The Meaning of the Cartoons

I finally took a nice long look at the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that have supposedly led to so much angst and unrest across the world, the burning of flags, the marching of mobs, the sacking of embassies, the boycotting of goods, and the protestations in defense of both free speech and the sacred.

Having been Muslim once, I’m pretty certain I understand what all the anger is about. I didn’t share it then, and I don’t now. But given the cartoons themselves, I’m not really sure why it was these particular drawings caused this commotion, why it was the Islamic clerics of Europe decided this was the offense they would rally the faithful to. A lot of work was needed to make mobs riot in Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran and elsewhere.

Oddly enough, the actual content of the cartoons themselves has not elicited much serious talk, near as I can tell. I count 12 on the page I linked to above, of which three (or maybe four) are simple attempts to draw a bearded guy who is supposed to be the Prophet himself. (I say maybe four because I cannot quite tell what line drawing of the five crescent-moon figures looking like people is supposed to say, and I’m unsure about the cartoon of the line-up too.) Interestingly enough, four more cartoons appear to make fun of the assignment itself, and two of those anticipated the future controversy. One has a turbaned figure holding up a hand in a gesture of "wait" to two turbaned toughs, saying "Relax folks, it’s just a sketch made by a Dane from the southwest of Denmark," while the other shows a young Muslim (apparently a second-generation immigrant to Denmark) in front a blackboard upon which he’s just written (in Farsi) "Jylands-Postens journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs" — a criticism of Muslim migration to Denmark, but hardly a swipe at the Prophet of Islam.

I’d like to be able to do work for hire that makes fun of the guy who hired me and the job he wanted me to do. Nice work if you can get it.

Only three of the cartoons appear in any way "offensive." There’s the one of the two women in the abayas with the eye slits and the man in front of them in the turban and white disdasha and a black bar over his eyes, as if his identity were being protected or he were the subject in some pornographic photo. It’s a funny visual gag, though it reflects Arabian peninsula culture today and not that of 1,400 years ago. And there’s the comment to the newly arrived Jihadis in heaven (with its clouds, a very Christian rather than Muslim view of heaven) to stop coming, "we’ve run out of virgins." It reminds me vaguely of a political cartoon I drew in high school of the dour Ayatollah Khomeini at prayer, the big booming voice of God demanding that Iran’s leader "stop sending so many 13-year-olds" to heaven as a result of the human wave tactics the Iranians were using in the early 1980s. And then, of course, there’s the well-done drawing of the bearded man with the bomb for a turban and the shahada — the declaration of faith, la ilaha ila allah Muhammad rasulilah, there is no deity but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God — stamped upon it. It’s actually a nice drawing, the most artful of the bunch.

But there is a problem with trying to make hay by satirizing the Prophet of Islam in pictures this way. And it’s not that there is no history of depicting the Prophet Muhammad in art, because there is. As good Semites, Arabs have never been big into portrayals of human beings or even living creatures, but other Muslims had far fewer qualms in this regard. The high point of Persian and Central Asian Islam drew all kinds of pictures of Muhammad and his Companions, illustrating scenes from his life and his career as prophet. The sahaba — the Prophet’s companions — usually looked like good Mongols (which is how Central Asians and even Mongol-conquered Persians would depict men and women of upper castes), while the artworks I’m most familiar with portrayed Muhammad himself with a veil over his entire face and a turbaned head engulfed by a flame. Art was never central to traditional Islamic worship, in large part because salat, Islam’s liturgical prayers, actively involve all worshipers in ways that the Mass never did. (And I’ll be honest — I’m getting used to singing hymns, but I still miss the physical activity of salat.) Poetry and music would become important to many sufis, but as dhikr, rituals to help remember God, adjuncts to the five daily liturgical prayers, and not a substitute.

No, the reason the cartoons don’t really work is that Muhammad is not an iconic image to either most Westerners or even most Muslims. Because the physical depiction of Christ is and has been an essential part of Christian worship and Christian art for nigh on two millennia now, Jesus is an icon, easily recognizable. A man nailed to a cross we assume to be Christ unless we are told differently, and most of the time we are right. The Passion story is probably familiar to most folks in the West as well, so if you choose to retell it or satirize it, half of your work — what the audience can assume, the blanks they can fill in — is already done. Muhammad is not an icon, not in the West, and not anywhere else either. Not like Jesus. Pictures of the Prophet do not figure anywhere (so far as I know) in Muslim worship or devotion. We have virtually no context for images of the Prophet of Islam, we do not recognize him, we have no "memory" of his face and little common knowledge of his life and no iconic shorthand that allows us to build satire or humor on, to retell the tales of the Prophet in any way other than bitter, angry and very simplistic polemic. So the cartoonists doing the work had to fall back on long-held orientalist images of bearded, cruel, merciless men with scimitars and call them "The Prophet." The guy with bomb-turban, as interesting and well drawn as he is, could be any Muslim. The image has to be explained, you have to be told he’s Muhammad.

