I confess to being something of an amateur when it comes to the religion of Islam, although I feel acquainted with it enough at this point to say it has a problem with violence, and its oft-bandied moniker as a “religion of peace” seems a bit misplaced when its most dedicated adherents make a habit of sawing people’s heads off and shooting cartoonists for drawing the wrong fellow. It seems fair to say Islam has a problem with violence, in a way that, say, Christianity does not: in the developed world, the most whack-job adherents of the Christian faith (if we might even label them as followers of Christ) are folks like the Westboro Baptist Church, who make it a habit of picketing soldiers’ funerals with signs announcing “God Hates Fags.” It’s rather a different kind of approach to extremist ideology: the funeral-goers may be offended, but at least they are not dead.
That Christianity has less of a violence problem is self-evident, but the point is still lost on some people: at The Guardian, Ian Black declared that, in regards to the religion’s resistance to images of the Prophet Muhammad, “Islam is not unique. Judaism forbids the use of ‘graven images’ and Christianity has at times frowned on visual representations of sacred figures, allowing only the cross to be depicted in churches.”
This is a paragraph so shockingly dimwitted in its appraisal of both Christianity and Islam, and the differences between the two, that it is hard to know where to begin. I cannot readily speak for Judaism—the last time I attended a Jewish service was at a buddy’s Bar Mitzvah well over a decade ago—but I can say that Black’s appraisal of Christianity is, quite literally, total nonsense. For starters, Christianity since the sixteenth century has been a fractured religion, particularly on the subject of iconography; it does not really make sense to speak of Christianity “frowning” upon the use of imagery, unless you are willing to clarify just which branch or denomination of Christianity is doing this frowning. Catholicism is well-known for its use of crucifixes, for instance, although you can find them in Lutheran and Anglican churches, along with some other denominations. But you’re not apt to find a corpus amongst Baptists or Presbyterians, and again here Black’s characterization is frankly bizarre: it would be a profound understatement to say that the Southern Baptist Conference, for instance, “frowns” upon the artistic customs generally associated with Catholicism.
Let’s Really Compare Christianity with Islam
Having established himself as an unserious commentator on matters religious, Black does his readers another disservice by acting as if there is something comparable between Islam’s and Christianity’s various respective approaches to imagery. There is not, for the simple reason that even the most zealous devotees of the most orthodox branches of Christianity are not, in twenty-first-century developed countries, killing each other over dogmatic variances. There are no periodic news reports of members of the Reformed Church in America rolling up to the offices of the Diocese of Arlington to publicly execute those they believe guilty of sacrilege. Christianity does not have a spotless record, yet one does not have to fear for one’s life if one criticizes or even openly mocks the Pope, Billy Graham, or even Christ Himself. “Islam is not unique,” Black says. Well, in one respect it kind of is. Media outlets are cravenly censoring images related to one particular religion, and it’s not Christianity or Judaism.
None of which is to say that all Muslims condone or celebrate such violence. They plainly do not. Yet to pretend that Islam does not have an issue with violent action—to act as if many of the fundamental tenets of Islamic faith do not authorize and even encourage violence—is pure folly. Islam has a violence problem. This does not mean we have to get rid of Islam, or treat Muslims with hostility, but it means we can no longer indulge in the kind of uninformed and cowardly false equivalencies peddled by commentators such as Black.