A Publication of The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College
by Mark Silk
At a lunchtime forum on free speech and blasphemy in the Trinity chapel February 5, a mostly student audience was told there would be a vote to determine whether to display some of the cartoons that provoked the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Three faculty panelists then proceeded to explore the relevant legal, Islamic, and journalistic issues.
Prof. Renny Fulco of Public Policy and Law distinguished the broad protections given to offensive speech in the United States compared to more restrictive policies in Europe. Despite this, European newspapers generally published one or more of the cartoons, while almost no American papers did.
“There is nothing in constitutional law that would prohibit the publication of these cartoons,” Fulco said. “What is so interesting is that in U.S., there is a considerable amount of self-censorship.”
Islamicist Mareike Koertner, a visiting professor of religion, then emphasized that nothing in the Koran prohibits depictions of the Prophet Muhammad or figurative art in general. Although beginning around 1500 Muhammad was generally portrayed with his face covered, well into the 20th century Muslim artists felt free to represent his facial features, she said.
What has changed the understanding of such representation has been the increased influence of Wahhabism, the Puritanical form of Sunni Islam that arose in the Arabian Peninsula two centuries ago and which Saudi funding has spread throughout the Muslim world in recent decades. Even so, said Koertner, the first legal prohibition against depicting Muhammad did not occur until 2001, when a fatwa was issued by a Taliban religious authority prior to the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhist statues in Bamiyan.
Greenberg Center associate director Andrew Walsh turned to the history of satirical cartoons dealing with religion in the American press, displaying a number of hard-edged examples from the 19th century, including several ugly attacks on the Catholic church by Thomas Nast.
“The American media comes to regret this, partly from commercial and technological reasons,” said Walsh. “Writing for a comprehensive, single local audience, and concerned not to offend local constituencies, they walk a rhetoric of responsibility and respectability.”
A lively discussion ensued. “The only way we can protect everybody’s right to practice is to keep the public sphere neutral,” said Language and Culture Studies professor Jean-Marc Kehres in defense of the French concept of laïcité. Mazin Khalil, president of the Muslim Student Association, pointed to hadith – post-Koranic traditions – used to justify prohibitions on representing Muhammad. “Ambiguity is built into the system,” he said.
At the end, the audience voted by a large margin to be shown the cartoons.