Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The Danish Cartoons and Religious Sentiments

Or The making of a modern picture dispute

The twelve cartoons printed by a Danish newspaper and the reaction of the Muslim world reminds of the picture dispute that took place in the 5th century between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Then the Roman Catholic Church was getting anxious about the Orthodox Church getting stronger. The latter was using the art of the icons within a highly decentralized church organization that allowed even in remote corners people to show their devotion. Devotion meant then as now giving money and once collected, it made the Orthodox Church quite powerful. As a matter of fact the many small donations ended up being a much larger sum than what the Roman Catholic Church could obtain through donations from some rich prince. A dispute erupted over the use of icons. The controversies took place at both aesthetical and religious levels. Then the Roman Catholic Church made a principled stand to draw a line in the dispute. It was spelled out what kind of pictures were to be used by any church to substantiate the belief of the people. Two main principles were demanded by the Roman Catholic Church that the Orthodox Church upholds them as well:

  1. no picture should be made of God
  2. no painting should appeal to the senses in a way that is offensive to the belief in God.


Any art historian knows how the arts and artists weaved themselves in and out of this institutionalized form of censorship. The church transmitted a religious sentiment which was understood as the power to define what is art. In reality, it meant ensuring that the concept of God would remain an abstract one and thereby give power to the church to unify (to subsume) everything else under its auspices and domain of influence.

Now, as to this most recent dispute between the Western secular world and the Muslim world, it appears that only one similar principle was invoked, namely that Muslims do not wish that a picture is made of Mohammed. However, it can be argued that the cartoons offended also the second principle, if only in a reverse sense by making a caricature of what would be an over simplified sense perception of Mohammed. What may also be implied with a caricature is something the Polish philosopher Kolakowski stated about those who believe paradise has been lost and in a vain search to regain that notion, the outcome thereof is but a caricature. And he mentioned that in his book about the 'certainy of senses'. But this does not cover entirely the role cartoons play in Western Society nor why such poking of fun at something taken too serious becomes something more than that. The angry masses which went out into the streets to burn down the Danish and other embassies underlines the need to understood better the nature of deep religious sentiments.

Why the key concept of any religion has to remain ‘abstract’, that question should be asked at the outset before entering the dispute. It was a Marxist study published in the former DDR - East Germany which mentioned that the Western concept of God was by far more abstract than anything to be found in the Islamic world, or for that matter in the colonies of both North and South America. This meant the ability to abstract from reality gave those upholding that principle power over the others. They could be transgressed as shown by the Crusades and subdued under this abstract princip. Hence power depends upon the degree of abstraction under which then everything else falls or is subsumed.

A recent example of this has been given by Pope Benedict who speaks about God giving his unconditional love to mankind. That means mankind can do everything possible, including bad deeds, but this God will not fail in his love. It is given unconditionally. This Western God as brought into Africa, into Asia, into Latin America and which has been revered by a variety Western Churches from the Roman Catholic Church to the Lutheran or Protestant one, was considered for a long time to be most superior as its degree of abstraction was so high, that everything could be unified under this God and dealt with as the power derived from that pleases to do so.

The moment God or Mohammed would be given a picture, it would be a concretization of an interpretation. Some people would say, yes, that is the image of God they had in mind when praying to him, but many others would say, no, they had never such image in mind. Dispute between different interpretations would follow and surely the unity of that church congregation be threatened. It explains the need to keep things abstract, especially if there would be no way to resolve any dispute about what would be a ‘correct’ interpretation.

Something of that reminds of Plato’s ‘cave analogy’ in which he describes people being chained to the floor of the cave while they are engaged in a guessing game as to what images cast against the opposite wall represent: a jumping deer, a bush, a house on fire? Plato narrates that one man was wondering if these images are truly reflections of reality. His questioning led to the breaking of the chains. He got up and started to take a path leading upwards and eventually as he discovered out of the cave. While climbing up, he came to the spot above the cave floor. There he saw that men were jumping in front of fires and thereby projected the images onto the opposite wall of the cave. Now he understood on how these images were created. They were so arbitrary that he realized no one on the cave floor could ever know what was a true interpretation. Truth was established down there by consensus i.e. people agreeing this one interpretation was the correct one and therefore all others wrong. Once the man realized that there was a silly game going on, he said to himself this could not be all. Again his questioning probed him to go on. Finally he made it to the exit of the cave. There he could not walk on for a while because the real light was blinding his eyes. But with time the eyes got used to natural light and so he had stepped completely out of the cave. It was then that he discovered such a beautiful landscape. It consisted of a valley through which was running a brook with beautiful vegetation alongside. He could not believe his eyes. He started to think all those people down there in the cave don’t know about this beauty on earth. He wondered whether he should stay and enjoy this beauty all by himself or else return and tell the others what he discovered. He decided to return, says Plato. Once he was back on the cave floor, the man wanted to interrupt their game in order to tell all they should follow him out of the cave. This attempt to interrupt their games was not taken well by all. They wanted to continue guessing what images were projected onto the wall. No one wanted to hear that they were created by men jumping merely in front of the fire lit above them. More and more they got angry at him for insisting that they should forget all about this guessing game when compared with what awaits them outside the cave, namely a much more beautiful world. The people at the bottom of the cave saw him only as spoiler of their guessing game. They started to shout him down but when he continued to question their way of deciding what is the right guess of an image, they got so angry at him that they beat him to death.

