Wedding Cakes & Cartoons of Muhammad

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On May 3, 2015 the American Freedom Defense Initiative put on a contest in which cartoonists drew images of Muhammad for a cash prize. To most Muslims, such portrayals of Muhammad are deeply offensive—much in the way that many Americans find the burning of the American flag offensive. As such, it is reasonable to infer that the event was intended to be provocative—the event was certainly well protected with armed security forces. As such, it was hardly shocking when two gunmen attacked the event. These armored and heavily armed men were killed by a traffic officer armed only with a pistol. ISIS has claimed credit for the attack, although it is currently unclear if the terrorist group had a direct role.

As I have argued in previous essays, the use of violence in response to offensive artwork or other forms of expression is not warranted. As such, there is no need to re-hash those arguments to support the claim that the attack on the event was morally wrong. Outside of the realm of violent extremists, I doubt there is much dispute over this point. As such, I will proceed to the main matter I wish to focus on.

But a short while ago, Indiana was making headlines with its religious freedom act. There is also the recurring talking point that religious liberty and religion are under attack in America. One example given of the threat to religious liberty was the requirement that employers of a certain size provide insurance coverage that covered birth control for full-time employees. Another example of the threat is the steady march towards legalization in all 50 states by same sex-marriage. A third example is that many states have laws that forbid discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. This is supposed to violate religious liberty by forbidding, for example, a Christian baker to discriminate against a same-sex couple that wants to buy a wedding cake.

Though I have written extensively about these specific matters, my general view is based on the principle that religious rights do not allow a person a right to violate the legitimate rights of others. To use an easy and obvious example, a faith that claimed human sacrifice as a basic tenet of its faith would justly be denied the right to engage in this practice. After all, the right to life trumps the right to practice one’s faith on others against their will.

In the case of discrimination against same-sex couples, I follow the same principle: the freedom of religion is bounded by the principle of harm. Since same-sex couples are members of the civil society and being able to engage in free commerce is a basic right in capitalism, to deny them the right to goods and services because of their sexual orientation would harm them. While it might be countered that selling a cake to a same-sex couple would harm the Christian baker, it is not clear what harm is being done. After all, she is making a sale and the sale of an item is not an endorsement of the purchaser. If, for example, Nazis are buying my books on Amazon, I am not thereby endorsing Nazism.

In the case of a company being required to provide coverage that covers birth control, the company does not seem to be harmed by this. The company is not required to use birth control, directly hand it to the employees, or endorse birth control. They are merely required to provide employees with the opportunity to have such coverage if they so desire it. It is, in fact, a form of compensation—it certainly does not violate the rights of an employer if employers spend their salaries as they wish—even on birth control.

While the laws that are purported to defend religious freedom do not, for obvious reasons, specify that they are aimed at defending a specific variety of Christianity, it does seem fairly evident that the concern is not about defending religion in general. If it were, the event in which people competed to draw cartoons of Muhammad would have been condemned by all the folks supporting the religious “freedom” laws and those who claim religion is under attack in America. After all, holding an event explicitly aimed at mocking a religion and provoking members of a faith would seem to be an attack on religion. This sort of event would certainly seem more of an attack on religion than forbidding bakers from discriminating against same-sex couples.

While I think people should not engage in such offensive behavior (I also believe that people should not burn American flags or piss on crosses), my consistency requires that I must accept the freedom of people to engage in such offensive behavior. This is, as with the case of the wedding cake, based on the principle of harm: restricting freedom of expression because the expression is offensive creates more harm than it prevents. Part of this is because while there is a right to freedom of expression and it can be wrong to offend people, there is no right to a freedom from being offended. That said, members of civil society do fall under moral expectations of polite behavior. So, while there is no right to forbid people from pissing on crosses, burning American flags or drawing cartoons of Muhammad, a decent human being will consider her actions and act with respect for the views of others. That is what good people do. I admit, I have not always lived up to that myself and that is a failing on my part.

It is, of course, possible to cross from mere offense to actual harm. This boundary is, unfortunately, not always sharp and admits of many gray zones. Fortunately, though, the principle is clear: mere offensiveness does not warrant forbiddance and religious freedom does not warrant unjustly imposing on the rights of others.


