Depicting Muhammad

kanyeYes, Kanye West posed as Jesus Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone. And, like he’s a Pat Robertson-in-training, the grandstanding worked. Media outlets splashed the news everywhere. So it was nice to see the way Rashod Ollison analyzed young Kanye for the Baltimore Sun:

Perhaps he meant it as a symbol of personal suffering. Maybe he wanted to present young hip-hop heads with an updated image of the Son of God. Whatever his motives, Kanye West again has accomplished what he set out to do: Get people to talk.

About him.

On the cover of February’s Rolling Stone, which hit news stands last week, the brash, egomaniacal rapper-producer poses as Jesus Christ. In the profile shot, he wears a crown of thorns. Blood runs down his face; his expression conveys anguish, vulnerability, a steely resilience.

It’s all so pedestrian, humorless and downright boring.

Exactly. And please note the scary Rolling Stone headline about God’s Senator while you’re at it. Remember when that magazine was actually cool? It hasn’t been since Hunter S. Thompson’s liver finally got larger than his cranium and they put P.J. O’Rourke out to pasture. Of course, for a long time now rock and roll culture has been less about subverting authority and more about moving units, so a minor controversy over disrespecting a tolerant religion is a valued as marketing ploy rather rather than a daring artistic decision. But as a few pundits noted, if Kanye wanted to be really rebellious, he would pose as Muhammad. Then we would see where the rubber meets the road when it comes to real artistic conviction.

Plays and movies mocking or blaspheming Islam, as opposed to Christianity, are almost unheard of. Movies praising Islam, even, are difficult to make. Syrian-born director Moustapha Akkad, who was killed a few months ago in the terrorist bombing in Jordan, faced extreme opposition for The Message, for instance. (Random political trivia: former mayor, then councilman, Marion Barry was shot in 1977 in a hostage situation where Muslim radicals made demands against the movie.)

Which brings us to the present and the huge story on other continents about the decision of a Danish newspaper to run political cartoons that made a humongous error in the eyes of Muslims. They contained images of Muhammad. All images of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam, but these cartoons were of the Ted Rall variety rather than the Marmaduke variety.

In response, masked gunmen stormed an EU office in Gaza. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark. Libya closed its embassy in the Danish capital. Palestinians burnt Danish flags while Hamas and Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demanded an apology. Former President Bill Clinton told Davos attendees that he worried anti-Islam sentiment would replace anti-Semitism and condemned “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.” The Danish newspaper received a bomb threat. Boycotts have cost Danish companies $55 million.

messageAs I said, big story. Deutsch Welle had a good update that also provided some perspective about EU concerns over freedom of the press and protection of fundamental religious values. It even mentioned media issues:

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, in Tunis for a meeting of Arab interior ministers, decried the “double standards” in the European media.

“We see double standards in the European media, which is fearful of being accused of anti-Semitism but which invokes freedom of expression for a caricature on Islam,” Mussa told reporters.

Most Arab governments have vocally condemned the series of 12 cartoons, which show the prophet as a wild-eyed knife-wielding Bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.

It’s fascinating to note how the Arab League leader notes the standards of European media in his attempt to sway political opinion. Fascinating because, of course, the standards for religious tolerance in Muslim news outlets likely would not merit Western sympathy. I also found this passage from the Khaleej Times to be illuminating:

Qatar-based scholar, Dr Yousuf Al Qaradawi, has urged the United Nations to act to prevent the defamation of the prophets or religious figures from any religion, anywhere in the world. He was speaking in Arabic on Qatar Television. “We Muslims consider it as a major crime to abuse or denigrate any prophet, including Jesus and Moses. Any Muslim who is doing this will not continue as a Muslim,” Qaradawi is reported to have said.

It would be nice for reporters to ask other Muslim scholars if this is true. Do Muslims consider it a major crime to denigrate Jesus and other religious figures? Have they commented on the Rolling Stone cover, for instance? Are Muslims decrying anti-Semitic comments from Hamas leaders?

Reporters should also explain why Muslims are demanding that the Danish government apologize for the actions of a few of its citizens. A guided tutorial through the Koran would give reporters a lot of information about Muslim views on the separation of mosque and state.

And reporters and editors in this country should show a bit more interest in this story. It won’t just be Denmark where Western views of freedom of the press run up against Islam’s desire to protect its major prophet. And I’m not just saying that because I am afraid to put up a picture of Muhammad.

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  • Carl

    “Which brings us to the present and the huge story tearing up on other continents about the decision of a Dutch newspaper to run political cartoons that made a humongous error in the eyes of Muslims.”

