Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Playing the wrong toons?

A Startling New Lesson in the Power of Imagery

The link above leads to the critic's notebook at New York Times and takes a deeper look at the power of pictures. As someone with a history in the area of comics and cartoons I could not resist downloading the offending items to satisfy my curiousity over what all the fuss was about. I won't reprint them here - not only to avoid "fanning the flames" (as certain students in Cardiff did yesterday) but also because they are poorly rendered and have no editorial merit whatsoever.

In so far as I can tell, there is nothing in Islam that directly prohibits portrayal of their prophet, but there does seem to be a tradition in most of its branches that is opposed to iconography. Whether this is due to a desire for maintaining an abstract interpretation of the prophet or an actual fear of a possible "iconoclasm" in the face of such interpretation is unclear, but it is undoubtably a sensitive issue. Were such images permitted however, their use in satire (like those in christianity and elsewhere) would be certain to upset the devout. So the problem resides with the artistic expression.

I balk at the thought that one of my favourite artistic mediums has given rise to the astonishing level of unrest and violence we are now seeing worldwide. In reality, I suspect the cartoons have simply acted as a focus to trigger tensions that have been building between Islam and the west since the advent of Bush and his imperial policies.

The "cartoons" in question are, for the most part, not even that. They look like editorial illustrations which need a written article to provide any real context. The frequently cited one featuring a figure in a turban with a bomb is a case in point. Were there an essay on "Islamist" extremeists and terror tactics the picture might just have justified itself as poor quality decoration, but it has no message on its own. All it depicts is a Muslim archetype, an insult in itself, in a situation of suicidal intent for no purpose whatsoever. Moreover, one has to ask, if depiction of the prophet is forbidden, by what reference point is this assumed to be the prophet? To my mind it could be anyone at all. The controvsery has little rational basis but that is ignored as religious extremists are rallied to a cause fueled with anger and with a mind of its own.

Today, Iran has renamed "Danish Pastries" as a snub to Denmark, who of course originated the pictures in question. Yet they haven't stopped eating them. An Iranian newspaper has also launched a cartoon competition of its own - this one asking for entries concerning the "holocaust". Although portrayed as a political hub of disenfranchised Islam, Iran seems to be playing a tune of "brinkmanship" - as with the nuclear issue, insisting on keeping the scales balanced without tipping the weights too far from the position of equality. More worrying is the unrest the issue has caused in regions with fledgling democracies and less awareness of governance and international diplomacy. More worrying still is that the distinction will also be lost altogether in the Imperial Court across the atlantic.


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