Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hitchens on Cartoons and Religion



Blogger Teofilo said...

Today's FT editorial.

Cartoons crisis enters manipulative stage
Published: February 8 2006 02:00

The furore over the cartoons that lampooned the Prophet Mohammed has not yet burnt out. Quite possibly there are ugly incidents still to come. But everyone interested in avoiding the "clash of civilisations" that Christian and Muslim extremists seek to provoke should bear in mind two aspects of this controversy now coming into focus.

First, there are Middle Eastern regimes manipulating the situation for reasons that have little to do with defending the Messenger of Islam. Second, although many Muslims around the world are unquestionably offended by the insulting message and racial stereotyping of the caricatures, the reaction of the majority has been measured. In other words, there is reason for encouragement as well as dismay.

Manipulation of religion is the stock-in-trade of many Arab rulers, whether they are avowedly secular or head Islamic states. Be they ever so powerful, they habitually defer to reactionary clerical establishments to legitimise their autocracies.

This four months-old row looked as though it was dying down last autumn until Egypt, in mid-November, decided it would put itself at the head of a diplomatic campaign of indignation. This looked then, and looks now, like a figleaf to cover its attempts to suppress the electoral advance of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was pulling off stunning successes at the polls.

In the past week, Syria and Iran have used the controversy to send political messages. The Syrian regime, which razed the city of Hama over the heads of the Brotherhood in 1982, allowed a mob to burn the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus, and mobilised its proxies in Lebanon to torch the Danish consulate in Beirut. The government of Bashar al-Assad seemingly wants the world to know that, however isolated it has become, it still has the capacity to respond. Iran, entering the cartoons dispute late, is really seeking further advantage in the battle over its nuclear ambitions.

By contrast, leaders of stature such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq have deplored the cartoons but decried Muslim extremists for the "dark image" they have given Islam. Even the newspaper of Muqtada al-Sadr, something of an extremist himself, warned that attacks on Iraqi Christians would be considered as an attack on the Shia.

Above all, the relatively small numbers of protesters suggests that jihadi totalitarianism has yet to penetrate the Muslim mainstream. Many Muslim leaders, moreover, are wise to Islamist radical attempts to hijack their religion and bring it into disrepute.

We should not delude ourselves. Muslim opinion worldwide is profoundly alienated by the west and its policies. Yet what the current, in part contrived, controversy reveals is that most Muslims are not listening to the fanatics. They are still within reach of dialogue. Underneath the Potemkin village of this crisis there lies an opportunity.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Germanicu$ said...

FT: "They are still within reach of dialogue." "there is reason for encouragement as well as dismay." Buck up, old bean, stiff upper lip and all that. There's still a shilling or two to be made from these wogs.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Germanicu$ said...

Hitchens: eloquent as always. Over FT, I preferred this rather colonic reaction from today's Wall St Journal. Though this troubles me: "There is no Quranic injunction against images, whether of Muhammad or anyone else." Anyone know the real story on this? I’m no Mohametan myself. Is that really a taboo, like wearing shoes in a mosque? Worse? This guy may claim that “the issue has never been decided one way or another,” but if 850,000,000 of the 953,000 Muslims don’t realize this, then, once again, the Wall Street Journal has failed.

“The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute,” says Hitchens. But he’s no Mohametan either.

“Bonfire of the Pieties” – ha!

Bonfire of the Pieties
February 8, 2006; Page A16

[Accompanying photograph, in the online version, of: The Prophet Muhammad riding Buraq by Taheri]

"The Muslim Fury," one newspaper headline screamed. "The rage of Islam sweeps Europe," said another. "The clash of civilizations is coming," warned one commentator. All this refers to the row provoked by the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper four months ago. Since then a number of demonstrations have been held, mostly -- though not exclusively -- in the West, and Scandinavian embassies and consulates have been besieged.

But how representative of Islam are all those demonstrators? The "rage machine" was set in motion when the Muslim Brotherhood -- a political, not a religious, organization -- called on sympathizers in the Middle East and Europe to take the field. A fatwa was issued by Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood sheikh with his own program on al-Jazeera. Not to be left behind, the Brotherhood's rivals, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) and the Movement of the Exiles (Ghuraba), joined the fray. Believing that there might be something in it for themselves, the Syrian Baathist leaders abandoned their party's 60-year-old secular pretensions and organized attacks on the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and Beirut.

The Muslim Brotherhood's position, put by one of its younger militants, Tariq Ramadan -- who is, strangely enough, also an adviser to the British home secretary -- can be summed up as follows: It is against Islamic principles to represent by imagery not only Muhammad but all the prophets of Islam; and the Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion. Both claims, however, are false.

