The Danish Cartoons Crisis - a Methodist response

On 30 September 2005 the publication of twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten caused controversy that eventually led to demonstrations in many cities, violence and a number of deaths. While Britain had little direct connection with these events, a demonstrator dressed as a suicide bomber at a protest rally in London brought a shocking reminder of the events of July 7 2005.

So, what was it all about? The immediate background was the inability of a Danish author to find an illustrator for his children’s book on Muhammad and wishing to raise the issue of religious censorship. We note that this issue is not primarily part of what has been described as ‘the clash of civilisations’. It is as much an intra-Islamic issue as it was an inter-faith incident. In support of free speech a number of other European papers and magazines published some of the cartoons, with a few editors losing their jobs. That a number of magazines in Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia also published some of the images illustrates the current debate within Islam and that advocates of free speech are found across national and religious divides.

Why the crisis? There has been a long tradition within Islam of not showing the image of the Prophet Muhammad. Within the worship areas of a mosque there are normally no images of persons, the only decoration being Qur’anic verses. Qur’an 42:11 states, ‘[Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth... [there is] nothing like a likeness of him.’ Muhammad, as the seal of the Prophets within Islam, has this verse applied to him also. Allied to this is the fact that one of Muhammad’s acts in establishing Islam as a religion involved the removal from the Ka’bah shrine of the various images of gods dating from the pre-Islamic era.

However there is no one Islamic answer to representations of Muhammad. Responses range across the following:

~nnShi’a Islam does not have as strict a prohibition on images as the varieties of Sunni Islam.n~~nSome images show Muhammad but without facial detail.n~~nSome images show Muhammad without any physical detail outside of his clothes, such as without a face, hands or feet.n~~nSome images show flame around Muhammad’s head emphasising his role as a prophet; some pictures show smaller flame detail coming from the other prophets’ heads.n~~nSome images show a young Muhammad before he assumed his prophetic role.n~~nSome interpret the ban on images as involving all Islamic prophets, including Jesus.n~~nGiven Muhammad’s era (570-632) there are no surviving representations of Muhammad; no one actually knows what he looked like.nn~

What is a Methodist response to all this? We straddle both sides of this argument in that many traditional Methodist chapels have only scripture verses as decoration, yet the image of Wesley is widely used, especially in commemorative items. Could we learn from the Islamic prohibition on the image of their founding prophet?

Methodists should stand for free speech as a mark of democracy and freedom, a consequence of which is that we should support the right of those who want to make a provocative point, even if disagreeing strongly with the point being made. This becomes more problematic when we think of Jerry Springer: The Opera, which is considered by many, if not most, Christians to be offensive. Not all religious satire is offensive: I personally can watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and be both amused and challenged although I can understand that not all Methodists will have the same opinion. I do not want Jerry Springer: The Opera to be performed and promoted, but I have to allow those that do the freedom to do so, even if it should have an ‘18’ certificate. Once we start proscribing artistic expression on grounds of religious sensibilities we are heading towards a totalitarian existence. If we support the free speech aspect of the ‘Cartoons’ we have to be consistent.

Methodists should never speak ill of another faith. The ‘Cartoons’ issue should not be used to denigrate Islam or ridicule Muhammad. Under the biblical principle of doing to others what we would want done to ourselves, Muslim sensibilities concerning the person of Muhammad should be issues that are important to us. There are plenty of half-truths (at best) circulating about Muhammad, and it is important that we know what we are talking about and talk with accuracy and fairness.

Methodists should look to engage with local Muslims. Working as a teetotal, non-gambling Methodist university chaplain I had more in common on these issues with the Islamic Society than any other group on the campus. There are many issues of joint concern for us as we live together as people of faith in a post-Christendom society.

Methodists should not allow societal pressures towards pluralism to force us into theological compromise. We can be ‘the friends of all and enemies of none’ without having to downplay our understanding of the uniqueness of Christ.

Methodists should look to share their faith with all. While a Muslim understands Jesus to be not much more than ‘one of the prophets’, we understand Jesus to be Saviour and Lord. The phrase ‘Abrahamic Faiths’ points to an origin more than a destination. There can be very fruitful encounters between Christians and Muslims looking at the person of Jesus, and we enter this arena knowing that the Holy Spirit leads people into all truth.

Yet there is no point is just standing on the sidelines and repeating evangelical phrases. Historically that has not had much positive impact on the Muslim community and is unlikely to have significant impact on Muslim majority areas of Leeds, Bradford and so on today. Indeed, most traditional forms of evangelism are having relatively little impact on anyone. Methodists have a long-established willingness to engage with people where they are. Let us ensure this includes our neighbours and colleagues of whatever spiritual perspective. The fleeting ‘Cartoons crisis’ is one more incident in a litany of misunderstanding, but is a further opportunity to get alongside Muslims, find their perspective on ‘the issue of the day’ and, through friendship, have opportunities to give a reason for the hope we have within us.

Category: