Monday, July 26, 2010

7. Images

All three Abrahamic religions have shown ambivalence regarding the representational arts. Yet the degree of image avoidance has varied in each according to time and circumstance.

This Judaeo-Christian-Islamic negativity contrasts with the joyous acceptance found in ancient Greece and in Hinduism. In such polytheistic faiths the images are valued not simply for their aesthetic qualities, though these may be present, but by virtue of their religious charisma: some sculptures have been thought to be actually inhabited by the god. Others functioned as palladia, talismans that protected cities and persons from harm. In short, magic powers were invested in them.

In the Abrahamic traditions image avoidance is sometimes couched as a rejection of idolatry, holding that images were tainted by their role in polytheistic cults. Just as statues of pagan deities ("cult images") functioned as rallying points for those faiths, so did monotheism’s hostility and rejection serve to set its adherents apart. To be sure, in the Abrahamic religions distrust of images was a kind of back-handed complement: the objects were feared because they were potentially powerful, as reservoirs of some malevolent force. Images were genuinely “awful” or “dreadful,” in the original senses of the terms. Over the centuries this fear and aversion has fostered episodes of actual image breaking.

Some traditions distinguish between images in the round (statues and figurines) and flat images (paintings and relief carvings). Images in the round are thought to be particularly dangerous because they can simulate actual human beings, a capacity that is generally denied in flat representations. In the latter category, of course the artist’s skill in the use of perspective and chiaroscuro can make the scene seem lifelike. Yet touching, a simple physical test, will show that actually there is no depth--the lifelikeness must be an illusion. All the same, naturalism is not required for an idol to evoke dread, since some primordial--and feared--images are little more than logs, slightly modified with incisions and daubs of paint.

Some preliminary definitions are in order. In the strict sense "iconoclasm" refers to image-smashing. Today, the word is often employed in a metaphorical sense to refer to someone with sharp opinions that deviate from the accepted consensus. The broader term "iconophobia" has some currency, but as with other -phobia terms there is some question as to whether suspicion of images is a phobia in the clinical sense. Perhaps the best term is "aniconism," which covers many responses, ranging from complete ban to types of avoidance that are strictly limited. For example, early Buddhist art in India is aniconic only for the founder Sakyamuni, who is indicated by a plank or turban; his associates are presented directly in human form. This limited substitution is similar to a reluctance to pronounce or write the name of the deity, as with the tetragrammaton (Yahweh) in the Hebrew bible, or the abbreviation "Ds" (= Deus) in Christian medieval manuscripts.

In addition to its specific meaning of worship of idols, idolatry is a more general concept; it may occur without images, as in “Shakespeare idolatry,” excessive reverence for the literary achievement of the English bard.

Devotion to images might be termed “iconophilia,” though this term is not common. Historically, some Christian theorists have sought to distinguish between iconolatry, the actual worship of images, on the one hand, and iconodulia, due respect for them, on the other.

The earliest examples of aniconism known come from the pharaonic Egypt of the fourteenth century BCE. The monotheism of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) decreed an end to the anthropomorphic (and therio-anthropomorphic) renderings of the gods. According to Akhenaten’s sweeping religious reform, there was but one god, the solar Aten, and this figure could only be rendered in the form a disk (albeit with the uraeus signifier). However the ban covered only images of the gods. Living people, including the pharaoh and his wife Nefertiti, were frequently depicted in sculpture, relief carving and fresco. One bad turn, perhaps, deserves another. The return to polytheism after the Akhenaten's death entailed vandalizing and mutilation of his works, that is, to iconoclasm on the part of the traditionalists. These acts of aggression were accompanied by efforts to chisel out the name of the royal offender (damnatio memoriae).

Scholarly efforts to connect Akhenaten’s aniconism with that of the later Israelites have fallen short because of the big chronological gap. Still, both types of aniconism are doubtless reflections of a broader human tendency to fear the power of images.


