Art, satire and spirituality in the 21st century
• article and photo by Geoff Olson
On a six-week trip to Europe back in the eighties, I discovered I was a fiend for cathedrals. Each destination usually involved a trek from train station to cathedral to pub to hostel (not necessarily in that order). It made for a pleasing combination of the sacred and profane.
From the gothic stateliness of Notre Dame in Paris to the wedding cake opulence of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Europe is an open-air museum of huge Christian erections, so to speak. I marvelled at the medieval equivalents of NASA Moon missions – architectural projects that continued beyond the lives of the masons who began work on them.
Whether it be masonry and stained glass or reinforced steel and concrete, architecture stamps a cultures worldview onto the skyline. As mythologist Joseph Campbell once observed, when you approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest structure on the horizon. When you approach an 18th century town, the palace is the literal peak of power. In a modern city, the tallest structures are the office buildings, particularly financial institutions.
In Spain, I was struck by the entirely different feel of Moorish architecture, built when Southern Europe was under the sway of Islam. While premodern Christian churches strain your neck with architectural feats of verticality, Moorish structures hunker closer to the ground with courtyards, running water and garden beds. The sense of deity conjured up in the latter places isn’t so much a distant and faintly alarming authority as a divine presence in the here and now.
To tell the truth, I have never been a great believer in any of the sky god cults, as the late Gore Vidal dismissively described the three reigning monotheistic religions. But I can appreciate the will-to-beauty expressed in some of their finest works.
From its beginnings, Islam prohibited artistic recreations of people, animals and landscapes as competition with the first and greatest creator, Allah. But that doesn’t mean art was or is absent in Islamic architecture. The walls and crenellated arches of the 11th century palace fortress Alhambra in Granada, Spain are embossed with beautiful, elaborate patterns. (The word Arabesque means an ornamental design consisting of intertwined flowing lines.)
I recall conversing at the Alhambra with three quiet, but friendly, Muslim visitors in white smocks. One of the men tried to explain something to me about spirit and breath. In typically tourist fashion, I responded by asking to take their picture. They consented somewhat reluctantly and lowered their gaze for the shot. Representational imagery again.
And this is why satirical depictions of Allah and his prophet Mohammed are such a sensitive issue to many Muslims; it is taking representational imagery to the furthest limit of blasphemy.
“Bomb them, bomb them, keep bombing them, bomb them again!” screeched Fox News fixture Jeanine Pirro on January 10th, in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris three days earlier. The hyperventilating host of Justice With Judge Jeanine then introduced terrorism expert Steven Emerson, who claimed Birmingham is a no-go city for non-Muslims and that London police enforce Sharia law. Truth is a taffy-like substance to Fox News, but this was too much of a stretch even for Rupert Murdoch’s junk news factory. Emerson apologized for his statements shortly after.
Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, makes for ideological coats of many colours. There is about as much difference between mystical Sufism and fundamentalist Wahhabism and as there is between Unitarianism and the Westboro Baptist Church (the “God hates fags” crowd). Yet most news consumers would be hard pressed to tell the difference between Sunni and Shiite sects.
Across the world, moderate Muslims are at constant risk of getting seriously “othered” – lumped in with militant religious extremists who consider martyrdom the highest expression of their faith. The latter find sitting targets among those who consider insulting such faith to be the highest expression of their liberal press freedom.
In the Charlie Hebdo massacre, guilt lies squarely on the side of the assassins. Yet the magazine’s editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier went for reckless endangerment of his staff by green-lighting a number of inflammatory depictions of Muslims that were unredeemed by a shred of wit, artistry or cleverness. One cartoon from Charlie Hebdo portrayed a bearded, naked man in a turban, seen from a rear angle, with his genitals dangling and a large yellow star over his anus. The caption: “Mohammed: A star is born!”
As an editorial cartoonist, I wonder how any Muslim, fundamentalist or otherwise, would interpret such a cartoon as anything other than an attack on their culture or faith, to say nothing of some Islamophobic cartoons that have circulated in US media. One that comes to mind depicts a pregnant woman in a burqa with her belly exposed, in the form of a bomb (population bomb, get it?).
The Arab world is predominantly Muslim, and Arabic people are Semitic by definition. Cartoons of leering Jews with giant hooked noses and wild beards would be condemned as anti-Semitic in the western world, and rightly so. So why does that not hold for satirical depictions of Arabs?
As immigrants from former colonies of the west, Muslims are both cheap labour and cheap scapegoats when required. And when they are residents of their own land, convenient targets from the air. Being fodder for crass cartoons is just par for the course. (In my copy of Charlie Hebdo, cartoon Muslims are circled by flies.)
Needless to say, the “Je Suis Charlie” bandwagon left without me.
This is not to say there is no such thing as Islamic radicalism, and that’s what makes the hypocrisy of the west so stunning. The US and UK are staunch allies of Saudi Arabia, even though it has one the worst human rights records in the world. The theocratic petrostate holds public beheadings, treats women as chattel, makes conversion to Christianity a capital offence, and funds militant religious extremism across the Arab world.
Yet when Saudi King Abdullah died on January 23rd, Westminster Abbey lowered the British flag at half-mast out of respect for an unelected figure that presided over this backwards regime. Effusive praise from President Obama and other world leaders followed.
Islam has never been any one thing. While the rest of Europe was plunged into a literal and figurative darkness, 11th-century Seville and other cities in Spain had lit streets. Scholars kept the flame of Ancient Greece alive in Arabic translations. Muslims, Jews and Christians lived peacefully together until Spain was united under Catholic rule in 1492, and Jews were forced to convert to Christianity under the Inquisition.
And now it appears a new darkness is descending – one that profits bankers, arms merchants and political demagogues, to say nothing of blinkered ideologues from megachurches, mosques, media outlets, and university “terror studies” departments.
Yet I remember how those light, airy courtyards in the Alhambra spoke to me in a language older than words, as did the stained glass windows of cathedrals across Europe. I’m surely not the only religious doubter to have breathed deeply and felt a great calm in these places. Ah, the link between spirit and breath; in retrospect, I suspect this is what those three gentleman in white smocks were trying to explain to me.