April 20, 2017
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CAN ALL BE FORGIVEN? Art, Sufism and Radical Islam
by Doniphan Blair
Longtime San Francisco resident, Robert Crumb poked holes in plenty of pieties (hippie culture as well as all others) before moving to France, where he traded a couple of drawing notebooks for a villa and fraternized with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. (The drawing also skewers filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, of Arab descent, coincidentally, who directed 'Fritz the Cat'  about a Crumb character, over which they have ownership disputes.) illo: R. Crumb
I MYSELF WOULD NEVER BLASPHEME
someone else's god. Although I am an atheist, I believe devoutly in god (small "g") as a powerful cultural trope, a massive metaphor for nature, morality and consciousness—which creates Art, capital "a"!
Before religion, there were poets and artists. In point of fact, prophets are just poets with a powerful metaphor, god, in their word arsenal.
While not a Sufi, I became enamored of those Islamic mystics and their elevated understanding of art, love and transcendence while traveling in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan when I was 17. That was in 1972, when Sufism was still big in much of the Middle East and the disciples of Sayd Qutb and the murderers of Anwar Sadat had not yet driven it underground.
During my 7000 miles of Islam, I encountered only hospitality, openmindedness and mystical insight—all Sufi attributes. Yes there was one knife to my throat but that was while negotiating a fare with a Kabul cabby at 3 am—far too late, he evidently thought, for such haggling.
Another Sufi attribute is humor. Sufis are thought to have been the jesters in Islamic courts, a tradition later imported, along with romantic poetry, Greek philosophy and the number zero, by the West. One of the most famous Sufi humor artists, claimed by many countries but mostly Turkey, is Nasruddin, who supposedly lived in the 13th century.
One of his tales has him laying down for a nap only to be disturbed by children playing outside his window. Coming up with a scheme, Nasruddin opens his window and addresses them:
One of the fiercest examples of the humor winning-in-the-end theme in the Memorial Compilation for the Charlie Massacre making the rounds on the Internet—unfortunately, it's unsigned. illo: Unknown
"Children, what are you doing playing here when they are giving away free figs in the market?" As the children scamper off and Nasruddin turns back toward his bed, he is seized by another, more powerful notion:
"What am I doing going to sleep when they are giving away free figs in the market?" Such is the power of metaphor.
While no one, not even the most extreme Islamist, could function without the ability to adjust the meaning of metaphors—"You are the chair of this meeting, Abu Bakr." "What, you are going to sit on me?"—some take words extremely literally.
The beauty of murderous fanatics—if they can be said to have a single such attribute—is they revere art and metaphor so highly, they risk their lives and their movement's reputation to destroy it. Though they kill artists as well as innocents in the process, notably Jews who have lived in France since the 4th century, they force us to revere art ever higher.
Indeed, just four days after the January 7th assassination of seven cartoonists at the offices of the humor magazine Charlie Hebdo (Charlie referencing Charlie Brown and/or Charles de Gaulle; "hebdo" meaning weekly) plus four Jews, at the Kosher Supermarket, and two Muslims (the policeman and copy editor working at Charlie), the streets of Paris where clogged to the choking point with almost two million people, plus another two million elsewhere in France.
"There was no shouting, no pushing, people just waited patiently to join the march," I was told by Clara Bellino, a San Francisco musician, originally from France, who participated. "Some people were crying; others were singing 'Imagine'."
"[It] was very moving," she continued by email. "It also served to renew my commitment to stand up to ignorance. France and Charlie Hebdo have long stood for values that are important to all of us to coexist peacefully."
Selling over five million copies (almost 100 times the regular print run, proceeds going to victims' families), Charlie Hebdo's commemorative issue shows 'All Is Forgiven' above a crying Muslim man holding the Charlie solidarity sign; it has been interpreted as another blasphemous image of Muhammad forgiving the cartoonists, an inverted male genitalia, even more blasphemous, or a Sufi-esque message of redemption—still more blasphemous! illo: Renald 'Luz' Luzier
"Having sacred personal beliefs is one thing, imposing them on others is another. What is sacred is that we respect each others' rights to choose and freedom of speech. I hope the solidarity we experienced in the streets of Paris and from countries around the world continues."
As Ms Bellino undoubtedly knows, her art—music—would be prohibited under a radical Islamic Shari'a state—not to mention her gender.
Unfortunately, for the residents of democratic societies—especially those of us far from the controversy here in California, we are often jaded, bored and confused. On one hand, we are hog-tied by politically-correct peer pressure, which inhibits that fierce Gallic wit; on the other, art is so free, nothing is able to shock us out of our lethargy anymore. Those two factors make it hard to dig down past the pieties to what is so deeply troubling us, perhaps loss of love or human time, or guilt over living in paradise.
Despite our supposed liberalism, there were no "Je Suis Charlie" marches in San Francisco or Oakland. And there were no marches here or in New York, London or Paris, in March 2001, after the Taliban dynamited the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyon, Afghanistan.
"Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people," predicted the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine in 1821. 113 years later, the Nazis proved him dead right, torching his work plus that of other artists they opposed.
Oddly enough, the Nazis continued to publish his poems, under the byline anonymous, while Hermann Goering scoured Europe for paintings and Hitler promoted opera, admittedly mostly Wagner.
Today's radical Islamists, however, advocate destroying all art except their own propaganda, a truly spectacular transgression in the degradation of the human enterprise.
They draw this misguided belief from Muhammad's destruction of the idols of Mecca's many temples and Islam's subsequent prohibition of human likenesses, understandable in the 7th century, as societies tried to make the tricky transition from matriarchal polytheism to patriarchal monotheism.
But it was adhered to only by Sunnis—the Shi'a never signed on. Indeed, Persian Shi'a artists went on to develop their spectacular "miniature" style full of figures which became popular across Central Asia.
'Ha, ha, ha, this one IS funny' reads the contribution of Spain's Santy Gutierrez to the cartoonists' Memorial Compilation. illo: S. Gutierrez
The Sufis came to dominate the arts of Islam around the 13th century, first with poetry, following the titans Rumi and Hafez, but eventually music, dance, carving, calligraphy, architecture and painting. But being mostly Sunnis, they rarely did portraiture.
Nevertheless, I saw a 12th century painting of Muhammad's mother giving birth to him, in the Metropolitan Museum of New York's massive Islamic art wing in 2004, and almost all the Sunni Sultans of the Ottoman Empire sat for royal portraits.
Of course, today's most radical Sunni group, ISIL, uses human imagery aplenty in their beheading videos and new glossy magazine, al-Dabiq. Ironically, while they forbid the art of other cultures, they appropriate not only all the West's military, communication and transport technology but its film, music and graphic styles.
Evidently, they haven't read their Nasruddin, whose self-effacing story proves that the metaphor is not the thing; the map is not the territory; and, certainly, the killing of people does not kill their ideas.
In fact, the war of ideas raging across Islam today is not so much against the West, although that is part of it, or Sunni versus Shi'a, although that is also a factor, but literalist fundamentalists against Sufism, the Islamic tradition of art, mysticism and tolerance.
Ahmed Rahma's cartoon, published on aljezeera.net, seems to express visually—as cartoons so beautifully do—the sorrow of the Arab authority who has to keep artists in jail and have atrocities committed in the name of his religion. illo: Ahmed Rahma
Muhammad Wahhab, who developed the Wahhabism, which still runs Saudi Arabia and forms the foundation of modern radicalism, emerged in the mid-1700s, long before the Europeans colonized the Middle East. While they are also dedicated to exterminating the Shi'a side of Islam, their fight is first and foremost against the tolerant Sufis who came to dominate Sunnism, which is the vast majority of Islam, from the Age of Rumi until just recently.
This is not a war of civilizations but within a civilization against a very hard right wing recommending a reversion to totalitarian tribalism. It is not surprising that they take humor dead seriously.
But humor can not be so easily eliminated. It is undoubtedly one of the first art forms, emerging alongside poetry, which it resembles in concept and word play, shortly after the arrival of grammatical language itself somewhere in the last 100,000 years.
The notion that there could be any science, technology or creature comforts without humor's commentary, entertainment and psychological benefit is absurd.
Many moderate Muslims and well as Western conservatives, like columnist David Brook, say, "Je ne suis Charlie," insisting the cynical French cartoonists went too far and that good taste prohibits sophomoric statements not to mention hate speech.
Of course, this is disproven by another recent comedy-versus-violence story, "The Interview" North Korean imbroglio, which led theater owners to book a low-brow film which would have gone straight to Netflix.
Other Muslims leaders and individuals insist that Europe already has prohibitions against Holocaust denial, racism and sexism, so why shouldn't the prophet of a major religion be similarly protected?
While it has always been everyone's self-evident right to appropriate any technology they find useful, the extremist notion of borrowing everything but allowing nothing is absurd. illo: Doniphan Blair
Alas, MAJOR is the operative word. Since the origin of consciousness, sarcasm has been how the more female and intellectual half of society skewered the more macho and military half. Indeed, most people in the current round of cartoon protests sweeping the Islamic world use humor and sarcasm to let off steam and attack—metaphorically—their opponents.
In fact, many of France's best known comics are of Muslim origin, paralleling the frequency of Jewish comics in the US (also involved is the comedic formula of injury + time = humor).
Shame on the all the burgesses who swear it's safer to cave when threatened. Shame on Noam Chomsky for calling the West's position hypocritical. Shame on Californians for not recognizing the threat to art, which is central to all human life but especially those of us living in the world's biggest film, television and music producing state.
Evidently, we haven't fully cognized the Art War which was initiated when the Taliban blew up the majestic Bamiyon Buddhas.
But the Charlie cartoonists—Jean "Cabu" Cabut, Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Maris, Michel Renaud, Bernard "Tignous" Verlhac and Georges Wolinski—certainly did.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Jan 22, 2015 - 03:13 AM