Early Israelite society emerged in the uplands of Palestine (corresponding to what is now the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Jerusalem area) during the centuries pivoting on 1200 BCE, when the shift from the late Bronze Age to the Iron Age occurred. Several trends in recent research have converged to indicate that this society, like that of its neighbors, was thoroughly polytheistic (see Chapter Five on polytheism, above).

Texts are either earlier (the Ugarit finds) or later (the Hebrew Bible) than this pivotal era. It has fallen, therefore, to archaeology to fill the gap. The material evidence, both from controlled excavations and chance finds, is abundant. Thousands of relevant seals, amulets, and figurines are now known (see Keel and Uehlinger, 1998, for a representative sample). Most of these objects are modest in quality and scale; being portable, they are rarely connected with cult sites so as to facilitate identification. Moreover, the emphases of the figures and scenes changes over time. There is good reason to suspect that some pieces depict Yahweh, his consort Asherah, and other members of the early Israelite pantheon. Still, working out a conclusive iconography of this material has proved elusive. Yet we can say for certain that many of these objects represented deities, and that they attest a pervasive polytheism in early Israelite society.

Some evidence from the Hebrew Bible is suggestive, notably the references to the fetish-like objects known as teraphim. When Rachel steals the household teraphim from her father Laban they are designated ‘elohim, “gods.” Most of these objects were quite small, so that they could be concealed in small corners of a tent or hidden under a cloth or blanket. A number of them could fit under a camel saddle (Genesis 31:30-35). Yet Saul’s daughter Michal had an unusually big one, so that when covered it could pass for a sleeping man (1 Samuel 19:13-16). Sometimes the teraphim served as oracles and could function as legal witnesses (Ezekiel 21:26; Zechariah 10:2). (See Zevit, 2001, pp. 274-76,)

Comparative study suggests that the teraphim were similar in function to the Roman household gods, the lares and penates. As this comparison shows, the teraphim were not cult figures displayed in public shrines but family possessions kept in private homes where they were generally allocated a special place. As with later portable Byzantine icons they could travel with their owners.

As distinct from these small works, no large-scale cult images have been found from ancient Israel. This absence may suggest that the Israelite associated monumental figures--statues--with foreign cults. As they began to separate themselves from the customs and beliefs of their neighbors, they would have become estranged from these imposing tokens of “idolatry.” Some such process, then, seems to have laid the foundation for the Second Commandment, which has proven influential not only in Judaism, but in Christianity and Islam.

Rabbinic Judaism saw an effort to backdate the hostility to images. A midrash included in Genesis Rabba attributes a major act of iconoclasm to Abraham, whose father was reputedly a maker of images. While this legend became significant in later Judaism, eventually migrating into Islam, it does not offer any real evidence of early Israelite aniconism.

Here is the text of the Second Commandment. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, of that is in the water under the earth.” (NRSV; the texts in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 are identical). The word here rendered idol is probably more familiar in the King James rendering “graven image.” In Hebrew the word is “pesel,” derived from “pasal,” to hew, hew into shape. This certainly implies that the banned objects are three-dimensional, opening the way for the exception, honored in various times and place, allowed for flat images. These might indeed be “kosher.”

The ban was not observed consistently. A prominent instance is the cherubim. Two sculptural cherubim overlaid with gold with outstretched wings were placed facing one another on the cover of the Ark in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:18-20). In addition, figures of cherubim were embroidered on the veil and the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31). In Solomon's Temple the two gilded cherubim were not attached to the Ark, as in the Tabernacle, but took their place as freestanding figures each 10 cubits high in front of the Ark (I Kings 6:27-8).

