07 February 2006

weighing in on the power of images

as many of you know, I can only read the newspapers sparingly. particularly when it comes to coverage of the Islamic world, and particularly when it comes to coverage of palestine, I tend to get a bit worked up and my normally rational self heads for the door. so I'm a little late to the party here, but in this case, where people are dying over pictures drawn halfway around the world from them, I think it might be time to comment a little bit.

obviously, first, images are powerful. recent events make this clear. the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and collections of Islamic tradition) spells this out by saying that one shouldn't represent important figures in the Islamic tradition because it could lead to their worship, as in similar contexts the eastern orthodox church has been criticized for idol worship among certain opposing Christian factions. you can't image god, and, just to be safe, you can't image those around god. But "you" in this context is generally limited to those who practice the particular religion in question (Lutheranism, Islam).

now, this is not in the Koran, it's in the Hadith. So, it's not the Word of God. God himself indicates that only He can create living things, which has been interpreted to mean that artists shouldn't presume to try to create the image of living things, but that interpretation changes depending on the political climate, the historical situation, and the type of Islam you hold dear. Some examples.

Shi'ites hold the family of the Prophet, and the Prophet himself, to be a central element of Islam. So we have tombs and relic spaces set up for worship which center on body parts of Hasan and Hussein, the martyred grandsons of the Prophet. Sunnis find this to be akin to worshipping these folks, and so they're not too keen on it.

Sufism was great for art, as the mystical branch of Islam produced a bunch of narratives that articulated the devotee's longing for God through, well, love stories. So as a result we have a wonderful, longstanding, and religious tradition of figural painting in which figures cavort in trees and stare longingly at one another across meadows.

finally, we have images of Muhammad himself in Islamic art. to be fair, he's usually veiled (for another post: the veil isn't just for chicks anymore!), but nonetheless. we have him winging his way up to heaven, we have him being born, we have him in any number of other images. like the Sufi images, and like other figural imagery, these tend to occur during periods in which the orthodox interpretation of the Koran and Hadith is not as strong. The thing is, these periods are more numerous than the orthodox ones.

which brings me to the cartoons. (this post is getting to be OaO standard length...)

on one level, the protests are about the mere representation of Muhammad. But I don't think there's a case there. the artists aren't bound by the Hadith as they are not Muslim, and even if they were, history shows us that it wouldn't mean they were bound by the hadith anyway.

comedy, in some cases, is about insulting people, playing on their stereotypes, and in the best comedy, working through those stereotypes to make a positive statement/change/impact on the political scene that we live in. Revealing those stereotypes to be ridiculous, or reminding people of themselves in those stereotypes. Black comedians poke fun at the whiteys, Jews at Gentiles, women at men, etc. etc. It all depends on relations of power however. It's much easier for a white comedian to cross the line into pure offensive racism, because the asymmetries of power in the US produce a situation in which you're no longer revealing the stereotypes to be ridiculous, you suddenly fall into the stereotype of the name-calling racist and lose all political efficacy for change. This is where the cartoons (most of them) lie. Muhammad with a bomb in his turban? wielding a scimitar? greeting suicide bombers in heaven with the message: no virgins left? not good comedy, certainly (okay except for maybe that last one, but come on people. taste?), and thus not worth the potential and real insult they produce. it's not that the artists don't have the right to free speech. it's that the access to publish these works should depend on some sort of merit, an ability to read well and understand the efficacy of these things, and whether or not the message meant comes through. Or perhaps that message did come through, loud and clear.

One of the cartoons is of the cartoonist trying to hide the fact that he's drawing Muhammad, scared of the repercussions. this is interesting as it simultaneously acknowledges the potential reaction--one shouldn't draw Muhammad--but also the closeting of racism that drawing an insulting cartoon towards Islam would force out of that closet. the pressure to be politically correct. these cartoonists and their editors printed racist things in a country with a growing Muslim minority, using local iconography to indicate the "us" and "them" distinction (even for Muslim Danes born in Denmark). this is throwing fuel on the fire. both locally and now, internationally. and yes, the delay in the reaction indicates that those in the Islamic world who have fueled the protests have their own agenda as well. perhaps it should be protected by free speech laws, maybe I'll even say sure, it absolutely should be. but it's still racist. and anti-Islamic. and irresponsible. and the editors should be called to task for that, at least.


tenaciousmcd said...

Thanks, Rebecca. This is one of the most informative things I've read on the question of iconography in Islam. Funny how no one in the media has sought to explain the origin and justification for such prohibitions.

Anonymous said...

I agree, a very good and helpful post.

Two thoughts:

First, there is a Christian parallel to your point that the rules don't apply to those who are not Muslim. At one point, in disucssing the immoral behavior of the Corinthians, Paul asks, "Who am I to judge those outside the church?" A question to be asked of Christian fundmentalists.

Second, I understand that the context of the original publication of the cartoons in the Danish paper was an article on a children's book author who was unable to find anyone willing to draw illustrations for a book about the Prophet. Point made.