Cyber-Iconclasm and Wikipedia
On Wednesday, Fox News reported that some Muslims have started an online petition calling on Wikipedia to remove images depicting the Prophet Muhammed:
"I request all brothers and sisters to sign this petitions so we can tell Wikipedia to respect the religion and remove the hillustrations," the creator of the petition at The Petition Site asks.
Opposition among Muslims to images of Muhammad has its roots in the prohibition of "graven images" in the Ten Commandments, but has varied over time.
"Islamic teaching has traditionally discouraged representation of humans, particularly Muhammad, but that doesn't mean it's nonexistent," Notre Dame history professor Paul M. Cobb told the New York Times. "Some of the most beautiful images in Islamic art are manuscript images of Muhammad."
The images are included in Wikipedia's biographical entry about Muhammed. According to the New York Times, Wikipedia is refusing to remove them:
A Frequently Asked Questions page explains the site’s polite but firm refusal to remove the images: “Since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with the goal of representing all topics from a neutral point of view, Wikipedia is not censored for the benefit of any particular group.”
This is exactly the right position for Wikipedia to take. Once it grants a "particular group" veto power over its content, it will forfeit whatever claims to objectivity and credibility it currently has.
Muslims certainly have the right to criticize Wikipedia for displaying the images of Muhammed, yet their protests contain a glaring irony. For the fact is that the very images they condemn as un-Islamic" were actually produced by Muslims and published in Islamic texts. According to Fox, "(a)ll four images on the English-language Wikipedia page are rather lovely Persian and Ottoman miniatures from the 14th through 16th centuries."
Contrary to the petitioners, there is nothing inherently un-Islamic about producing images of the Prophet Muhammed or any other individual. The fact that many Muslims now believe otherwise is just one example of the pernicious influence of Wahhabism: the puritanical, extremist brand of Islam that arose in Arabia in the late 18th century and has been propagated worldwide by Saudi Arabia.
A fanatical iconclasm is one of the central tenets of Wahhabism. The rise of this ideology, according to Stephen Schwartz, "saw the destruction of many famous manuscripts, books, and artistic works, including pictures of the prophet, on the argument that any depiction of living beings was idolatry". The impact of Wahhabism on Islamic art and architecture has been little short of disastrous. The petition against Wikipedia is a sad echo of this legacy.
The call for the removal of the Muhammed images from Wikipedia is just a small example of how a Saudi-sponsored ideology of hate and intolerance has led many Muslims to reject the rich cultural and artistic legacy of their own civilization. This development has done far more harm to Islam than any act committed by outside forces.