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of snake cults in excavations from Bronze Age Palestine. This phenomenon seems to form the background of the “brazen serpent” or Nehushtan. This was a sacred object in the form of a copper snake upon a pole. The book of Numbers (21:4-9) tells how Moses brandished a “fiery serpent” as a talisman to cure the people of snakebite. The object seems to have lasted until the time of King Hezekiah (reigned 715/6 – 687). That ruler destroyed "the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did offer to it; and it was called Nehushtan." (2 Kings 18:4)

The most extraordinary efflorescence of Jewish figural art occurred much later, in the synagogues of the Roman and early Byzantine periods. Until the 1920s it was generally assumed that in post-Biblical times the Jewish ban on images prevailed Then a series of archaeological discoveries in present-day Israel and neighboring countries revealed an abundance of monumental art in mosaic and fresco. The subjects include birds and animals; anthropomorphic representations of the seasons and the zodiac (including the sun god); and narrative scenes from the Bible. The most famous examples were found at Bet Alpha and Bet She’arim (Israel) and Dura Europos (Syria). This flowering seems to have begun in the third century CE and to have concluded towards the end of the sixth century. The beginnings seem to be connected with a general tendency to illustration found among the various competing religions of the Roman empire. The end of the distinctive Jewish tradition was a harbinger of Muslim aniconism and Byzantine iconoclasm--all combining into a comprehensive, sometimes virulent distrust of images.

Later, in medieval Europe, a new tradition of Jewish illuminated manuscripts emerged. Yet the practice of decorating synagogues with monumental scenes did not revive.


The record of Christian figural art is extensive and, it is fair to say, glorious. Yet the earliest Christian seem to have hung back. No datable art is known before at least 200 CE--corresponding more or less in time to the inception of the synagogue material just discussed.

The first substantial body of Christian monumental art is found in the catacombs of Rome. These underground cemeteries are adorned with paintings representing holy figures. the earliest probably date from around 220 CE.

The adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine and his successors fostered the building of numerous imposing churches and religious structures. Some surviving examples, such as Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome), Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, and San Vitale (all in Ravenna, Italy) retain remarkable figural mosaic cycles.

Another important theme was the emergence of the icon, usually in the form of a relatively small portable panel painting. What was the nature of the early icons? These survive only in territories beyond the reach of the imperial writ. The monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai (founded by Justinian) has the largest cache, 36 examples. About 30 come from Egypt, while the city of Rome supplies a select quartet of Marian icons. In fact this body of icons (all made before 726) constitute the foundation of all later European panel painting, including (e.g.) Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna, Duccio's Maesta', and the Ghent Altarpiece of the brother's Van Eyck.

As the research of Ernst Kitzinger has shown, the later sixth century, a time of growing insecurity, saw an increase in magical associations surrounding icons. The faithful were (it was charged) worshiping the icon rather than the holy figures depicted therein. Icons were held to be able to save cities and armies, and to protect individuals (they were readily portable). Some examples were to be held to be acheiropoetai, not made by human hands. The apprehensions these superstitions caused contributed to the rise of iconoclasm in the following century.


Byzantine iconoclasm refers to two periods in history when Emperors, backed by imperially-appointed leaders and councils of the Christian church, imposed a ban on religious images. The "First Iconoclasm", as it is sometimes called, lasted between about 730 and 787, when a change on the throne reversed the ban. The "Second Iconoclasm" was between 814 and 842.

The two serious outbreaks of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and ninth centuries were unusual in that the use of images was the main issue in the dispute, rather than a by-product of wider concerns. While the actions of the iconoclasts resulted in the destruction of countless works of art, it is undeniable that the intensity of the conflict attests that both sides took art very seriously.

As with other doctrinal issues in the Byzantine period, the controversy was by no means restricted to the clergy, or to arguments from theology, though the latter were important. The continuing cultural confrontation with, and military threat from, Pressure from Islam, itself iconophobic, probably had a bearing on the attitudes of both sides. Iconoclasm seems to have been supported by many from the East of the Empire, and refugees from the provinces taken over by the Muslims. It has been suggested that their strength in the army at the start of the period may have been an important factor in fostering imperial support for iconoclasm.

The popularity of holy images had been increasing in the years leading up to the outbreak of iconoclasm, as we can ascertain from a small but revealing body of icons that survive in the city of Rome and at the monastery of St. Catherine’s on Mount Sinai. Other developments can be monitored in numismatics In 695 Justinian II took the bold step of putting a full-faced image of Christ on the obverse of his gold coins. The change reverberated negatively in the Islamic world, inducing Caliph Abd al-Malik to abandon his previous reliance on Byzantine coin types and to issue an aniconic coinage with lettering only.

