Drawing Out Muhammad

The 'offending' cartoon

Muslims are clearing their throats and doing their warm-up exercises (you wouldn’t want to get an intolerance injury right before the weekend). Someone’s done a cartoon again, and it’s time for another ruckus.

It’s getting quite boring really, not because the cartoons are bad (I think Zapiro is uniformly fantastic) or because religious principles are bad per se. It’s boring in the way that showing Coen Brothers movies to Leon Schuster fans is boring. It’s boring in the way that playing Beethoven to Justin Bieber fans is boring. It’s boring because radical Muslims fundamentally misunderstand such cartoons, and even if they did, they are obliged to refuse the lesson.

Zapiro’s cartoon is his contribution to a day organised on Facebook in which participants were encouraged to draw a picture of Muhammad. Pakistan got wind of this and managed to suspend Facebook’s service in their country. In South Africa, by 9am on the morning of the publication of the cartoon, a representative of Islam had already been to court to block distribution of the newspaper and lost the case (mostly on account of the fact that the paper had been delivered already).

Determined to Misunderstand
The reason for the outrage is that it is considered an offence within Islam to make representations of the Prophet. As a result, before any consideration of the message and purpose of Muhammad cartoons, the fact of the cartoons’ existence shuts down any further thought.

I fail to understand how this rule makes any sense. As far as I know, Islam has an aversion to the making of any images, because it might encourage false worship or somehow detract from the glory of the Creator. This is why Islamic visual art tends to extend to extend no further than calligraphy. I can understand that, even if it’s a bit paranoid, and it seems as though Islam recognises that the rest of us are not obliged to share that rule of theirs. So this is obviously not the issue underlying the Muhammad upset.

I could also understand a ban on images of deities in particular. Judeo-Christian faith has always emphasised God as sovereign speaker, not as contained icon, and so Islam would naturally follow that kind of thinking (although it does not follow that we should forbid outsiders to our faiths from making such images). But Muhammad is not a deity. Even if he were the greatest of prophets, he was still only a prophet, and I don’t see any uproar from Islam over images of Moses, despite their acknowledgment of his office. Even Christians do not object to depictions of Jesus, because although he’s regarded as divine, his appearance in human form gave concrete visual expression to the image of God. Punishing drawings of Muhammad, then,¬† seems to me to be placing him within the territory reserved for the invisible God, rather than in the mucky, fleshly, visceral sphere of the prophets. In other words, I find it hard to see how it is blasphemy to draw a man, but not blasphemy to treat a man with the honour that ought to be reserved for God.

Vicious Cycles
It is a real problem that Islam has a tendency to respond violently in defence of its deity, because it is precisely this tendency that has occasioned these cartoons in the first place.

The original Danish series that led to somewhere between 50 and 100 deaths had almost nothing to do with Muhammad. In those cartoons he is a synecdoche: he is the part that stands for the whole. In other words, he is a picture of modern fundamentalist Islam, not of Muhammad (it’s just that Mo is easier to draw). And those cartoons were a protest against the fear and violence on which radical Islam presently trades.

Muslim protests over cartoons in London

Muslim protests over cartoons in London

Ironically, they produced a vigorous wave of fear and violence in reprisal, which in turn is the catalyst for ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’. Radical Islam is not well tooled for multi-cultural, pluralist society, because the rules of co-existence with others come a distant second to religious belief. The threat of violence that often accompanies any upset impinges directly upon the freedom that others enjoy. Cartoons of Muhammad, therefore, are now merely protest against the repression and fear that radical Islam represents to non-Islamic societies. It is a necessary attempt by citizens to address Islamic threats to freedom, which are made on grounds that non-Muslims have no duty to agree with or accept. Yet Muslims fail to see that such cartoons are not about Muhammad, but about them and their attitudes to the non-Muslim societies of which they are ordinary non-privileged members.

South Africa has only recently shed a system that inflicted minority interests upon an unwilling majority. There’s no reason why Islam should be given any room to do the same merely because it is religious and Muslims feel deeply about it. The rest of us feel deeply about being free from fear. Perhaps repeated protests such as that represented by Draw Muhammad Day will eventually get the message across. Zapiro’s right to make the attempt must be supported.

