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Thursday, 15 January 2015

"All is Forgiven"?

I felt a degree of concern when I heard that this week’s edition of Charlie Hebdo would once again feature a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Was this to be a further provocation, a gesture of angry defiance, another barb aimed at the heart of Muslim sensibilities?  See it for yourself:

I have spent the last week reflecting on the almost impossible balance that needs to be maintained between our hard-fought  freedoms for literary and artistic self-expression – which includes the freedom to subvert conventional pieties (religious or secular), the freedom to dissent against majority opinions or those of the powerful (secular or religious) through polemic, satire, drama, whatever non-violent weapons are at hand – and the desirability on a human level of avoiding unnecessary distress to those one is opposing.  

Empathy towards another person’s (or group’s) sensitivities is a noble quality. Seeing the world through the eyes of others is meant to help us towards a larger vision of the human, a more refined  understanding of our shared (but multifarious) humanity. But if you believe the other’s  world-view is detrimental to your well-being, how best to convey one’s hurt, or one’s outrage, without provoking their hurt, or outrage, in response? Is it possible to profoundly challenge another’s view of the world while maintaining an attitude of respect for the integrity of the other’s view? What if the other is a believer in slavery? Or an anti-Semite? Or a misogynist? Or a dyed-in-the-wool racist? This dilemma is complex enough when we are talking about individual relationships – me and you. But when we are talking about group sensibilities the difficulties multiply exponentially.  

All of these thoughts have been in play as I have pondered on the events of this tumultuous week. ‘Group think’ has been everywhere: it was in the massed crowds showing solidarity with the victims of the tragedies in Paris; and it was in the well-meaning and I am sure heartfelt ‘not in my name – this is not Islam’ responses of the majority of Western Muslims to their co-religionists’ outrages. But was I alone in feeling uncomfortable at the role played this week by the Prime Minister of the State of Israel in the events in Paris? Solidarity with French Jews, OK. But playing so prominently the ‘You can always come to Israel’ card to a shocked and grieving diaspora community – as if they didn’t know this? - seemed insensitive rather than supportive: a piece of political rhetoric compounded by the strange nationalistic  appropriation of those who died in the supermarket.
Why were their funerals – and not the two Jews who died in the Charlie Hebdo attack - in Jerusalem? Were the supermarket victims all ex-pat Israelis? I don’t think they were.  I don’t think any of them were - but what they shared was that they died in a ‘Jewish’ supermarket. So Israel claimed them. (It was left to Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin – not for the first time in recent months - to provide, en passant, the necessary rebuke to Netanyahu: Jews should come to Israel , he said, not out of fear, but ‘We want you to chose Israel because of a love for Israel’). 

If the four  who died in the supermarket weren’t Israelis, then what we saw so prominently exhibited to the world was a problematic elision by Netanyahu of the distinction between Jew and Israeli. We rightly complain when diaspora Jews are attacked or abused because of the actions of the State of Israel – but these funerals  fed right in to the more-common-than-we-like-to-think non-Jewish failure to distinguish between diasporic Jewry and the Israeli state. It played straight into the homogenising group think that says all Jews, wherever they live in the world, are the same. A mirror image of the unthinking anti-Muslim polemic that pontificates that  ‘all Muslims’ are deluded fanatics – or terrorists in waiting.    

Back to the cartoon. One of the dominant motifs over this last week has been the much voiced Muslim response that the hallmark of Mohammed was his empathy, his patience, his tolerance, his gentleness – his capacity to forgive:  We should, through our actions and deeds, display the sublime character of the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Prophet faced many great challenges but he exhibited impeccable beauty of character in his actions. He did not react inhumanely or violently. He was attacked verbally and physically in Taif but he forgave the people. His uncle and companions were murdered but he reacted peacefully and in a humane manner. And there are many such examples from the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) we must display (see the statement by leading imams at  

So I found it rather moving – and exhibiting a touch of inspiration – for the figure on the cover to be tearful, empathising with the victims, and to appear below the headline ‘Everything is Forgiven’. It is a response both profoundly religious and profoundly humanistic: it fuses religiosity and secularism in a powerful vision of shared human values. Rénald Luzier – ‘Luz’ – has created a timeless image that both subverts the stale boundaries between what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘secular’ – and belies the proud, self-confessed atheistic stance of the journal’s editorial board. The image offers us a reflection on the role of compassion and forgiveness in the face of fear and terror and death.  

Yes, it does this through an image of a bearded man in a turban – and no doubt many will project the notion of the Prophet Mohammed onto this picture. But it is no more a representation of the reality of the Prophet whom Muslims reverence than are those analogous imaginative gestures towards a shared cultural reference point found in the dozens of images of ‘God’ drawn by cartoonists for the New Yorker  over the last several decades. It is a sort of category error to confuse the image with what it points towards.  
Cartoons are not icons: eastern Orthodoxy created devotional objects for Christian meditation – spending time reflecting on the image of Christ could lead to a greater sense of piety, of the need to mirror the attributes of the Christ figure in one’s daily life.  And western art is of course unthinkable without its religious imagery – though representations of God are rare. It is strange perhaps that Islam has borrowed the Judaeo-Christian tradition of not representing God and extended it to the Prophet – this extension of the prohibition about image making is like the Judaic ‘fence around the Torah’, an additional circle of protectiveness lest one stray too near what the core prohibition is: idolatry. The problem always comes when a religious tradition makes an idol out of the law designed to keep one from making idols. And we are not to make idols out of divinity/God in any monotheistic tradition because, as it is said, Allah Hu-akbar – ‘God’ is greater/bigger/more incomprehensible than any image can ever capture.
But one of the things I have learnt this week has been that there was a longstanding tradition of Islamic artistic representation of the Prophet. One 16th century example, of Mohammed on Mt Hira, with a veiled face and halo, can be seen in the link below (scroll down, right hand side image) :

A fuller discussion can be found at 

This tradition of figurative representation of Mohammed may have fallen out of fashion – and be unknown to adherents of Islam. But ignorance of one’s own multi-dimensional  faith tradition is not of course restricted to Islam. And of course cartoons are not usually devotional material.  

But Luz’s front cover does allow us to contemplate some of the core values of Islam, Judaism and Christianity as well as humanism: our capacity for regret, empathy, forgiveness, compassion. It leaves open the question who is doing the forgiving, and who is being forgiven. If the cover is an act of defiance – though I’m not so sure it is – then it is the defiance of the sorrowful:  not an act of aggression but an act of humility, of hurt, of vulnerability, of solidarity with those who suffer. And which of us does not suffer in these days of turmoil and fear?


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