Beginning in 726 the iconoclastic controversy stimulated a vigorous debate between the iconoclastic party and the defenders of the icons, known as iconodules. Lasting almost 180 years, this debate yielded some distinctions regarding the semiotics of images that are, up to a point, still valid today. It is not always easy to follow the debate because of the theological rhetoric that envelopes, and also because the arguments of the iconoclasts, the ultimate losers in the conflict, are only preserved in fragmentary form.

There were actually some areas of agreement. First, there was never any question about the permissibility of secular imagery, such as hunting and racing scenes, as well as the portraits of the emperors. These were always allowed. Hence the debate was not about representational art as such, but about Holy Images. While the iconoclasts were opposed to any representation of Christ and the saints, they permitted, and indeed encouraged, the use of crosses. Crosses, which commemorated the Incarnation and served to set Christians apart from Jews and Muslims who detested them, were another area in which there was general agreement. While this point is not explicit, the discussion usually focused on flat representations--painted panels, ivory slabs, and metal reliefs--and not monumental sculpture which were relatively uncommon in the Christian east.

We turn now to the salient arguments of the iconoclasts. First, they held that the veneration of the Holy Icons was a corruption of true Christianity; aided by demonic inspiration, this superstition had crept in as a form of backsliding to pagan idolatry. The iconoclasts warned that all too many of the faithful were actually worshiping these material objects, vulnerable concoctions of wood and pigment, instead of the persons they purported to stand for. The prohibition of Exodus 20:4 was still in force: it had not been annulled by the coming of Jesus Christ.

In fact, the representations of Jesus were considered particularly odious. Iconoclasts held that icons could not represent both the divine and the human natures of the Messiah at the same time. Because an icon which depicted Jesus as purely physical would amount to Nestorianism, while one which showed Him as both human and divine would not be able to do so without confusing the two natures into one mixed nature, which was Monophysitism--because of these implications, all icons were thus heretical.

To these arguments the iconodules, defenders of the icons, retorted that no sensible person could confuse a representation with the thing or person represented. In the case of Holy Images it was evident that the honor accorded to the image was really addressed to the archetype, the holy person represented. This was not idolatry, because Jesus, Mary, and the saints really existed, unlike the phantoms honored by the pagan cults. Thus the icons were “truthful” because they pointed to realities that everyone agreed were genuine. Long honored in churches, the icons had the distinction of having met the test of time. There was a distinction between images in the world of the Old Testament (which was not uniform in its condemnation) and the New Dispensation. Christ had united the visible and the invisible in his person--the Incarnation--and in their humbler fashion the icons were following suit.

Some opponents said that the icons reflected the whimsy or egotism of individual artists. Not so said their defenders, as the artists were working according to well-established iconographical recipes that had been approved by church authorities of past generations. There were also icons that were not made by human hands (acheiropoietai), and by virtue of their supernatural origins these attested the legitimacy of the practice.

Finally, it was said that the emperors, beginning with Leo III, had started iconoclasm, and only later had sought to have their actions approved by handpicked ecclesiastics. Instead, church policies must be initiated by the Ecumenical Councils; the role of the emperor was simply to enforce them.

The course of the iconoclastic controversy may be briefly summarized. Sometime between 726 and 730 the Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ordered the removal of an image of Christ prominently placed over the Chalke Gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace in Constantinople, and its replacement with a cross. Writings suggest that at least part of the reason for the removal may have been anxiety a volcanic eruption of the island of Thera, viewed as a sign of God’s anger. Leo seems to have forbade the veneration of religious images in a 730 edict, though this prohibition did not apply to other forms of art, including pastoral scenes, the image of the emperor, and religious symbols such as the cross.

In the West, Pope Gregory III held two synods at Rome, condemning Leo's actions. In reprisal Leo confiscated papal estates in Calabria and Sicily.

