Judge Martin’s personal religious views are irrelevant because our courts are supposed to be secular (ask anyone who has had to take down a copy of the ten commandments from their courtroom).

    Citicaldragon1177 mentioned the negative stereotype of Muslims as violently intolerant of any criticism at all. This while 20 people have died so far as riots continue over the burning of a few books. I wonder when it stops becoming a negative stereotype and starts becoming a reality of the world we have to face.

    1. Spaceghost,

      Most Muslims do not support such actions. Do more research if you think that most of them do. The people involved in cartoon riots and Qur’an burning riots do not represent all, or even most Muslims. I do not deny that the courts are supposed to be secular, and I hope they stay that way, but based on what the Judge said, I’m not sure he made his decision based on his religious views or not, or if he was just saying he was offended by Perce’s actions. Its not clear, but its easy to see how some people might interpret them as saying that he doesn’t think that Perce should have been allowed to do what he did based on his religion. I’m not denying what Judge Martin said was a mistake, but I’m not sure what he meant by it.

      1. I never said *most* Muslims do. It is obvious that they don’t, otherwise the entire world would be in flames. *Most* Muslims don’t have to commit atrocities for there to be a problem – the fact that a small fraction does do on such a consistent, predictable basis is enough to move the concept from “negative stereotype” to “problem we need to be on the watch-out for”. The problem is magnified when the leaders of Muslim countries, those who own all the wealth and power, actively support violent offshoots of Islam. It’s a problem I am unsure how to deal with, but when I see film of schoolchildren burning American flags and chanting death to America, and see kids on TV talking about wiping the Jews from the face of the Earth, I do acknowledge that a problem exists.
        I see things like this – within the atheist community, I hear no end to Christian bashing based on a few isolated incidents of abortion doctors being killed a long time ago. Those same people refuse to take up the issues we face from Islam when riots and fires and murders over inconsequential things happen on a regular basis. It’s an ugly and hypocritical double standard, and I cant help but feel that it exists because Christians are easy targets – you don’t generally have to worry about them burning down your house or lobbing off your head if you speak out. But this is not because those actions can’t be justified by the Christian faith – the bible is full of examples to the contrary – but because Christianity has been neutered by Western sensibilities. Islam hasn’t had it’s reformation, which is why we see Muslims in the U.S. taking a very different attitude to life than those in other nations. There is a great schism there, and I don’t know how it gets healed, but I fear that those we refer to as “moderate” Muslims will end up being just as much victims of the more radical elements of their faith as non-Muslims. I don’t think this fear to be unwarranted because, as I pointed out, those more radical strains of Islam are actively supported and spread by the leaders of Islamic nations.
        I suppose a starting point to addressing the problem would be for the U.S. to stop being so buddy-buddy with places like Saudi Arabia, but beyond that, I really don’t know where else to go.

  6. Spaceghost.

    There’s actually a lot more Muslim bashing in the atheist community than you may think and I can also tell you for a fact that there are plenty of Muslims around the world who genuinely condemn violence committed in the name of their religion, including some respected Islamic thinkers. Certainly there are some cases when wealthy Muslims support terrorists, but most terrorists are not even Muslims so the problem probably isn’t as bad as you think.

    Here’s something from the blog Loon Watch, a website dedicated to fighting anti Muslim bigotry. They site some statistics from reputable organizations that show that most terrorists are not Muslims.

    All Terrorists are Muslims…Except the 94% that Aren’t
    http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/01/not-all-terrorists-are-muslims/

    1. Interesting information there. Although, I guess I should have been more clear. When I said “we” I was actually referring to “we as human beings” or westerners more generally, rather than being as U.S.-centric as the info on that site. I am fully aware that the average Muslim in other parts of the world are in more danger from their radical co-religionists than non-Muslims, precisely because the radicals insist their more moderate brethren “should know better”. I am just as concerned for them as I am for non-Muslims.

      I watch this stuff closely because I have Muslim family members. I worry how larger perceptions affect their lives. They seem to be doing ok, and I hope it stays that way. As an atheist, I believe that religion is the root source of the problem as it stands now. As a thinking person, I understand that if there were no religion, these people would likely find something else to be affronted about, rightly or wrongly. Any form of ideology can be twisted to evil ends.

  7. You know, somebody once said, there are 3 types of people in the world – introverts, extroverts, and those who just have to piss on the electric fence to see if it’s turned on.

    I suspect Perce was one of those (though as always, it’s impossible to judge at a distance).

    I find Jesse’s reasoning persuasive, in view of recent discussions.

    1. So do you also think that the Zombie Jesus and Zombie Pope were fair game for Christians to assault with impunity? Is everyone who is offended by another person’s speech, attire, etc. allowed to assault that person to express their dissent, or do only Muslims (or other aggrieved minorities – atheists?) get dispensation?
      I haven’t dug into all of the background of the case to see how much evidence the prosecution had: if the judge honestly found insufficient evidence to convict then fair enough. And even if Elbayomy were guilty, if it was a minor assault (e.g. no injury) jail probably shouldn’t be on the table, a small fine and (perhaps) probation should be sufficient. But I’m taken aback by some of the commenters who seem to be saying that Perce got what he deserved simply for offending someone. The last thing we in the free-thought community need is a legal precedent that offending religious sensibilities can be met with unpunished violence. All of the discussion on the judge’s religious background, protests over Qu’ran burnings in Afghanistan, etc. are completely beside the point: the principle is quite straightforward. Unless you are inciting violence against others (or fall into any of the other acknowledged exceptions to the First Amendment, like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater) you have the right to express your views without fear of violent reprisal, else free speech loses all meaning.

      1. Those figures that are part of our own Western culture may be more appropriate targets for mockery, sure, but that is hypothetical as no assault happened.

        I am uncomfortable with mockery of another culture anyway, unless it is particularly clever and funny. This was neither. In fact there are many standup comedians from Muslim cultures that do a great job.

        We should play the ball and not the man, to use a football saying. Call them out over FGM, over their blatant sexism and misogyny, etc. But who cares two shits about the taboo against depictions of Mohammed?

        I think this is less of an atheist vs Muslim thing than a case of two douchebags of different flavours having a minor spat. In which case the Judge acted wisely by minimising the issue.

        To quote another well known Dick, “I doubt whether any permanent or even temporary harm was done”.

        I would like to support Heina, but I think this is not a good example.

      1. Listening to the audio and the transcript posted in this post of the court room proceedings, it is very obvious that the judge/magistrate is NOT saying that he is a muslim. When he says, “I am a muslim. I find it offensive,” he is positing what an offended muslim who looks at the costume might think. You have to intentionally take what he is saying here out of context, or simply not be paying attention to view it otherwise. Either way, shame on those who are spreading this untruth.

  8. From the description of the video on youtube: “This is proof that muslims want Shria Law in America. ”

    So, the attacker should definitely be held legally accountable for assault.
    And the attackee should just be ostracized and ridiculed for being a fucking idiot.

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