The reluctance to hear the truth seems most fervent in all religions throughout the history of mankind. Moreover, a lot of killing has gone on in the name of religion. Religious wars have been waged against the unbelievers. The crusades were one of the most destructive forces of cultural heritage. The library of Constantinople, an unbelievable treasure probably as great as the one which existed in Alexandria, was burned down by the knights. Everywhere they blazed a trail as if to erase evidence from where they had come from and to where they were going.

Why a belief can unleash such forces of hatred and destruction, that question accompanies any study of religious wars or wars caused by religion. Constance de Volney was asked by the French Assembly when wishing to draft a new constitution after the French Revolution to give advice how a new constitution should look like, if war is to be avoided in future. To find some answers, he returned to ancient ruins of former empires and asked them what was the reason for the downfall of these once mighty states? The answer he deduced out of the ruins was that whenever religion was involved, inequality was a given. It begins with declaring a difference between believer and non believer and does not end with the claim this is ‘my table’, so that 'the other may only sit down at the same table, if the one who owes the table allows it’. Something along those lines is what Jewish settlers do when they claim this to 'their holy land', and thereby they feel justified that they oust those who had been living there for generations.

Religion and ownership in a spiritual sense goes even further. For each religion claims it to be truest, the closest to God and hence has all the Rights to tell all others what to do, how to behave, when to pray to this one and only God. Constance de Volney discovered that these religions rested their arguments on one basic fallacy: they deduced the claim to be the truest from the one fact, namely that people were not only willing to make a sacrifice, in order that this religion was upheld. Rather they went a step further and showed a willingness to make the highest of all sacrifices by declaring their willingness to die for that religion or to do something in the name of that religion, even if it meant killing others and dying oneself in the process. It explains why ever more were willing to die in the name of that religion, especially if in a crisis, since then more proof had to be given that this particular religion was the only one able to give hope.

The fallacy is when people sacrifice themselves, the religion upheld thereby concludes that it must be the truest of all for what greater gift can any man make, if not sacrificing his or her own life in the name of that religion? For this reason, Constance de Volney concluded that any future constitution must exclude allegiance to religion as principal of value. Religion should not be taken as prerequisite for man to take on identity as recognized by that constitution.

Interestingly enough, the EU Constitutional Treaty proposed by the European Convention, but then not ratified in 2005, did not see in religion a contributing factor to a wished for unity of Europe. Rather those who worked out the proposal in the European Convention saw religion as being constantly a source of conflict and violence. It should be further noted that after the failure to ratify the EU Constitutional Treaty, chancellor Merkel and other Conservative politicians went into the open and publically criticized the Constitutional Draft for having left out religion. Presumably they did so under the influence of the churches. Merkel did then everything to put religion back on the agenda. It was if she had never read the book by Constance de Volney. Yet his advise needs to be heeded all the more so, given the recent acts of violence in the name of religion.

There have been made many efforts during the 20th century to bring religions together. It is sought as a dialogue with one another and praised as a way to overcome conflict and war, alienation and misunderstanding. Martin Buber as philosopher of religion tried to bring together the three main religious strands in Europe: Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. However, in order to do that, he needed to enter a special 'I-you' dialogue and risked to become so personal that instead of dialogue, he needed to resort to transcendence and forms of metaphysics, in order to relate to the other parts of the religious worlds.

