TCS Daily

What Is a Picture of Muhammad, Anyway?

By Robert McHenry - February 9, 2006 12:00 AM

As you may have heard, a great many people in various countries around the world are upset by the publication of some pictures of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. They are sufficiently upset as to riot, set fire to national embassies, and call for summary executions. There have been incidental deaths. It is, in short, a serious matter.

I offer two small reflections on this, beginning with the simple question: What is "a picture of Muhammad"?

"A picture of Robert McHenry" we understand pretty clearly, even though the term "Robert McHenry" is not entirely unambiguous. We mean a photograph or a hand-made likeness of that particular person. If we are shown a drawing said to be of Robert McHenry and find that it doesn't look at all like him, we say "No, that's not him." But Muhammad lived long before the invention of photography, and there are no likenesses of him by contemporaries. In other words, no one knows what he looked like.

If you were to assemble a set of mugshots of dark, bearded men and ask any number of ordinary Muslims, imams, or even ayatollahs, which one most resembles Muhammad, they would be (over and above being scandalized by the very idea) quite unable to do so, though some might pretend.

So, these cartoons created by some illustrators in Denmark -- what makes them "pictures of Muhammad"? Clearly, they are accepted as such only because the artists said that they meant them to be. The intention defines, not the thing itself, but only our conditional acceptance of it. This is not unlike our response to a small child's drawing that looks like mere scribbling: "Oh, yes, dear, that's a lovely picture of Aunt Louise." If only one of the artists had meant to depict Muhammad, neither we nor our panel of Muslims would have been able to pick out his work from the field. What is objected to, then, is not an actual thing or an observable act -- but an intention, a state of mind, a point of view.

My second question:

How do these pictures offend, then? How do they insult those who so clearly feel insulted? More generally, what happens in any instance of insult? A says or does something, whereupon B reacts with strong negative emotion. A may or may not have intended to evoke that response; the response does not depend on A's intentions. We blur this fact in ordinary speech when we say that A has given offense. It would be more apt to say that A has provided the occasion for offense.

The case of unwitting offense clearly and properly places the onus on B. B has choices. B can say, "You know, in our tradition we don't do that." He can say "There are those who would be quite provoked by what you have said [or done]." He can even ignore the whole incident. Or, of course, he may choose -- choose -- to indulge in an emotional outburst ranging in fervor from a rebuke to a rebellion.

Over the past few months I've made a collection of news articles reporting on cases of "insult" or "offense," in each case taken, whether or not actually given.

Some Jews are offended by the practice of some Mormons, who use genealogical records to find the names of Holocaust victims, among others. They then repair to an inner chamber in the temple and perform "proxy baptism" intended to convert the dead to Mormonism. The most logical and sane response to this practice is to ignore it, perhaps after a hearty laugh. What is offensive? Do the complainers fear that it actually works? If it doesn't, it has absolutely nothing to do with them or with the dead; it's just some people in a private room saying some words.

One Christian was offended by the name of Mount Diablo in northern California. More recently, some other Christians were offended by the showing of scenes from Gounod's "Faust" in an elementary school music class. A Hmong family was offended by the failure of a cemetery to bury a dead relative in accordance with their traditions.

Note that in each case, the possible alternative responses included being disappointed, being amused, accepting a refund, or walking on by. But the choice was made to be, and to express publicly that they were, "offended."

It would appear that the reason for choosing to be offended is that it is believed to elevate the offended one to a superior moral position. "You have offended me! I am now authorized to blame, censor, censure, denounce," (I'm working from my thesaurus here) "excoriate, fault, etc., you." Or, in some cultures, riot, burn, and kill. In short, all the nasty things that we humans enjoy so much that we feel instinctively that we need moral sanction to do them, and no sanction is quite so available, so ready to hand, as the bad behavior of others.

Once, in high school, I visited another nearby high school for some reason. "We" and "they" were rivals in sports and, less formally but in the way of adolescence, in just being. Walking through the main lobby, I stepped on a representation of the school's crest on the floor and was immediately and sharply reprimanded by several of "them." There was a "rule," albeit an unwritten one, against stepping on that symbol, and I had been caught in an offense. Even though I didn't give it, they took it, and they enjoyed the taking.

None of which is to suggest that this love of taking offense can't be used quite cynically, as is the case with the Muhammad cartoons. The rabble have been well and truly roused by radical Islamists, but the whole thing works because of the exhilarating high of moral advantage it offers. In cultures still struggling with the implications of the 18th century and marked chiefly by ignorance, tribalism, and religiosity, and in lieu of good government, economic opportunity, and liberty, it's the popular drug of choice.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).



