Friday, February 03, 2006

The "Prophet Cartoon" Controversy

There is upset in many quarters over the publication (originally in a Danish paper, but later picked up by others) of cartoons in which the Prophet Muhammad is depicted. As I understand it, one cartoon pictured the Prophet with a headdress fashioned to look like a bomb; in another, he complained that heaven was running short of virgins for suicide bombers. (Thus, at least, the BBC.) In response to the publication and re-publication, protests have been simmering and breaking out among numerous Muslim populations within and without the Middle East. And the protests and calls for protesting have raised counter-protests from those who deem themselves not "politically correct." For example, some Lutherans of my acquaintance wonder aloud why we ought to be sympathetic with the Muslims when the world just tells us to "learn to live with it" whenever our faith is attacked. (There are also strident defenses of the freedom of speech and the right to publish. But I don't want to deal with those arguments.)

I wonder two things.

First: Do I correctly read the reaction to the cartoons to be that the Prophet is depicted at all? I understand that Islam forbids the picturing of either the Prophet or Allah. The fear is that a depiction easily lends itself to worship -- i.e., idolatry. And I respect that -- in fact, anyone else in the Judeo-Christian tradition (in which I rest) should respect that. After all, we have the commandments in Exodus and the Orthodox iconographic canon forbidding physical representations of God (the Father).

But what I find astounding is the (relative) silence about the content of the cartoons beyond the picture of the Prophet. These are scandalous aspersions that attach to all of Islam, and I haven't heard or seen a discussion of that aspect of the issue. The cartoons accuse Islam of a fundamental (sorry for the word) and necessary connection with terrorism -- a connection, I would argue, that does not bear scrutiny. I grant that there are factions within Islam (or that claim to be within Islam) that foster and support terrorism (I guess on religious grounds -- although I don't know enough about it). But Islam itself cannot be charged with that horror. There are millions of Muslims who oppose the kind of religion-based violence that is bringing dishonor on their faith. So why are the imams and their non-Muslim sympathizers (among whom I count myself) raising a fuss about this? Or have I simply missed the boat?

It's like those pictures of Jesus dressed as a warrior (ala Arnold): The problem is not that Jesus is pictured; it is that Jesus is pictured in a way that is contrary to all that he did and taught.

Second: Is is fair to ask Muslims to suck it up and get a thicker skin, the same way conservative Christians are called to do whenever there is a seemingly disrespectful representation of Jesus or Christianity? That's the point making some religious blogs these days (especially among my "conservative" Lutheran acquaintances).

I remember, for example, the brouhaha over the "Piss Christ" (see it here -- and notice the description of the "medium" as "esoteric" and the "genre" as "Jesus Christ") . Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix (cross with the body of Christ) immersed in a container said to be urine. What he meant to say, I haven't a clue (and really, I don't care: in art and literature, it's the interpretation that counts, not the artist's intention, it seems to me -- but don't hold me generally to that hermeneutic). What people understood (or wanted) him to say is all over the map. For some, it is a profound reflection on the the Incarnation, a depiction of the true-human nature of Jesus which shows just how deeply he descended into the human condition. (You don't get deeper, they say, than bodily fluids.) Others have touted this work as the poster child for free expression, for free artistic expression, for the right to make a public horse's a** out of oneself. But critics have countered and accused Serrano of blasphemy, or ridiculing Christian faith, of violating the limits of free speech, and (probably, but I don't know) of beating his cat.

The free speech debate doesn't interest me (even though I'm really hot on the First Amendment). The controversy over the religious meaning of the event (not just the artifact) is fascinating. I personally happen to find some legitimate and even poignant inspiration from the work. (I'm not about to hang it in my office, but that's a different issue.) But I can understand a certain squeamishness about it.

Well, to the point here, conservatives claim that when they protested the display of the work, "liberals" told them to toughen up, to "get over it," to learn to live with alternatives and with criticism. (Of course, we progressives would never have said such things. We would have attempted dialogue to find out what was giving offense and then would have tried to talk through it. Thus the difference, perhaps, between "liberals" and "progressives." But don't hold me to that, either: I'm only putting it that way because I don't consider myself a liberal.) But those conservatives (self-designated) are now up in arms again because they don't know why the liberals are being all "sensitive" to the Muslims, given their earlier advice to Christians.

It's probably a half-valid point. The non-valid point roots in the basic difference between the two upsets: There is nothing in Christianity forbidding the portrayal of Jesus; the issue was the disrespect that some saw in the Serrano portrait. That is arguably not a basis theological affront (although there were plenty who saw it as blasphemy -- which is). In contrast, it is fundamental to Islam that there be no portrait of the Prophet. When the Danish paper violated that canon, it was a really big deal. The difference in the situation (at least as explained to me by my Muslim friend) is the difference between accident and substance (hints of Aristotle and of transubstantiation, perhaps?): Portrayal at all is a substantial issue; the means of portrayal is accidental.