Leo died in 740, but his ban on icons was confirmed under his son Constantine V (741-775), who summoned the Council of Hieria to endorse his iconoclast policies. Yet the iconoclast Council of Hieria was not the end of the matter. The monasteries were strongholds of icon veneration, and an underground network of iconodules was organized among monks. As matters heated up, Constantine moved vigorously against the monasteries, had relics thrown into the sea, and stopped the invocation of saints.

Constantine's son, Leo IV (775-80) was less rigorous, and for a time sought to mediate between the factions. Upon his death, his iconodule consort Irene took power as regent for her son, Constantine VI (780-97). True to her beliefs, Irene brought the first Iconoclastic Period to an end.

Irene initiated the Second Council of Nicaea in 786-87, reversing the decrees of the previous iconoclast gatherings held at Constantinople and Hieria. Unlike the iconoclast council, the iconodule council included papal representatives, and its decrees were approved by the papacy. Icon veneration lasted through the reign of Irene’s successor Nikephorus (reigned 802-811), and the two brief reigns that came after his.

Yet matters were not yet settled, and a second Byzantine iconoclastic period was to follow (814-842). Leo V the Armenian instituted a second period of Iconoclasm, possibly motivated by military setbacks seen as indicators of divine displeasure. Leo is reported to have concluded that all the emperors who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who rejected images all lived out their reigns to die a natural death.

Leo was succeeded by Michael II, who confirmed the decrees of the Iconoclast Council of 754. Michael was succeeded by his son, Theophilus. Theophilus died leaving his wife Theodora regent for his son Michael III. Like Irene 50 years before her, Theodora mobilized the iconodules and proclaimed the restoration of icons in 843. Since that time the Orthodox church has celebrated the first Sunday of Great Lent as the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”


In due course the loss of the Eastern provinces was compensated by the penetration of Byzantine civilization northwards. Here the penetration of Cyril and Methodius into Moravia (863) was exemplary. These two missionaries translated the liturgy into Slavonic, and devised what came to be known as the Cyrillic alphabet.

These efforts did not bear full fruit until the following century. The visit of Princess Olga of Kiev to Constantinople proved premature, but her grandson Vladimir converted, together with his court in 988. This shift unleashed a flood of immigrant talent: clergy, administrators and scribes, artisans, and architects. Among other things the art of icon-making on the Byzantine model took firm root in Russia. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the doctrine of the Third Rome (Moscow) was launched.

The Russians and eastern Slavs generally followed the Byzantine consensus that Exodus 20:4 referred only to works in the round. Flat works, including paintings and relief carvings were perfectly acceptable--if not mandatory. The practical effect of this compromise was to discourage the growth of an independent sculptural tradition, such as the one that arose in Ottonian Germany ca. 980, serving as the basis of all later Western sculpture. The brilliant achievements of Romanesque and Gothic sculpture in Western Europe were made possible by what amounted to short circuiting the Old Testament ban on “graven images.”

The rise of the Protestant Reformation in Western Europe reopened the image question. Some territories that became Protestant stopped producing religious art. A few took more drastic action. A second great outburst of iconoclasm occurred in the 1560s in the Low Countries, stoked by Calvinist rigorism. Thus the only truly major works that survive by Hieronymus Bosch did so because they were secure in Catholic Spain and Portugal.

Apart from isolated outbreaks of vandalism, iconoclasm disappeared in Western Europe after that time. However, Stalin's Russia, officially atheistic, saw the destruction of many religious buildings and works of art. After 1989 a number of churches, prominent symbols of Orthodoxy, were rebuilt.

Beginning in the early eighteenth century Russia had undergone an influx of naturalistic art following Western (Renaissance) models. However, religious art clung to the Byzantine ideals of limited iconicity [preference for flat works (panel paintings and frescos; metal works in low relief]; stylized forms that disregarded Western rules of perspective; and symbolic instead of naturalistic colors].

In a curious marriage, this tradition combined with Western avant-garde art as it tended to abstraction (Besançon, 2001). The key figure in this merger was the Russian painter Vassili Kandinsky (1866-1944), who lived in Germany for much of his adult life. Author of a treatise "On the Spiritual in Art" that rejected Renaissance ideals of visual realism, Kandinsky owned a collection of Russian icons.

