What's So Bad About A Picture of Muhammad?

"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."  -Voltaire


As I am sure you've all heard by now, a pair of armed men opened fire Wednesday morning on the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French publication based in Paris.  Though details are still emerging, it is becoming very clear that this attack was religiously motivated against several articles the magazine published which criticized Islam. Charlie Hebdo was also the victim of a firebombing attack in 2011 after it published a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.  While this post is in no way looking to justify the actions of terrorists, it is important to explain why a simple drawing of a person can cause so much anger.

In Islam, there is a strong tradition of preventing behaviors or actions which could distract someone from the worship of God.  Many Muslims believe that graven images can lead to the practice of idolatry (the worship of things other than God).  While most traditions agree in their disapproval of images of Muhammad, some extend this general prohibition to other prophets recognized by Islam including Moses and Jesus.  Still others take this even further to prohibit images of the human body, since it can be considered an extension of God and God's creation.

This practice is not unique to Islam.  One of the greatest religious debates of the early Catholic church was also centered on this idea.   In middle and late 700s (AD), the iconoclasm movement gained traction within the Catholic church.  Like the prohibition of images of Muhammad, the iconoclasm movement stood against the veneration of inanimate objects.  During these centuries, the church was still holding many religious councils to solidify its beliefs and define and eliminate "heresies."  Ultimately, iconoclasm was declared heretical at the Second Council of Nicea in 787 in favor of the inconodule movement (the belief that images are fine so long as you don't actually worship them).

So many (though certainly not all) Muslims would prefer not to see images of Muhammad or other prophets. This is part of the reason theaters in Egypt are not showing the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings since it shows the prophet Moses.  Still, most people understand the difference between disapproval of something and the violent murder of those with differing opinions.

The completely unrestricted freedom of speech and expression in "Western" culture occasionally finds itself at odds with this religious belief.  This is why it may not seem like a big deal when the same publication printed images and criticism of religious figures like the Pope.  So how should newspapers handle these topics, especially when directly confronted by this clash between religious belief and unrestricted free speech?  Of course, people and organizations have every right to print or say what they will.  But just because you can print something doesn't mean you should. 

When considering displaying images of Muhammad or other prophets, I think intent is critically important.  For instance, drawing or showing images of Muhammad with the intent to merely exercise your right is perfectly understandable.  Many moderate Muslims, though they would prefer not to see such an image, can respect that use of free speech.

However, displaying vulgar images of Muhammad just to upset terrorists misses the point.  Antagonizing for the sake of antagonizing can turn off a lot of moderate people who still don't want to see offensive images of Muhammad.  We certainly don't have to censor ourselves, but it is possible to show cultural or religious respect while still being critical of some aspects of Islam.  This is where I find movements like Everybody Draw Muhammad Day can sometimes lose sight of their message.

Still, the attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo is reprehensible.  There is a world of difference between satire and disrespect. Though I have the highest respect for their work and for the practice of questioning certain religious beliefs, I personally will never post an image of Muhammad on this blog.  This is not because I fear terrorist reprisal, but because I want to recognize the beliefs of everyday Muslims who would rather not see these images displayed. 

TL,DR: The practice of prohibiting religious images is not unique to Islam.  We can't give in to terrorists, but retaliating by posting pictures of Muhammad isn't the answer either.

Reaction Drawings To Charlie Hebdo

Wiki Article on Iconoclasm