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.


12 thoughts on “Drawing Out Muhammad

  1. Ingrid says:

    Those pictures of muslim protests of cartoons in England are so frightening! It’s amazing that they are allowed to demonstrate with such murderous threats! Scary…
    Love the first cartoon though!

  2. Mary says:

    Actually, I still think this one is in poor taste. I don’t see what they find offensive, but I don’t think it’s helpful when we as Christians support this sort of thing. We don’t want to create barriers to dialogue with Muslim people. It’s rather like the controversy over meat sacrificed to idols in Corinth that Paul writes about. Sometimes we should voluntarily curtail our freedoms for others. And yes, Paul’s writing about fellow Christians. But I think the principle also applies evangelistically.

  3. Mary says:

    And I’m not saying that it should be illegal to create such a cartoon either. It should be legal. But it shouldn’t be supported.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      I don’t see why not. Groups A-Y have learned co-exist by mutual criticism and mature discussion. Group Z feels itself above criticism, and resorts to threats and physical violence if it gets its feelers hurt. If this alphabet were a school class, Student Z would be ejected from the room or expelled permanently. If the alphabet were adult individuals, Person Z would be arrested as a criminal. If the alphabet were countries, Country Z would be spoiling for a war. Now that Z is a worldwide set of religious communities, we must defend THEM? Where Islam is the only religion, perhaps they can make their own social rules. Where they’re living with A-Y, they need to learn co-existence or go away. They are not to force us by means of fear and violence to alter the successful terms of co-existence that we have established with everyone else just because they feel strongly about something. This cartoon is a tame example of a justified form of protest that aims at bringing the current LACK of coexistence to a head so that it can be dealt with. I’m all for it.

  4. Screamer says:

    I think you make a good point in their wrongful elevation of Muhammad and I acknowledge that the cartoon is amusing, however I disagree with the implication that followers of other religions DO have a sense of humour (in the way that it is meant here).

    As amusing as South Park, Simpsons and Family Guy are, they all have some blasphemous scenes that get my back up. So I don’t watch South Park at all and feel edgy when the other two start getting onto religion. When someone makes fun of something that’s important (like Jesus’ worth and honour), it’s not something to laugh about and that’s why I’m not sure Christians could be included in his “other followers with a sense of homour” category. Not sure if we started making Abraham or Moses jokes, if Shapiro would find them very funny either. Or, perhaps, those amusing jokes of Jews and the holocaust… (and I think we could agree jokes about God would be MORE serious that holocaust jokes).

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Again, drawing Muhammad is paradoxically not about Muhammad, it’s about modern Islam. It’s saying, ‘If you try to kill one cartoonist for criticising you, then rather than surrendering our (hard won) freedom to the fear of becoming your target, we’ll make a million cartoons and make the target impossible to manage’. Cartoonists are trying to win the right to hold an opinion in the face of tyranny. Muhammad is a symbol in this fight, not the object of it.

      That some people feel badly about their prophet being used in the fight is really irrelevant on account that it can be met with an equal amount of ill-feeling from those who don’t wish to have fear and tyranny imposed upon them by a misbehaving minority.

  5. Jordan Pickering says:

    I’m suggesting that it is a necessary political move, because the implications for society of not responding to radical Islam might be very severe. The Islamic response to the most minor of offences is exaggerated and childish. We teach our children to get over themselves when they threaten to draw out the personal pain of a sibling’s insult. In this case, the child is a large religion willing to kill people on a broad and indiscriminate scale (such as Al Qaida’s recently exposed plan to attack the Danish football team at the WC on account of those cartoons). When they learn to play nice in a mixed society, then we can talk like grownups.

    In any event, how can we keep channels for evangelism open when our religion’s central message is that the Triune Creator is God, not Allah, Jesus is God and not a mere prophet, and that Muhammad was a false prophet? If drawing him is offensive, how is that going to go down with the radicals? Surely (in principle) negotiating a contract of social engagement precedes evangelism (i.e. a form of social engagement)? Surely we should support the battle to secure responsible communication? [For a reminder of how far we are apart from that, please compare again Zapiro’s ‘irresponsible behaviour’ above with the way that Islam treats cartoons, photographs above.]

  6. Michael Meadon says:

    Note that only some Muslims consider all depictions of Mohammad blasphemous. Shias in general think there is nothing wrong with such depictions (at least when “respectful”), as do many moderate Muslims. As usual, Wikipedia has a good explanation.

  7. screamer says:

    On a completely unrelated note, I heard this funny (true) story about a guy going to speak at a convention in London.

    He asked a Muslim friend of his if he could open with the following:
    The weather in London is like Muslims – sometimes Sunni but mostly Shi’ite.

    His Muslim friend told him that he himself was fine with it, and many Muslims would be. But the 2% who weren’t… would kill him.

  8. 1000things says:

    Its their turn. A few centuries ago this burden was shouldered by Christianity and other religions.

    Islam, honestly speaking, is just about that much of a problem as much others are or were. Its a cycle. And no, if you flip through history, it is not any better or worse off than any other religion.

    To answer if there’s a place for such madness in today’s world, well apparently those in the pictures clearly do seem to think so. Unfortunately, that is the nature of religion, not much different from Football – Its all about winning!

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