February 11, 2006

A conversation about Muslims’ reaction to the depiction of Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist

    Saturday, February 11, 2006   No comments

Iowa City Press-Citizen Q&A with Professor A. E. SOUAIAIA

1) Why is there a taboo against any visual depictions of the prophet?

Western media has been reporting that Muslims’ reaction to the depiction of the Messenger Muhammad stems from the Islamic prohibition of visual representation of prophets. Such prohibition is couched in the explicit Qur’ānic proscription of idolatry. By nature, satirical caricatures are hardly an image that would encourage or inspire adulation, it can be concluded then that Muslims’ reaction to these cartoons is not necessarily rooted in rejecting a taboo for fear of idolatry.

It must be noted also that not all Muslims prohibit visual depiction of prophets. Only some Sunni schools of thought hold this prohibition. Shi`ite Muslims for instance, have images of the Messenger Muhammad and the fourth Caliph Ali in many forms: from paintings to coins. Given that the reaction is widespread and cuts across sectarian lines, one ought to look for other reasons for their reaction.

From what I read in Arabic, Persian, and other Islamic media; it seems to me that the content of the drawings is what was found offensive. Consider the scene of posters held by a protesters in Pakistan that say “Our Prophet is not a terrorist!” or another from Indonesia that says “Prophet Muhammad is the Messenger of Peace.” A third yet reads “Yes to freedom of expression; no to inciting hate.” In other words, Muslims were offended by the cartoonists’ suggestion that Islam is a violent religion by virtue of it being founded by a violent man. The cartoonists stereotyped Muslims and portrayed them all as violent and blood thirsty thugs; I would think any social group painted as such will be offended.

The reductionism of stereotyping over one billion Muslims as violent people is counter productive and reinforces the project advanced by extremists who wish to divide the world along religious fault lines. It strengthens the hands of those who argue for a perpetual conflict and unavoidable “clash of civilizations”. Such project ought to be shown for what it is: a “clash of ignorance” in the words of the late Edward Said.


2) To what degree are observant Muslims supposed to protest any visual depictions of the prophet?

The avoidance of visual depiction is less of religious prohibition of imagery and more of reverence to prophets and religious figures. Keep in mind that for many Muslims, not only the Messenger Muhammad is never visually represented but also all other prophets (Jesus, Moses, Abraham, etc…) were kept “faceless”, if you will, even in artistic stories about them. There is a movie made in Egypt about Moses I’ve seen where all that was shown of him was his staff. Furthermore, even non-prophets like early Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (Abu Bakr, `Umar, Uthmān, and Ali) are never shown in visual representations be it in film or in print. In other words, were the images positive renditions of the Messenger Muhammad, no one would have protested. Again, it seems to me that, given the widespread protests, Muslims are protesting the content and the message of these cartoons and caricatures and not the images per se.


3) Is the majority of the Western press hypocritical in their decision not to reprint the offending cartoons?

Generally, no good comes from an action that causes the loss of innocent lives and destruction of property. But if there is any positive side effect of the publication of these cartoons, to me, it is the ensuing debate over rights and responsibilities of the press in the West and the need for free press in the Muslim world. Western media needs to answer to the charge of hypocrisy and double standards not only in regard to this matter, but also in the context of other stories. In other words, should the press cower in the face of public protest? Is the freedom of press dependent on a dip in revenues or loss in market share? Did the New York Times act irresponsibly when they delayed the publication of the report on the government’s domestic spying program for over a year? Can governments exert pressure to delay or repress the publication of news stories? What are the boundaries of freedom of press? Who and what govern the determination of whether a news outlet had crossed the boundaries or professional ethics and public responsibility? In other words, this event is as much of an opportunity for Western media to rethink the boundaries of freedom and responsibilities as it is a chance for Muslims to work harder to creating the civil institutions that would allow them to react in a more constructive manner to incidents like these.


4) In what ways is this a clash between the literal and symbolic definitions of iconoclasts (those who would physically smash images and those who are irreverent toward cherish symbols)?

That is the irony of it all, if you think about it. The clash between the literal and symbolic definitions of iconoclasts is retold in the Islamic traditions in the form of a clash between rational and irrational iconoclasts as represented by Abraham and his father and religious leaders. It is said in the Qur’ān that Abraham smashed the idols his people worshipped because those were objects that could not harm or benefit anyone (irrational) [see Qur’ān 21; verses 51-73]. Abraham, according to Islamic tradition still, will go on to found the form of monotheism that will require absolute resignation (submission, hence, Islam) to the deity that he discovered by default [see Q6: v74-90; Q14: v35-52]. With that said, that seemingly logical contradiction explains the wide range of ideas that shaped Islamic thought for nearly fourteen centuries.

To wit, if we consider the traditional accounts, all Semitic religions were founded by a typical iconoclast. One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions. As told in the Islamic tradition, Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad all have taught unpopular ideas and undertook non-traditional practices and for that they were exiled, crucified, or persecuted. With time however, their teachings have become mainstream and ordinary and a new fence was built by religious authorities around the newly organized religion in order to guard against iconoclasts. That is the irony and wonder of contradictions in organized religions.


5) Who are manipulating these indignant sentiments for political ends? Clerics in the Arab world? Empire-builders in the West? Both?

In general, power hungry politicians in the Arab world and in the West are not helpful to say the least. But it amazes me that the West, in this climate of skepticism and war, when there is a great need to gain the trust of the Muslim masses, the issue is treated only in the context of politics.

The Arab politicians and rulers on the other hand, are using this opportunity to redirect their citizens’ anger away from them and from their record of abuse, torture, and corruption. This is obvious given the fact that the first officially sanctioned boycotts and protests took place in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria: states known for repression, tyranny, and authoritarianism. In essence, they are trying to marginalize those who are demanding freedom of the press and freedom of expression by manipulating the rest of the population into believing that freedom of expression is equal to freedom of denigrating religious symbols. They are telling their people that if you wish to revere your religious values then you must reject the idea of freedom of expression as an alien and immoral concept altogether. To me that is the real danger.


6) What needs to happen for the situation to calm?

People in the West and in the Muslim world need to work towards strengthening civil institutions in the Muslim world even if that would mean short term risks for the West. The Muslim masses must be reminded that basic civil liberties will be irreparably compromised if we allow the government to encroach the freedom of the press. At the same time, the news media needs to adhere to higher standards of ethics and responsibility and be able to self-govern itself without the intrusive intervention of other controlling entities. The media need to show a degree of independence and communicate directly with the Muslim masses without relying on governments as intermediaries.

It must be made clear that freedom of the press is not about insulting one’s faith or demeaning one’s religious icons; it is about a fundamental and essential public service without which no civil society can exist and grow. For the sake of this greater public good and for the necessary independence of the press from government intrusion, people must tolerate the irresponsible few who may publish offensive content. As is the case with everything worth fighting for, there is always a price. If freedom of expression and of the press is the absolute good that we, in the West, see it to be; I have no doubt that if put in the proper context, Muslims will embrace it and fight for it. For that to happen, the media in the West need to polish its image as an independent, fair, and responsible institution regardless of the circumstances. A first step in this direction will be for the US and Western media to explain to the public why they did not re-print the cartoons: if it was because the content was found offensive, tasteless, and worthless; then that is what ought to be said. Otherwise, it will be seen as a sign of timidity and faltering under the pressure of public protest which could take away from the credibility of this institution and empowers opponents of freedom of the press. A unified clarification of the media position will serve at least three purposes: rebuke those who sully the profession, assure the public of the independence and integrity of the press, and show Muslims the value of having a free press that does not need a government to make it clean its act.

Also see the guest editorial on IC Press-Citizen Feb. 11, 2006

SOUAIAIA

About SOUAIAIA

Islamic Societies Review Editors

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