Arguing about Sharia law on Imgur: art & censorship in Poland

Black Madonna of Częstochowa on the left, and the rainbow version on the right







Recently, a woman was arrested in Poland for making posters that show Mary and Jesus with rainbow halos, a reference to gay pride. This isn’t just any painting of the Virgin Mary— this is the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland’s holiest religious site. The woman’s crime? “Offending religious feeling,” now a punishable offense. Which is a deeply unnerving and creepy law. (My YouTube video of this available here)

I’ve been living in Poland, an extremely Catholic country, for five years. And while I’m upset about the arrest, I’m not completely surprised about the anger around the Rainbow Mary, or in Polish, Matka Boska Tęczowa. Poland’s ruling party is far right to the extreme: doesn’t like immigrants, gays, or the European Union in general. But our president does like US President Donald Trump and being nice to white nationalists.

This got me thinking about art, censorship, and religion.

I like to make memes, particularly classical art memes. My favorite place to post them is on 9gag, but recently I decided to give imgur a shot. So I posted this meme, and faster than you can say “upload,” several people were complaining about why it’s ok to criticize Christianity but not Islam. And three comments in, we’re arguing about Sharia law.

My original meme

So, I made another meme: a painting of men praying in a mosque with a joke about drugs— and then called it a day. And I stopped posting on imgur, because I can’t deal with that line of thinking.

My second meme.

Problem is, that line of thinking is really common, and really frustrating. This anger stems from the idea that  it’s ok to make fun of Christianity but Islam is utterly off limits, and if you do make a joke about Muslims, the angry Twitter PC police will come for you. Most discussions about this topic devolve into angry piles of whataboutism that go nowhere.

What I find frustrating with this line of thinking is how contradictory it is.

And, disclosure. I’m an atheist who also practices some wicca/pagan rituals. I’ve also been to Lutheran church services, taken part in Ramadan dinners, and visited Buddhist temples.

Before I address the hypocrisy of mocking Christianity but the “blasphemy” of mocking Islam, I’m going to look at another time an image of Mary upset people: the Holy Virgin Mary by British artist Chris Ofili in 1996. This was the image that upset then New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani, because it used a favorite material of the artist: elephant dung.

the Holy Virgin Mary by British artist Chris Ofili.


Ok, that’s weird. And it upset Guiliani so much that he tried to pull funding of the museum showing the artwork, the Brooklyn Museum. Which resulted in a court battle, a public argument about censorship, free speech, and the proper use of public money.

From the BBC

I’m sure that Guiliani was motivated only by being offended, and it had nothing to do with political posturing against then first lady, Hillary Clinton. Based on his description of the picture, where he said “people were throwing dung at the Virgin Mary,” it makes me wonder if he even saw  Ofili’s original work. What really makes me wonder if Guiliani even looked at this artwork closely is that it’s covered with pictures from porn magazines… specifically of female genitalia. While these don’t make the image better, they do make it more interesting.

There’s another interesting parallel here: Giuliani claimed people were flinging dung at the Virgin Mary. A Breitbart article about the Rainbow Mary was written in such a way that it sounded like the rainbow was painted on the original image, not just a woman making posters. Or the people who threw eggs at the Virgin Mary with dung in New York.)

Breitbart article.

Back to the Rainbow Madonna of Częstochowa. When Guiliani talked about pulling the museum’s funding, I wonder who he thought should, instead, be making those sorts of decisions about public funding for art. Should there be boards that decides these sorts of things, and who should make the rules? How do you get appointed to such a board?

A work called Immersion or (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano must be mentioned. This is a crucifix suspended in a tank of the artist’s own urine. This work caused an uproar, and eventually caused the National Endowment for the Art’s funding to be cut.

Immersion or (Piss Christ) by Andres Serrano

Because having rules against “offending religious feeling” seems to be stumbling toward a bad area of controlling speech and art. As an aside, I have to comment about Guiliani being exempt from being an offended snowflake.  Is it because this was before Twitter, or that he’s not liberal, that he gets a pass from being labeled a snowflake?




With all of this in mind, I now want to briefly look at this question:


  1. Is Islam actually off limits for criticism? Does Islam really get a pass for being a topic of debate?

HAHAHHAHAAHHAHA oh come on. Everyone from Bill Maher to Trump to… 

Let’s take a look at  the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005. A Danish newspaper published 12 depictions of Mohammed, leading to a worldwide debate about religion and censorship; acts of violence; fatwas being issued; South Park jumping on the bandwagon (because of course they did), and a drop in Danish exports to Middle Eastern countries.

The cartoons.

Yes, it was unacceptable for Muslims to react to Mohammed being shown by threatening violence or issuing fatwas. Equally reprehensible was the Charlie Hebdo attack. I’m with agreement with Salman Rushdie on this.



I think this example is unusual and doesn’t completely support this idea that we have to dance around Islamic extremism. For one, many papers did, in fact, publish the cartoons. And two, at least in Europe and the US, newspaper companies made the decision to self-censor the cartoons before publication. Not that I agree with those decisions! This is not a simple case of self censorship.

To me, this is a hugely complex subject, involving the immigration of people from several different Middle Eastern countries to various places across Europe; the various ways that EU countries have had issues with letting Muslim immigrants become members of mainstream society; the assassination of Danish filmmaker Theo van Gogh for making a documentary about Muslim women; historical conflicts in the Middle East over oil leading to destabilization of that entire region; the fear that came after various terrorist attacks in capital cities across Europe; and the inability of most media to talk about Islam without conflating all Muslims with extremists.

The idea that European countries were simply peacefully and happily minding their own business when a bunch of angry immigrants showed up and started breaking things is absurd. But it’s not just a strawman. I’ve talked to some people in Europe who have this worldview: that neither the EU’s foreign policy toward the Middle East, nor the discrimination Muslims face in some European countries are worth talking about. Nor do they think these things are factors in the Mohammed cartoon controversy.

I’d feel more comfortable if people from inside the culture were criticizing Islam. While I think there’s a lot to criticize about the more extreme and conservative sides of Islam, I also think there are a lot of other ways to foster the values of tolerance in Muslim Europeans. Also, I still wonder about the ultimate intentions of the Danish cartoonists:

Was the desire to show Mohammed motivated by:

  1. A sincere desire to challenge Islam about its extremists?
  2. A desire to upset Muslims and be proven right about their beliefs?
Kehinde Wiley, Officer of the Hussars

Maybe an exhibit of Muslim Danish artists examining Islamic traditions would be interesting, and even offer a more nuanced perspective. People who grew up in a religion can sometimes offer a deeper, more reflective take, as they know more about the imagery and symbols of a religion than an outsider might.

One could argue that I’m being too sensitive, or focusing too much on current events. But, it’s impossible view art meaningfully without some of cultural and historical background. It’s what makes this painting of a black man riding a horse intriguing and socially relevant. It’s how we know a picture of a god holding a thunderbolt is likely Zeus or Thor. It’s how we know what’s happening on this vase. Without prior knowledge, we’d just have a picture of bird women and a guy tied to a boat. Is this some sort of furry cosplay S&M scene gone wrong? Is this a costume party? No, it’s the sirens and Odysseus.

Siren vase, British Museum.

Having an understanding of history and culture is what allows us to really enjoy art and to make comments on it. This goes for all visual mediums, particularly memes. And why I don’t think that talking about current images of Mohammed, but divorcing that discussion from current events, is at all useful.

And, is this driven from wanting BOTH Jesus and Mohammed to be equally criticized, or from the desire to be able to be to act on their anger about the ways Christianity is sometimes portrayed?

South Park’s Mohammed.

It’s also why I sometimes think that equating South Park’s Jesus with the Danish cartoons of Mohammed isn’t quite the same thing: the South Park creators are American, and so come from a society influenced by Christianity where Islam is seen as an outside religion. Same thing with the Danish cartoonists.

But, whenever people get upset about things like Kevin Smith’s film Dogma, I wonder. I don’t get what the argument is. Do people want to be able to riot when someone makes fun of Christianity? Arrest people who make images they don’t like? Because at times, that’s what it seems like.

Particularly in Poland. The ruling party often decries so-called “Western liberal values,” and is particularly upset with Muslims and the LGBT community— as shown in this poster of the pope criticizing the movie Clergy, a film with took a scathing look at pedophilia committed by Catholic priests. Tecza, a giant rainbow construction in Warsaw, was burned and vandalized multiple times before being taken down in 2015. Poland’s ruling political party is very outspoken of their dislike of gay rights.

Poster criticizing the Polish movie Clergy. It reads: “our treasure in the fight against Nazis, communism, LGBT and Islamists.”


On a cultural note, I noticed this past November, in 2018 that Polish public schools were holding All Saint’s Day Balls as alternative to Halloween, where the students dressed up as nuns, priests, popes, monks or their favorite saints. In April of this year, a group of Polish priests made national news when they burned Harry Potter books, because those books contained “magic.” 

Preists burning Harry Potter books.

Part of me gets it. American pop culture is everywhere: McDonalds, pop music in malls, English taking over and possibly pushing out other languages. But, it’s also possible to be both pro-so-called “Western values” and also anti-Americanization of culture.


(Unless we’re talking about the fried cheese patty burger I had in Slovakia. This is an awesome blend of cultures. I don’t know why this delicious pile of calories isn’t marketed everywhere!)

Fried cheese patty burger.

And that’s the point. It’s ok to make a painting using cow dung and religious symbols, and it’s also ok to get upset that someone made the painting in the first place. The problem comes in when you try and stop people from making paintings you don’t like: be it Mohammed cartoons or pretentious art.

Trying to stop museums from showing provocative art is a problem. Arresting people for making controversial posters is awful and an overstep of the government.

Just to be clear, I’m not crazy about this art. And this is what I call “weird sensational art made with sketchy organic materials that probably won’t age well.” For example, this by Marc Quinn.

Self, by Marc Quinn

It’s a self portrait of the artist, made with ten pints of his own blood— encased in a silicone likeness of his head.

He’s also recently made a new work called Our Blood using donated refugee blood, so there’s that. While I’m not a fan of this art, I also don’t think it should be censored.

And it think it’s vital to remember context. The image in the beginning— white feathers and a black and white photo— looks pretty random. 


It’s actually my version of a work featured titled Loot Square, shown in an exhibit called The Germans Did Not Come. The city I live in was German before World War II. During the final months of the war, as Soviet tanks rolled in, it was the location of a huge amount of violence, fighting, and destruction. When the war ended, the Germans were expelled from the city, and the city became part of Poland.

Pl Grunwalski, after WWII.

The ruins in the photo are from my adopted city. German generals destroyed many homes to make a runway to escape by plane. This empty space became a spot for people to meet and sell black market goods and things they’d found in the rubble. For bags, they often used torn pillowcases and comforters, and it was said that white downy feathers would blow around in the uncertain days after the war ended.

So, the artwork: a large photo of this square with white feathers blown by fan while a sad song played. The song is from the movie Prawo i pięść, which means the Law and the Fist. It, too, was about dealing with the aftermath of WWII.

Booklet from art exhibit.

Which is why I’m sometimes so deeply saddened by what I see happening now in Poland’s government. They should know the consequences of nationalism and censorship, having endured both WWII and Communism. And I cannot make sense of why people have so quickly forgotten history.


 No one should threaten violence because someone else drew a picture of your god. Full stop. However, pretending that context is completely irrelevant is not true. Hiding your racism behind feigned outrage over censorship and free speech is bullshit.


And this is why I think people who get angry about people criticizing Christianity are hypocrites. No religion is above criticism.

And at least, the woman who made the Rainbow Mary posters has been released from police custody.

Thanks for watching! And thanks to Slawek Borkowski and Pawel Dembowski for help with some translations. I’ve linked to Trans Grysy, which has a variety of Rainbow Madonnas, including a Bi Rainbow and Trans rainbow for download. Brianna Stallings is my script advisor.

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