Friday, February 10, 2006


Impious blasphemy, the Islamic world is saying! Muslim radicals and their sheep are burning Danish embassies, while governments around the world are gnashing their teeth over the doodling of cartoonists in frigid Scandinavia of all places. The stated reason is that drawings or any pictorial image of Muhammad, The Prophet of Islam, is strongly proscribed as "idolatrous." Yes, well, eating beef is strongly proscribed among Hindus, but no one in India has thought to burn down McDonalds or Burger King! Burning American flags is not thought to be impious; its just free expression of strongly held opinion. Why does Islam keen in on pictorial representations so fiercely?

As you doubtless have observed, Islamic art concentrates on abstract tracery and patterns, while western art has unabashedly represented God (at least his hand and forefinger), Jesus, his parents, his disciples, and virtually all of the characters of both testaments of the Bible. Islam is afraid that representing deity, but especially its chosen spokespersons, will lead to worship of those spokespersons rather than the deity, Allah. Apparently pictorial representations of people are, shall we say, "more accessible" to the minds of the faithful than are words, pictures being worth a thousand words, you know.

Of course, it did not help matters that the cartoon visualization of Muhammad included a bomb-shaped turban, thus indicating that The Prophet is behind all the insane terrorism emanating from Islamic nations. The truth of this violent intolerance is clearly written into the Q'ran, however, and therefore, inherent to Islam. Judaism and Christianity do not get off the hook entirely, by the way. Both are replete with vengeance and hideous violence. Murder and mayhem are coin of the realm, but pictorial representation of religious figures is too much for the Islamic mind to deal with. How convenient!

To understand this raw nerve in Islam one should understand that it was a religion designed to provide social control over primitive tribes of exceptionally poor, initially nomadic peoples, goat-herders, camel drivers, desert-dwelling peoples, all of whom needed a spare and rigorous religion to explain (and perhaps to sustain them in) their poverty. Necessarily the artifacts of Muhammad's religion had to be lightweight and easily transportable, not to mention impervious to the rigors of desert life. Lugging around statues of Muhammad's mother or gold-framed depictions of the Prophet transcribing the words of Allah via the Archangel Gabriel, or any other icons of the central tenets of Islam just would not have been logistically feasible. Islam eventually settled down from its nomad days, but the traditions of portability were necessary, especially since the religion was spread at the point of a scimitar.

It was much easier and effective to have the notions and precepts reserved to a word system, a system of linguistic transmission that emphasizes the aural over the visual. That made it exceedingly portable ... and interpretable! Ah, and in the interpretation, that's how we get to intolerance!

Even as much as a brief study of the Roman Catholic Church and its history or a wink through the Pentateuch and later appendages of the Torah will reveal that religion is designed to provide equal measures of solace and menace. Social control and explanations of the mysteries of death and the other fearsome phenomena of our natural world and our imaginations is achieved by crossing the vocabularies of each. Social control on Earth is written in the iambs of mystery while spirituality is written in the dactyls of the enthusiastic but prosaic. Hence we are encouraged to believe that "mansions" await us in heaven (if not necessarily on Earth) if only we believe. In misogynist Islam mansions are Hefneresque and replete with virgins.

But, the violent traditions of our religions undo us. In Islam the Caliphs conquered, bleeding one tribe after another on the keen edge of a Damascene sword, even while the minds of the tribes were laden with visions of Eden. The Caliphs did not know when to stop and almost didn't, being possessed (as it were) with superior technology, tactics, and a world-class zeal. The doctrines were formulated appropriate for a tribal community marked and forged by the extreme heat of day and cold of night, of desert brightness and utter darkness, of polar opposites, an abiding material poverty set off against a sumptuous dream of righteousness. In this system peaceful dispute over interpretation is an impossibility. Doctrine is forged on the cutting edge of arrogance and, as usual, fear. Much messier and more syncretic, Christianity conflates that which in Islam is unconflatable. Freedom of conscience and speech simply does not have the same meaning, if any at all, in Islam.

And so, the world reels under the Danish pundit's pen. Islam can no more reform itself of its intolerance than can the Christians dispense with the Gospel of John or the Jews their Mosaic tradition of flight from slavery in Egypt. These doctrines define the believers and hold them in thrall. The gathering hostility will erupt here and there, and, as ever, one man's righteousness is another's intolerance.

James Richard Brett