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  1. “…people should not burn American flags or piss on crosses…”

    Why not? It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

  2. Let us start with the free market. Free market does not mean that just because there is a demand one needs to provide the supply.
    Free market as it is defined: An economic market in which supply and demand are not regulated or are regulated with only minor restrictions.

    This, by definition means that if I have a bag of grain, and I do not get the price I want for it, I can do with that bag of grain whatever I, its sole owner, decide to do.
    I can store it for next year, I can sell it at lower price, or I can gift it to those hungry in Africa. If I wish I can also throw it all into the sea. Afterall, it is not my duty to provide for the hungry in Africa. They might starve and die if I do that, but my selfishness is not the root cause of their deaths, and thus I cannot be held responsible for their deaths.

    Same thing with the cakes. Free market means that those affected by the decision of a cakemaker can freely choose and order their cake elsewhere. Why would they even want to get a cake from someone who doesn’t support their life decisions, and even condemns them?
    There is no harm here, on either side.

    What is more, free market will take care of it. Someone will take their money, and bake that cake. And thus increase their own profit. Maybe because they believe that everyone should get their own cake, maybe because he believes in money, maybe he just doesn’t care about anything, and does it because he can. In the end, free market takes care of it, as long as you can pay.

    If you decide however, to call it harm when the baker refuses to bake the cake for homosexual couple wedding because of his own beliefs, then you must accept that harm would be done in the opposite example as well. Afterall, you would trample baker’s own worldview in the name of freedoms of others. As I recall, you do not have freedom to limit the freedoms of others. And you just harmed this baker’s moral principles. Thus his freedoms.

    This is the problem when you incorporate harm into an argument and define it as anything but what harm should be thought as in the context of this discussion. And to be honest, in order for the argument make any sense, we need to limit harm to bodily harm. Otherwise, if we include psychological harm we will get nowhere with it as demonstrated above.

    An exaggeration to make my point clear; You just ordered a man to kill another human, even though he doesn’t want to, and killing another human is in opposition with his beliefs.
    You are consciously forcing upon people something they do not wish to engage in or do by their own volition. You are taking their own freedom away by deciding what they should do by yourself.

  3. Doris Wrench Eisler

    There are religious rights and there are religious ‘rights’, and there are civil and human rights and ‘civil and human rights’, as well. These are distinctions we hammer out through time. There is also the expectation of politeness in human interactions because that is the best way generally, but obviously, not always.
    In the Western world we must have the right to criticize, in principle anyway, what we will, and if some find endless amusement and challenge in drawing pictures and even cartoons of Mohammad, that must be protected by law. But critics should identify it for what it is, childish, and on a par with a child’s obsessive need to say “piss” because his/her parents forbid it.
    What is more interesting than legal/moral ‘rights’ are the reasons for wishing to do something stupid and insensitive. What is being proven here?
    And concomitantly, why is such offence taken?
    We should remember that not so long ago rather drastic things would follow from the insult or perceived insult to Christian shibboleths and sacred ideas and objects.
    We now lay claim to sophistication and tolerance except, it might be noted, where Christians are under attack. Tolerance follows on the heels of security and well-being.
    One Muslim country after another having been attacked on false/mistaken premises and illegally according to international law, it does seem reasonable to see the Koran-forbidden drawing of the prophet as adding insult to injury.
    Although the response in our context seems outrageous, it makes perfect sense in another.
    And just about everything is true, false, right or wrong according to context. Why are we so surprised and shocked?

  4. s. wallerstein

    If you’ve ever lived with a very sensitive person, you end up adjusting what you say to their sensitivities or you don’t live together very long.

    Given that Muslims are now 23% of the world’s population, that is, 1.57 billion people, if we are going to successfully live together with them, given their sensitivities towards those who mock their prophet, it seems wiser that we adjust our behavior to their sensitivities.

  5. S.wallerstein,

    I certainly think people should treat each other with respect, but I oppose compelling people to do so.

    As you note, society requires a degree of awareness of others and restraint on what we say. That is something people should keep in mind. One should always ask: sure, I could say this, but should I?

