Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Riot of Images

So there's apparently this big fuss going on about offensive images of the Prophet, Mohammed. On the one hand, I think that trying to offend people with images like this is kind of sad; on the other hand, the fuss that it kicked up is kind of sad, too.

There is a reason why devout Muslims aren't supposed to make or look at religious images. The problem with representational art is that it leads you to form an image in your mind that is not a true image of the intended object. So when the object in question is a religious object, it's a form of idolatry - worshiping an imperfect image instead of what the image was intended to represent.

So the problem with representational art, in this context, isn't what it depicts. It's that it attempts to depict what cannot be depicted. And to whom does that matter? Why to a practitioner of the religion, of course. It doesn't matter what pictures an infidel looks at, because he doesn't worship the object being depicted anyway.

The mechanism that leads to people rioting in the street, and people dying, is this: you have an image in your mind of what "the Prophet" is. This image gives you comfort, and brings you closer to the divine. And then you look at an image that purports to refer to the same object, the one you think of as "the Prophet." You identify the object to which the image refers as the one you think of as "the Prophet." What is depicted in the image appears to you as less than divine. So the image in your mind is diminished. And this brings your heart farther away from the divine. And this makes you feel upset. And you get angry. And you direct your anger at the person who made the image. And you riot. And people die.

It's not hard to fathom why representational art is considered so dangerous. If only it were the case that words were less dangerous. Really, words are just the most subtle form of representational art that we have to hand.


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