Where Art Meets Ignorance
Interestingly, the entire controversy today – from the cries to never compromise free speech to the torching of entire ambassadorial buildings – stems from the supposed difficulty of Danish writer Kare Bluitgen in finding an artist to depict a children’s book he authored titled “The Quran and the Life of the Prophet Muhammad”. Equally as interesting is the fact that while he holds degrees in teaching and journalism, Bluitgen has absolutely no education of the Arabic language or the Islamic tradition. Had he actually bothered to understand the subject matter and profound nature of the topics his title suggests will be expounded upon, he might have understood not only the significance behind the Muslims’ refusal to portray the Prophet Muhammad, but also the reasoning underlying their abstention from depicting any of the prophets revered in the Islamic faith. Bluitgen’s own ignorance of the Islamic tradition was clearly evinced in his decision to depict what to Muslims can never be reduced to physical portrayals.
Unfortunately, the calculus of ignorance didn’t end there. When the editor of Jyllans-Posten became aware of Bluitgen’s trouble, he decided to commission forty cartoonists to depict the Prophet Muhammad. This, the editor explained, was in response to the fear of too many intellectuals to even discuss or approach matters pertaining to Islam out of fear of violent reprisals by fanatical Muslims.
So rather than perhaps using the newspaper as a forum for a serious discourse among secular intellectuals and their Muslim counterparts on the nature of interfaith relations in Europe, and the challenges of confronting the dangerous social trends giving emergence to alienation and religious fanaticism, the editor saw it fit to instead perpetuate the stereotypes giving rise to the problem itself. As the two gentlemen from the Guinness Draught commercials would exclaim, “Brilliant!”
This is not a matter of the supposed incompatibility of Islam with secular, liberal, democratic societies. Too many people forget that of the five largest Muslim populations, three (Bangladesh, Indonesia and India) are in democratic states, none of which are Arab, and one of which (Bangladesh) has a female prime minister – that’s one more female head of state than we’ve had here in the good ol’ US of A.
This is a matter of sheer ignorance, and passing oneself and one’s beliefs as being enlightened as juxtaposed to an unenlightened “other”. We here in the West can speak all we want about the absurdity of a people who are absolutist in their views and unwilling to accept others – but so long as we refuse to educate ourselves about the “other” and refuse even the effort to understand before doling out vitriolic criticism’s with broad strokes of the pen, then we become no better than even our most offensive stereotypes.
If this were a matter of the incongruence of Islam and secular liberal societies, then there simply wouldn’t be over 50 million Muslims living in Europe and the United States today. These societies abound with depictions of God Himself as well as of the Prophets – particularly Jesus and his mother Mary – whose depictions in the Muslim world are absent outside of the churches there. The depiction of the Prophet Muhammad ought to be understood for what it is: a direct and deliberate insult to over 1.2 billion people all over the world – an insult exacerbated by the revelation in the British publication The Guardian that the Jyllands-Posten refused to publish a cartoon in April 2003 lampooning the resurrection of Prophet Jesus, with the paper’s Sunday editor stating, “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.”
Muslims are commanded by the Prophet Muhammad that, in order to have sincere faith, they must love him more than they love even themselves. He is a man to be respected and loved by them for his mercy, forbearance, wisdom, and – above all – his love for humanity. If he were understood before he were drawn, the pens would have flowed with the ink of lamentations for an extraordinary figure insulted by violent men of political ambition claiming to uphold his message, and lament the insults hurled at him by those oblivious enough to believe them.
For better or worse, the infuriated global response from the world’s Muslims is also a part of their freedoms. The world’s press outlets certainly reserve their right to the freedom of speech – but the Muslims too reserve their right to assembly and exercise their free will in the global economy. And so long as neither side exercises its freedoms with even a semblance of discretion, both will become sources of polarization rather than the founts of harmony they are meant to be.