There were others like Küng or those close to the Catholic school of Theological Thought whether at the University in Munich or else in what became known as 'Science of Religion'. One of these institutes was housed in the Paul Tillich building belonging to the Free University of Berlin with Klaus Heinrich reminding about such noble persons as Gollwitzer. But this would take now things to far on how resistance against Nationalism was brought about by being close to such a conviction that no discrimination of any human being, whether Black or Jew, was tolerated. Still, it matters how the dialectic of securalization is understood and what guarantees the freedom of conscience of every individual. That means also a freedom from group coercion.

So to return to this discussion about the picture dispute, it is important that not all Western philosophers were ignorant as to what Islam meant and how valuable thoughts developed in the Arab world are. Ernst Bloch became here an important voice. He pointed out in contrast to Christianity there was an Aestheism about which he made an important distinction, for aestheists contrary to common knowledge do believe in God, but they do so without attachment to an institution i.e. church.

The significance of Bloch for resolving this current dispute cannot be emphasized enough. He was the one who observed in his book ‘Lessons of Materialism’ that “the Arabic scholars had rescued the Greek light and at the same time changed it”. Many philosophical texts of Ancient Greece reached Europe only thanks to the Arabic world having translated these texts into their own language and in that way these Ancient Greek texts were preserved.

Ernst Bloch is also one of the few Western philosophers who knew in a more extended way the development of thought in the Arabic world. He underlined the fact that the Arabic scholars and philosophers differed from those of Europe at least until the 9th century. He said the Arabic philosophers like al-Gahiz were natural scientists and philosophers. He added this was not the case in Europe where philosophers were equally followers of theology, St. Augustine with his ‘Confessions’ an example.

The beauty of Al-Gahiz is that he created small gems. There made out of stories he picked up from what people in the streets would tell to each other and by listening carefully as to their deeper meanings, he made them into jewels of wisdom. He did so by giving them all a metaphorical richness. Equally they contained important lessons to learn when it came, for example, to just distribution. Always his gems entail what can be perceived at street and what it means to address the innocent, even though he did in an indirect way. In that way he could take them to begin sensing the huge social issue due to a lack of just distribution between the rich and the poor.

It should be recalled that Mohammed was in the fourth century B.C. a spokesperson for the poor but upon entering the city and the proximity of power, he allowed rich men with property to enter the rank and file of his followers, so that these newly converted believers would not have to fear confiscation of their properties. That was a serious compromise he made. That compromise has always played a double, even dangerous role in religion when it came to determine its existence, especially if based on who has the ownership over the land. This is perpetuated in Islamic law, insofar land having only value, if used. One of the highest Islamic laws is that anyone has the Right to seize land if not used over a period of time e.g. four or more years.

To come back to Ernst Bloch, he noted the changes in the Arabic world once scholars started to become Fundamentalists in the spirit of Orthodoxy. It meant already then some guardians of the Koran felt developments were going beyond the borders and laws as laid down by this original text. Different theological schools sprang up. They vary in the degree to which the Koran as original text should be taken literally i.e. as a text laying out the fundamental laws which everyone has to follow compared to those schools open to various interpretations.

The Bible or the Koran are perceived as original texts from which many things follow. Like a fountain, people seem to take from there not the water but the inspiration on how to live. In both religious and legal terms it means literally finding the laws everyone must abide to if Mohammed is to be respected by all. So it can become possible that devotion to this religious belief must not only be shown during prayer times, but also in the entire attire e.g. how women are dressed when in the streets. In that sense unity prevails and God, Allah, Mohammed are the Greatest.

To understand this sense for unity not the mass conformity should be taken as departure point, but in real descriptive terms what people feel if they see others behave in such a different way as if they are following another God, interpretation thereof, or even worse are non believers. If people abide to certain laws, but see others not doing the same and as a result they get rich while the God abiding ones remain poor, jealousy is created and social tensions arise. The problem of unity is, therefore, how to prevent the corrosion of not only laws but also of the values that go with them and which influence people in how they behave, think and even enjoy life. As such it suggests that people are generally frightened by such signs of heterogeneity that they associate with such a state chaos, anarchy, lawlessness and above all abuse.

So it is a people’s revolt if they wish to impose a restriction on everyone what each individual may or may not do.

