Graven images and poor reflections

Khaled Diab

It is perplexing that a few crude cartoons can spark an international crisis overshadowing war, political oppression and economic and social injustice. It has hurt the image of Muslims and reflects poorly on their tolerance, while unmasking the uglier face of western prejudice.


February 2006


The saga surrounding the caricatures of the prophet Mohamed which appeared in the leading Danish daily Jyllands-Posten has left me bewildered and concerned. That there is something rotten in the state of Denmark when it comes to its attitudes towards its immigrant population, particularly the Muslims among them, is clear. But there is also something rotten in the state of the world if a few badly drawn and crude illustrations can provoke such widespread anger and condemnation.


In the space of days, we have seen protest marches and rioting in several Muslim countries, threats of a boycott against Danish businesses, the burning of Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria, sectarian strife in Beirut with Muslims burning Christian symbols, and Palestinian gunmen occupying an EU building for a few hours to demand an apology. Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark and Iran has gone so far as to suspend all trade and diplomatic ties with Denmark. In Jordan, two newspaper editors who republished the cartoons have been arrested.


From the magnitude of the reaction, you’d think a tribe of neo-Vandals had decided to invade a sovereign Muslim state. And this disproportionate overreaction only affords these substandard cartoons a dignity they do not deserve, it also strengthens the hand of Islamophobes who can take the higher moral ground in the name of defending ‘freedom of expression’, although the most vocal are often the very same people who call for the deportation of Muslims expressing views contrary to their own, or call for independent Arabic news channels to be shut down.


Proxy conflicts

Why this series of cartoons should provoke so much fury is perplexing, given the more pressing and dire questions facing much of the Arab and Muslim world: neo-imperialism, military invasion, political and social oppression by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes, economic stagnation, etc.


Could it be that many Muslims, faced with these relatively intractable issues, needed a proxy for their anger and frustration? And is it possible that certain regimes are happy to sit back and let people vent their rage at this soft target as a form of popular steam control to prevent them from asking more difficult questions? Could graven images be the craven’s tool of choice to deflect popular wrath?


Closer to home, could it be that many western Muslim have grown so sick and tired of how they have been marginalised and tarnished collectively with the brush of terrorism in recent years that a cartoon portraying their prophet as a terrorist proved the final straw?


Whatever the reasons, that this should spark an international crisis of farcical proportions is inexplicable and the unfolding situation threatens to do precisely what millions of Muslims find so wrong with certain western policies, namely punishing an entire society collectively for the misdeeds of a few. What fault is it of the Danish people as a whole that there are some xenophobes and Muslim-bashers in their midst? Should thousands of Danes potentially lose their jobs for the actions of a few? It may pale in comparison with western actions in Afghanistan or Iraq, but it is still threatening collective punishment.


This impasse has cast an unflattering light on too many Muslims, showing them to be intolerant, and led to some bridges of understanding with the outside world being burnt in the process. In fact, it has only strengthened the hand of extremist elements on both sides.


Expression and counter-expression

I am not defending the cartoons or their crude and uninspired imagery. Their Islamophobia is of classical proportions and shows that, despite the Enlightenment and the ‘death of God’ heralded by Nietzsche, too many Europeans have not overcome their instinctive hatred or distrust of Islam and Muslims.


Denmark – with its Draconian anti-immigrant legislation and poor record of integrating minorities – is not exactly a picture of tolerance, social harmony or multiculturalism. But there is nothing new about associating Islam with bloodthirstiness and deviance; a substantial number of Europeans have been doing it for centuries in their art, their literature and even their scholarship.


What I am defending is the newspaper’s right to run the cartoons. As an advocate of freedom of expression, I believe that the papers that (re)published the cartoons were well within their rights, even if some of the illustrations resounded with blatantly anti-Islamic undertones. After all, they were not explicitly racist and did not openly incite anyone to carry out hateful, harmful or violent acts.


I am also not saying that Muslims do not have a right to protest against what they believe is crude and rude stereotyping of their faith – and they should not be arrested for doing so. But the way to do this is through peaceful protest, deluging the newspaper with letters outlining why the cartoons are offensive, writing articles, etc. Muslim organisations could even sue the offending paper, if they think they have a case, or call for Muslims and their sympathisers to stop buying or advertising in the newspaper.


A thin line

Raised as a Muslim myself, I am well aware of the injunction on depicting the prophet – as well as other holy figures. Judaism and early Buddhism ban graven images – i.e. the reproduction by artists of God and his living beings. The Quran only explicitly condemns, in no uncertain terms, idolatry, although some Muslims also hold that graven images are not allowed.


