Muhammad depiction controversy lurks in U’s past

U spokesman Fred Esplin can sympathize with news editors around the world who have had to decide whether or not to publish the infamous set of cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

In 2000, Esplin and other U administrators-including then-president Bernie Machen-had to choose between freedom of speech and ethics in dealing with a mural painting in the Park Building, which included the figure of Muhammad.

“In 2000, a group of students came to the Park Building expressing a concern they had over the depiction of their prophet, Muhammad,” he said. “This was the first time this issue had come to our attention.”

Most Muslims believe it is a sin to depict the image of Muhammad in any way-whether positively or negatively.

Anwar Arafat, president of the Muslim Student Association at the U, said the hadiths-the sayings of Muhammad-forbid any depiction of the prophet.

Muslims around the world have become angered by the decisions of European newspaper editors to print editorial cartoons of Muhammad.

“We have no pictures of him, so we do not know what he looks like,” Arafat said. “It is forbidden (in order) to avoid idolatry and to take the focus off him and put it on the message.”

The mural, finished in 1940 by renowned painter Lee Greene Richards, shows historical highlights from various fields of culture and is one of the most prominent pieces of artwork on campus. Esplin said U administrators did not think it would be appropriate to deface the mural, despite the students’ concerns.

While nowhere near as serious as the current situation-which has worsened with killings, riots and boycotts around the world-Esplin said the basics of the two situations are similar.

Like newspaper editors, U administrators had to weigh the concerns of the students against changing a display of art, tradition and freedom of speech.

“Eventually the decision was made to cover the name of Muhammad that appeared beneath the image,” Esplin said. “The image remains, but it is not identified as Muhammad. The viewer can interpret the figure as they wish.”

Maintenance officials said the change was made as part of renovation project in the Park Building a short time after the students expressed their concerns.

Arafat said he believes this solution was both good and bad-good because it helps take away the problem of Muhammad being depicted and bad because it causes confusion over whom the image conveys.

“The problem I have noticed during this situation (at the U) and the situation with the cartoons is that most people simply do not understand Islam,” he said. “Most people do not understand how much we respect and revere Muhammad.”

Arafat and the Muslim Student Association have been working to put together a panel to explain Islamic principles surrounding the cartoons and to tell people that the extreme forms of protest shown in the media are not representative of the whole Muslim body.

“We are being slaughtered in the media,” Arafat said. “The majority of demonstrations against the cartoons and newspapers are peaceful. It does not make sense to go to such an extreme.”

“It is our responsibility to stand up and say we do not agree with these extreme actions and that most Muslims do not as well,” he said.

j.layton@chronicle.utah.edu