Sunday, April 02, 2006

What I learned about American history on my trip to Yemen
Swords are used throughout the Court's architecture as symbols of justice

One of the Yemenis that we met told us that the image of Mohamed is on display in the U.S. Supreme Court. I did not know that.

Some background. The U.S. Supreme Court is one of the three main branches of government. Yet it did not have its own home until 1935. In this history of the Court Building:
Overhead, along all four sides of the Chamber, are sculpted marble panels, the work of Adolph A. Weinman:

-Directly above the Bench are two central figures, depicting Majesty of the Law and Power of Government. The group at the far left represents Safeguard of the Rights of the People, and Genii of Wisdom and Statecraft. The far right group represents the Defense of Human Rights.

-To the right is a procession of historical lawgivers including: Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius and Augustus. They are flanked by figures symbolizing Fame and History.

-To the left are later historical lawgivers including Napoleon, John Marshall, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, Saint Louis, King John, Charlemagne, Mohammed [image, do not click if offended] and Justinian. Figures representing Liberty and Peace and Philosophy appear at either end.

-Symbolized on the back wall frieze is Justice with the winged female figure of Divine Inspiration, flanked by Wisdom and Truth. At the far left the Powers of Good are shown, representing Security, Harmony, Peace, Charity, and Defense of Virtue. At the far right the Powers of Evil are represented by Corruption, Slander, Deceit, and Despotic Power.
In order to read it you'll have to look at the image of Mohamed, but here are some quotes from a WorldNetDaily article:

In 1997, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, protested the Supreme Court's Muhammad sculpture, saying, according to its annual report for that year, "While appreciating the fact that Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) was included in the court's pantheon of 18 prominent lawgivers of history, CAIR noted that Islam discouraged its followers from portraying any prophet in paintings, sculptures or other artistic representations."

CAIR also said it was concerned that Muhammad "was shown with the Quran, Islam's Holy Book, in one hand and a sword in the other, reinforcing long-held stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant conquerors."

Responding to the complaint, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist told CAIR the image could not be changed and explained that swords also were used throughout the court's architecture as symbols of justice. "Altering the depiction of Muhammad would impair the artistic integrity of the whole," Rehnquist wrote. "Additionally, it is unlawful (under the U. S. Code) to remove or in any way injure an architectural feature in the Supreme Court."

But the federal government revised tourist literature at the court to show more respect for Islamic beliefs. Text that called Muhammad the "founder" of Islam was changed to say Muslims believe ''the divine word of God ... was revealed to Muhammad.'' The literature also added, "The figure is a well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Muhammad, and it bears no resemblance to Muhammad. Muslims generally have a strong aversion to sculptured or pictured representations of their Prophet."
It is interesting that an attempt - back in the 1930s - to be inclusive made the mistake of ignorance about the use of the image of Mohamed. Probably we should allow some benefit of the doubt because, for example, different sects of Islam do not agree on the display of his image, and, as well, the standards of different sects have changed over time.

Interesting, too, that CAIR makes an error of a similar kind, not realizing how ubiquitous is the incorporation of the sword in symbols of justice in other cultures. We remember that Lady Justice holds the scale, but forget she is very often depicted with a sword in the other hand. It is not just Mohamed who has been convinced that turning the other cheek can invite injustice.

If the US Supreme Court had to handle a case such as this Canadian one would the nine justices have to recuse themselves?

Perhaps we should grant religions the exclusive right of management of symbolism pertaining to their faith. That would be one way to control art such as this. Funny that people in this League often take the view that their best defense is to bring such representations to a wider audience. Maybe they are on to something.

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