The valid point is that no religious community may rightly claim, as a right, freedom from affront in a pluralistic world. In fact, the world does not respect religion of almost any kind -- Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, et. al. -- enough to set it beyond comment and ridicule. We "religionists" will be attacked, joked about, questioned, challenged -- but rarely listened to sensitively. And we probably have to get used to that. (All the more reason for Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer visions of the Church as primary, formative communities -- gatherings where our self-esteem as religionists is bolstered in the proper terms.)

I'm not very sympathetic with moaning about how Christians always "take it on the chin." Sure, there are areas of the world where it is dangerous to be Christian, but that's not the issue here. Frankly, those people who most moan about the disrespect shown to Christians never discuss the state of Christianity in China, for example, or Saudi Arabia, for another example -- I suspect because to do so would raise difficult questions for their politically conservative allies.

And I think that Christians (at least Western ones) legitimately can be called to a higher level of sympathy for members of other religious traditions -- especially Muslims. We are in a pretty secure situation in the Western World. I find it hard to believe that any major news outlet would publish similar broad-brushed smears of Christianity or Judaism. (Sorry, the Serrano is just not on this scale.) Had the cartoons focused on Jews (e.g., showing them insatiable for land and olive trees because many Israelis seem to be), the outcry would have been deafening. And besides that, we Christians are called to treat others kindly and to come to their defense.

And from that might come another political agenda: We might reasonably raise questions about whether it is necessary or a good thing intentionally to misrepresent or derogate or "disrespect" another faith tradition -- even it there are things about that tradition which drive us crazy or deeply offend us. I think we might reasonably raise those questions to the institutions of civil society in which we are involved. You don't have to become a pluralist of religions so to advocate. So you won't find illustrations of the disputed cartoons on this blog. (But notice, I did link you to the Serrano picture!)


Ron Franscell said...

From media blogger Ron Franscell at ...

OK, it's not really news that radical Muslims are mad and want to kill people ... that's just every Thursday for Osama and his boys.

But it's kinda funny that they now want to blow up anybody who laughed at that cartoon. It's funny to think of Denmark as a threat to Islam, isn't it? Denmark isn't even a threat to Finland.

I wonder: How can a culture that justifies crashing planes into buildings or beheading innocents find a piddling editorial cartoon too offensive? And we think these people should have nukes?

Hunting for logic in the madrassahs of the Muslim world is fruitless. Logic is a head-thing, and radical Islamists listen only to the sour bile in their guts. We have Muslim media (al Jazeera) airing decapitation videos for the simple reason that radical Islamists know beheadings are highly provocative to Westerners ... but now radical Islamists are going (slightly more) insane over a newspaper cartoon?? Man, they need to cut back the caffeine in that Turkish coffee.

If Muslim countries wish to ban such idolatrous art, let 'em. But most Muslim nations put more energy into organizing "Death to America!" parades than election days. Why waste time debating issues when you can simply blow up the opposition? Why write a letter to the editor when you can just shoot your rival? Face it, terrorists generally aren't good listeners (or cuddlers, for that matter.) But, hey, it's their little corner of Hell, and if they wish, they should be free to set the thermostat on "high."

But a lot of nations in this world still have free presses, free expression, and really wicked editorial cartoonists. Radical Islamists with 12th century sensibilities have already made a too-big dent in the 21st century ... and when they arrive at democratic government offices and newsrooms with loaded weapons, they're no better than the "devil-dogs" they so gleefully decapitate. Haven't they seen how George Bush is portrayed in cartoons? And how long do you think before "South Park" has a Mohammad character dancing nekkid with 72 virgins?

Oh well. Editorial cartoonists' only reason for living is to get under somebody's skin. And now, one Danish cartoonist has found some readers who want to get under his skin ... with a scimitar.

Lee said...

Good points, Dwight. One addendum - if I recall correctly, the Serano piece was funded by the gov't which caused much of the consternation among conservatives (not completely unjustified in my view).

Another interesting angle is the role globalization plays in all of this: who would've thought 20 years ago that a cartoon in a Danish newspaper could enrage people living the Middle East?

Dwight P. said...

Ron, the point is that it is entirely wrong and unfair to assert without evidence that Islam is a "culture that justifies crashing into buildings." It is as unfair as it is to say Nichols and McVey or KKK or Hitler are typical of Christianity. In both cases, there are good reasons for criticizing, pillorying, satirizing those who claim a special anti-human philosophy. But I think we can expect a little more sophistication from those who claim a certain authority.

Papers, bloggers, and others: Go ahead and cartoon Osama, Bush, and all the other boneheads. But be a little senstive when it comes to the "biggies."

Anonymous said...

Dwight P:

Please read the quran, koran, or what you want to call it. There you have the answers to if it is OK to chrash planes or whatever killing and terror.

And you will find that all that are against islam i one or other way, has to be killed, that is the law of, allah the moon god, spoken by muhammed the creepy guy that "completed" the marrige with Aisha, 9 years old.

The only thing needed to get killed by a muslim(if they belive in the koran and the hadiths), is that you dont belive in the moon god.

Best regards from Sweden