I’m an Enlightenment-positive secular liberal, and I like the below marble statue of Voltaire at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It’s one of the few large marble depictions of Voltaire in the world. I recall reading somewhere that the original sculptor made just a couple of them, and by the contingencies of history, one of them ended up in the permanent collection at LACMA:
Anyway, I admire Voltaire so much that I suppose that I could be one of his groupies. I’d be deeply offended, for example, if someone came to LACMA and took a hammer to Voltaire’s nose. And it occurred to me that this is precisely why certain Muslims must have originally started insisting that Mohammad must not be depicted in art: the prohibition probably functioned to discourage idolatry. If you are a Muslim, you should only worship Allah, and you should not start cults of personality.
Now fast forward to the 21st century. Suddenly, a medieval prohibition designed to tamp down idolatry has actually ended up serving to inflate the image of a man—Mohammad’s image—by its absence. Talk about the law of unintended consequences! Idolatry appears to be so urgent in the human psyche that, where it fails to appear as totem, it arrives by taboo.
A Muslim I recently spoke with, strongly rejecting jihadist terror directed toward cartoonists depicting Mohammad, told me the following story from his tradition:
Mohammad used to go by the house of a woman who threw her trash and offal at him every time that he passed by. But rather than retaliate, Mohammad endured the abuse. One day, however, he passed by the woman’s house without any harassment coming his way whatsoever, and he wondered what was wrong. Inquiring within the house, he learned that she was ill, and so visited her, exchanging kindness for abuse.
The story suggests (at least to me) that Mohammad would not have approved of any prohibitions against the abuse of his image, and would have discouraged any cults of personality evolving around him, for making him an object of taboo is the inverse of making him a totem (an object of worship). In learning of the behavior of some 21st century Muslims toward nonbelieving cartoonists, my bet is that Mohammad would have shaken his head in dismay and said something like this:
You do not understand what my life was about. By attempting to prohibit the mockery of me, you make a mockery of what was of real concern to me, and draw attention away from what I thought was truly important. And you underestimate the value of ironic cartoonists, for they do the important work of demystifying and deconstructing the idols and cults of personality that humans erect.
But it isn’t the first time, of course, that zealous followers diminished a founder, and brought discredit upon his original vision. I seem to recall Christopher Hitchens once saying, “You can pick your enemies, but rarely your allies.” And for two millenia the great mass of Jesus’s “followers” have failed his example. The same seems true of the “followers” of Mohammad. Hardly a surprise. And as Hannah Arendt once astutely observed, if you scratch the surface of human violence you are most likely to find, not an enduring form of truth or social power, but desperation out of touch with reality, concealing weakness and decline.
I would add that you’re also likely to find an idol.