The institutional hegemony of least-common-denominator Islam

In the postscripts to an earlier post on the Charlie Hebdo crisis, I mentioned that the widely-held proscription against images of the Prophet Muhammad lacks clear Islamic credentials. In saying that, I don’t mean to insist that we ought to lay great emphasis on what has or lacks such credentials. The fundamental principle at stake in the Charlie Hebdo affair is the right of free speech, which deserves protection regardless of the sensibilities of Muslims. As an atheist, the simplest description of my own beliefs contradicts Islam at its core–there is no God and Muhammad is not his prophet–and might well offend the sensibilities of many Muslims (and in my experience, often has). That said, I think it’s telling that the version of Islam that so often gets currency in the media is the lowest-common-denominator version–the version common to the most simple-minded Islamist and the most demogogic Islamophobe.

In the earlier post, I linked to essays by Hussein Ibish and Omid Safi, pointing out the obvious–that Muslims have often created and revered images of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s worth noting that there is also within the Islamic tradition (e.g., in Urdu poetry) a tradition of directing complaints to and accusations at God, and even of ridiculing Him for his essential unintelligibility. Here’s one example. Here’s another. (The latter is in Urdu. I’ll try to find serviceable online English translations of both at some point.)

The debate between iconoclasts and iconophiles is an intra-Muslim debate, not one that has obviously been settled in favor of the iconoclasts. In fact, iconoclasm has no clear scriptural warrant; it involves a sort of quasi-Platonic or neo-Platonic inference from the Qur’an’s strictures against idolatry to the putatively idolatrous implications of mimetic representation. Insofar as there is an argument for this view, I think it has its roots in Plato’s argument against mimetic art in Republic X. I haven’t studied the subject in great detail, but there’s a plausible Islamic argument against mimetic art (with Platonic overtones) in Ismail Faruqi’s little primer, Islam. Here’s another version of it. (The book version is, I think, a little more pointed in its iconoclasm.)

That said, I found the following bit of news outrageous. It’s from this article in today’s New York Times.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington civil liberties advocacy group, said that the prevailing view among Muslims was that all imagery of the prophets, regardless of their religion, is offensive because it promotes the idolatry discouraged by the Quran.

“It’s an established cultural and religious norm,” he said. “You don’t do visual depictions of religious figures, whether that’s a positive or negative portrayal.”

Western sensitivity to the Muslim objections has a mixed history at best, particularly concerning images that portray Muhammad favorably.

In New York, for example, an eight-foot marble statue of the prophet, created by the Mexican sculptor Charles Albert Lopez, adorned the roof of a courthouse adjoining Madison Square Park for more than 50 years until it was quietly removed in 1955. But a coalition of Muslim advocacy groups failed in a 1997 effort to seek the removal or alteration of a frieze containing a likeness of Muhammad on the north wall of the Supreme Court’s main chamber. The prophet is among 18 revered lawgivers decorating the court’s interior.

“It was a respectful presentation, and nobody doubts that, even though it had the stereotypical image of the Quran in one hand and a sword in the other,” said Mr. Hooper, recalling the episode. “We just felt duty-bound to raise it.”

More recently, in 2008, the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked the publisher Houghton Mifflin to remove an image of Muhammad from “Western Civilizations: Ideas, Politics and Society,” a textbook. The company did so in the next printing.

“Civil liberties” advocates like Ibrahim Hooper need some push-back, from thinking Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Muslims need to ask themselves: can self-appointed “leaders” like Hooper simply put their fingers in the air, detect the “consensus” (ijma) of Muslims, and dictate to Muslims what can and can’t be done? It doesn’t seem to matter to Hooper that the supposedly prevailing view of Muslim prevails in places where people conspicuously lack rights of free speech and free expression. How can anyone detect the consensus of Muslims in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Gaza? If you say the wrong thing in places like that, you get shot or have acid thrown in your face.  You Tube is banned in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Iran are totalitarian states. Egypt is a police state. Gaza is a virtual anarchy. What realistic chance of discussion or debate on iconoclasm versus iconophilia could reasonably be expected under such conditions?

Hooper knows this. He simply doesn’t care that debate is impossible and dissent is crushed. He thrives on it. And so, the prevailing view of Muslims–the ijma of the umma–is reduced to the least common denominator of thought, the unreflective prejudices of people under censorship. Amercan Muslims, in particular, need to ask whether they regard such dogmatism and authoritarianism as acceptable. It isn’t.

But non-Muslims have a stake in this, too. The Albert Lopez statue of Muhammad was taken down to pre-empt objections like Hooper’s. As for the surviving frieze of Muhammad, Hooper feels “duty bound” to raze it. He sniffles that the surviving frieze* depicts Muhammad in “stereotypical” fashion, with “an image of the Quran in one hand and a sword in the other.” Excuse me: so what? Is it Hooper’s contention that Muhammad had nothing to do with the Qur’an? Is it his contention that Muhammad never wielded the sword? The Qur’an was dictated to Muhammad, and he conquered Arabia. How can it conceivably be an objection that a work of art depicts him for the two accomplishments that Muslims themselves attribute to him?

I wonder what Ibrahim Hooper would say if I told him that I was “duty bound” to raise such questions with him. But I actually don’t merely intend to wonder. I intend to ask him and reprint his response here at PoT.

And I think the decision-makers at Houghton Mifflin could use a similar letter.

*I’ve corrected a few sentences in this paragraph before the asterisk. The original version confused the Lopez statue with the surviving frieze. The image above depicts the frieze, not the statue.

Postscript: Can anything be expressed any more without eliciting threats from someone? (The question sounds like a textbook exercise in the logic of quantification. Of course, any day now, someone will start threatening the authors of logic textbooks.)

2 thoughts on “The institutional hegemony of least-common-denominator Islam

    • Yes. We don’t really have a good term for the phenomenon in question–or even a good consensus on what the phenomenon is. But there is a phenomenon worth naming, and it involves a phobia of Muslims, not Islam.


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