TAlthough we often hear that depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, works of art bearing his image can be found in museums in Europe and the United States. He is in a bronze medallion in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, holding a book. He is in a Persian miniature in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, ascending to heaven on horseback. And it is in many carefully selected private collections of Islamic art, which appear from time to time in the catalogs of prestigious auction houses when these works of art change hands.
The ban on images of the prophet, no matter how bland, is widely accepted today, but, as these examples show, it is a distinctly modern edict. The religious justification for the ban is much less clear than its advocates believe: there is no such instruction in the Qur’an. Of course, there is a pre-Islamic aversion to idol worship shared by all monotheistic religions, and over the centuries this aversion gradually disappeared from depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art. But this was only a prelude to the modern blasphemy charge, which came only in the 20th century, after the Muslim world fractured into nation-states.
The modern Muslim-majority nation-state is a weak and unwieldy creature. In Africa and South Asia, colonial forces rallied disparate tribes and languages, drew border lines around them, and then abruptly marched to Europe. For many citizens of these new nations, Islam was the only common denominator. In the absence of a coherent political program beyond maintaining their own power, the ruling elites clung to Islam as a binding agent. From there, it was an easy step to choose a few sacred icons, such as the image of the prophet, and draw arbitrary theological red lines, useful to dispense with political opponents. The history of blasphemy in contemporary Islam is not about doctrine. It is about decadence and dictatorship.
There is a lesson in this tale for all of us: the more a society cares about its symbols, the more insecure it becomes. In the UK, the Conservative government and the court press have used the veneration of national symbols as consolation for a decade of economic pain and social fracture. We used to visit our historical monuments; now we must pledge allegiance to them. We are not meant to study and scrutinize a figure like Winston Churchill; he is now an icon to be protected from blasphemers. Britain’s statues are now symbols of national anxiety: each a kind of concrete voodoo doll, which if punctured will make the entire country bleed. They now enjoy exaggerated police protection, with political bodyguards introducing harsher punishments to protect the statues from the “howling mobs”.
And then, of course, there is the flag, the latest icon to be invested with a holiness that demands that it be flown larger and larger. The government has decreed that after the summer the flag should fly over official buildings every day instead of 20 days a year. It is no longer just about cheerful pennants on special occasions. This is the end point of a journey that began when Nigel Farage took a small union flag and placed it in front of him in the European Parliament. In all its absurdity, that moment comes closest to representing what the flag has come to symbolize today: a false but potent claim of liberation from fictitious oppressive forces.
That artificial sense of persecution and outrage inspires powerful emotions that can easily turn dissent into betrayal. In a chilling episode last month, a BBC presenter had to apologize for liking the tweets mocking the size of a flag in a minister’s office. The new CEO of the BBC was quick to reassure the angry public that his staff are “very proud to be British” and indeed a union flag flies “proudly over Broadcasting House” most days. It’s a very short step from demanding that kind of prostration to the sanctity of national emblems to brandishing it to get the people to line up. Over the past few months, Conservative MPs have sought to polish their political credentials by taking an increasingly aggressive stance on the flag, demanding that it be mandatory in all schools (and that anyone with concerns can be “educated” to comply). There is an even shorter distance between such public and official intimidation and private citizens taking matters into their own hands. Earlier this year, a mayor of Cornwall received death threats for removing the flags that had been placed without the permission of the city council.
“You can’t eat a flag,” said John Hume, one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process. When Muslim countries erupt in rage at the images of Muhammad, I see governments that cannot feed their people, nor provide them with dignity or democratic rights, so they feed them with false pride. The images we see on the news from Cairo or Khartoum of protests against cartoons or perpetrators, are images of astroturf anger, whipped and transported by buses to city squares in government vehicles. Some of that anger seeps into corners that later become impossible to remove. The worship of icons, whether they be flags or statues, may seem like a harmless act on the part of a government that has little else to offer. But behind it lurks the threat of something much more sinister.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism