Every culture or community has its symbols and icons of identity. A community that does not respect and defend its symbols or icons from abuse in the public domain cannot command respect in any society. In this age of postmodern cultural imperialism, the defense of cultural symbols and icons has become more vital than ever before.
Symbols and icons are types of signs through which we communicate meanings. According to a European tradition of semiology (the study of signs, called semiotics in the U.S.), a sign consists of a signifier (a word, a gesture, or an artifact) that stands for a signified (something else, a meaning, an idea or thought). Signs are of three types--symbolic (e.g., any word), iconic (a picture or a cartoon), and indexical (e.g., a smile or smoke).
The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, socially and culturally coded. There is no essential relationship between the sign and its signified (e.g., the word "water" and its meaning). People build the link between the two components of the sign and use it to share information, to create new realities, and sometimes to create and perpetuate myths ("depoliticized speech"). Myths or mythic signs promote certain interests over others but make things appear natural or normal, hiding their political motives and implications. (Muslim philosophers did have a highly developed sign theory around the 12th century, C.E. Modern sign theory has emerged in Europe and the U.S. over a little more than the past century. Its proponents, however, haven't referred to any development in sign theory that existed before. I've yet to explore whether the modern sign theory has developed independently of the early Muslim contributions.)
Each culture, group or community has certain key symbols (i.e., words) and icons (unique artifacts, styles, or practices) that define and represent the identity and the worldviews, values, beliefs, norms, and practices of that community. The terms Islam, Allah, Muhammad, salat, hajj, zakaat, and jihad are some key Muslim symbols. The portraits of the Kaaba, the Qur-an, the Dome of the Rock, the mosques with the traditionally Muslim architectural designs, the crescent moon, or persons dressed in Islamic-style attire are some key Muslim icons.
The way these symbols and icons are handled says a lot about the identity of the community. They label, for example, who the Muslims are, what they stand for, and what their relationship with the rest of humanity is. Desecrating, demonizing, or trivializing any Islamic symbols and icons means an erosion of this identity.
Unfortunately, desecrating or trivializing the cultural symbols and icons of the Other (e.g., the Muslim) has become the trademark of postmodern cultural imperialists. Remember how Salman Rushdie in his novel Satanic Verses sought to desecrate the image of Prophet Muhammad, how the so-called Western orientalists have written volumes to demonize the concept of jihad, or how often the American movie directors and other media spinners play with and trivialize Muslim symbols and icons.
In a latest episode of trivializing Muslim icons, The Los Angeles Times published pictures juxtaposing women in Islamic attire and bikini as part of an ad campaign that is ironically titled "Connecting Us to the Times." Following "strong reactions" from Muslims led by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), women staffers of the Times, and a feminist group, the Times management withdrew the ad last week.
Yes, the Islamic-style robes worn by the women in the ad is as much an icon of Muslims as the skullcap is one of Jews. What trivialized this icon are the context and the way the pictures were positioned in the ad. The bikini-clad blonds had the Muslim women behind their backs in a beach, posing as if they were up for a new adventure in the ocean. The Muslim women were looking at those almost nude women, obviously with awe, telling themselves "how bold and free they are, how caged and stupid are we! Isn't the way we are robed meaningless in this brave new world of freedom and nudeness!"
This is the preferred reading/meaning the ad offered for the general readers. Whether the Times' ad-spinners intended to encode such a sinister meaning or not is beside the point. No wonder, as three letters to the editor published yesterday in the Times show, even many non-Muslim readers found the ad awfully "disgusting," "insulting and demeaning to the people represented in the images," and even "sexist, racist and just plain not interesting."
In a similar letter, I too wrote to the Times: "Would you dare to abuse a Jewish or Christian cultural icon in this fashion? If not, and I am sure you cannot survive this "commutation test" (as it is called in semiotics), then please remove the ad immediately and announce an apology to the women and Muslims who found the ad offensive."
We don't have to wait for an archeology or anatomy of the demonology, the mythology, the webs of ignorance, and spirals of prejudice that have formed the cultural unconscious or subconscious of the spinners of postmodern imperialism. All we have to do is wake up, to feel proud of who we are, and defend the signs that exude our identity.
Fortunately, the Muslim community or, more appropriately, the humanity is blessed with a unique model of defending signs of identity--a model given by Prophet Muhammad when he said: "if you see a wrong being done, prevent it with your hand; if you cannot prevent with your hand, speak out against it; and even if you cannot speak out, hate the wrongdoing by heart."
In essence, this is a universal human shield against social or political injustice. Muslims should continue to live by and celebrate this model of defending icons of identity. For this is the only gateway to freedom in the 'free' society of the U.S.