  6. Kevin Henderson

    Burning flags or defecating on religious emblems like crosses or books does not offend me. Those acts may be a waste of time and aesthetically vacuous, but they are not offensive.

    There will be no general solution to the problem of baking cakes and depictions of Muhammad until all citizens of the earth bootstrap up from their religious or sexual insecurities.

  7. There is a strong taboo against giving a human form or face to the prophet and that should be respected. Given that the religion’s emphasize is: ‘that there is no God but God.’ Having a form to focus on, and possibly worship, would countermand that edict. Most people would understand that and respect it. However, as in everything else, there will always be people who will oppose and challenge beliefs, often for no good reason.

    A taboo against a particular image in this context makes sense for the religion. Generally it is not a good thing to ban all images, as image-making is a human faculty that should not be totally repressed. There are other religions that are wary of images and their adherents are raised with that taboo.

    Why images were perceived as a problem is not clear. Maybe in the Dark Age people mistook the image for what it represented and were incapable of perceiving a material object portraying an image as being representational only, instead taking it for what it was supposed to represent.

    The problem with banning all images in religion is that it deprives the psyche. As in everything else Aristotle’s middle way make sense. A psyche that is wary of images and deprived of them may exhibit fanaticism, inordinate greediness, or addiction. While a psyche, or a culture, that is overly surfeited with images may not be as engaged with life as they should be.

    As in this age, images, at least secular images, are more abundant and giving literalism some competition, what difference it will make to the culture is something to ponder.

  8. Should all restaurants be required to be kosher? Think of the harm to Jews who go to a restaurant and request kosher food, only to discover the restaurant does not serve kosher food. It’s easy to say they should just go find a restaurant that is kosher, but that ignores the pain and harm to them of not being able to eat at a particular place.

  9. “being able to engage in free commerce is a basic right in capitalism”

    Not selling to a particular customer is free commerce, being required or prohibited to sell is not.

  10. Some ground covered already, so simply adding my perspective.

    Choosing what to offer for sale to everyone is the right of the seller. Choosing not to sell some of those things to some specific people on some grounds such as race, sexual orientation, religious membership, is discrimination.

    The cake example is a slimy attempt to discriminate. If a seller offers cakes with non-specific writing on it that the buyer then specifies, the only limitation on what’s written should be that it’s legal. If someone comes in and asks for a birthday cake for their spouse with “Happy Birthday, Let’s Fuck”, then the only restriction should whether the language is legal or not – and the issue of whether ‘offensive’ language should be treated legally or not is another issue.

    Allowing for some wiggle room it might be acceptable for a seller to say they will not include offensive words. But, if the cake is for a gay couple and says something like, “Happy Birthday Bob, Love John” it would be discriminatory to refuse, since there is no ‘offensive’ language there. And if there’s no writing but the seller is refusing because he knows it’s for some gay couple’s event, then that’s discrimination again.

    As for the flag/cartoon issues, I don’t see the connection to the cake selling. If we’re talking about being offensive to someone in some private event, you can’t get more offensive than pretty much all religions. In among all the love and prayer there’s always some hell and damnation and some non-believers, people of other faiths, are always being offended against.

    And, to be honest, Muslims are in no position to complain about offence when you read the Quran and Hadith.

    I have no problem with Mo cartoons, flag burning, burning effigies of the US President or our own Prime Minister or Queen. The only problem with any demonstrative activity is when it incites violence against people. And Islam, in the inerrant words of the Quran, incites violence against people. Islam is already freer to incite violence than any anti-Islamic group. Muslims can legitimately say that someone who has sex outside marriage should be lashed (Quran 24:2). That is explicit incitement to violence. And the Hadith are far worse.

    Pamela Geller and her friends are a bunch of Judeo-Christian conservatives that I would find plenty to argue with. But she is right to make this sort of challenge to the offence card played by Muslims. Incidentally, this issue of agreeing with someone you disagree with on many other points seems to be a problem for leftist ideologues who prefer the with us or against us politics – it wouldn’t matter how right Geller is on some point many leftist liberals would take to mental gymnastics comparable with those of the religious explaining their violent texts in order to avoid agreeing with here.

