I was listening to a segment on CBC recently about a Palestinian cartoonist who, much like the artists and editors at Charlie Hebdo, found himself persecuted for publishing cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Unlike the tragically fated workers at the French magazine – eleven of whom were murdered last month by Islamic fundamentalists in the Charlie Hebdo offices, Mohammad Saba’aneh was not interested in satirizing religious figures, but seemed earnest in his attempt to offer a peaceful representation of Islamic principles. His image: a man dressed in robes standing atop the world spreading gentle rain across its surface; the source of the controversy: an inscription in the top right corner of the image which read, “the Prophet Muhammad.”
You can imagine the outcry. This cartoon was in direct breach of the religious restriction against drawing the Muslim prophet. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas himself called for an investigation into the cartoonist. Religious groups decried the breach of the sacred taboo.
But this was all a misunderstanding.
The man in the image is not the Prophet Muhammad, Saba’aneh insisted. He is simply a Muslim, of no specific identity; the image itself was meant to depict a peaceful image of the Prophet’s message. His was not a literal rendering of the prophet, but a figurative representation of an ideal. As serious as the consequences could be for the misunderstanding surrounding Saba’aneh’s cartoon, I couldn’t help but laugh. His gaffe seemed to speak volumes about the complexity of the problems inherent to reading imagery – problems that have been strangely absent in the debate over religious iconography and their taboos. Just because you place a label next to an image does not guarantee a consistent reading of what that label should mean. This crisis in representation is old news for anyone working in the visual arts. It seems the rest of the world, or Saba’aneh anyway, is only now beginning to figure out why.
As I listened to Saba’aneh’s story, I suddenly found myself asking what in fact would a literal representation of the Prophet Muhammad look like? Was it even possible? What would be the proper arrangement of signifiers that would constitute a breach of this taboo? These were questions that seemed a far cry from the usual fights over the limits of free speech and the need for cultural sensitivity in the face of religious zealotry that have followed from the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices. In true ideological fashion, there seems no room to think outside of a normalized understanding of what an image must represent. Image and meaning are taken to be fixed. As Saba’aneh has discovered, this is not the case at all. Suddenly our images become polysemous; they corrupt our desperate grip on meaning. The center cannot hold.
The thoughts led me down strange paths. I suddenly wondered what the reaction would be if I posted a series of pictures, mostly prosaic and innocuous in content, with the caption “The Prophet Muhammad” beneath the image. This seemed to me to be the best representation of the issue I was wrestling with as it would likely stir deep feelings in our readers and thus flag to us in concrete terms our own participation in ideological reproduction.
Little did I know just how deep that particular rabbit hole went.
I had misgivings about this idea for the post, but I wrote it up anyway. I posted the pictures below with the name of the Prophet captioned beneath. I was ready to send it out for public consumption. But I stopped. Something at the back of my mind set off an alarm.
I decided to go to our editorial board for their reaction. What resulted was one of the most intense debates since we started this website. Mark had the same misgivings about the project that I had, but as always he was able to give it more eloquent expression than I was. We are not followers of the Muslim faith. We do not hold the name of the Prophet and his hidden image sacred, so we have no place commenting on how its meaning is produced.
I was glib in my retort. I hated the fact that a few murdering fundamentalists had taken over our very ability to discuss Muslim practices and had turned all discussions about what happened at Charlie Hebdo into a banal rehearsal of the debate between the freedom to express and the fear of cultural insensitivity. The matter is much more complicated than this, I argued, but a few vulgar zealots with machine guns have made it impossible to do anything beyond spewing the appeasing bromides that do nothing to push thought on the subject any further.
Mark, ever the calming voice of reason, gave me perspective. The issue is not about what a few fundamentalists would think. And, in fact, posting in reaction to their zealotry threatens its own particular kind of zealotry. This is the harming logic that seems to be definitive of 21st Century global politics – anger only begets more anger. It codes our emotions by creating a reactive fury, which in turn reproduces a perfectly circular emotional loop from which there can be no escape. Falling towers turn into a reactive Manichaeism: You’re either with us or against us. The roar of bombs over Baghdad becomes the rallying cry for anti-Western violence. “Their” anger and violence creates our anger and we in turn act in violence against this anger. Most of our political conflicts in this world seem defined by this loop.
What would be our exit strategy? At the 14th floor, we are constantly looking for the exterior limits of political debate. Mark reminded me that the people populating that exterior are people just like us: our readers. And some of them may be practicing Muslims. Some of them may appreciate the delicate nature of religious devotion; we need to respect their right to encounter these devotions on their own terms. We should take care not to insult that which they hold dear. These are not fundamentalists. We are not speaking to the fundamentalists. They get no say in what we do our how we think. Our conversation is with those who find themselves as overwhelmed in the face of existence as we do. Where we may turn to the poets and philosophers for our answers, they turn to the prophets. We must be gentle with their beliefs as we would insist they be gentle with ours. This is not about cultural sensitivity. This is about mutual respect.
I calmed down. I took some time to think about this, discussed it with my wife (ever the balancing voice of reason), and came back to the article. For all our discussion and debates, the question still remained: how do we speak about the possible pitfalls of another’s devotion? How do we talk about what happened at Charlie Hebdo without the conversation devolving into easy assertions that make us feel safe but provide no new answers? Because we need to be able to speak about religious practices that are not our own to address the religious violence of our times.
We need to hijack speech, and we need to do it now, at a time when it seems impossible to say anything without being misinterpreted.
And yet, the compulsion to speak under duress threatens to turn our words into epithets. Our anger at what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, our anger at the execution videos posted by ISIS, our anger towards the rising surge of violence fueled by ideological unreason is plumbless and threatens to unravel our very ability to speak at all. I lose all orientation when I try to express my anger.
And yet we must speak. We must do the impossible, speak the impossible outside of a violent language that wants to speak us at every turn.
We haven’t figured out how to speak this language yet, but we continue to try. We will continue to argue and fight and debate what constitutes a proper expression of our political ideals in hopes that maybe the discussion itself will become the transformation we hoped for all along.
Until then, all we have are the words, the images, and a hope that we will be understood.
Sean Callaghan holds a PhD in Modern Japanese Literature and History from the University of Toronto. He is happily churning out novels in the hopes one day someone will read them. He lives with his wife and daughter in Vancouver.