Zombie Muhammad and the First Amendment

We've had a few readers send in links to coverage of a First Amendment-related case out of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. It's a sad story that goes back to a 2011 Halloween parade. A small group of atheists marched in the parade, dressed as a Zombie Pope and a Zombie Muhammad. This outraged one Muslim father who attended the parade with his wife and son. What happened after there is somewhat in dispute. The Muslim, Talaag Elbayomy, was charged with harassment and a court date was set.

When readers first alerted me to the story, the lack of substance to the coverage was what was most noteworthy. Take this Patriot-News story, for example. Now the story has sort of exploded. Here the Daily Mail has a write-up that includes the information that the judge who heard the case is a recent Muslim convert. Blogs are reporting that this not true -- that he's Lutheran.

The reporting is such a mess -- either too few details or details that are in dispute -- that I went ahead and listened to the 40 minutes of the hearing that Ernest Perce, the atheist, put on YouTube.

At the hearing, Perce tells his side of the story -- that he was marching in a parade as a Zombie Muhammad and Elbayomy grabbed him by the neck, grabbed his fake beard, stopped him and turned him around and generally harassed him. Elbayomy, the alleged perpetrator, tells his side of the story. That he felt compelled to do something to stop this mockery of Muhammad but that he didn't touch him physically (although a police officer who responded to the incident and brought the case to court pointed out that Elbayomy said there was physical contact at the time). Elbayomy says that someone freaked out about his interaction with the guy dressed up as Zombie Muhammad, and started yelling about how it's a "free country, dude," and the like. He explains that he didn't think it was legal to dress up as a Zombie Muhammad and that's why he intervened. In his attorney's closing statement, he explains that Elbayomy believed that mocking Muhammad was a crime and that's why he was trying to get the atheist to stop. He had a mistaken belief that such treatment of religions was not allowed in this country.

His intent may not have been to go and accost this individual, but that's what he did, said Sgt. Brian Curtis, the police officer who charged Elbayomy with harassment. Curtis added that whether it is criminal in this country or not has no bearing as to what occurs in the Boroguh of Mechanicsburg and what he did is definitely criminal and definitely rises to harassment.

The judge ruled that the it was not proven to him beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant was guilty of harassment. So he dismissed the charge.

This is all pretty standard fare, I suppose. But what happened before that ruling is what makes this case so noteworthy. The judge could have dismissed the charge after giving Elbayomy a little speech on the First Amendment and how it works in this country.

Instead, he lectured the alleged victim. He talked about the years he'd spent in Muslim countries and lambasted the defendant's view that the Koran teaches that Muhammad had risen from the dead, calling him a "doofus" for holding that erroneous view. He pointed out that in "Arabic-speaking" countries, you could be killed for marching in a parade so arrayed. But in this country, he added (this is my transcript of the alleged victim's taping of the speech):

Here in our society, we have a Constitution that gives us many rights, specifically, First Amendment rights. It’s unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others. I don’t think that’s what our forefathers had really intended. I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we can speak with our mind, not to piss off other people and other cultures, which is what you did.

I don’t think you’re aware, sir, there’s a, there's a big difference between how Americans practice Christianity – and I understand you’re an atheist. But, you see, Islam is not just a religion, it’s their culture, their culture. It’s their very essence, their very being. They pray five times a day towards Mecca. To be a good Muslim, before you die, you have to make a pilgrimage to Mecca unless you are otherwise told you cannot because you are too ill, too elderly, whatever. But you must make the attempt.

Their greetings, “Salaam alaikum,” “Alaikum wa-salaam,” “May God be with you.” Whenever — it is very common — their language, when they’re speaking to each other, it’s very common for them to say, “Allah willing, this will happen.” It is — they are so immersed in it.

Then what you have done is you’ve completely trashed their essence, their being. They find it very, very, very offensive. I’m a Muslim, I find it offensive. [Mumbled] was very offensive.

But you have that right, but you’re way outside your bounds on First Amendment rights.

This is what, and I've spent about seven and a half of my years altogether living in other countries, um, when we go to other countries, it's not uncommon for people to refer to us as ugly Americans. This is why we are referred to as ugly Americans. Because we're so concerned about our own rights we don't care about other people's rights. As long as we get our say, but we don't care about what the other people say.

Yikes! OK, the first thing to note is that this is news mostly because atheists and civil libertarians have forced it into the news cycle. And it's taken many days to get this into the news cycle, which is somewhat odd.

The lack of news has led to a proliferation of blog commentary that doesn't have the benefit of being rock-solid reporting. For instance, while it's true that the judge appears to say he's Muslim, that is open to interpretation (e.g., [If] I am a Muslim, I am offended...). Not that this necessarily matters to how a story reports his preferential treatment in the case.

More than anything, what the stories lack is any discussion of what relevant teachings in Islam were in play that led to the confrontation. Zombie Pope was unmolested while Zombie Muhammad was confronted. Why, exactly, was that? What teachings are in play? Why are they being kept a secret?

It would also be nice to see some better discussion of sharia. Some are arguing that the judge's speech suggests the application of sharia in a U.S. court room. His actual dismissal of the case was based solely on the stated belief that the burden of proof had not been met. But, of course, that doesn't mean that sharia was ignored by the judge. The judge specifically mentions a sharia punishment for blasphemy and sharia guidelines for public treatment of Islam before lecturing the alleged victim. Again, none of this is necessarily out of order, but it must be reported accurately and with care.

This could just be a case of a lower-court judge being, what is the word, a doofus. But it also shows how easy it is for the First Amendment to be dismissed relative to other concerns -- a huge news story right now. No matter what, this was a real court case that any cub reporter could see would be big news and that deserves good reporting. That means good reporting on atheism, on Islam and on the First Amendment.

The video embedded above, which can also be found here with a story, is actually one of the better pieces of journalism I found on the matter. And yet it still suffers from that trademark local newscast jokester tone and more than a few religion ghosts.

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