The Big Winners in the “Muhammad Art Exhibit”

One has the feeling that all parties emerged victorious from the “first annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” held May 3 in the Dallas suburb of Garland, Texas.

Gunmen Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi made their statement against insults to the Prophet, confident in their final moments as they died in a hail of bullets that the rewards of Paradise were on the horizon. They earned the martyrdom they sought, impressing those whose estimation they most valued in life.

ISIL scored a propaganda victory with an important first: an attack on the enemy on U.S. soil that could be attributed to the group. Even though the connections between Simpson, Soofi and ISIL appear to have been limited to social media inspiration, ISIL can boast that its rival an-Qaeda no longer enjoys a monopoly on jihadi violence in the U.S.

Publicity-seeking hatemonger Paula Geller and her “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (AFDI) reaped rewards far beyond their expectations: their event became the leading news story, it was repeatedly reported in the mainstream media as a “free speech” (rather than hate speech) event, and Geller received precious air time to spew her imbecilic message to often deferential interviewers. Contributions from like-minded bigots must be pouring in.

The cluelessness of the interviewers served her cause. CNN’s Brooke Baldwin, for example, who while suggesting she might be Islamophobic, treated her respectfully (and repeatedly referred to her provocative hate fest as a “free speech event”), and failed to challenge her when she referred to (the late) Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran as “the leader of the Muslim world”—as though any leader of Shiite Muslims (maybe 13% of the entire Muslim world, and viewed by many Sunnis as heretics) could ever obtain that status.

Geller, who likens herself to Rosa Parks as freedom fighter, recoiled at any suggestion she hates Muslims in general. No, she says, she’s just against the 25% of Muslims who support violent jihad. (That would be about 375 million people.) She’s only against those who take the Qur’an seriously; she describes the book as inherently vicious. (As though the Book of Joshua, in the Old Testament she reveres, is not; see Joshua 11:12-20 in which God commands His Chosen People to wipe out the non-Hebrews.)

Keynote speaker at the “Art Exhibit and Contest”—Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who has advocated the banning of the Qur’an in the Netherlands and the expulsion of its Muslim residents—was also a big winner in the Gardner incident. He got his name in the global news again, and some will see the incompetent gun attack as validation of his characterization of Muslims in general.

The losers in this episode are the Muslim community in the U.S., who are once again victimized by a mass media that, while paying lip-service to religious tolerance, treats hate mongers as respectable free speech advocates and fails to challenge the most egregious misrepresentations of Islamic history and doctrine. The entire U.S. public falls victim to the coverage, spanning a spectrum of the malevolent to incompetent.

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The winner of the $ 10,000 prize for best Muhammad cartoon shows the angry, saber-swinging prophet barking “You can’t draw me!” while a hand with a pencil in the picture bears the speech bubble “That’s why I draw you.” Not very clever, and not very accurate. The Qur’an alludes to the biblical 10 Commandments, which include the first one that forbids the worship of graven images. (The Qur’an does not replicate the commandments but assumes the Muslim’s knowledge of them.) And some hadith (sayings attributed to Muhammad) forbid the depiction of any living creature.

(The disinclination to replicate the human form, associated with idolatry, is a common feature of Middle Eastern monotheisms. The early Christians never depicted Jesus or the saints in art, and Church Fathers like Irenaeus inveighed against the practice. A depiction of Jesus reaching out to Peter on the sea, produced in around 235 and found in Dura-Europus, Syria, is considered the oldest image of Jesus.)

But there are many compilations of hadith, compiled over centuries and accepted by different schools of Islam. There is in any case no record of Muhammad ever ordering his followers not to draw him.

In Persia, visual depictions of the Prophet appear in manuscripts and miniatures from the thirteenth century. In Iran today, Muhammad may be depicted, if respectfully. (Geller, whose whole point is disrespectful, incendiary portrayal, seems unaware of this.) The reluctance to do so is rooted less in scripture than in tradition and sensibility.

Geller wants to trample of Muslim sensibilities in order to provoke. She’s made a career of such provocations. Now two more angry Muslims are dead, proof that such provocation works.

And she’s just getting started. She plans these events to be annual.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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