"Zombie Mohammed" and atheist Ernest Perce discusses his fight for free speech and the case that caused a national controversy.
Last October, Ernest Perce was marching in a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, dressed up as a zombie version of the prophet Mohammed when he was physically confronted by Talaag Elbayomy, a Muslim immigrant who found his costume offensive. According to Perce, Elbayomy grabbed him, chocked him, and then tried to rip off the “Mohammed of Islam” sign that Pence wore around his neck. Elbayomy later admitted to a police officer on the scene that he had tried to grab the sign, believing that it was a crime in the United States to insult Mohammed. But when Pence brought criminal harassment charges against Elbayomy, the district judge, Judge Mark Martin, dismissed the case. More outrageously, he proceeded to lecture Perce in a stunningly ignorant fashion about his rights under the First Amendment. After claiming that the First Amendment was intended “so that we could speak what's on our mind, not to piss off other people and cultures,” and informing Perce that in Muslim countries causing such offense to Islam “could be punished by death, and frequently is,” the judge in effect blamed Pence rather than his attacker. “You are way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights,” the judge concluded. Since then, the judge’s comments (which he does not deny making) have touched off a national firestorm of criticism and controversy. Perce, the Pennsylvania state director of American Atheists, joined Front Page to discuss his legal ordeal, the threat to free speech in the U.S., and the explosive reaction to the case.
FP: What message or messages do you think were sent by the judge’s decision to dismiss your case – and especially by his decision to chastise for you giving offense to Muslims?
EP: In my opinion, the message sent by the judge is that Muslims now have the absolute right to defend their religious beliefs, even if by means of force.
FP: In the course of berating you, the judge claimed that the American Founders did not mean for the First Amendment to be used to give offence but rather to speak one's mind. Among other problems, that would seem to be a contradiction, since speaking one’s mind is liable to give offence. What did you make of his reasoning in this regard?
EP: At first, I didn't believe what I was hearing. When I marched in the Halloween parade, it was in support of the right of free speech. I believe I have the right to tell the followers of Islam that, in this country, their religion can be mocked, and that the law protects that right. That is why we have a First Amendment. I believe the founders intended to protect speech that some – including the followers of Islam – may find offensive.
FP: Your case has certainly generated a great deal of media attention. What do you make of the discussion that it has generated, including the many defenses of your First Amendment rights from bloggers, journalists and law professors? Were there any reactions that stand out in your mind?
EP: The discussion that was and is generated was overwhelming. On the one hand, the death threats I received, and the vitriol from some of the bloggers, was insane. At the same time, I was encouraged by the fact that many people who understand the law, including many law professors, were on my side. Most of all, I took heart in the fact that I knew I was not breaking any law when I dressed up as Zombie Mohammed. In fact, I believe I was saying what many Americans wanted to but maybe were afraid to say: no religion is above mockery.
FP: On the darker side, which you hint at, you have reportedly received over 500 death threats. What has been the nature of those threats -- for instance, are they all from Islamists? -- and how are you coping with this menacing situation?
EP: The death threats are from mostly Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, but I have had some threats from atheists, who claim that they will “kick my ass” because I am supposedly giving atheism a bad name. I was on a radio show and made a comment that nearly got me booted from the atheist movement. I was addressing the followers of Islam and I said:
“I do not respect your filthy, repugnant, and vile views. I will not allow you put fear in my mind or in the mind of those whom I know. I will not be silent with my disdain and disgust for your culture or your terroristic ways. I am an American atheist, and I am not afraid to deal with you openly and in the same manner that I treat Christianity. I am not afraid to publicly blaspheme your pedophile prophet. I will do this on a corner, in a crowd, or a parade! While so many others draw Mohammed, I am Mohammed in open public! Am I worried about being attacked or death threats? I’m more worried that if I stay silent that the energy and emotion within me will be worse to me than being attacked or even death threats! So do your worst and I will do mine.”
That didn’t go down well with some in the atheist movement, but I don’t apologize for saying that.
FP: Since the ruling there has been a remarkable backlash against the judge, Mechanicsburg District Judge Mark Martin, and he and his staff have been temporarily relocated to another courthouse for safety reasons. What are your thoughts about that unfortunate consequence?
EP: I think it’s regrettable that the judge has to fear for his safety. But at the same time, this is a nation that has been attacked by radical Islamists. So when a judge – who is also a veteran soldier and who is supposed to be fighting for the sake of our Constitution – sides with Islam in this way, what do we expect? The nation was furious and we have every right to be furious. Moreover, the judge has been relocated and has unlimited protection, but what about me? I have zero protection. The judge could have found my attacker guilty. Then, no protection either way would have been needed. How do you become the most hated judge in America? Allow Islam to trump the Constitution!
FP: Do you think the American legal system at present is too accommodating of Islamic sensibilities in the name of religious sensitivity? For instance, the Center for Security Policy recently issued a report reviewing 50 Appellate Court cases from 23 states, and concluded that Shariah law has entered into state court decisions, often in conflict with the Constitution. Is your case just the tip of a broader national problem?
EP: There is no doubt that Sharia law is creeping into the legal system, and my case is proof. While there has never been an American so brash as to dress as Mohammed in public, the judge’s decision to side with my attacker shows that Islamic favor is evident in court decisions. We need not be accommodating to any religion. No people are above the right to be offended. This is America. No religious belief should be given a free pass.
FP: Even though the judge dismissed your case, it has clearly struck a chord. What are your plans now? Do you intend to pursue the issues you raised in the case, either through the legal system or by speaking out about it?
EP: I plan to file a judicial complaint. I need help with this, however. I need an attorney who can take all my thoughts and formulate them into a judicial complaint that the board will understand. I do not have the funds adequate to pay for an attorney or a professional writer. Most local attorneys won’t help me unless I can generate about a one thousand dollar retainer, and so far I have saved just $395.00. I will keep saving and when I have enough, I will hire an attorney who can assist with this. This judge must be removed from the bench. He favors Islamic rule over the rule of law and I believe that makes him unfit to serve.
FP: Any final thoughts?
EP: People need to learn to take out their aggression in non-violent ways. When you become an American you should adapt to our way of life. You should respect the rights protected by our Constitution. Talk about your frustration, protest what you do not agree with. But don’t resort to violence to silence those you disagree with. Americans have no problem with people of any faith coming to our country. But those people should know that because we are the land of the free, we are also free to offend.