No Subject
Very interesting,taking offense at any opportunity,as a sport,a national pastime and deriving pleasure and enjoyment from it.One can not overlook that middle eastern nations also have an established political infrastructure to support this behaviour.Much like building a sports arena.Along with participants,drama,orchestrated violence,international t.v. coverage.With the ultimate goal,the burning of someonelse's flag,building,car,or someonelse.The Islamic world has discovered that it is politically profitable to play the cronic victim.The (western)man is always keeping us down.They should be more selective,murder and extreme violence is seemingly the answer to everything in the Islamic world.

The Mirror of Islam
Without icons, iconoclasts are out of business. Much Muslim ingenuity has been devoted to evading the "Graven Image" problem by building up simulacra out of bits of natural objects and reflectedlight.

In Pakistan, as in all strict Summi places , youcant just go and put a pair of sculpted lions beside a stairway, but you can buy lion-shaped objects covered in mirror mosaic- when you look at them you are just seeing the reflected handiwork of The Maker Of The World- a visual definition that gets aroundthe problem. You can likewise buy, at a high price , non-mosaics strongly resembling Ibn Saud or other Wahabi worthies that cause no offense , being but collages of trimmed slabs of varigated white and blue lapis , parts of which just providenially happen to resemble someone's left nostril or right eyelid. A few hundred of these may be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle for public display without risk of riot because nobody has done any image-graving.It's just labor intensive found art.

Likewise , a whole Kufic art form consists in morphing Koranic verses in arabic script into the shape of what the words refer to- the Prophet's ride becoming a calligraphic horse-shaped cartouche , or the Cow Sura being rendered within the outline of a hefer.

Looking for a fight
I believe that the calamity caused by the cartoon is just a venting of certain extremist groups looking for a reason to take offense. There are many cartoons of Jesus, a religious figure deemed by his followers to be divine, (where as Muhamed is not even divine...just divinely inspired), and as I recall I have not read about christians flocking to the streets demanding the death of the artists.

The whole situation is reminiscent of WWI (world war one): the countries of Europe were looking for a reason that they could go to war for. (The bookWar by Time Table is a good example of this idea)

From Canada;

Let's hope its only cultural
The 10 commandments prohibit worshiping golden calves or graven images (printed ones were not yet concieved). Protestents object to Catholics' exhibiting Jesus on the cross, the Protestent cross is bare. Ah me! All this probably had to do with the struggle of monotheism (the atheism of the time) against squadrons of pagan gods and demigods with exagerated good and bad human characteristics.

Arabs have a medieval bloodthirsty tradition, any excuse will do. Westerners should not feel particularly honored about being selected by them for mass-murder. When there are no Jews or Christians handy, they slit each other's throats with equal enthusiasm. Saddam killed many more moslems than Isreal and the West, combined. This makes him an Arab hero. Let's hope W is right and it's not genetic.

Giving Offense
This article assumes that the offense given is unintentional.

But what if there actually is an intent to offend Party B? What moral authority does Party A have in communicating with intent to offend? This is precisely what the French and German newspapers did in reprinting the Danish photos. They were aware of the initial negative reaction and reprinted the photos to demonstrate solidarity with the Danish newspaper. In the name of journalistic freedom, they intentionally reprinted the articles knowing that a large number of Muslims would find them offensive. In doing so, they relinquished any claim to moral superiority in this mess.

As it is pointed out, Party B still has a choice on how to respond, and the violent response in this case is unjustifiable. But Party A needs to take responsibility in how it exercises its freedom of expression, because Party A doesn't know how Party B might react. That's what it means to be in an adult relationship. Party A and Party B aren't cannot escape each other. They both must learn to accommodate.

With freedom of expression comes the responsibility to communicate wisely and with restraint. Now certain Islamic leaders are calling for European laws forbidding blasphemy against the Prophet. And the Europeans will in every liklihood cave in. What will become of their beloved freedom of expression then?

Give Offense.
The umma has moved from normal irrationalism into psychosis. The only rational way to deal with them is to understand that we must. Moral quibbling aside, we need a good reason to beat them till they give up and accept that they are a menace and that we will not tolerate that any longer. To make the conditions right for our intervention we must inflame them further till the average Westerner sees clearly that Islam is nothing other than a fscist poligion, a political religion, that cannot and will not willingly stop its war on the world.

Derek, an illustrator, has provided us with some ammunition in the cartoon war; and regardless of the idiot complaints about the background of his template his work is powerful enough to cause a further erosion of our good-will toward our Muslim world's savages. If Muslims see his work, and we see them reacting, then we will no longer be able to pretend that Islam is anything other than exactly what it is.