    Adjectival form of the name of a nation in Europe that starts with a D. Close enough?

  • Filipe

    Just out of curiosity, I do seem to remember cases of Muslim outrage at plays depicting Jesus as a Homosexual, etc.
    One case in particular, in Britain a few years ago… the theatre received threats from Muslim groups. Christians, although annoyed, were much less vocal about their discontent.
    And yes, it is Danish of course, not Dutch…

  • Mollie

    Thanks, Carl and Filipe. It’s not that I don’t know the difference between the two countries — Holland is one of my favorite places on earth — but my carelessness at 2:00 AM. Thank you!

  • Will

    Er, not to be flippant, but if RS ran a cover of Kanye as Mohammed, how would people know it was supposed to be Mohammed and not some random stereotypical “raghead”?

    And you forgot the hostage-raids over the opening of MOHAMMED: MESSENGER OF GOD.

  • Molly

    Criticize Islam: have fatwah issued.
    Criticize Christianity: be boycotted.

    Which would most people choose? Boycotts are great for publicity and capital.

  • Harris

    In an iconographic tradition like that of evangelical protestantism it is easy to misunderstand the power of images. Moreover, in western Europe, particularly northwestern Europe (the Low Countries) religious art is seen far more as a cultural item than in its devotional aspect.

    Jesus is part of our culture. (btw, the picture of Kayne is lame relative to its great pop antecedant: George Lois’ depiction on the cover of Esquire, mid 60s, of Mohammed Ali as the martyred St. Sebastian — arrows everywhere. TMatt would remember)

    It’s not about religion, it’s our culture. (And goodness knows, any subculture that produces dreck like Left Behind is hardly in a place to complain about abuse of images).

    Ev. Protestants would not think of putting an image of Jesus in our churches — you know, right up there with the PowerPoint screen.

    Islam would not have a picture anywhere. To the degree we respect another’s culture, we also need to give consideration to what that culture holds sacred. That’s common,or human decency.

  • Mollie


    What’s fascinating, of course, is the difference between a culture holding something sacred but permitting individuals to deviate from that — even with protest — and a culture not permitting individual freedom of expression or freedom of the press.

    These tensions are evident in every culture, of course, but as Islam rises in Western Europe the conflict with Western, largely Christian, values will explode.

    The need for religion reporters to accurately convey the various viewpoints could not be stronger.

  • Tom Breen

    I think this might something of an apples and oranges comparison, to use a tired metaphor. Part of the reason it makes sense for Kanye West to pose as Jesus is that he’s very publicly a Christian, and even had a hit song about Jesus. The imagery may be tired (I think it certainly is – it’s not even new for hip hop, seeing as how Puff Daddy beat him to the Christ pose by about six years), but I don’t think it was meant to offend.

    West wouldn’t really have any motivation to pose as Mohammed. Also, a central focus of Christianity has been urging its followers to be Christlike. When coupled with the religion’s long tradition of iconography, you get things like the Rolling Stone cover.

    Islam, as far as I know, doesn’t urge Muslims to imitate Mohammed in the same way Christians are called to imitate Christ; moreover, the Muslim tradition against depictions of the prophet would leave little room for the possibility that such a depiction on Rolling Stone could be anything other than offensive.

  • tmatt


    “Jesus is part of our culture. (btw, the picture of Kayne is lame relative to its great pop antecedant: George Lois’ depiction on the cover of Esquire, mid 60s, of Mohammed Ali as the martyred St. Sebastian -— arrows everywhere. TMatt would remember)”

    Hey! I didn’t start reading Rolling Stone until college and that was in the mid-1970s! How old do you think that I am? (Well, actually, that would be 52 years old yesterday, whimper).

    Also, isn’t the Kanye image, in part, a kind of “people want to kill me as a martyr” statement? I don’t think anyone would call Mohammed a martyr. His campaigns tended to produce martyrs, right?

  • tmatt

    P.S. to see the actual RS piece on Kayne, should anyone want to, click:

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “And please note the scary Rolling Stone headline about God’s Senator while you’re at it.”

    That piece is written by Jeff Sharlet, he of “Killing The Buddha” and Revealer blog fame.

    I found it well-written and balanced.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Kris

    I don’t know about anyone else, but watching the film The War Within has given me a new perspective on terrorism against the United States, especially from a possible terrorist’s point of view. Whether the subject in the film is forced into it through brutal imprisonment or through conscience decisions the film gives a point of view rarely seen in the United States.

  • Fr. Raphael

    OK – I’ll go for it:
    Happy belated Birthday, Terry.
    God grant you many years!