There is no Quranic injunction against images, whether of Muhammad or anyone else. When it spread into the Levant, Islam came into contact with a version of Christianity that was militantly iconoclastic. As a result some Muslim theologians, at a time when Islam still had an organic theology, issued "fatwas" against any depiction of the Godhead. That position was further buttressed by the fact that Islam acknowledges the Jewish Ten Commandments -- which include a ban on depicting God -- as part of its heritage. The issue has never been decided one way or another, and the claim that a ban on images is "an absolute principle of Islam" is purely political. Islam has only one absolute principle: the Oneness of God. Trying to invent other absolutes is, from the point of view of Islamic theology, nothing but sherk, i.e., the bestowal on the Many of the attributes of the One.

The claim that the ban on depicting Muhammad and other prophets is an absolute principle of Islam is also refuted by history. Many portraits of Muhammad have been drawn by Muslim artists, often commissioned by Muslim rulers. There is no space here to provide an exhaustive list, but these are some of the most famous:

A miniature by Sultan Muhammad-Nur Bokharai, showing Muhammad riding Buraq, a horse with the face of a beautiful woman, on his way to Jerusalem for his M'eraj or nocturnal journey to Heavens (16th century); a painting showing Archangel Gabriel guiding Muhammad into Medina, the prophet's capital after he fled from Mecca (16th c.); a portrait of Muhammad, his face covered with a mask, on a pulpit in Medina (16th c.); an Isfahan miniature depicting the prophet with his favorite kitten, Hurairah (17th c.); Kamaleddin Behzad's miniature showing Muhammad contemplating a rose produced by a drop of sweat that fell from his face (19th c.); a painting, "Massacre of the Family of the Prophet," showing Muhammad watching as his grandson Hussain is put to death by the Umayyads in Karbala (19th c.); a painting showing Muhammad and seven of his first followers (18th c.); and Kamal ul-Mulk's portrait of Muhammad showing the prophet holding the Quran in one hand while with the index finger of the other hand he points to the Oneness of God (19th c.).

Some of these can be seen in museums within the Muslim world, including the Topkapi in Istanbul, and in Bokhara, Samarkand and Haroun-Walat (a suburb of Isfahan). Visitors to other museums, including some in Europe, would find miniatures and book illuminations depicting Muhammad, at times wearing his Meccan burqa (cover) or his Medinan niqab (mask). There have been few statues of Muhammad, although several Iranian and Arab contemporary sculptors have produced busts of the prophet. One statue of Muhammad can be seen at the building of the U.S. Supreme Court, where the prophet is honored as one of the great "lawgivers" of mankind.

There has been other imagery: the Janissaries -- the elite of the Ottoman army -- carried a medallion stamped with the prophet's head (sabz qaba). Their Persian Qizilbash rivals had their own icon, depicting the head of Ali, the prophet's son-in-law and the first Imam of Shiism. As for images of other prophets, they run into millions. Perhaps the most popular is Joseph, who is presented by the Quran as the most beautiful human being created by God.

Now to the second claim, that the Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion. That is true if we restrict the Muslim world to the Brotherhood and its siblings in the Salafist movement, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda. But these are all political organizations masquerading as religious ones. They are not the sole representatives of Islam just as the Nazi party was not the sole representative of German culture. Their attempt at portraying Islam as a sullen culture that lacks a sense of humor is part of the same discourse that claims "suicide-martyrdom" as the highest goal for all true believers.

The truth is that Islam has always had a sense of humor and has never called for chopping heads as the answer to satirists. Muhammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him for more than a decade. Both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of "laughing at religion," at times to the point of irreverence. Again, offering an exhaustive list is not possible. But those familiar with Islam's literature know of Ubaid Zakani's "Mush va Gorbeh" (Mouse and Cat), a match for Rabelais when it comes to mocking religion. Sa'adi's eloquent soliloquy on behalf of Satan mocks the "dry pious ones." And Attar portrays a hypocritical sheikh who, having fallen into the Tigris, is choked by his enormous beard. Islamic satire reaches its heights in Rumi, where a shepherd conspires with God to pull a stunt on Moses; all three end up having a good laugh.

Islamic ethics is based on "limits and proportions," which means that the answer to an offensive cartoon is a cartoon, not the burning of embassies or the kidnapping of people designated as the enemy. Islam rejects guilt by association. Just as Muslims should not blame all Westerners for the poor taste of a cartoonist who wanted to be offensive, those horrified by the spectacle of rent-a-mob sackings of embassies in the name of Islam should not blame all Muslims for what is an outburst of fascist energy.

Mr. Taheri is the author of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes" (Editions Complexe, 2002).

10:19 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I've read that the prohibition of images of humans (faces?) dates back to the time when Orthodox Christians--with their flashy icons--were Islam's main bete noire, so it was a reactionary move, and not necessarily scriptural.

4:42 PM  

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