As any good comedian knows, if you have to explain your joke, you’ve probably failed in the telling.

It isn’t that Muslims (or Arabs) somehow lost the genes for humor. There is plenty of satire, biting and gentle, and plenty of other kinds of humor (even the bawdy kind) across the Muslim world. But there is also a deep sense of the sacred, and Islam’s Prophet is one of those things generally beyond bounds. Muslims would never make fun of Jesus either, or Moses, or Abraham, or any of the other prophets central to the Qur’an, holding the Messengers of God as "out of bounds" when it comes to the creation of cultural products and literary works. It’s telling that Iran’s "we can play the hurt feeling game, too!" cartoon contest is not about the crucifixion, or anything "religious," but instead is about the holocaust.

This is not so much about sacred religion, then, but about sacred politics. Which, in our world of all-powerful nation-states and nanny governments, is all too often the same damn thing for too many people.

And there is a tremendous sense of insecurity in the Islamic world as well. We make tolerance out to be an ideology — one we have and they don’t. But people are generally tolerant only so far as they feel safe and secure, and the traditional power relationship that existed for most of the 1,400-year encounter between Christendom and Dar al Islam — one in which Muslim societies were powerful, wealthy, self-assured and very tolerant — has been reversed, with Muslims reeling from a 200-year-long conquest and occupation of their lands and forceful inclusion in a world they did not define or create and have little control over. It is important to remember exactly where power lies, and who can really do what to whom. An Iranian Muslim who openly dreams of killing Jews has no legitimate or legal outlet and little chance to make his or her dreams come true, while an American Christian who dreams of killing Muslims can simply enlist in either the US Army or the Marine Corps.

One of my favorite novels is Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s The Children of Gebelawi, the retelling of the stories of the prophets followed by the "success" of science in killing "god." Mahfouz became the target of much ire and rage as the result of that novel because he dared to take the sacred and make it a serious subject for artistic and literary contemplation. Personally, I think we’re all better off for such efforts, because they help us contemplate the meaning of scriptural stories, to ask what they may say that we’ve never considered before. I have always liked Jesus Christ Superstar, mainly because Judas Iscariot gets all those really cool songs but also because the story examines Judas’ motives so intently (something largely ignored in the Gospels) and made me think about my own. "I meant well, I only wanted what was best" is what motivates Judas to betray Christ — a powerful indictment of the desire to sacrifice the one for the many even though that sacrifice is the very meaning of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The rock opera works because we all (mostly) know the original story, and can use that knowledge as a shorthand when we deal with the new version of the story. That’s why art matters. Gebelawi works and works well only because Mahfouz knows all of the stories involved — Jewish, Christian, Muslim and secular — respects them as literature and stories and can make them work together in a novel. That novel, oddly enough, helped my faith and understanding in the past, and continues to do so today.

And, far from simply pitying blasphemers, Christians (or, maybe I should say, lots of people who call themselves Christian) have gotten pretty worked up about artistic reinterpretations of the Gospel story, in part because many of them are just as concerned about what they believe should be kept sacred, opposed to artistic contemplation of the meaning of scripture as so many of the world’s Muslims are today and just as resentful at being forced to deal with a world they did not create and have no control over. (So many victims, so much rage, so much self-righteous anger over who was wronged first or worst and therefore entitled and empowered to fight back and defend themselves come what may…) Or does anyone out there not remember the furor over The Last Temptation of Christ, which led to angry words, demonstrations, threats and even violence? Certainly no flags were burnt or embassies burned down, but that’s only because Hollywood is not really a foreign country (at least not officially).

Or the nastiness over one of my favorite films, The Life of Brian, which is proof enough that the defenders of Christendom have little to fear from Muslim blasphemers and everything to fear from their own artists, poets, filmmakers and writers. When I watched The Passion of The Christ, it took every bit or moral strength I had to not sing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" during the crucifixion scene (I’m sorry, but I have been ruined for cinematic depictions of the life of Christ). It helped me control myself knowing that in that theater in rural Maryland where I watched it and heard weeping, violence would possibly have ensued if I had.

By comparison, moviegoers at a theater in Karachi or Cairo would likely have just looked at me funny. They would not have gotten the joke.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.