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.
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.
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.