Destroying Sculptures of Muhammad
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
[J.P. title: "The power of 'soft' versus violent Islamism"]
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 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 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.
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 ferocity and bellicosity. Ultimately, soft Islamism presents dangers as great as does violent Islamism.
Feb. 28, 2008 update: Even in the heyday of European power, there remained an awareness of Muslim sensitivity about Muhammad. French playwrite Beaumarchais caught this a speeh delieverd by the title character in his 1785 play, Le Mariage de Figaro (scene 5, act 3):
The front panel of Sound Vision's brochure.
The front panel of Sound Vision's brochure.
This switch in tactics results from the successful effort, led by the Center for Security Policy's American Law for American Courts initiative, to ban the Shari'a from U.S. courtrooms. The brochure continues:
Sound Vision then soars into flights of fancy about the biography of Muhammad, applying twenty-first-century mores to a seventh-century figure; note especially the bizarre and inaccurate references to "a mass peace movement" and "not more than six days."
Comment: Islamists will say absolutely anything to advance their cause.
Jan. 10, 2015 update: In a curious article, "A Statue of Muhammad, Taken Down Years Ago," David W. Dunlap returns to the topic of the Muhammad statue in the New York Times, expressing his great relief that it was taken down from the Appellate Division Courthouse sixty years earlier. Two points from the dhimmi article:
1. Noting that the statue was last seen in 1983, "lying on its side in a stand of tall grass somewhere in New Jersey," Dunlap adds: "If the statue is still out there, however, now would not seem to be the moment to uncover it."
2. Noting that for Muslims, "depictions of the prophet are an affront," his article includes this statement in parentheses: "For [this] reason, The New York Times has chosen not to publish photographs of the statue with this article."
Reader comments (744) on this item
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes