Monday, September 8, 2014

Cartoons of the Prophet MUHAMMAD

MUHAMMAD: THE LAST PROPHET is a 2002 film produced by RichCrest Animation Studios, now simply Crest Animation Productions, based out of Burbank.  It first was shown in Turkey on November 8, 2002 before premiering in America two years later, on November 14, 2004.
The production background of this film is impressive for several reasons.  First, while it was produced in a fashion to satisfy both religious scholars and the prospective family audience, the director Richard Rich is not a Muslim but a Mormon.  Rich is a member of the group of animators like Don Bluth and Tim Burton who worked on Disney's FOX AND THE HOUND and the adaptation of Lloyd Alexander's BLACK CAULDRON but later left the Mose House to try their hands at independent production.  Bluth of course became the most successful with films like THE SECRET OF NIMH, THE LAND BEFORE TIME, and ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN, but this film in particular fits within the spectrum of work produced by that generation of artists.  Note the similarities in the shape and size of eyes in the faces of speaking characters, the fluidity of movement, and the subtlety of outlines on foreground imagery; it is obviously indebted to the director's earlier work on another religiously-themed cartoon, 1980's THE SMALL ONE, the short film about a boy who gives a beloved donkey to Joseph and Mary so they might finish their journey into the city of Bethlehem.  Consider the following juxtaposition:
The comparison to SMALL ONE also holds true in the sense of narrative.  Islam forbids the visualization of the Prophet, so the film makers create a fictional eyewitness narrator to the story.  In the 1980 film, the Nativity is re-told by a small boy.  Here, the narrative history of Islam's founding and a summary of the Five Pillars are created in a way so that the other characters are able to effectively act against the persona non grata Prophet, borrowing the narrative device first utilized by Moustapha Akkad in THE MESSAGE (1977) with Anthony Quinn.  As a result, both The Council of Al-Azhar Al-Sharief Islamic Research Academy and The Supreme Islamic Shiite Council (Lebanon) have granted religious approval to the film.

Obviously the idea of making a children's film for Muslims that is intentionally blasphemous to the religion would be financially suicidal.  But there is a certain dialogue that emerges from a discussion of 'cartoon representations of Muhammad' that is far more reaching.
What I refer to, of course, is the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, an episode quite unlike the animated film's release.  Here, Danish artists claimed they intentionally caricatured Muhammad to critique both artistic self-censorship and the Danish public discourse about Islam.  The violent reaction by some led to a discussion on American cable news about the notion that Muslims were too backward to respect the notion of free press and speech, a rather senseless and racist discussion that effectively lacked any socio-polital-economic dimension in regards to Denmark and how it respects both its growing Muslim population and also foreign Islamist governments in the wider realm of international politics.
Denmark is a NATO member nation in which 3.7% of the population is Muslim, hailing mostly from Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq, as well as Palestinians.  There is no Church-State separation in Denmark, so Islam is disadvantaged officially despite tax benefits in comparison to the Church of Denmark.
The Danish Constitution addresses speech in the following method:
Anyone is entitled to in print, writing and speech to publish his or hers thoughts, yet under responsibility to the courts. Censorship and other preventive measures can never again be introduced. (§ 77)
However, the penal code does also target child pornography, libel, blasphemy, and hate speech/racism.
In the midst of the 2005 debacle, Christopher Hitchens became one of the more vocal commentators, developing the idea that the issues was one of a fundamentally free press.  His piece STAND UP FOR DENMARK!, written at that time for, said:
Within a short while—this is a warning—the shady term "Islamophobia" is going to be smuggled through our customs. Anyone accused of it will be politely but firmly instructed to shut up, and to forfeit the constitutional right to criticize religion. By definition, anyone accused in this way will also be implicitly guilty. Thus the "soft" censorship will triumph, not from any merit in its argument, but from its association with the "hard" censorship that we have seen being imposed over the past weeks.
There are several issues at hand to address here.  First it would seem appropriate to address what Hitchens mistakenly calls 'censorship'.  What always defines censorship is the role the State plays in sponsoring it.  Here, Hitchens is intentionally mis-construing American First Amendment law with European-wide hate speech laws.  Although much of the rage for protestors was focused on the idea of transgressing a known religious edict, the true issue to address is whether the cartoons themselves qualified as not blasphemy but hate speech.
Edward Said long ago formulated in ORIENTALISM that the Western portrayal of the vague notion of the 'East' is dependent less on reality and more on prejudice and assumption of sexual, ethical, technical, and cultural deficiency.  Reza Aslan wrote also for Slate at that time:
[M]ost Muslims have objected so strongly because these cartoons promote stereotypes of Muslims that are prevalent throughout Europe…[W]hile in Europe and the United States the row over the cartoons has been painted as a conflict between secular democratic freedoms and arcane religious dogma,…it's another manifestation of the ongoing ethnic and religious tensions that have been simmering beneath the surface of European society for decades.
The real issue truly, which Hitchens also grasped at this time considering his earlier association with Dr. Said, was rather whether the cartoons promoted racism or hate against an ethnic minority in the same manner anti-Semitic cartoons or derogatory imagery of Africans promoted hate throughout modern history.  The question at hand is not whether the cartoons insult the Muslim prophet but rather if they stereotype Muslims.  Said himself identified the Orientalist vision of Islam and Muslims as a companion in logic to anti-Semitism.  Take these two cartoon examples:

