By A.T. Coates
Haven’t we seen this before? When the so-called “Danish Cartoon Controversy” sparked protests around the world in 2005, American media outlets spoke vaguely and often about how the image offended “Muslim beliefs.” Seven years later, and again a mocking image of Muhammad—this time a Youtube video called “Innocence of Muslims”—has received a lion’s share of the blame for a complex and varied series of protests around the world. News reports revel in the details of the film, almost always mentioning its “amateurish” production quality in the same breath as its “offensive” content. Tony Blair expressed this perspective in a BBC interview, saying the film was “wrong and offensive but also laughable as a piece of filmmaking.” According to Blair, the reaction to the video has been “absurd.” Other commentators have taken this position a step further, stating that living in the modern world means being offended sometimes, so anyone who got upset about the video should just get over it. Here we have a familiar view of Middle Eastern affairs: there’s the “modern” West on one side, “fundamentalist” Islam on the other (or “fundamentalism” West vs. “fundamentalism” East). While people are happy to blame the protests on a video that upset fundamentalists, practically no one bothers to examine how images work in the lives of the people who have protested. We’re left to ponder why anyone would take to the streets over a low-budget Youtube video. Like Tony Blair, we’re encouraged to view the response as “absurd.”
As someone who thinks seriously about how images work in religions, I’m not surprised that a video (or a cartoon) might contribute to protests or violence. This has nothing to do with the “nature” of Islam. Nor does it have anything to do with clashes between “fundamentalist” and “modern” worldviews. Rather, my statement stems from an acknowledgement that images play important roles in people’s lives—as many recent scholars of “material religion” have suggested. Even in supposedly “aniconic” traditions like Islam or Protestantism, images are far from trivial.
Images have power. Sometimes, we might best describe this as affective power: images can revolt us, arouse us, terrify us, and shock us. They provoke strong responses from our bodies. They can help us to remember lost loved ones or to imagine spiritual places. Images also have effective power: they can do things in the world. Our Lady of Guadalupe works miracles. Russian icons demand to be touched and kissed. The images a little boy saw while on an operating table proved to many evangelicals that Heaven is real. When considering images in religious contexts, we’re often looking at the places where Heaven and earth meet, where embodied individuals encounter supernatural powers. So it’s no wonder that many religious communities try to sequester, circumscribe, ignore, or control images. The wrong kinds of images can cause supernatural harm. Images can lure people away from a “proper” understanding of an abstract, distant, or indescribable deity precisely because they are so powerful.
Religiously offensive images don’t just insult people’s abstract beliefs. In an important article in Critical Inquiry, Saba Mahmood invoked Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to describe how the Danish cartoons hurt many Muslims: “the offense the cartoons committed was not against a moral interdiction (thou shalt not make images of Muhammed) but against a structure of affect, a habitus, that feels wounded” (35.4, p. 849). According to Mahmood, Muhammad serves as an image of the ideal Muslim for many people. His moral conduct, speech, even his bodily habits are worthy of emulation in daily life. The (usually) mental image of his experience in the world shows pious Muslims what to do with their bodies and helps them to make sense of their own lives. By attacking their image of the Prophet, Mahmood contends, the cartoons didn’t just offend a legal principle like “blasphemy”—they hurt a whole way of experiencing the world.
Images also help to foster collective identities. When we belong to a community, we share ways of seeing certain images. For example, many Catholics can discern an apparition of Mary in a tortilla, in a dream, or at a shrine. Knowing the difference between dark spots and a genuine appearance of Our Lady marks the boundary of the group. Communities that share ways of seeing also share ways of feeling about what they see. Many evangelicals wept together when they watched The Passion of the Christ because they saw Romans whipping their Jesus. In evangelical communities, Jesus serves as an image of ideal moral conduct (WWJD?) and friendship (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus…”). They wept when they saw that Jesus brutally beaten in Mel Gibson’s movie. Such shared emotions and experiences aren’t trivial. They help to hold communities together.
I don’t know if a Youtube video catalyzed this week’s protests. But it wouldn’t surprise me. If indeed the video did contribute to this week’s events, we can do far more than merely dismiss people’s reactions as trivial or absurd, the product of “fundamentalist” reluctance to embrace the modern world. Before we make diagnoses about what role the images played in the protest, we need to develop robust understandings of how images work in the particular contexts where the protests took place.