Michel Foucault has pointed out the consequences if the practical discourse fails to write a new text in order to create a new sense of unity in a modern sense. The return to the first original text, the Bible or the Koran, comes when not only heterogeneity but also lack of consensus as to what are the common values prevails. Historical development could be seen as people depart from the original text and interpretations on the increase with experiences varied, ‘the unification of apperception’ (Kant) will not be easy. Different laws will exist and affect people’s minds differently so that there is no longer the same account even when applying one and the same law. What people cannot stand, is one thing: arbitrary rule. There has to be common rule, a common law and everyone must abide to the same law in order to prevent that someone takes advantage from a situation in which there does not exist this unity. Since the Dialectic of Securalisation has started to differentiate the relationship between religious and political law, church and state as two different institutions became in Western Civilization a new way of governing people. Democracy as a system of power which can be elected as much as thrown out of office by election depended upon one core element: freedom of conscience of the individual. This meant individual freedom became the basic Right of everyone and with it goes the Right for the Freedom of Expression. Political opinions, opinions about reality, should not be pre-determined by what values they have to adhere to or in another way show reverence to before speaking up or speaking ‘your mind’.

All this can be followed, by the way, in the arts. Once no longer aesthetical principles as defined by the church determined what artists may say, may not, the emancipation of the art became another dialogue with people on how they can understand themselves. There is one famous painting by Giotto who in the early 13th century showed how power looked inside the church compared to how people on the outside perceived that power. It was made concrete on hand of a cross hanging on the church’s outer wall. While from inside it was a mere attrape hanging on a thin wire, the people on the outside revered it as if the symbol of pain and power. Giotto’s painting was a way to invite people to look behind the symbols of power very much as Plato would describe that man getting off the cave’s floor to discover that the images people were guessing are created in fact by men jumping in front of fires.

This questioning of God by showing what people do in the name of God continued. There is the difference between those who design and watch over the people that they do their reverence in a proper way and those who become a part of the believers. Strength is derived out of this sense of unity even though it may be but mass conformity and still in real life a far cry from real solidarity.

Dostoevsky in ‘the Grand Inquisitor’ states that the one who preaches to the people what laws to follow never believes himself that what he asks the people to believe. The real unbeliever is the highest priest. That questioning has taken on many forms of expression, including the making of something abstract, therefore powerful, because feared and revered at one and the same time by everyone, into a caricature. The Polish philosopher Kolakowski would say caricature is an expression of dismay by people who have lost paradise i.e. sense of unity and in trying to evoke a sense of unity cannot make a painting but merely a caricature of what they image things to be. This is an important observation when reflecting what is the language of cartoons by which Walt Disney became so famous with figures of speech like Bugs Boney saying ‘What’s up Doc?’ or Mickey Mouse being the hero of situations never located in reality but in an imagined world of all possibilities colliding constantly with impossibilities. No wonder such a language has been used in satire or in other forms of disputes especially if something is being contested.

To come back then to this modern picture dispute, the cartoons published first in a Danish newspaper provoked such reactions in the Muslim world that a further understanding thereof is needed. Especially now that it has become a fully blow-up issue beyond all proportions, and the same cartoons also reprinted in several newspapers out of the principle of ‘freedom of expression’, the Muslim reaction speaks about not only the law no painting should be made of Mohammed, but about having been personally insulted and therefore not only the Danish newspaper, but the entire nation and more so the whole of Europe should apologize.

If developments over time can be interpreted, then cartoons and more so political caricatures have been used especially against politicians or other famous people if they are at risk to take themselves too serious. But the context has become over serious since 9/11 with Bush and his administration using the language of caricature when speaking about “us” as believers in democracy and ‘rule of the law’ and those evil powers. The moment such religious language enters the public domain, there is always the risk of polarizing people by splitting them into two camps. Gross generalizations will add to this down side of abstraction seeking to unify not only people but nation states around the world in this fight against terrorism by encouraging over simplification. Add to it a special brand of moralism, then Christian Fundamentalism in politics means claiming everything is black and white, hence easy to predict what choices need to be made in order to continue governing this world.

It should not be forgotten that some entrepreneur in America immediately produced toilet paper after 9/11. What was so unusual about this paper? It had printed on it the face of Bin Laden and anyone familiar with the saying ‘wipe my ass’ knew what was meant by that. It channeled anger and more so many other feelings into what became an unified form of American Patriotism as basis of legitimacy to go to war over this attack on the Twin Towers.

Since then, and especially after the invasion of Iraq March 2003, all in the name to make the world safer, the troops from America, UK, Poland etc. have been engaged in a dirty fight and most often terrorism was linked to Islam or more precisely to the Holy Jihad as declared by Bin Laden and co. Even though many Muslim believers distance themselves from Bin Laden’s call for war against the unbelievers i.e. the people of the West, generalizations prevail especially when enemy pictures are needed to keep up a fictitious war. Here one should only remind the series of cartoons British Tabloid bring repeatedly about Germans whenever there might be a good occasion to link the past, the fight against Hitler, Fascism and Germans with current events e.g. a football match between England and Germany. Such caricature serves nothing but keeping up prejudices and to let deeper emotions revolt over and again if only to stand up collectively against this old and new foe.

