October 17, 2009

Religion is too important to be left to fundamentalists, indeed, it is too important to be left to believers alone


In one way or another, most recent religious controversies revolve around images – some of them highly dramatic and violent. They range from the attack on the World Trade Center, that abstract double icon of capitalism and American power, to the cartoons published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. Some of these were tailor made for escalation, and it comes as no surprise that they were used by hardliners on both sides to create the impression of an irreconcilable opposition between “the West” (or “modernity”) and Islam. The Danish caricatures not only represented the Prophet, thus breaking a widespread – though by no means universal – Muslin custom, but they caricatured him in ways that sometimes seemed racist and oddly reminiscent of anti-Semitic caricatures of old, while structurally resembling traditional Christian caricatures of Muhammad in hell. (In 2002, an al Qaeda cell in Italy was reported to have planned the bombing of a church in Bologna, the location of a fifteenth-century fresco depicting this scene.) Given that such images are met with outrage, monotheism – Islam, in particular – is often regarded as inherently intolerant, its iconoclastic ire presenting a danger to civilized society. Various atheist websites have posted an image of the Twin Towers with the Lennon-inspired caption: IMAGINE NO RELIGION. But religion is too important to be left to fundamentalists, indeed, it is too important to be left to believers alone.

Many of the recent controversies revolve around images that are seen as both idolatrous and blasphemous – perceived as illicit representations of a deity or prophet who should not be represented, as well as offensive caricatures. One of the Danish caricatures depicts Muhammad as a sinister-looking fellow whose turban hides a bomb; that image of Islam as backward and violent was effectively fortified by the preachers and masses engaged in violent protests against such caricatures. Certain Sudanese Muslin groups also actively embraced Western clichés about Islam in the absurd 2007 affair on an English school teacher, who had allowed her pupils to name the class teddy bear Muhammad, after one of the boys. She was sentenced to fifteen days in prison for insulting the prophet by seemingly representing him in the form of a soft toy. Clearly, one or more political factions were exploiting an imaginary offense by a western foreign national to further their political agenda, yet we should not treat the religious “surface” as a mere passive reflection of the “real” economic and political issues. Like cultural production in general, religion can develop a dynamic of its own, articulating political issues as well and interfering in them.

The interdiction of idolatry, of images that may come to be worshipped as false gods, is the founding act of monotheism. The seemingly secular “West” is seen by many Muslim fundamentalists as idolatrous, worshipping the false gods of material wealth and alluring images. It is, as the mid-twentieth century radical Sayyd Qutb stated, the new jahiliyya – the term jahiliyya standing for the idolatrous “state of ignorance” of pre-Muhammad Arabia. Some scholars emphasize that, in distancing themselves from the jahiliyya, the Qur’an and the hadith did not in fact accord a central place to the question of the image. However, a ban on images is implicit in the condemnation of shirk, or the polytheistic association of other gods with God. Furthermore, the Qur’an contains numerous references to the primal scene of idolatry in the Torah – the episode of the Golden Calf – when the Israelites relapsed into worshipping a material image as a divinity. Such a practice had been explicitly forbidden by the Second Commandment, which states that Israel shall have no other gods that Yahweh, and which condemns graven images “or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This commandment, given in Exodus 30:3-4 and in Deuteronomy 20:3-4, is elaborated upon in Deuteronomy 4:15-19, when the Israelites are reminded that they “saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spoke unto [them] in Horeb out of the midst of the fire,” and that representation of people and animals should be avoided because they might lead to corruption”; to the worship of these images (a similar danger also existed in the case of the sun, moon and stars.)

These passages are anything but unambiguous; some elements clearly suggest a lingering belief in the reality of other gods. This means that originally, monotheism was not based on the ontological belief that there is only one God who is beyond representation, but on a much more personal, social relationship between Israel and a jealous, possessive God. Paradoxically, then, the belief that there is only one God is not as central to monotheism as the refusal to worship other gods, who may very well exist. In time, of course “social” monotheism or monolatry became “ontological” monotheism. Yet ontological monotheism is anything but monolithic or consistent; interpretations of the Second Commandment have varied widely over the centuries in all three “Abrahamic” religions.

- from Idols of the Market by Sven Lütticken


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