What’s in an Image?

At its worst, the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris on the 7th of January and the controversial ‘Je Suis Charlie’ campaign which followed, sent a cynical message about the seeming impossibility of intercultural relations. In its initial coverage the media presented a simplistic notion of freedom of speech vs. religious censorship, and pointed out the apparent innocuousness of the political cartoons that made the journal and its staff the target of senseless, backwards barbarism. I think the cartoons speak for themselves, and I won’t draw further attention to them by describing their content here (in fact, I’ve purposely chosen not to include any images in this post due to its inflammatory subject).

While I am not a Muslim, I find these images deeply offensive, perhaps in part because they are intended as such. It goes without saying that the murder of Charlie Hebdo staff members was unwarranted and a terrible tragedy, but to link their deaths to the claim that the repeated defamatory depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is morally defensible in the name of freedom of speech, and by extension, political satire, is to ignore the lessons of history and deny the political culpability of artists. Furthermore, to blame ‘Muslims’ (as a homogenous mass somehow removed from the multicultural societies in which they live) for not understanding the subtle nuances of ‘Western’ humour, is utterly reprehensible (articulated brilliantly and tragically in this cartoon by Joe Sacco).

Closer to the point I’d like to make here, many images throughout history (and the particular contexts in which they were produced and received) have been the catalyst of conflict and bloodshed. This legacy is not restricted to the varied traditions of the Islamic world, but also pertains to Christian, Jewish and Buddhist contexts. From the image wars of Byzantine iconoclasm during the eighth and ninth centuries to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ from 1987, representations of holy figures – in two or three dimensions – continue to provoke violence (indeed, ‘iconoclasm’ means to literally to break or destroy images). Picked out as an example of ‘free speech double standards’ that coincided with the Hebdo events, Milan saw the banning of a fashion advert that parodied da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Ironically the controversy that arises from the censorship of such images strengthens their notoriety and redoubles their exposure, presenting a moral dilemma to broadcasters when deciding whether or not to republish the Hebdo cartoons.

It has been heartening to see a number of art historians and cultural theorists tackle this issue in the wake of the events in Paris, many bringing expert knowledge of Islamic visual culture to the fore. But through this another dangerous equivalence began to emerge: that a representation of Muhammad created by Muslim hands is the same as (or somehow justifies) a satirical drawing of the Prophet, by a non-Muslim. As pointed out by Christine Gruber in a series of Newsweek articles, the rules around representing the Prophet have varied in different Muslim societies over the centuries, as have the corresponding interpretations of the Qu’ran, which only explicitly forbids idolatry in a wider sense (as does the Bible).

The fact that Muhammad sometimes appears, with or without facial features, or as a calligraphic symbol, does not reflect a contradiction in Islamic doctrine or a misinterpretation of it – it is an indication of the diversity of cultures and periods that constitute the ‘Islamic world’. The category alone is a geo-historical misnomer, resulting from the late arrival of these myriad traditions to Western art history – it collapses vast swathes of territories across centuries of production into a vague, featureless ‘type’ or style. This also explains, to some extent, why the term ‘Islamic’ continues to be used when describing any example of art or architecture produced by Muslim designers and craftspeople, regardless of whether or not its meaning or function is explicitly ‘sacred’ (it would seem preposterous to refer to European visual cultures from medieval times to present day as ‘Christian’).

Put bluntly, Islamic art is not always religious, and when it is, it does not operate by the same set of rules. As an art historian, I have ventured into the muddy waters of representation and realised the extent of my ignorance, both as a Westerner and an agnostic. Numerous individuals and societies have grappled with the problem of representing deities and other symbols of holiness precisely because they occupy a space beyond representation. It is a philosophical as much as a theological problem, with its roots in our mortal struggle to reconcile our own materiality with the immaterial realm that may or may not exist beyond it. In organised religions this realm takes a particular shape and form (with related doctrine), but to deny that members of a secular society do not contemplate such matters is to deny our shared experience as humans. Representing gods, saints, prophets or other figures of reverence in a satirical way constitutes a deeper offence not only because it presumes their non-existence, but also because it makes a mockery of a wider belief that the metaphysical world is unknowable and invisible – a great mystery that is in itself sacred.

