Fresco Fiasco

I read in the Times (29th June 2001) that some Muslims in Italy are calling for the destruction of a medieval fresco in the Cathedral of Bologna on the grounds that it gives offence to Muslims. This is an extraordinary demand and raises many issues. The report from the Times is worth quoting in full.

Muslims say fresco must be destroyed

From Richard Owen, Rome

Muslim leaders in Italy are demanding the removal or destruction of a priceless 15th century fresco in Bologna that they say offends Islam by showing the Prophet Muhammad being cast into the flames of Hell. 

The row over The Last Judgment by Giovanni da Modena, in Bologna Cathedral, could threaten the already strained relations between the Roman Catholic Church and members of Italy’s Muslim community. 

The recently established Union of Italian Muslims has written to the Pope and Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the outspoken conservative Archbishop of Bologna, complaining that the fresco shows clearly Muhammad, the founder of Islam, among those condemned to burn in eternal flames. 

The protesters said that Giovanni da Modena had shown Muhammad being “thrown into hell, completely naked, with a snake wrapped around his body and a demon next to him about to torture him”. They said that Muslims had never depicted Jesus or the Virgin Mary on the walls of a mosque. 

In the letter they called for the “barbarous” fresco to be removed from the wall of the Bolognini chapel, inside the 14th-century cathedral of San Petronio. 

Adel Smith, the head of the Union of Italian Muslims, appealed to the many thousands of Italian Muslim residents of Bologna to attend a rally outside the main mosque in Rome today. 

Anti-Muslim feeling in northern Italy was inflamed last year when Cardinal Biffi claimed that a Muslim invasion was threatening the values of Christian Europe. He said that Muslim immigrants often failed to integrate into Italian society because they were determined to stick to their own ways. He urged the Government to encourage counter-immigration from Roman Catholic countries. 

A spokesman for the cardinal said yesterday that it was “absurd to suddenly discover after 600 years that our most famous treasure is offensive to the Islamic religion”. 

There are half a million legally registered Muslims — many from North Africa — and about another 500,000 are thought to be living illegally in Italy. 

The Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi, which is now part of the Centre Right Government led by Silvio Berlusconi, has campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform and has called for the defence of Christian society against outside influences. It has also held marches to protest against the building of mosques. 

In Bologna Nabil Baioni, head of the moderate Islamic Cultural Centre, said that not all Muslims in the city shared the view that the fresco should be removed. “I have lived here for 40 years and have never noticed the image before now,” he said. “It’s rather difficult to see anyway. I think this Smith represents only himself.” 

The Union of Italian Muslims says that it has a large following and that the painting is unacceptable to Muslims throughout the world. In its letter to the Pope it said: “It constitutes an even graver offence to the religion than that caused by Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.” 

Signor Smith said that the problem had started in the Middle Ages with Dante, Italy’s national poet, who had placed Muhammad in the ninth circle of Hell in his Inferno. He demanded that the teaching of Dante be suspended in Italian schools in immigrant areas. 

Don Oreste Leonardi, prefect of the sacristy of Bologna Cathedral, said that the identification of the figure in the fresco in tiny Gothic writing was “so small that it is almost invisible”. 

He said that the fresco, painted in 1415, was one of Bologna’s greatest treasures, and the artist had merely reproduced the popular medieval vision of Hell.

 Now it is possible that Adel Smith and his friends are genuinely offended by the fresco. But why pick on one or two items of western art when so much of it is offensive to Islam? Do they seriously think that one of the masterpieces of Christian art is about to be destroyed because after 600 years some Muslims are suddenly upset by it?  Surely not. And are the Italians about to suspend the teaching of Dante and the Divine Comedy – unquestionably one of the greatest works of European literature – because Muslims are offended by it? Hardly. So what are Smith and the Union of Italian Muslims really trying to achieve?

 I believe Smith and his group have a number of closely related objectives. The first is to increase tension between the Muslims and Christians in Italy. By so doing they will move closer to their second objective: to persuade the Muslim community that they are under attack from an alien culture and to unite against the common enemy. What better way to achieve this than to work up the opposition into a rage against them? As tension increases and the reaction   begins Smith and his friends will be able to present themselves as defenders and spokesmen for the oppressed. Demagogues and rabble-rousers have been acting thus since time began.