What we have are two images that share a great deal.  The notion of the bomb in the Danish cartoon is exactly alike in both intent and purpose as the image of Soviet Russia.  Both are based around a suggestion of coordinated religious conspirators undermining security and safety on a society-wide level; with the Jewish imagery there is a certain suggestion of radical political Leftism, an artistic representation of Nazi anti-Communism.  However, the Danish cartoon is, by contrast, not suggesting an effort towards radical Leftism; in fact, it is the opposite, a suggestion of a Rightward orientation to Sharia law.
This is the beginning of stereotyping, the objectification of an Other as the hindrance towards social development and stability.  Each image is derived from a set of Western European prejudices against the East, be it the Pale of Settlement or the Balkan and East Asian countries.  The use of shadow around the eyes on both faces, the angular and size relations of the nose to the beard, ethnicity-specific head covering, and the suggestion of future violence (the Jewish whip, again the Muslim bomb) are all extremely similar.  By definition, anti-Semitism is defined by a massive set of assumptions about Jews, and so it is with these anti-Muslim cartoons.
It is simply absurd the claim either cultural ignorance or vindication by the notion of a free press when the debate is framed as one about incitement to racial and religious prejudice.  The reality, as Aslan makes clear in his piece, is that Islam has a diverse set of traditions in its different sects about how they portray their Prophet.  
As for both of the biopics of Muhammad mentioned, there is a great discussion to be had about how Muslim and non-Muslim audiences react to these films.  Irish film historian Mark Cousins gives special mention to the Anthony Quinn film in his documentary series THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY for several reasons.  First, the technique that the director utilized was an original one for
its time, a technique rooted in breaking the third wall.  In this sense, the film is concerned not just with the notion of story and its narrative but also considerations about the nature of the Quran as a text in a postmodern context rarely seen in films before or since.  Secondly, it was shot with both English and Arabic-speaking crews, making two films for the price of one production.  Finally, it is a film that reaches to great heights in terms of production values, reaching for the same level of cinematographic excellence seen in films like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.  The opening images of three figures riding horseback in the dessert is directly indebted to David Lean's film in this sense, but the unique way that it portrays male bodies and behaviors.  There is a long and complexly interwoven history in film regarding imagery of the African and Asian male in cinema.  Consider for example the Disney film ALADIN, built upon stereotypical visions of Arabs.  It is in comparing the three of these films a unique spectrum is developed around scholarship and discourse about Islam and Muslims that is both more productive and far less derogatory than the type Hitchens proposes, based on pure scorn and a sense of Western superiority.

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