    She’s actually pretty brave on this point:

    Geert Wilders was at the cartoon event too. Again, not the ideal liberal. But that shouldn’t stop us acknowledging the bits he gets right.

    As with many controversial characters it can take some fishing to find the bits you agree with and the bits you don’t, and often it’s the bits you disagree with that polarise our views of them.

  11. Vina,

    I vaguely recall from my religion classes that the injunction against graven images is in regards to the pagan worship of the statues of deities.

  12. C. Van Carter,

    Of course not. Who has suggested that?

    The pain of not being able to find kosher food seems rather minor and one that is easy to fix with a quick Google search or Yelp.

  13. “(I also believe that people should not burn American flags or piss on crosses),”

    This puts me in a little bit of a predicament. I have a pair of boxer shorts fashioned from an American flag, or maybe it’s an American flag fashioned from a pair of boxer shorts. Here’s the thing. They’ve really been through the wars, wear and tear, and the occasional mishap or misfiring where you could say I pissed on the American flag, but I would say it received some unintentional collateral damage.

    Now, you would find it offensive if I were to dispose of my shorts by fire……..I can only assume that you might be equally upset if I were to dispose of the flag by shoving it in with all the other household waste for disposal.

    What should I do? I’m beginning to believe the American retailer who sold me the flag/shorts, must’ve been a secret Muslim, tricking me and other consumers into a grossly offensive act.

    Can offense have improving qualities. Is it something society should fully embrace. The problem with non thinking and emotive reactions to symbols like flags, is that people can find themselves laying down their lives, for an oil company executives desire to purchase a supersized ranch in Montana, where on an emotive level they believe or feel they’re making the ultimate sacrifice for the collective good of humanity.

    An important function art can have is to provoke thought. To disrupt the kind of sleep that societies, and individuals throughout societies, fall into. It doesn’t have to be through insult and injury; Jasper Johns’ Flag, or flags, are not insulting. There is still subversion there but it doesn’t particularly upset anyone.

    Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ. If you were to show people, say Christians, who might be offended by the image, but were unaware they were seeing Serrano’s work, not only would they not find the image offensive, but they would be far more likely to be deeply moved by its’ noumenous qualities; especially the Christians. But, of course they would become very upset, if it were revealed what they’re seeing is a dime store plastic Jesus, in a jar of Serrano’s urine.

    If anything is in need of a good disruption it’s Christianity. The Crucifiction is central to Christianity, and it completely loses it’s meaning once it’s normalised into something inoffensive. Ask a typical church going Christian why Jesus died for our sins, why he’s the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and how the whole passion functions; the trial of Jesus, his suffering and death. Some Christian traditions are so confused by it, they just say it’s a mystery; and come the apocalyptic revelation we’ll all know. And more often they’ve normalised Jesus into a pagan god, who’ll intervene in daily lives if asked nicely enough, and will deliver floods and earthquakes if same sex marriages are allowed. I would say the Son of Man is exasperated by what is a radically un-Christian distortion of his efforts…..And I wouldn’t be surprised if he never came back.

    Is there anything more profane than a plastic Jesus, or a American flag boxer shorts.

    One thing that is not helping the situation is the repeating misreading of the Jihadis’ attacks on cartoonists. That in reality the attacks require a very un-Islamic distortion to be possible. Mohammed’s position on those who mocked religion was that they were to be pitied and ignored, not killed. The taboo on the creation of idols is within all the Abrahamic religions. Only some schools of Islam prohibit the depiction of Mohammed – and the prohibition is against the creation of an idol. So, how it works; the Jihadis are upset by the humiliation of their prophet, through these cartoons. But, they can’t kill the cartoonists on this basis. So, they have to frame it as the cartoonists creating a false version of Islam, through their cartoons – that the depiction is an idol to be worshipped. And on these absurdly weak grounds they can kill.

    The ordinary Muslims of Texas were told by their leaders to ignore the taunt of the Mohammed drawing competition, which they did, and that is the correct Islamic position. And what drove the attackers is the same poisonous core that drove Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold; the Simon and Garfunkel of the school shooting movement; the abyss of Western Civilisation.

