Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Beware corners

I'm sure that everyone who follows the news around Wikipedia will be aware of the latest controversy to gain attention in the media, namely the dispute about the inclusion of certain images in Wikipedia's article on Muhammad. Much of the external attention has focused on an online petition that calls for the removal of the images which, at the time of writing, has more than 200,000 signatures.

The debate so far has been understandably robust. Unfortunately, issues like these tend to harden positions, and push people towards the extremes. Consider a recent example: the seventeen Danish newspapers who, in the wake of the arrest of three men suspected of planning to assassinate Kurt Westergaard, author of one of the cartoons at the heart of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, republished the cartoons in retaliation.

Likewise, positions are being hardened in this debate among both supporters and opponents of the images. The relevant talk pages are remarkably free of comments (from either side) even contemplating compromise. The Foundation is receiving emails on the one hand giving ultimatums that the images be removed, and on the other exhorting the Foundation not to "give in" to "these muslims [sic]".

Retreating into corners like this is contrary to the ethos of Wikipedia, which operates on open discussion in pursuit of neutrality. So just as the supporters of the images are asking opponents to challenge their assumptions, so too should the supporters be prepared to challenge their own.

The first assumption that should be questioned is that the images are automatically of encyclopaedic value. Images have little value in an encyclopaedia unless used in a relevant context and given sufficient explanation. Take this image, for example. An interesting image, but unless it is explained that it appears in Rashid al-Din's 14th century history Jami al-Tawarikh, and the observation made that it is thought to be the earliest surviving depiction of Muhammad, it lacks its true significance. We have a whole article on depictions of Muhammad. While some of the images in it are discussed directly, many are merely presented in a gallery, without much text to indicate their importance or relevance.

The second assumption worth revisiting is the assumption that, since the images were created by Muslim artists, then there are no neutral point of view problems. This view overlooks the fact that there are many different traditions within Islam, not only religious ones but artistic ones also. The Almohads, for example, with their Berber and eventual Spanish influences, had vastly different cultural and artistic influences than the Mongol, Turkic and Persian influenced Timurids. The Fatimids of Mediterranean Africa had different influences again from the Kurdish Ayyubids.

The Commons gallery for Muhammad contains an abundance of medieval Persian and Ottoman depictions, a small handful of Western depictions, but only one calligraphic depiction, and no architectural ones. Calligraphy is extremely significant in Islamic art, given the primacy of classical Arabic as a liturgical language in all Islamic traditions. It's worth considering why there is such an over-representation of Persian and Ottoman works, and such a dearth of works from other Islamic traditions. It's worth considering for a moment whether the Western preference for natural representations, as opposed to the abstract representations preferred in most Islamic traditions, has informed the predominance of physical depictions of Muhammad in the English Wikipedia and on Commons.

These images should not be removed altogether; many come from historically significant works, and represent a significant artistic tradition. But the images - as with any other content on Wikipedia - ought to be used in appropriate and expected contexts, and ought not be used exclusively or primarily to illustrate these articles, but should be accompanied by images representative of other traditions.

Most of all, discussions on these questions should proceed openly and freely, and all participants should make an effort to question their assumptions, and move away from their corners.


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