  • Paul Grant

    This just in: even as the Danes have backed off from the stance, and have apologized, French and German papers have reprinted the cartoons.

    (and if you’re feeling voyeuristic, here’s the actual cartoon, from the German Die Welt newspaper:

    But to the money quote, by Angela Charleton of the AP: “Germany’s Die Welt daily printed one of the drawings on its front page, arguing that a ‘right to blasphemy’ was anchored in democratic freedoms.”

  • Tom R

    “In an iconographic tradition like that of evangelical protestantism it is easy to misunderstand the power of images…”

    Iconographic, iconoclastic… Dutch, Danes… whatever. Could someone please check that there’s not a tall bearded Basque priest lurking around GetReligion today…?

    Re Muslims protesting blasphemous portrayals of Jesus: I recall 15-20 years ago, the British satirical puppet show “Spitting Image” parodied Jesus. When Christian protested, the BBC lectured them about tolerance and freedom of speech. But when Muslim leaders complained that it was blasphemous to parody a prophet, the Beeb rapidly about-faced and apologised, arguing that it in no way intended to offend minorities. (The usual sleight-of-hand: Christians are only a small, zealous minority when it comes to basing laws on Christian ethics rather than utilitarian ethics, but Christians are also the huge, dominant majority when it comes to protecting minorities from vilification or discrimination.)

  • ccv

    As for the “God’s Senator” article in the same issue of Rolling Stone, it was SO unbalanced and sneering in tone that I was stunned to read that the author, Jeff Sharlet, actually teaches religious studies AND journalism at NYU (plus the Revealer blog, of course).

    Regardless of what one thinks of Brownback or his politics, it was the king of all hit pieces, IMO. It could be described in many different ways, but balanced journalism is not one of them.

  • Molly

    It’s the kind of journalism that sells Rolling Stone and that one would find in Rolling Stone – sort of like the journalism one finds on Fox News and that sells on Fox News. Niche journalism, I think it’s called. Or if not, that’s what I call it.

  • ccv

    I know it’s Rolling Stone, and I adjust my expectations accordingly, but good grief. The writer TEACHES journalism and religious studies.

    I get it. He’s preaching to the choir. But why would anyone take him seriously as a journalist let alone religious studies professor?

    I didn’t know much about Brownback when I read the piece, except for his reputation as a social conservative and high profile Catholic convert, and frankly I feel like I know less about him now having read it.

    Sharlet really ought to be ashamed of himself.

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I wonder if the impetus among some Christians to side with those who ridicule Mohammed in cartoons and say to Moslems “Get used to it. It is modern secular Western culture.” is because we have been so weak, so cowardly, so useless when artists used our tax money to “Piss Christ” or smear feces on an image of the Blessed Virgin. There should have been crowds of Christians in picket lines so deep noone could get through. We should have used our right to so strongly protest that we got real results like Ghandi, King, Walesa, Cardinal Sin in Manila did through non-violent tactics. Instead we bleat the same philosophy of those who misuse “freedom of the press” to trash our Lord and Saviour as though to act freely in -defense of His honor is somehow “unAmerican.” But when our country was founded and for a hundred or more years afterwards there were anti-blasphemy laws on the books and when our country had not become idol worshippers of moral anarchy falsely masquerading as rights-those laws were regarded as constitutional.

  • Stephen A.

    As one TV commentator said recently, Rolling Stone has become a “serious” political magazine. That doesn’t mean it’s unabiased, or even has to be (nor is Nat’l Review or The Nation) but it means its bias needs to be addressed more seriously now.

    Interestingly, the reporter, who apparently doesn’t “get” religion, mistook a biblical quote by Brownback as an attempt at name-calling.

    During a conversation on gay people, Brownback quoted the Bible: “You’ll know them by their fruits” – Matthew 7:19 – but the reporter pontificates that he was calling gay people “fruits.” Brownback issued a statement saying he was doing no such thing.

    This is the classic case of a reporter missing the boat – perhaps deliberately.(Although I do wonder now where that exact ephithet came from. Maybe the reporter’s onto something, from an etymological point of view.)

    The article seems filled with other misunderstandings, like when Brownback expresses his rather Utopian hope that faith-based and community volunteerism would become so strong that the state would have nothing to do in regard to social services. The reporter clearly saw that as a call to immediately dismantle the welfare state, rather than the hope of most conservatives who simply want to promote self-reliance over the “government plantation system” of welfare dependency. (Hey, if Hilary can use that phrase…)

    As for the Mohammmed cartoon issue, it’s getting out of hand, but that’s normal for the fringe element in Islam. I wonder where these crazed lemmings were when some of the things the Deacon John notes have occurred, other than the few exceptions mentioned above.