  14. The same is true for homosexuals seeking to purchase a cake, or hire a wedding photographer.

  15. “While it might be countered that selling a cake to a same-sex couple would harm the Christian baker, it is not clear what harm is being done. After all, she is making a sale and the sale of an item is not an endorsement of the purchaser. If, for example, Nazis are buying my books on Amazon, I am not thereby endorsing Nazism.”

    If Nazis are buying your books on Amazon, you would have no personal knowledge of it, and certainly would not be customising your book for them.

    A closer parallel might be the case where Nazi party representatives turned up at your door, or your place of business, and asked to commission a special edition of one of your books with a dedicated cover. Would you then have a moral obligation to do it? What about the Tea Party or the Communist Party?

    I was once approached by a political group to do a small database job for them – membership records. This group was in no way offensive; they were quite mainstream. They were just a group whose policies I tended to disagree with, and whose candidates I would usually vote against. I declined the contract. I do not feel I had any moral obligation to take it. If I was the only person in the world who could have done it, I still would feel no moral obligation to take the contract.

    My judgment is that they are not harmed by not having access to something they wanted, but did not need; or whatever harm to them there was was outweighed by the annoyance to me.

  16. Mike LaBossiere,

    “I vaguely recall from my religion classes that the injunction against graven images is in regards to the pagan worship of the statues of deities.”

    Not quite. In Judaism, any physical representation of God is forbidden. The Romans were puzzled that at the centre of the Jewish temple, there was nothing. In Judaism there is still a taboo even over speaking or writing the name of God. If you look at a book of Leonard Cohen poetry, you’ll see he spells God, as G-d; the hyphen to make the spelling of the name incomplete.

    Folk discomfort over images was very common in the past. Artists during the renaissance used the camera obscura, but kept it secret, for fear of being burned for witchcraft.

    Images have power.

    The absence of images has power too.

  17. s. wallerstein


    Why are Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris the Simon and Garfunkel of the school shooting movement? I don’t get the analogy, but it’s intriguing. Who would be the Bob Dylan or the John Lennon of the school shooting movement?

  18. JMRC

    “If anything is in need of a good disruption it is Christianity.”

    It would be more accurate to say that if anything is in need of a good disruption it is the misunderstanding of Christianity. It is a religion whose adherents, as you say, practice their own version of it while not understanding what it means. It is a religion that in the Dark Age was, and still is, far ahead of its time.

    It is interesting that throughout human history there have always been animal and human sacrifice. In the Judea-Christian scriptures both take place. Isaac was asked to sacrifice his son. After he agreed the request was rescinded. He was told that sacrifice of an animal would suffice in place of his son. Later “the Son,” who did not have a human father, was sacrificed.

    If sacrificing the animal is understood as transmuting and purifying the instinctive nature, and if sacrificing the Son is understood as transmuting egotistic human nature, these concrete events foreshadow psychic and spiritual evolution. It would appear that these foreshadowing tendencies have been in human consciousness since long before they became events that were preserved as scripture.

    Saul Bellow wrote a funny story of a Jewish father who lived by his instincts and wanted his son to do likewise. He stole from his son’s Christian friends and his son, who was on the verge of conversion, was blamed and banished from the group. His father’s wish for his son’s life was fulfilled.

    The majority of Christians honor in the breach transmuting and spiritualizing their instinctive nature, as they do their egoistic human nature.

  19. Interesting approach. But the person looking for Kosher food is looking for a special sort of food, which is not made by all restaurants. If someone goes to doughnut shop and insists on buying a set of automobile shocks, the owner can reasonably say “we don’t sell that, but I’ll happily sell you doughnuts.” Or if a vegan goes to a butcher shop and wants veggie sausage, the owner can reasonable say “we don’t sell that, but I can hook you up with some t-bones. In the case of couple, they are not seeking a special gay cake or special gay-wedding photographer. They are just looking to buy a cake. If they go in and say “we’d like to buy a cake”, the baker would not be saying “we don’t make cakes” but “we make cakes, but won’t sell you one because you are gay.” So, the two situations are not analogous.

