Depicting Muhammad

kanyeYes, Kanye West posed as Jesus Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone. And, like he's a Pat Robertson-in-training, the grandstanding worked. Media outlets splashed the news everywhere. So it was nice to see the way Rashod Ollison analyzed young Kanye for the Baltimore Sun:

Perhaps he meant it as a symbol of personal suffering. Maybe he wanted to present young hip-hop heads with an updated image of the Son of God. Whatever his motives, Kanye West again has accomplished what he set out to do: Get people to talk.

About him.

On the cover of February's Rolling Stone, which hit news stands last week, the brash, egomaniacal rapper-producer poses as Jesus Christ. In the profile shot, he wears a crown of thorns. Blood runs down his face; his expression conveys anguish, vulnerability, a steely resilience.

It's all so pedestrian, humorless and downright boring.

Exactly. And please note the scary Rolling Stone headline about God's Senator while you're at it. Remember when that magazine was actually cool? It hasn't been since Hunter S. Thompson's liver finally got larger than his cranium and they put P.J. O'Rourke out to pasture. Of course, for a long time now rock and roll culture has been less about subverting authority and more about moving units, so a minor controversy over disrespecting a tolerant religion is a valued as marketing ploy rather rather than a daring artistic decision. But as a few pundits noted, if Kanye wanted to be really rebellious, he would pose as Muhammad. Then we would see where the rubber meets the road when it comes to real artistic conviction.

Plays and movies mocking or blaspheming Islam, as opposed to Christianity, are almost unheard of. Movies praising Islam, even, are difficult to make. Syrian-born director Moustapha Akkad, who was killed a few months ago in the terrorist bombing in Jordan, faced extreme opposition for The Message, for instance. (Random political trivia: former mayor, then councilman, Marion Barry was shot in 1977 in a hostage situation where Muslim radicals made demands against the movie.)

Which brings us to the present and the huge story on other continents about the decision of a Danish newspaper to run political cartoons that made a humongous error in the eyes of Muslims. They contained images of Muhammad. All images of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam, but these cartoons were of the Ted Rall variety rather than the Marmaduke variety.

In response, masked gunmen stormed an EU office in Gaza. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark. Libya closed its embassy in the Danish capital. Palestinians burnt Danish flags while Hamas and Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demanded an apology. Former President Bill Clinton told Davos attendees that he worried anti-Islam sentiment would replace anti-Semitism and condemned "these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam." The Danish newspaper received a bomb threat. Boycotts have cost Danish companies $55 million.

messageAs I said, big story. Deutsch Welle had a good update that also provided some perspective about EU concerns over freedom of the press and protection of fundamental religious values. It even mentioned media issues:

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, in Tunis for a meeting of Arab interior ministers, decried the "double standards" in the European media.

"We see double standards in the European media, which is fearful of being accused of anti-Semitism but which invokes freedom of expression for a caricature on Islam," Mussa told reporters.

Most Arab governments have vocally condemned the series of 12 cartoons, which show the prophet as a wild-eyed knife-wielding Bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.

It's fascinating to note how the Arab League leader notes the standards of European media in his attempt to sway political opinion. Fascinating because, of course, the standards for religious tolerance in Muslim news outlets likely would not merit Western sympathy. I also found this passage from the Khaleej Times to be illuminating:

Qatar-based scholar, Dr Yousuf Al Qaradawi, has urged the United Nations to act to prevent the defamation of the prophets or religious figures from any religion, anywhere in the world. He was speaking in Arabic on Qatar Television. "We Muslims consider it as a major crime to abuse or denigrate any prophet, including Jesus and Moses. Any Muslim who is doing this will not continue as a Muslim," Qaradawi is reported to have said.

It would be nice for reporters to ask other Muslim scholars if this is true. Do Muslims consider it a major crime to denigrate Jesus and other religious figures? Have they commented on the Rolling Stone cover, for instance? Are Muslims decrying anti-Semitic comments from Hamas leaders?

Reporters should also explain why Muslims are demanding that the Danish government apologize for the actions of a few of its citizens. A guided tutorial through the Koran would give reporters a lot of information about Muslim views on the separation of mosque and state.

And reporters and editors in this country should show a bit more interest in this story. It won't just be Denmark where Western views of freedom of the press run up against Islam's desire to protect its major prophet. And I'm not just saying that because I am afraid to put up a picture of Muhammad.

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