For these and other reasons representations have been, and continue to be, dangerous. Political cartoonists understand this completely, and are fully aware of the effect of their creations on the public that view them. I agree with Henri Roussel, the 80-year-old founder of Hara-Kiri (later changed Charlie Hebdo), who warned the chief editor Stephane Charbonnier about depictions of the Prophet on the basis that ‘it didn’t need to be done’. Images are more volatile than words; they ‘show’ things in a universal language while at the same time leaving a wide margin for misinterpretation. Images have a provocative immediacy; their impact is instant and irreversible. The ‘pencils vs. Kalashnikovs’ images that arose in solidarity with the murdered Hebdo cartoonists confirms this, but through a twisted logic. Both are seen as weapons, but while guns are associated with irrational brutality and intolerance, the pencil is synonymous with the righteous, rational defence of liberal values (as if to suggest that firearms haven’t played a pivotal role in countless battles for freedom and individual rights, with casualties on both sides). Indeed, Charbonnier himself seemed to think he was battling some sort of front line, stating on record that he would ‘rather die standing than live on his knees’.

Frighteningly, we live in an age when there is a fine line between expressing one’s opinion and provoking terrorist attacks. This should not, however, form the basis for a polarising view that pits Western satirists against Islam. Why? Because it overlooks a larger, more pressing question about cultural sensitivity, which seems to have been thrown out with the bloodied bathwater. Why, in our fragile global-political climate, is it morally defensible to produce visual content that is designed with the specific aim of tearing at the cultural and religious fabric of our own societies? Many of those negatively affected by these images share a vision of free expression, but that doesn’t extend to seeing blasphemous images thrown in their faces, as if to test the boundaries of their faith and tolerance, or what they’re willing to endure in the name of living in a democratic country. It is possible to see the images produced and defended by Charlie Hebdo (along with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and the Swedish Nerikes Allehanda) as a form of cultural bullying, if not a violent attack on the values and beliefs of other societies. Far from democratic, it is agitating and aggressive, a fact that cannot and should not be elided by claims of satirical impartiality (i.e. if they satirise one religion they have the right and duty to satirise them all).

Perhaps more to the point: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

There is little disagreement about whether terrorism should be condemned and its perpetrators brought to justice, but the attacks on ‘gross multiculturalism’ by UKIP and other far right party leaders in Europe is a sign that this logic is being taken to its equally intolerant extreme. This is reinforced by journal and newspaper editors’ insistence upon reprinting the images that sparked the conflict in the first place, as an act of defiance, a ‘two fingers up’ to terrorists. What continues to be shamelessly overlooked is the damage this is doing to cross-cultural relations (nationally and internationally), which are already strained to breaking point. While an overemphasis on ‘civility’ has been rightly criticised (leading to the privileging of some sensitivities over others), there is equally a case to be made for keeping the peace at times when socio-political tensions are high. What harm is there in not representing the Prophet Muhammad in the current global climate, or any other religious figure for that matter?

The tendency in the Western press to associate Islam with the Dark Ages (from which liberal democracies have been emancipated) serves to bury the lessons of the past, including the rich and complicated history of image politics. It also conflates different sects and practices of Islam, such as the growing influence of ultra-conservative Wahhabism with more moderate Muslim practices and beliefs. Even when condemning fundamentalist movements, catalysts behind such movements, often tied up with global political events than fundamentalism (see Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake), are often ignored. What is lacking is a disinterest in understanding belief systems and how they are connected to values, practices and politics. Why not look to history to help shed light on the value systems and visual languages that remain an integral part of our diverse societies, and to better understand the sensitivities of particular religious groups?

Western democratic societies might learn something about themselves in the process. The rampant voyeurism that plagues the internet, and the pressure on journalists and news platforms to ‘bear all’, leads only to a culture of desensitisation that tacitly accepts violence and suffering from the comfort of armchairs. When images become personal, however, viewers are less likely to permit their publication and distribution – the memory and thus the honour of loved ones are preserved in the image, a value that must not be toyed with in any culture. I’m reminded of a recent charge against Facebook for its ‘inadvertent algorithmic cruelty’ when a man was presented with an image of his deceased daughter, selected as the key photo in his ‘Year in Review’. The question of whether he should have posted the photo in the first place doesn’t change the fact that he was deeply offended by the context in which it was re-presented. Most of us have seen something on the news or through a link that we then can’t unsee. It can feel deeply unsettling or traumatic, conflicting with our beliefs or surpassing our thresholds for violence.

So, what’s in an image? Different things to different people – which is why we ought to treat them carefully, with respect and open minds. The question remains whether or not the right to free speech within predominantly secular societies should trump the those of minority religious groups. Rather than being used to raise suspicions that Muslim immigrants might be operatives of an imagined ‘fifth column’ (a shockingly archaic suggestion, even from the likes of Nigel Farage), resistance to representations of this kind should be listened to and understood. If we are to believe in a functioning multiculturalism that hinges on acceptance as opposed to mere tolerance, then we need to regain the ground that has been lost in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo events.

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