  20. In that case, I’d accept that I have the right to refuse to make a custom Nazi edition. If I owned a book store and Nazis wanted to buy a print on order book, I would print and then sell them the books-provided they acted within the boundaries of good behavior in my store. If they started screaming at my Jewish customers, for example, I’d have every right to show them the door.

    In the case of the baker, I would have to extend the same right-she could not be justly compelled to create a custom message contrary to her beliefs. So, a baker could justly say “I refuse to put an image of two men kissing on the cake.” However, the baker could just justly refuse selling them a generic cake. If a same (of different) sex-couple stripped down and started getting it on in the bakery, then the baker could certainly show them the door and refuse to sell them a cake. But, it could certainly be argued that the creation of any cake would qualify as an act of expression.

    Your point about contract work is certainly interesting. Though I write professionally, I certainly think I am not obligated to take a contract just because someone asks. However, if I were running a bookstore, I would seem obligated to sell the product to customers, provided that they behaved as good customers. But, this could be unfair of me to draw such a distinction. I would, however, say that there are moral concerns regarding the grounds for refusal. If I refuse a contract because the game company is owned by a Hispanic, then I would be acting wrongly. If I refuse the contract because I think the game setting is badly conceived and I have no interest in, for example, writing an adventure involving intelligent carrots, then that would seem to be morally fine.

    It does seem to come down the question about what would be a legitimate grounds for refusal. I certainly can see how people who detest homosexuals would not want to do business with them-I detest bigotry and would not want to do business with a bigot. But whether it would be right to refuse is another matter.

  21. I knew I should have listened better to what Moses was saying. But, man, that guy could go on for hours.

  22. In both situations the customer simply purchases what he wants elsewhere, yet in one situation it’s claimed the customer has suffered significant harm by having to do so.

  23. Certainly an interesting discussion. Regarding the cake example, in my country (Croatia) the commerce laws are such that in a retail store (if I sell goods wholesale it is treated differently) I cannot refuse to sell a good to a customer on any grounds if they have the money. Of course if someone wanted a custom product of this and that sort I can refuse to make it. It is not a bad solution overall. While absolute freedom of the seller of a good is to some extent attractive, it is open to abuse to deny minorities access to basic goods.

    As for offending religions, one user says “they are a quarter of the world populace so we better get along” – this is deeply misguided. There are fortunately different sovereign countries which abide by different sets of rules and values. Honestly, I find the way most Arabic countries are governed and the statements of their, even “moderate” religious leaders to be offensive. However, I do not believe that we have the moral right to attack them for it, or even to insist that they change their ways. It is up to them to govern themselves in whatever way they see fit, even if we find it repulsive. However, in a similar way, they have no right to demand we change our society to be less offensive to them.

  24. s. wallerstein,

    “Why are Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris the Simon and Garfunkel of the school shooting movement? I don’t get the analogy, but it’s intriguing. Who would be the Bob Dylan or the John Lennon of the school shooting movement?”

    Every quixotic enterprise requires at least a pair, each alternatively playing Sancho Panza to others Don Quixote. The breeze that keeps the windmills of madness in motion. The clinical term for the configuration is a folie a deux.

    Columbine, Charlie Hedbo, the attack in Texas, the Boston marathon bombing. These all had at their core a folie a deux. And these acts were very conscious, very deliberate, acts of theatre; with Lennon and McCartney, it is an explosion of vitality, of the life force. With Klebold and Harris, the spectacle is murder culminating in self destruction; they break the fourth wall, kill some of the audience, then themselves. It is theatre; most acts of murder and suicide are generally performed in camera. Not intended for public consumption.

    Yes, Lennon had McCartney. Dylan is a special case. And what can we say for Elvis; Elvis like Jesus had a twin brother. (Now. If you’ve been educated in a Christian school, particularly a Catholic school, they may have never told you about the twin, or even mentioned the brother. But he’s there in the canonical texts; Jesus’ brother James. In Greek Christianity, it’s not particularly clear that he is a twin – but in the Levantine traditions it is.) Elvis’ twin; Jessie, died shortly after being born. If it weren’t for the northern European taboo against naming children directly after central holy people, he would have been Jesus. And make of the whole thing, what you will.

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