Baby-talk About Trinity

My youngest is learning to string together short sentences at the moment, and it warms a parent’s heart when kids say cute or funny things because they lack the equipment to express themselves properly. I was feeding her a massive fillet of hake, which she kept referring to as ‘fish finger’. (Yes, I know that this could only possibly be of interest to me).

Now that is obviously not worth writing about as it stands, but I mention it because I was reminded of recent discussions about the doctrine of Trinity in which I’ve taken part. We seem to get ourselves into knots as soon as we get specific about what it means in practice. I wondered whether God finds it funny when we try to speak about Him but without the mental equipment to deal with the nature of His being, or without even the words to express whatever glimmers of understanding we might have? I hope He finds it funny anyway.

Racists still haven’t come down from the trees

Tintin in Congo

The Offending Book

A friend linked me to a Time / Yahoo News report about a proposed ban on Tintin for racism. The example cited in the article is hair-raising enough. The author tells of a panel in which ‘a black woman bows before Tintin exclaiming, “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!”‘

We may well bemoan those times in our all-too-recent history when people followed simplistic judgments about human value, pursuing them to brutal conclusions. Colonialism in Africa was almost uniformly horrific, for all the improvements made to infrastructure and the gains made for the Christian gospel in Africa. South Africa will be paying for the consequences of white rule for generations still. The article  provides an example from the Belgian Congo, saying,

Leopold’s agents pioneered a ruthless forced-labor system for gathering wild rubber: villages that failed to meet the rubber-collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in amputated hands. Some estimates say Congo’s population fell by 10 million during that time.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, and with all of the evidence available to us, it’s easy to agree that racism has been appallingly destructive of Africa, and that it has no place in our society. Well, that was an obvious conclusion I thought, except when I was directed to all the readers’ comments below the article. Here are some of the choice ones, just from the first page (there were seven pages more, but I couldn’t bear to read on):

  • In response to the idea that Tintin renders Africans as childlike (or even simian) and that Europeans are great, ‘Richard’ says: “Show the world some evidence that Tintin was wrong.”
  • Anonymous says, “Tintin was right, 100 percent. They are still not out of the trees,” and again, “A rich continent populated by vicious tribal thugs. Africa will has gone downhill steadily since the blacks took over, country by country destroyed by poverty and violence.”
  • Paladin says (among much else), “The people of Africa deserve Independence; however, the European colonial powers should have governed those lands until they were capable of self government!”
  • Petrus is worth quoting in full: “If anything, Belgium should re-colonize the “Democratic Republic” of Congo. Rather let that area be productive than let it go to waste in the hands of a people who can’t be bothered to stop lazing around. The only “work” those people do is kill each other and their environment, which is a shame because Africa is such a beautiful continent. They need to be told what to do and how to behave because it is clear that they have no idea how to function on their own. They’re just like children. But, naturally, it’s right to blame the “racist whites” for trying to salvage land & precious resources from savages.” It’s not pillaging and theft if you think a resource is being wasted. It’s called salvage. Brilliant! I think we should be allowed to ‘salvage’ all the money that Americans spend on snacks and liposuction too. Oh, and you’re about to buy a Hummer? Sorry, that money is mine now. Give over.

I made a couple of rebuttals, including that whiteness and blackness are hardly criteria that are relevant in this discussion, seeing as ‘white’ technological superiority is founded on gains made by ‘non-white’ civilisations, including those of Egypt, Persia and Turkey. But what’s the point? If, with all the gains made in anthropology, for instance, and with all the benefits of more balanced evaluations of colonialism, people are still unable to see others outside of superficial categories such as skin colour, what good will arguing do?

The website also allows people to show their approval of comments with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It disheartened me even further to notice that the openly racist comments were usually opposed by only a small majority. Somewhere between a third and a half of the interested readers still remain happy with the suggestion that black people are closer to monkeys than they are to white people. Besides making a tacit argument for their own under-evolvedness, one wonders what benefit such people derive from hating someone’s skin?