DESTROYING SCULPTURES OF MUHAMMAD
By Dr. Daniel Pipes
This month, Denmark's police foiled a terrorist plot to murder Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew the strongest of the Muhammad pictures, prompting most of the country's newspapers to reprint his cartoon as an act of solidarity and a signal to Islamists that their threats and violence will not succeed.
This incident points to the Islamists' mixed success in curbing Western freedom of speech about Muhammad – think of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses or the Deutsche Oper's production of Mozart's Idomeneo. If threats of violence sometimes do work, they as often provoke, anger, and inspire resistance. A polite demarche can achieve more. Illustrating this, note two parallel efforts, dating from 1955 and 1997, to remove nearly-identical American courthouse sculptures of Muhammad.
In 1997, the Council on American-Islamic Relations demanded that part of a 1930s frieze in the main chamber of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. be sandblasted into oblivion, on the grounds that Islam prohibits representations of its prophet. The seven-foot high marble relief by Adolph Weinman depicts Muhammad as one of 18 historic lawgivers. His left hand holds the Koran in book form -- a jarring historical inaccuracy from the Muslim point of view -- and his right holds a sword.
In regard to the Supreme Court frieze depiction of Muhammad. Official Court information points out:
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, however, rejected CAIR's pressure, finding that the depiction "was intended only to recognize [Muhammad] … as an important figure in the history of law; it is not intended as a form of idol worship." Rehnquist only conceded that court literature should mention that the representation offends Muslim sensibilities. His decision met with riots and injuries in India.
In contrast, back in 1955, a campaign to censor a representation of Muhammad in another American court building did succeed. That would be the New York City-based courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department of the New York State Supreme Court. Built in 1902, it featured on its roof balustrade an eight-foot marble statue of "Mohammed" by Charles Albert Lopez as one of ten historic lawgivers. This Muhammad statue also held a Koran in his left hand and a scimitar in the right.
Though visible from the street, the identities of the lawgivers high atop the building were difficult to discern. Only with a general overhaul of the building in February, 1953, including its statues, did the public become aware of their identities. The Egyptian, Indonesian, and Pakistani Ambassadors to the United Nations responded by asking the U.S. Department of State to use its influence to have the Muhammad statue not renovated but removed.
Characteristically, the U.S. State Department dispatched two employees to convince New York City's Public Works Commissioner, Frederick H. Zurmuhlen, to accommodate the ambassadors. The court, Chief Clerk George T. Campbell, reported, "also got a number of letters from Mohammedans about that time, all asking the court to get rid of the statue." All seven appellate justices recommended to Zurmuhlen that he take down the statue.
Even though, as Time magazine put it, "the danger that any large number of New Yorkers would take to worshiping the statue was, admittedly, minimal," the ambassadors got their way. Zurmuhlen had the offending statue carted off to a storehouse in Newark, New Jersey. As Zurmuhlen figured out what to do with it, the Times reported, in 1955, the statue "has lain on its back in a crate for several months." Its ultimate disposition is unknown.
Then, rather than replace the empty pedestal on the court building roof, where Muhhamad no longer stood, Zurmuhlen had the nine remaining statues shifted around to disguise the empty space, with Zoroaster replacing Muhammad at the westerly corner spot. Over a half-century later, that is where matters remain at the courthouse.
Recalling these events of 1955 suggests several points. First, pressure by Muslims on the West to conform to Islamic customs predates the current Islamist era. Second, even when minimal numbers of Muslims lived in the West, such pressures could succeed. Finally, contrasting the parallel 1955 and 1997 episodes suggests that the earlier approach of ambassadors making polite representations – not high-handed demands backed up by angry mobs, much less terrorist plots – can be the more effective route.
This conclusion confirms my more general point – and the premise of the Islamist Watch project – that Islamists working quietly within the system achieve more than does ferocity and bellicosity. Ultimately, however, soft Islamism presents dangers as great as does violent Islamism.
© Daniel Pipes 2008
Originally Published in the Jerusalem Post, February 28, 2008
Republished with the Permission of Daniel Pipes
Reprinted from the Daniel Pipes Mailing List, February 28,
Article URL: http://www.danielpipes.org/article/5487
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Author or co-author of eighteen books, Dr. Pipes is a regular columnist for Front Page Magazine, the New York Sun, and the Jerusalem Post. His analyses of world trends and of forces and developments in the Middle East have appeared in numerous North American newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He frequently appears on American network television, as well as at universities and think tanks, to discuss the Middle East, Islam, and the Islamist threat to the U.S.A. and the West. He also has appeared on BBC and Al Jazeera, and has lectured in approximately twenty-five countries.
Dr. Pipes is a Polish-American Jew whose parents fled Poland in 1939, immigrated to the U.S.A., and assimilated well into
American society and culture. His father is Richard Pipes, an American historian specializing in Russian and Soviet history
and serving as Professor of History at Harvard University from 1950 until his retirement in 1996. During the Cold War, the
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