The letters to the Pope and the Archbishop of Bologna, and the Press releases concerning them, sound like the work of an experienced activist. Smith clearly knows that in order to gain the attention of the press it is necessary to be controversial. As the old saying goes: “No mess, no press”. I am sure Smith has achieved exactly the effect he wanted: inflamed passions on both sides – on the Muslim side by drawing attention to a medieval insult to Islam that few Muslims were even aware of, and on the Christian side by provoking a reaction to what they will see as an attempt by rabid fundamentalists to repeat in Italy what they achieved in Afghanistan with the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. If his plan succeeds Smith will be able to present the Italian Muslims as the innocent victims of the resulting backlash with him, of course, at their head.

But despite my grave suspicions it is nevertheless worth considering the specific issues raised by Smith’s protest.

Firstly, he argues that Islam has never insulted Christianity in this way: “Muslims had never depicted Jesus or the Virgin Mary on the walls of a mosque”. But this is quite disingenuous. Muslims have never depicted Jesus or Mary not out of sympathy or sensitivity to the feelings of Christians but because our religion forbids the depiction of the human body in art. In fact many Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the divine Son of Allah, and furthermore, believe in the Trinity – beliefs specifically prohibited by the Qur’an. Could not Christians therefore reasonably claim that the Qur’an is an insult to Christianity and should be destroyed?

Is it then reasonable for Muslims to demand the destruction of objects and works of art (mainly Christian) that we find offensive? And if so, how offensive must they be? Should we urge the destruction of all of the great masterpieces of Christian art because we view them as blasphemous? Having seen the outrage caused in Europe by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan ­­­– which were neither Christian nor European in origin, and which few if any Europeans had ever heard of prior to their destruction – can we reasonably expect any reaction other than total outrage the first time any Muslim damages a painting or statue of the crucifixion? But if Adel Smith and his friends get their way such things will surely come to pass. And we can expect the reaction to be swift and violent. Even western secularists would be incensed by such an outrage to western civilisation.

By inflaming passions on both sides Smith and the Christian reactionaries are working together to create a backlash against Muslims in Italy.

This raises an alarming possibility. Is Smith actually genuine? Is he in fact a Muslim? How did he come to learn of this insult “so small that it is almost invisible”? Is he perhaps an agent provocateur funded by reactionary Christian forces in league with the extremist Umberto Bossi, or Cardinal Biffi, Archbishop of Bologna?

It has been truly said that “nothing seems quite as absurd as someone else’s religion.” Of course Jesus was not divine. But many Christians would see it as blasphemy to say so. Somehow we have to reach an understanding that will enable all of us, Muslims, Christians and secularists alike, to live together in harmony. This means that we must all become a little less sensitive to minor insults ­­­–  and even to major ones uttered in the privacy of the home, sung in church, recited in the mosque, or written in one another’s holy books.

We must never forget that “one man’s belief is another man’s blasphemy”. I don’t want to see Christians burning copies of the Qur’an because of its blasphemy against Christianity. But I know that there are those in western society working towards that very end. Adel Smith and those like him are doing their work.

What can moderate Muslims do to counter this menace? First, I think we must stand up and be counted. Why should we remain quiet when the fundamentalists claim to speak for all Muslims? They do not. But unfortunately the media seem only interested in reporting the actions of a few fundamentalists and extremists. The majority of Muslims living in the west do so from choice. We live here because, frankly, we prefer it here. However much we may deride the lack of faith of the average westerner very few of us, I believe, would like to live in a state like Afghanistan. So why do we remain silent when fanatics call, for example, for the introduction of the Shari‘a Law for Muslims living in the west? As a minority living in secular democracies Muslims have everything to gain from the separation of religious and political institutions. We are free to practise our religion. A Christian backlash could make that virtually impossible. 

Adel Smith and his extremist friends do not speak for Europe’s Muslims. We must say so loud and clear.

J-L Ibrahim     
3 July 2001