Zombie Mohammed Revisited

There has been a lot of conflicting information about the “Zombie Mohammed” case in Pennsylvania, which broke on a Friday, and had a weekend of gestation to add to the confusion.  Cathy Young at RealClearPolitics published an authoritative look at the case today, which I highly recommend reading in full. 

The story ends in the same “troubling” place I initially surmised, but while Young primarily takes issue with Andy McCarthy of National Review, I am as guilty as anyone of linking to early reports that had some of the facts wrong, and wish to be certain that corrections are duly noted.  I’m also modifying my original post on the story to link to both Young’s piece and this post.

The most important correction to note is that the judge in the case, Mark Martin, is not a Muslim convert.  This is also the easiest mistake to understand, because he does seem to be saying “I’m a Muslim” in the audio transcript.  He was evidently trying to say “I’m not a Muslim, but I find it offensive” when describing the atheist dressed as “Zombie Mohammed” in a parade, but he spoke rapidly enough to make it sound like he’s saying “I’m a Muslim, I find it offensive.”  He also spoke at length about his experiences in Muslim countries when rendering his verdict.  The judge has been granting interviews where he states he’s not a Muslim, and that is that.

It really shouldn’t matter to the case, or its larger implications, if the judge is personally an adherent of the Muslim faith, but of course it does matter to people.  If he’d been a devout Muslim who took the opportunity to deliver a stirring defense of the First Amendment (which is what he should have done) he’d be hailed as an intellectual hero.  Young says that some people are trying to claim Judge Martin is a covert Muslim who seeks to disguise his faith now that he’s come under criticism.  That is arrant stupidity.  For my part, I thought he was a Muslim because I thought I heard him say as much.

Young discusses the actual mechanics of the case at length, which are broadly consistent with how I understood them: a recent Muslim immigrant got into an altercation with the aforementioned atheist dressed as Zombie Mohammed.  Zombie Mohammed claimed he was physically assaulted.  The judge dismissed the case, launched into a long harangue against the plaintiff about Muslim law and custom, insulted the plaintiff, and told him that he was “outside [his] bounds on First Amendment rights” when he abused those rights to “piss off other people and other cultures.”

There is video of the incident, and while it shows the defendant rushing up to begin an altercation, it is not sharp enough to conclusively demonstrate that a physical assault took place.  The defendant, Talaag Elbayomy, initially admitted to “physical contact” with atheist demonstrator Ernest Perce, but later testified that this was a misunderstanding due to his limited English.  He was apparently still unclear on the details during testimony, but said he might even have been trying to tell the police officer on the scene that Zombie Mohammed pushed him. 

Young concludes:

With such conflicting testimony, Martin’s decision to dismiss the case is entirely reasonable. The way in which he used his position as a bully pulpit is another story.

It is not unusual for judges to admonish the parties in a case, sometimes harshly, about their conduct. In this instance, though, the lecture was startlingly one-sided. Martin lambasted Perce for his disrespect for other people’s culture and faith while not one critical word was spoken to Elbayomy.

Which leaves us where I thought it did: the growing acceptance in the West of the principle that Islam Is Different.

Martin told Young that the goal of his lecture from the bench was to deliver “a dual message… that the victim was within his constitutional rights to do what he did.”  But that is not what he actually did.  That would have involved a lengthy lecture to Elbayomy on the beauty and power of First Amendment free speech protection, and the American way of answering offensive speech with more speech, not harassment or assault. 

Elbayomy was a recent immigrant from a culture where, as the Judge explained at length, an entirely different tradition of punishing offense to Islam holds sway.  He would have genuinely benefited from hearing a stirring and unqualified defense of free speech.  So would his 9-year-old son, reported present at the scene of the Zombie Mohammed altercation.  The initial report said Elbayomy wanted to “show his young son that he was willing to fight for the Prophet.”  I haven’t heard that part of the account challenged yet, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume it was distorted somehow.  

We are left with Elbayomy and his son watching an American judge call the guy who was exercising his First Amendment rights a “doofus” and emphasizing the depth of his offense against Islam.  In fact, as Taylor notes, “he specifically drew a distinction between ‘how Americans practice Christianity’ and how Muslims practice Islam,” saying “Islam is not just a religion, it’s their culture… it’s their very essence, their very being.”

To witness such comments delivered in a U.S. courtroom by a judge who is not himself a practicing Muslim leaves us with one more milestone on the path of Western acceptance that Islam Is Different.  Young observes that “some American Christians respond to perceived slights to their faith in ugly ways,” citing “threats of violence against productions of Terrence McNally’s play ‘Corpus Christi,’ featuring a gay Jesus.”  Really?  How many people have Christians assaulted or killed because of such plays, TV shows, and stand-up comedy routines?  Threats of violence are bad from anyone, no doubt about it.  But from how many other religions are they plausible?

Any ideology benefits, in a grim way, from the assertion that it cannot be subjected to the same casual insults routinely directed at other beliefs – that it is special and privileged above others.  The First Amendment clearly forbids the government from using its power to bestow such privilege officially, but there are other ways to get it.  Consider how the supposedly irreverent and outspoken media of the West twisted themselves into pretzels to justify their refusal to give offense to Islam by reprinting the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Mohammed, which violated Islamic religious law against depicting the Prophet in any way, much less wearing a bomb as a turban.  No government agency censored them.  They censored themselves.  As with Judge Martin, they found the “bounds” of free speech lay somewhere close to where Muslim sensibilities begin.

There was a Zombie Pope marching alongside the Zombie Mohammed in that Pennsylvania parade, but no one seems terribly concerned about the offense given to Catholics.  Presumably “their very essence, their very being” is not offended by portraying the vicar of Christ as a flesh-eating undead monster.  Then again, our official culture is not, either quietly or overtly, dedicated to the proposition that Catholicism Is Different.