What are religious sensitivities

At the moment it has become quiet with outbreaks of violence as a result of caricatures in the religious area, with Mohammed caricatures. Hubertus Lutterbach explores the question of what causes the different religious sensitivity to pain in Christianity and Islam and what a Christian attitude could look like.

The caricature of Muhammad with a turban as a bomb is unforgettable. In 2005 it led to violent protests among Muslims around the world. A bounty was placed on the draftsman Kurt Westergaard.
The first issue of "Charlie Hebdo" after the Paris attack on the editors of the satirical magazine in January 2015 - in turn an act of retaliation for the previous graphic insults of the prophet - shows the prophet who the three assassins from Paris meet in paradise and who on them her question about the promised 72 virgins answers: They would not meet because they were already walking around the houses with the guys from Charlie Hebdo [from the perspective of the satirical magazine with the actual martyrs]. Here, too, there followed worldwide unrest with all kinds of violence and violent threats against the cartoonists.

Caricatures of Muhammad, Bounty and Violence

Again and again the caricaturists tackle Christianity and its representatives in a sometimes attacking manner. Remember Pope Benedict XVI, who was shown in the "Titanic" with his white papal robe with yellow incontinence spots on the front and brown excretory spots on the back - an allusion to the Vatileaks affair, in which important documents disappeared from the Vatican in an unclear way.
The artist Martin Kippenberger created his "Frog on the Cross", which found a prominent place in the Bolzano Art Museum. The reaction in both cases: brief public discussion up to some verbal indignation.

Why do Muslim and Christian believers react differently to visual attacks on their religious representatives?

Since no new Mohammed cartoons have appeared in the last twelve months that Muslims experience as painful and offensive, this currently calm atmosphere is used to reflect on why Muslim and Christian believers respond so differently to the graphic attacks against their religious ones Representatives respond.

The identification of image and prophet

From the point of view of art and cultural history it should be emphasized that most Muslims and Muslims do not distinguish between the image and the prophet or between the image of the prophet and his body in their perception of images of the prophet. So they see the caricature of the prophet as identical to the prophet himself. They identify the satirical drawing of the prophet with the body of the prophet. And it is not uncommon for them to identify themselves with the prophet, so that in this way they also suffer the pain on their own body that they see at the mercy of the prophet.

Painful identification with the pictorial insult: When an attack on the divine is experienced as a direct attack on the religious community.

In view of such a perception, every satirical representation of the prophet is tantamount to human manipulation of the holy prophet and thus his abuse. From the perspective of most Muslim believers, a satirical presentation of the Prophet is nothing other than an encroachment on the divine that man is never entitled to - and consequently on the religious community that is attached to him. In this context, the art historian Horst Bredekamp points out, taking into account the history of European religion, that the “collective murder of artists because they produced images is a novelty”.

The scope of the monotheistic ban on images

The distinction between a drawn person and the person himself - regardless of whether it is a secular or a holy person - has been laboriously developed in Western culture over centuries with recourse to Greek philosophy. Even if pictures show people, we do not consider them to be identical to the figures shown. That is precisely why we can give pictures and sculptures a life of their own. They work in an autonomous way, in the free space of art and imagination.

A different understanding of images and art in Western culture

In order not to let the question of the relationship between God and his pictorial representation arise in the first place, the monotheistic religions advocated the prohibition of images: You should not make an image of God because there can be no God next to me! This Mosaic rule, which assumes the equation of image and God, is not found in the Koran, but can be found in the hadith literature since the 8th century. In Christianity it is laid down in the Ten Commandments with reference to the traditions of Judaism (Ex 20.4-5). Despite the image-friendliness of the ancient cultures from Christianity in the first two centuries, we know practically no images.

After two centuries of Christian abstinence ...

In fact, the earliest depictions of Christ (images of Christ as a shepherd or sheep-bearer) date from the 3rd century. Images soon followed with Christ as a philosopher, sometimes with straight, sometimes curly hair, sometimes as a wise old man. Wall paintings of the Roman catacombs show him as a beardless young man with short hair. These pictorial representations of Christ - as well as the images of martyrs and saints - meant that the relationship between image and God or image and saint had to be redefined. Under no circumstances could they be identical.

... Christianity had to clarify its relationship to images of the divine.

The effort to clarify the relationship between God and image, which in the Middle Ages also left a broad trail theologically, led to two important civilizational achievements. First, the Council Fathers of Trent wrote in 1563 that images in the Catholic area may be venerated, but not worshiped. Images were no longer considered an adequate substitute for God. Rather, it was seen as a medium that leads to God. This was a response to Protestant criticism that Catholics worshiped God in pictures and sculptures. Secondly, no less significant than the separation of God and image is the stipulation made in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 that no person may be killed because of his or her belief. Horst Bredekamp considers these two stipulations to be the “cornerstones of Europe's image and human rights policy”. They were further specified and deepened during the Enlightenment.

Shared sensitivity to pain as a way to peace?

If people of the western-enlightened world nowadays shape their everyday life naturally with the two last-mentioned civilizational achievements, the question arises all the more whether they can unquestionably derive the right to use this standard of the Enlightenment to judge all peoples of other traditions and value systems . Is it legitimate to set our western values ​​to an absolute "Je suis Charlie" demanded by everyone, without even looking at the world from the perspective of a different view of the image?

Does the occidental way in image culture allow the associated western values ​​to be set absolutely? Or is there an alternative?

Pope Francis - like numerous other people in Western societies, by the way - seems to be questioning precisely this kind of Eurocentrism if he has not adopted the slogan “Je suis Charlie” and instead peacefully perceives the pain that Muslims and Muslims experience feel when they see their prophet attacked by caricatures. Whether solidarity practiced in this way can also help ensure that insults to the prophet will no longer be answered with terror and violence in the future?


Hubertus Lutterbach
, Prof. Dr. Dr., is Professor of Christianity and Cultural History (Historical Theology) at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Image: ginover / pixelio.de