Derek's work is now flagged with a warning. Please by-pass than and copy his portrait of Mohmmed and pass it on till this crisis is full-blown and dealt with appropriately. Let's quit fooling around pretending we're nice. Our enemies cut people's head off with kitchen knives.

To view Derek's portrait of Mohammed"

Thank you, Dag.

Giving offense
No such assumption is made. The case of unintended offense serves to demonstrate where the offense occurs -- in the mind of the offended, not in the "offensive" object or deed.

This "freedom to do x, only don't actually do x" is as close to oxymoronic as an ethical argument can be, yet it is amazingly widespread. I am all in favor of taste and restraint, but they cannot trump liberty. To allow claims of being offended to govern our behavior is to become slave to every whim of every other person.

Selective outrage
Apparently all 12 of these "offensive" cartoons were printed in an Egyptian newspaper this last October. I don't remember any Egyptian reaching high dudgeon at that time.

giving offense or defending rights
If the muslims in question had merely expressed extreme outrage over the cartoons, your point would be valid.
However they went much further.
They demanded that the offending papers and publishers be severly punished, and they demanded that laws be passed banning such pictures in the future.

In that light, the actions of the French and German papers can also be viewed as a defense of the right of free speech.

These cartoons weren't offensive last summer when they were first printed.
These cartoons weren't offensive last October when they were reprinted in an Egyptian newspaper.

This outrage has been ginned up purely as political theater.

Is the mirror truthful
Cartoons and humor bite when they reflect the unspoken truth. Do these cartoons reflect the image of 21st century Muslims. Unfortunately they do. That is probably why they are so angry. Who can deny that the current self-proclaimed leaders of the Muslims have not allowed their religion to become the religion of death, destruction and bombs. These cartoons merely mirror what the "muslims" have done. If they don't like the image, they need to change. Trashing the mirror does not change anything.

This is also why their futile (and mean spirited) attempts to protray the "Virgin Mary" with breasts falls flat. The Virgin Mary has nothing to do with "breasts" and sex. Thus those cartoons (depictions of Mary in pornagraphic poses) are not funny because they fail to reflect a truth.

Thy D-cup runneth over
"their futile (and mean spirited) attempts to protray the "Virgin Mary" with breasts falls flat"

Pardon my cognitive dissonance, but I hope the writer does not contemplate retaliating for the attacks on the consulates of Denmark and Norway by mounting an assault on the Vatican Museum and the Prado for their scandalous display of the R-rated Madonna and Child porn of Van Eyck, Raphael, and of course, ***ian.

in six months..
In six months time Denmark assumes the presidency of the U.N. security council. During their tenure there are three major U.N. issues that can be expected to come to a head.

One is the role the president of Syria played in the assisination (past and present) of prominent Lebanese politicians.

Another issue is Iran's efforts toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

The third is a movement emanating from the Muslim world to make the offending and disrepecting of religious and cultural groups an international crime that the U.N. will be able to require member countries to apply sanctions against.

Syria and Iran have made it impossible for Denmark to conduct itself in a normal manner when chairing the discussions.

The Muslim world has made it abundantly clear that there will be serious repercussions if the U.N. security council does not accede to demands that religions and cultural groups selected by the U.N general assembly are not afforded the protection being demanded.

There is nothing spontaneous or authentic about these demonstrations which revolve almost entirely around Denmark even though several other countries have deliberately published the cartoons knowing their significance.

The underlying premise of the demonstrations is that Muslims will determine what is offensive to them and they will take whatever actions they please to register their disapproval because their beliefs take absolute supremacy over anyone else's. They feel that not only are they free to do so but are obligated to do so to maintain there religious continuity.


What's to keep people from worshipping mirrors?
Actually, it doesn't make sense to think that these drawings are likely to become objects of worship. What they really are offended by is the fact that Westerners don't take their religion, or rather its encrustation of superstition, seriously. Islam has a wide range of teachings, as Christianity does, and its basic beliefs aren't all that offensive.

All religions will become superstitious when they no longer have revelation, which is what has happened to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They've been edited by scholar/priest/politicians until they no longer contain the truth that gave them their initial appeal.

The question about what a picture of Muhammed is certainly is one that occurs to most westerners. For these purposes, I suppose the answer is, Any image that is drawn with the intent of insulting the Muslim religion.

Considering MichaelY quite clearly stated that the images in question aren't offensive, why do you even have to ask if he's considering violence?

Perhaps your question says more about your own deep seated insecurities and animosities than it could hope to reveal from Michael.

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