Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Just about impossible

Karl has written up, I think, a very good distinction between the right to speak freely and whether one should. Western liberal governments allow for unethical behaviors (lying, for instance) - but should we perform them? Unfortunately, Karl's distinction doesn't give much help right now to the governments who are grappling with the issue right now: does the Danish government apologize?

I want to offer a theological note - it is just about impossible for any non-Muslim American to understand the level of offense involved in creating an image of God or God's messenger, Muhammed (peace be upon him). I'm pretty sure I don't understand - and for that matter, whoever is reading this probably doesn't either.

As people who have grown up and been educated in a Western context, and even more so because it has been an American context, the scent of Christian norms and assumption lingers on all of us. It doesn't matter what religion you call yourself - growing up in the West, and especially growing up in America, means that you basically receive a basic Christian foundaiton - this carries with it many ethical norms and expectations.

One of these is the innocence of imagery - I think Christianity is a thought-system where images are not only tolerated, but vital. Theologically, I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that the person of Jesus Christ himself represents the decision of God to reveal Godself to humanity through a direct human image. This means, really, that the center of the entire system revolves around an IMAGE of God - additionally, for Christians, this is the unique and, at least for me, the graceful part of the religion. It means that God recognizes and understands the way that we see and conceptualize the material world, and that rather than see that as evil or fallen, God thinks so highly of human perspective that God would come into the world, in human form, to share in that perspective. So, Jesus as the perfect human image of God is pretty darn important.

I definitely don't think that it's a reach at all, then, to say that Christianity carries with it a high regard for the power of imagery. This isn't to say other systems do not, but in Christianity, the power of imagery is seen as a positive, good force. Images facilitate connection, promote understanding, and foster sympathy. It means that someone who grows up on "Christian milk" (pretty much every domestic-born American), regardless of whether he or she is "Christian", internalizes a deep-seated reverence for imagery.

Muslims also recognize the power of imagery - but here, the recognition takes on an overall negative form: imagery is seen skeptically, prone to hasty interpretation, curtailing deeper thought and criticism of ideas, and worst of all, encouraging far-reaching but inherenty incompelte generalizations about what is contained in the image. I must admit my knowledge of Islam isn't stellar, but I don't think what I'm saying here is a stretch - Muslims revere imagery also, but in the negative sense. This is evident from the strict injunction, contained in the Qur'an, against ANY images of God or God's prophets. In the case of depicting images of God, this is part of Islam's one unforgiveable sin: shirk. You can read more about shirk from other sources, I'm sure, but it basically means the confusion of God with part of God's creation. Islam's central tenet is the total and utter one-ness, only-ness, and infinite-ness of God. To say, for instance, that God is a man (as Christianity claims) is quite unacceptable in Islam, because a man (part of Creation) could never contain the infinite-ness of God, and since man is in the material world, it would also violate the only-ness of God because then God would exist in two places differently.

Creating an image of God is shirk because it rudely violates the one-ness, only-ness, and infinite-ness of God by replacing the mysterious, infinite nature of our conception of God with the fences of a picture - the idea, then, is that in our minds, we think of God and helplessly see the picture, and never again can the true, infinite God be accessed. This is shirk. And considering that every chapter of the Qur'an begins with the phrase, "In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficient, the Most Merciful...", the one unforgiveable sin of shirk is pretty serious business - don't you see that creating an image of God or a prophet chosen by God creates forever a barrier to fully contemplating God and God's teaching?

I wonder if the cartoonist, or the Danish Government, or any of us can really know what it's like to have a reckless sketch forever alter our relationship with the cosmos? Not if we grow up surrounded by Christianity, where images are sacred! So I think I'm justified in saying that mutual understanding here is truly just about impossible.

But, it does come down to action time for the governments in question here. The Danish Government must recognize the immensity of what's happened here - and offer its overdue apology. It, by no means, should place restriction on its press - but it should feel the need and duty to call injustice when it happens. In the case of the cartoon, the injustice was done to Allah, to the Prophet of Allah (pbuh), and to those who submit to Allah.

If you've read this far, thank you. Hope to hear what you have to think. Peace out.


Kate said...

That's an excellent explanation, and I agree with you in that responsibility is on both sides to understand the other, something all of us have failed at.
Your ideas about imagery in each religious context is very lovely and idealistically correct, but I'm not sure it's the way reality pans out when you get extremists from *both* sides. In this case, it was not truly the imagery that started the riots, it was much deeper. And while an apology from the government, news or cartoonist might place a superficial bandage over it, it won't help solve the real problems. There are very basic misunderstandings and prejudices that can only be solved through education, something I think these cartoons intended to incite.

Travis said...

I found out today about a few cases in the European Court of Human Rights (Imagine it as the Supreme Court for most of Europe). The ECHR operates off of a treaty set up by European Nations that sets out certain rights and liberties for people much like our own Bill of Rights here in the states. One major difference, however, is that hate speech is not protected in Europe like it is here. Recently the ECHR ruled that satirical cartoons of the Pope were hate speech, and therefore not protected under the European Convention of Human Rights. As a result, it became illegal to run the cartoons in the press. Fast forward to the present and there's a similar case on its way to the ECHR about the Mohammed cartoons. If the court follows the same precedent, then it's reasonable to say that these cartoons and others like them will eventually be behind us.

As for Denmark, if they have any common sense they would apologize to save whatever connections they have left with their Muslim nationals as well as the rest of the Muslim world.

Aiko said...

But Alex, not all Muslims think depicting the profit is a problem, and their voices are being completely silenced and ignored in all of this.

Secondly, I would not want the US government apologizing for anything I did; they do not control me, they are not responsible for my actions. It is entirely inappropriate for the government to apologize on behalf of private citizens. They government can express that it would like that citizen to apologize and urge them to do so, but it cannot offer an apology on an individual's behalf. That completely violates our values as free democracies, and no matter how great the offense, I would not have that barrier breached.