All this needs to be kept in mind on how feelings can become dangerous weapons in a process of polarization. The protest of the Muslim world against those cartoons is only a further escalation in a war of emotions. It includes the news spread about prisoners being abused not only in Guatanamo Bay, but elsewhere in Iraq jails and it adds to the entire matter even more fuel when news is spread that torture was accompanied by secretion of the Koran if the prisoner happened to be a Muslim.

But before any further heated arguments become so loud and so shrill that no counter argument is audible, and since already people can make death threats out of the belief not they personally, but collectively they have been insulted by these cartoons, a poet should be listened to.

Brendan Kennelly in his epic poem ‘Judas’ speaks about this voice of betrayal as a peculiar way to educate people. He re-accounts himself how at school he was taught constantly not to listen to this voice of betrayal with Judas being identified as the figure to be avoided. Brendan concludes that in the process of indoctrination he became oblivious to one crucial fact, namely he stopped seeing how many of his own dreams he had already betrayed even before coming an adult. This leads to Brendan Kennelly in reflection of what violence erupted in Ireland, specifically in Northern Ireland (and this as a conflict between religions) to say that the most difficult thing to unlearn is ‘learned hatred’. By having made innocent civilians into enemies in order to go to war in Iraq, the production of enemy pictures has started to dominate not only in the rhetoric of President Bush, but has influenced greatly the perception of all those serving in a war of occupation. “We will hunt them down” fuels that mission with the kind of blind élan that seems to forget to ask the crucial question whether or not at the root of the permanent war which Rumsfeld is so fond of in promoting, that the dream of peace in the world is constantly betrayed, and not only by the insurgents, but by also all those business people making a fortune out of the weapons trade?

Hatred is not only between Israelis and Palestinians by now a fence transformed into a wall of separation due to not knowing any more another answer to suicide bombers, but it can be a force that killed Rabin with the murderer justifying it by claiming to know that Rabin had violated not secular, but religious law connected with what is the claim of the Holy Land. Lately, with Sharon already in coma, BBC interviewed settlers about their views of this man who made them clear land. One woman said Sharon has become one who no longer follows higher authority but who became more interested in real terms on how he is perceived by the world and so he is to her one no longer upholding religious law. Such argumentations are important especially if ‘higher authority’ is put over and beyond human dialogue, reason and insight into what is the solution, namely the land belongs to all and ownership should not exclude others from living on this earth. But this is not so easily communicated as seen by Indians preferring open land without fences while settlers do not enjoy that beauty but want to stake out their claim by building immediately fences and walls. They did this when going out West in America and the same happens when bulldozers rage through the olive grooves where Palestinians used to seek shade.

So the problem is deeper and most difficult to resolve especially if, as Brendan Kennelly points out, prejudices are ‘converted’ into convictions, beliefs for if challenged at that level, those holding these convictions will not recognize in what they wish to be respected and be upheld without doubt as former prejudices. Instead they will feel insulted. This then is what goes so wrong in our world filled with doubt. Out of reasons of lack of certainty religious beliefs are resorted to in the absence of any workable ideology and then higher authorities demand just respect, no questioning, no cartoon, and certainly once felt insulted no apology will do to reverse the trend of feeling enraged. Instead the masked men shooting their rifles in the air on top of the EU building feel that they have a cause to be enraged because they have converted already any challenge to what they take too serious as a threat in what they want everyone to believe.

It should be reminded that caricatures perpetuate themselves in even jokes about others. As a saying goes about Germans, their jokes are no laughing matter. Eichmann had the Jewish orchestra play Verdi’s Requiem in Theresienstadt before they were transported off to Auschwitz to die. Eichmann and the German SS thought this was a great joke and thereby shows that this joke about German jokes as being no laughing matter has a serious basis. To realize it and then go on living means to bring the human spirit in touch with human reality as the best way to follow sober truths where laughter means happiness and seriousness a thought well founded in the wish to respect and to uphold human dignity. Things should be taken as they are meant while interpretation thereof should never stifle the freedom of expression of the other. Only when listening to what the others says, can it be seen what is meant. Still a word of caution is needed. Michel Foucault mentioned it: people begin only then to speak with each other again if no victory over the other is necessary.

Hatto Fischer


This article was first published in heritageradio


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