Inspired by a frankly embarrassing debate on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live today, I wanted to address the issue of whether or not non-Muslims should be ‘allowed’ to draw Muhammad (pbuh*). This debate stemmed from the cancellation of an art exhibition, showcasing numerous images of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and asked as to whether or not the fear of reprisal from Islamic extremists is an infringement on our freedom of speech.
This is a topic I covered with my year 7 classes at the end of last academic year and was met with much confusion. I asked the students to draw a storyboard of the Prophet’s life, but told them that they must not depict the Prophet in any way, shape or form. As year 7s they found this quite difficult until I advised them that Islamic art is mostly comprised of calligraphy, so they may write his name either in English, or for a merit, in Arabic. They did as most year 7s do and obeyed my request to abstain from drawing the Prophet, but a few of the students asked why. And of course as their Religious Studies teacher, I explained to them the reasons why.
Firstly, it is a ‘commandment’ of the Qur’an to not make idolatrous images or statues of either Muhammad (pbuh) or Allah. The reasons for this are not explicitly stated, I can only conclude that it is to remove any distractions during worship. If one focusses their attention on an image rather than the concept or entity itself, then the object of their worship has been misdirected. After Muhammaed (pbuh) conquered Mecca and returned from his exile, he banished all idols from the city so as to stay true to Allah’s commandment. Much like the Iconoclasm in Christianity.
Secondly, Muslims feel it disrespectful to assume Muhammad’s (pbuh) appearance. I think this is a lesson that Christianity could certainly learn from. Depictions of a white, Western-European male have undoubtedly inspired generations of oppression for people of other ethnicities and indeed, women. All because of someone’s assumption that because the Church was based in the Western World, Jesus therefore must have been white.
There are perhaps other reasons as to why Muslims find it disrespectful to draw the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but I shan’t spend too long here discussing them. Let’s get to the key point. Should non-Muslims be ‘allowed’ to draw the Prophet?
No. We should not. Such drawings cause offense to a large proportion of the world’s population and it is often the creator of these images’ intention to overtly cause offense. It may be a simple objection, but this is just unkind. Why is it people feel it acceptable to cause offense to people of religious groups, yet it is completely unthinkable to cause offense to people of different races? It would be illegal to draw a cartoon that depicted slavery in a humours way that used the N-word; it would be highly controversial to draw a cartoon about the Holocaust. Why should it be any different for drawings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)?
One of the students asked me: “Yeah but sir, we’re not Muslims so why does it matter?” An excellent question and one that echoed a sentiment across the classroom. It does not matter whether or not someone is Muslim, the point is that to draw Muhammad is deliberately causing offence to a large group of people which, in my mind is prejudice. The point is that because of Islam’s frequent attention in the media, almost everyone is aware of the fact that it is offensive to draw Muhammad (pbuh), there should be absolutely no excuse for anybody to deem it acceptable to do so.
The person in charge of this cancelled art exhibition openly stated that their intention was to cause offense. I have to laugh at this. Are we really saying that it should be acceptable to want to cause offense to people? Are we saying that to live in a decent, tolerant society we should allow people to offend? There’s a saying my mum used to say to me and it rings true here: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
“But what about my freedom of speech? I want to be able to say what I like and about whom I like!” That’s fine. But why are people who incite racial hatred arrested? Why are people who associate with extremist views shunned? In my view, allowing people to openly offend Muslims by depicting Muhammad (pbuh) is no different to someone openly offending a black person by calling them the N-word.
The people at Charlie Hebdo should never have allowed that cartoon to be published and I condemn the Je Suis Charlie hashtag that filled my Twitter feed and even adorned the doors of classrooms at my school. I am still appalled by the fact that the world appeared to condone a public act of discrimination against a group of people who want to live their lives free of oppression and abuse, just like you and me.
The problem is highlighted by the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo publication. The threat of extremism has people wanting to goad so-called Muslims; the deliberate causing of offense is so grossly misplaced that innocent people are being unjustifiably made to feel like the whole world is against them. I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it: people need to educate themselves and learn the difference between Islam, and extremists who claim to belong to Islam. I wrote an article here if you’re unsure.
Of course I don’t condone the killing of those magazine workers and I don’t condone any act of terrorism in the flawed name of Islam. We should not have to live in fear of reprisal from violent, ill-educated cowards who think it acceptable to kill innocent people in the name of a distorted and warped view of an otherwise peaceful religion. But in the same breath, we need to stop treating these extremists as Muslims; then we can stop offending innocent Islamic people by trying to offend the terrorists.
We’re the ones in the wrong here, not the Muslims. It’s about time we stopped trying to pretend we live in a world where religion isn’t important. It’s about time we stopped excluding religion from the protection of the law. Religion is here and it matters, to more people than we appreciate.
*In Islam it is customary to say the blessing Peace Be Upon Him when referring to any of the prophets either in spoken or written communication.