The main ideological rationale behind the ban on images of Mohamed is more to avoid the danger of Muslims worshipping the person or image of their prophet, rather than God and the essence and spirit of their faith. It is an Islamic form of iconoclasm. So, this prohibition is one imposed on Muslims, not on non-believers, who are allowed to idolise – even satirise – whom they wish.


To my mind, the ideological and philosophical irony in the situation is that by elevating their reverence of the person of Mohamed to such levels, some Muslims are defeating the true object of this injunction. The biggest axe to grind that Muslims have with Christianity is that Christians regard Jesus as the ‘son of God’. Mohamed never claimed to be anything but human, and so Muslims who revere him so obsessively should take a chill pill and ask themselves whether they are not turning their own prophet into an idol of sorts. Idols do not have to be visual; they can also be mental. In fact, reforming Islam would involve granting Mohamed a more human status and following an approach that does not take his every move as gospel.


Holy joke!

Just as Muslims do not want non-Muslims to impose their alien values on Islamic societies, they should not try to force their own mores on to other societies. It is a longstanding tradition in Europe to mock and satirise religion and religious figures. In the last century, the holy cow of religion has been sacrificed at the altar of European secularism. Jesus Christ jokes are an entire genre of humour, Monty Python’s Life of Brian satirises Christianity and monotheism, and was voted the greatest comedy of all time in Britain. The last temptation of Christ explores the human fallibility of Jesus, as he is tempted by the devil on the cross. Christian fundamentalists have been angered by such expressions for decades but, despite their best efforts, have not managed to suppress them.


However repugnant or repulsive Muslims find such irreverent and sacrilegious practices, they should be aware that they are a manifestation of the general retreat of organised religion in the West and not exclusively anti-Islamic in nature. All faiths are mocked mercilessly. Muslims have no right to try to curb these practices or punish those who commit them. If atheists have it wrong, they will find out in the afterlife, while the true believer can have the last laugh in heaven (although they should be charitable enough not to mock the misfortune of others).


If the faithful believe something a non-believer does is blasphemous, their responsibility is, first and foremost, not to commit the same sin themselves. At the end of the day, atheism is also a belief system and Muslims would do well to remember that Islam protects freedom of faith for all – even non-believers – and the final reckoning is for God.


Single yardstick for all

But people in Europe shouldn’t take a holier-than-thou attitude. They would do well to remember that their own record of defending freedom of expression when the views being expressed run contrary to their own has been patchy at best.


A case in point is Al Jazeera, once the darling of US officials and establishment columnists, which has been endlessly ridiculed, particularly in the United States, for its coverage of the war in Iraq. Its offices have been bombed and its journalists killed ostensibly by accident by the Americans. During a spat over graven images of another sort, not many in the west ran to defend the Arab satellite channel’s right to broadcast images of American and British POWs. Those that pointed out that Al Jazeera had a right to broadcast the horrors of war and that western channels routinely showed footage of Iraqi POWs were ridiculed and attacked.


More tellingly in the current context, reports have emerged that Jyllands-Posten refused to publish, in 2003, images lampooning Jesus Christ. The artist who drew them received an e-mail response from the newspaper’s Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.”


Although the Jesus caricatures were unsolicited and the Mohamed drawings were commissioned, the editor’s remarks still demonstrate the care and respect with which Denmark’s leading newspaper treats the sensibilities of its readers. There is certainly room in a secular society for sacrilegious satire, but the place for it is normally not mainstream newspapers. Although the number of Danes who would be offended by satirical representations of Christ, one imagines, is relatively small, Jyllands-Posten was sensitive enough to take their feelings into account, despite being a professedly secular newspaper.


However, they failed to take the feelings of the Muslims among their readership into consideration. In fact, when 4,000 Danish Muslims took to the streets in October 2005 demanding peacefully and quietly nothing more than an apology, the newspaper’s only response was to post more guards at its doors. A written statement apologising for any offence caused but defending freedom of speech could have gone a long way to avoiding this ridiculous and unnecessary standoff.


A few weeks later, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen did not help matters when he refused to meet a group of Arab ambassadors who wished to express their protest. One can only speculate on the difference it would have made had he met them, expressed understanding, but explained that he could do nothing to interfere with press freedom.


If we are to avoid such farces in the future, both Muslims and Europeans are going to have to make allowances for one another and realise their own human fallibility. If we are to succeed in constructing a multicultural society and a tolerant world which disproves all those itching to create a monumental ‘clash of civilisations’ where one does not exist, people have to abandon holier-than-thou pretences and turn the mirror in on themselves.


With the intellectual collaboration of KM.


ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.