The Dutchman Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), raised as a strict Calvinist, seems to have been heir to a parallel Netherlandish tradition of suspicion of representation, as seen in his formal explorations of the Domburg church and the plus-minus works. His triptych "Evolution" (1911) is indebted to the Theosophical ideas of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a Russian mystic. Together with Kandinsky, Mondrian ranks as a prominent pioneer of nonobjective art--an art that rejects all representation.

Even more radical, but by the same token more elusive, were the inclinations of the Russian Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). His 1915 hanging of the black square in a corner in fact evokes the "red corner" of the traditional orthodox peasant home. Malevich's use of elementary forms included a prominent role for the cross. Not surprisingly, it proved difficult to detach this form from its traditional associations. Under official pressure, Malevich's returned to figuration in the later 1920s; however, entailed image shyness persisted in that the faces were elided.


It is somewhat surprising to find that the Qur’an does not explicitly prohibit the depiction of human figures; it merely condemns idolatry (5:87-92; 21:51-52). However, interdictions of figurative representation are present among a dozen or so of the hadith, the utterances ascribed to Muhammad. While the hadith present formidable critical problems of dating and authentication, it seems clear that the disapproval of images found therein was common in early Islam.

But were images disapproved of in all contexts? Evidently not, since secular scenes have been found in Ummayad villas, as well as in some other private and royal residences. Still some Sunni exegetes, from the ninth century onwards, were inclined to categorically prohibit producing and using any representation of living beings. There are variations between religious schools (Madh’hab), and marked differences between different branches of Islam. Aniconism is common among fundamentalist Sunni sects such as the Salafis and Wahhabis, and less prevalent among liberal movements within Islam. Shi’a and the mystical orders also tend to have less stringent views.

An overarching question is how one is to describe Allah. God is usually characterized by immaterial attributes, such as "holy" or "merciful,” and one must not go beyond such honorifics. Any depiction of Allah is deeply taboo. Yet Muhammad's physical appearance is amply described, particularly in the traditions on his life and deeds recorded in the biographies known as Sirah Rasul Allah. Historically, also, some have reported sightings of holy personages made during dreams.

A revealing episode is ascribed to an account by Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives. “I bought a cushion having on it pictures (of animals). When Allah’s Apostle saw it, he stood at the door and did not enter. I noticed the sign of disapproval on his face and said, ‘O Allah's Apostle! I repent to Allah and His Apostle. What sin have I committed?' Allah's Apostle said. ‘What is this cushion?’ I said, ‘I have bought it for you so that you may sit on it and recline on it.’ Allah's Apostle said, ‘The makers of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, 'Give life to what you have created (i.e., these pictures).' The Prophet added, ‘The Angels of (Mercy) do not enter a house in which there are pictures (of animals).’“ (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:34:318, 7:62:110)

To show the superiority of the monotheist faith, Muhammad is reported to have smashed the idols at the Kaaba. He also removed paintings regarded as blasphemous to Islam, while protecting others (images of Mary and Jesus) inside the building. Evidently, this protection did not last.

In practice Islam has been consistently aniconic in religious contexts, as in the mosques; compare the white dress pilgrims wear as they enter mecca. By the same token, however, secular images have often been allowed, as one sees with the prolific photographs displayed today of political leaders in the Middle East. These images also appear on bank notes and coins.

Since the thirteenth century a variety of texts stemming mostly from the Turkish and Persian realms - both Sunni and Shia - have incorporated depictions of the prophet Muhammad.  These images were meant not only to commemorate and extoll the Prophet, but they also served as foci for Muslim devotional practice, not unlike the celebrations of the Prophet's birthday and devout visits to his tomb in Mecca.


In 2005, seemingly out of the blue, came the furore unleashed by a dozen cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet. The basic facts are these. The Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy began after twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted Muhammad, were published in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. The newspaper indicated that this publication was meant as a contribution to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and the question of censorship.