    And I agree with his sentiments. Where were the protests by Christians? Or would our sneering, secular media have simply ignored or downplayed them anyway, like they did the pro-life demonstrations earlier this year?

  • ccv

    Regarding the “fruits” comment in the Sharlet piece, I think the writer (especially a “religious studies” professor) knew exactly what scripture passage Brownback was referring to (it’s a fairly well-known passage), but he chose to describe the exchange in such a way that he knew would make Brownback look bad and likely get picked up by the gay “rights” crowd…which it did (see Fox News).

    For example, Sharlet describes an “awkward silence” after the comment was made. Was it awkward? Or did he just choose to remain silent after Brownback made the comment and fill in the blanks himself?

    It was a really reprehensible piece of “journalism,” no matter where it appeared.

  • Maryam

    As Rachard Itani in Counterpunch and many of us Muslim bloggers (try here, here and here) have noted, the reaction to the Danish cartoons issue has far more to do with the rise in xenophobia in Europe, than religious blasphemy.

    The cartoons weren’t simply depictions of the Prophet Muhammad; they were cruel drawings of him with extreme racially Semetic characteristics (drawing on Europe’s prior history of anti-Jewish prejudice) inferring extremely offensive and prejudiced sentiments.

    If a series of cartoons were printed denying and mocking the Holocaust or depicting Martin Luther King Jnr. in virulent anti-Black messages the world would be rightfully outraged, and media personalities would barely dare to make a peep about ‘free speech’.

  • Molly

    Jeff Sharlet responds.

  • Dina

    Dina says:

    First, I would like to point out that I am an Arab Muslim and that I live in the Middle East. I have stumbled upon GetReligion while I was researching the topic of the caricatures on the net and there are a few personal thoughts that I would like to share.
    First, as a Muslim that truly believes in Islam I can’t say that I approve of the pictures shown in several Europeean newspapers. I find them highly offensive and insulting to whom I believe was a great man who is now dead and not here to defend himself; consequently, it is our duty as Muslims to defend him (and when I say “defend him”, I mean it in the form of a civilized debate and sharing of opinions “free speech” and nothing more).
    The problem is, the image of Islam is currently so badly distorted in the Western World that I don’t believe anyone really has the tolerence to really listen and evaluate without the influence of deeply embedded prejudices and stereotypes. This I admit is in part (and that’s a big part) the mistake of Muslims themselves; who have allowed such a wonderful and peaceful (yes, I emphasize on “peaceful”) religion to be so badly represented to the rest of the world. We do hold a big part of the blame in allowing only misguided people who fail to grasp the true essence of Islam to be the face of the religion. It is upon us to work as hard as possible in every useful and productive aspect in life as our religion really dictates to make this a better world for all. I would like however to point out that even though a large part of the blame falls on us; the Western Community is not totally without fault. The media, and consequently the people, are basing their judgement on the religion and its idealogy on the actions of some people. I think it is a huge mistake to judge any religion by the actions of people who are prone to error and often make mistakes, BIG mistakes in some cases. I think that if someone really wants to know about Islam, or any other religion for that matter, they should go directly to the source, learn about the religion from people who know what they’re talking about and not from fanatic fools and you will feel differenty about the matter (I would suggest reading a translated version of the holy Koran but under the circumstances I am afraid you would find a version that is not accurate or that is misinterpreted).
    Another thing I would like to comment on is the infamous “freedom of expression”, I am all for the right to express onself but I do believe that a line has to be drawn somewhere. I don’t believe that exercising one right gets to be at the expense of other equally important rights. As a Muslim I was deeply offended and hurt by these caricatures, and I feel that they have violated my right to respect and to not be judged or stereotyped. We need to strike the delicate balance of being free to express ourselves without that freedom tresspassing the freedom of speech or belief of others who are different from us and, who we might possibly not fully understand?
    Anyways that’s what I wanted to share. I apologize for the long entry but I just had a lot to say…
    P.S.: We do believe in and honor all prophets and Muslims should in fact try to immitate Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) to better themselves.
    Salam, (which means peace)


  • Kainat Faheem Abbasi

    Please dont make films on Muhammad PBUH.He is the Prophet of ALLAH.
    When you people will make these types of cartoon there will be more disasters on the earth and we hate these Jeus and christians who made fun of Beloved ProphetP.B.U.H.We love our Prophet.And i raise voice against it.