Religious and culture clash caused by the Danish cartoons made me think about why Abrahamic monotheism prohibits images of its god and -- in its Islamic branch -- its principal prophet, Muhammad. Let's take it from the top, so to speak:
Exodus 20 (King James Version)This prohibition set the new religion apart from the idolatry central to other cults operating in the ancient Middle East and consolidated the religious impulses of Abraham's people under a single deity and moral/legal code, thereby helping to unify the Hebrews socially, economically, and militarily against other peoples in the region.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, 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.
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me....
Verse 3 seems to acknowledge other gods, but other translations offer an alternative "besides me" to "before me." Verses 4 and 5 complete the prohibition of idolizing, worshipping, or serving other gods popular in the region at the time, like the Ba'als ("lords") Moloch (the sacred bull or golden calf) and sky and rain god Hadad, the fertility goddess Astarte or Asherah, Egyptian sun gods, god of the underworld Mot, and river and sea god Yam. In fact, the use of many different names of God in the original Hebrew scriptures which are also the names of other Canaanite gods probably indicate that a process of assimilation of these other gods into one was going on. The prohibition on visual representations of God assisted this process.
Searching the King James Version for "graven image" also brings up interesting directives; this one is representative:
Deuteronomy 7So we see the earliest scriptures of Judaeo-Christian religion command behavior that we would be outraged by if perpetrated by Muslims today.
1 When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou;
2 And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them:
3 Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.
4 For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.
5 But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.
Judaism still observes the "graven image or likeness" prohibition. Christianity allows graven images and likenesses of Jesus, even though he came to be regarded as the son of God and part of a godly Trinity including the Holy Spirit. One Pope even allowed an image of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Perhaps Muslims seek to raise Muhammad even closer to God (Allah) by including him within the Abrahamic image prohibition.
Not-so-distant European history is scarred by torture and burning at the stake by agents of the Christian church to punish heresy and blasphemy. Many colonists came to America to escape religious persecution in their own lands. When the American colonies achieved independence, leaders influenced by Enlightenment philosophy wrote into our country's Constitution the First Amendment, which cannot be read too often:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.Under this simple, beautiful paragraph, our courts have found blasphemy laws unconstitutional and unenforceable, notably in the U.S. Supreme Court case Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, involving a "sacrilegious" movie:
The case was invoked to the Supreme Court by Joseph Burstyn following the rescindment of the license of the short film The Miracle. Burstyn was the (subtitled) English version's distributor; the movie was the work of Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini. It centred around a man, "Saint Joseph", who villainously impregnates "Nanni", a disturbed peasent who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary.The Burstyn case "largely marked the decline of motion picture censorship in the United States" and set the stage for the liberating influence of American cultural products around the world.
I beseech Muslims everywhere to observe how thoroughly Judaism and Christianity have modernized, abandoning violence against blasphemers, heretics, and other sects and faiths. As United States Supreme Court Justice Brandeis said, "the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
Look at the incidents of bans, fatwas, prosecutions, imprisonments, death sentences, and murders perpetrated for religious reasons. In the cartoon riots, scores were killed, hundreds injured, churches destroyed, and newspaper people driven into hiding by threats and bounties on their heads. It's not just the massive, violent intolerance; it's also this:
In Britain, a poll of Muslims last night found evidence of growing alienation, with four in 10 calling for religious sharia law to be imposed in parts of the UK with a mainly Muslim population. The law specifies stonings and amputations as punishments, and involves religious police bringing suspects before courts.Why would any freedom-loving American want this problem over here? Read the words of Flemming Rose, culture editor of the the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten:
I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn't to provoke gratuitously -- and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.UPDATE: Mohammed Image Archive: Depictions of Mohammed Throughout History
UPDATE: The thought police keep marching West
UPDATE: Terrific subtitled video of Arab-American psychologist Wafa Sultan shown on Al Jazeera.