In whole or in part, the cartoons were reproduced in more than fifty other countries, aggravating the controversy. This led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence with police firing on the crowds (resulting in a total of more than 100 deaths). Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran were attacked, and Muslim boycotts of Danish products were initiated.

Critics of the cartoons labeled them Islamophobic and racist. For their part, supporters of the right to publish the cartoons hold that they illustrate an important point in a period that has witnessed the rise of Islamic aggression. They argue that their publication was a legitimate exercise in the right of free speech.

The matter might have been of lesser significance had it not been magnified by other issues that have been festering in the longer term. 1) There is increasing tension between large Muslim minorities and the host societies in Western Europe. The Muslims are perceived as wanting the host society to adopt their standards, rather than vice versa—the general pattern of immigrants who, the logic of the situation suggests, must assimilate the core values of their new countries. Until recently, European intellectuals and the authorities in those nations have tended to look the other way, even when the oppression of women and homophobia were involved. Implicated in this neglect are political correctness, ethical relativism, and simple cowardice and laziness. Now the mood seems to be changing: hence the cartoons. 2) The other underlying factor is the perception among Muslims that the main purpose of the Iraq war is to weaken Islam. Polls have shown this view to be prevalent from Morocco to Indonesia, and it is clearly shared by many Muslims in Western Europe as well.

A common view is the following: under Islamic teachings, any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemy; that is so even if the depictions are not negative. Such claims are historically unfounded, as Islamic illuminated manuscripts, whose orthodoxy has never been questioned, offer a plethora of portraits of the Prophet in a variety of contexts. In passively relaying such generalizations proffered by poorly informed Muslim activists the press is not doing its job.

Echoes of the controversy appeared when an American cable television show, South Park, attempted, on April 14, 2010, to show Muhammad, albeit in a bear costume. Evidently, this disguise reflected a degree of self-censorship. Comedy Central, the TV network, imposed further censorship in the form of audio bleeps. Yet in an episode entitled “Super Best Friends” (aired in July 2001 before the Danish controversy), Muhammad appeared alongside the founders of other religions, including Krishna and Lao Tse.

As a protest against the censorship, several cartoonists joined together the following month in proposing an event, "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day." An Islamic scholar, Babak Rahimi, who teaches at the University of California San Diego, rightly pointed out that "[i]t is a well-known fact that aesthetic depictions of the prophet have been and remain a major cultural feature of Muslim societies around the world."

However, most cartoonists declined to participate in the “Draw Muhammad” event. There seems to be a double standard: Muslims are free to create images of their Prophet, but non-Muslims may not.


The Buddhas of Bamyan were two sixth-century colossal statues (180 and 121 feat high respectively) of standing figures carved into the side of a cliff in the Hazarat region of central Afghanistan. They were intentionally dynamited and destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, after the Taliban government declared that they were "idols" (forbidden under Sharia law).

International opinion reacted strongly to the destruction of the Buddhas, viewed as an example of the intolerance of the Taliban and of Islamism. Subsequently, several nations have pledged support for the rebuilding of the statues.

Bamyan lies on the Silk Road, a caravan route linking the markets of China with those of Western Asia. Bamyan was the site of several Buddhist monasteries, and a thriving center for religion, philosophy, and art. The Islamic invasion of the ninth century curtailed this flowering, but the statues remained. Over the centuries there were periodic efforts by Muslims to damage the statues, but until 2001 they failed because of lack of means.

The destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas became a symbol of oppression and a rallying point for the freedom of religious expression. Despite the fact that most Afghans are now Muslim, many were appalled by the destruction.

While the figures of the two colossal Buddhas are almost completely destroyed, their outlines and some features are still recognizable within the recesses. After the destruction of the Buddhas, fifty monks’ caves were revealed, twelve of them containing paintings, probably executed between the fifth and ninth centuries by itinerant artists.

On September 8, 2008 archaeologists working at Bamyan announced the discovery of a previously unknown 62-foot reclining Buddha, a pose representing the historical Buddha's passage into nirvana,


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