Frieze depicts Muhammad among 18 “lawgivers” on wall above Supreme Court justices’ bench
While Muslims engaged in violent protests worldwide over caricatures of Muhammad have insisted any image of their prophet is considered blasphemous, a prominent frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court portrays the Islamic leader wielding a sword.
The stone sculptures of 18 lawgivers, from Hammurabi to John Marshall, are meant to signify the law’s foundation in a stable society. Included is Moses with the Ten Commandments.
The artwork, which is high above the justice’s mahogany bench, was designed by sculptor Adolph A. Weinman for the building, which opened in the 1930s. Muhammad is between Charlemagne and Justinian.
The Muslim cartoon controversy erupted in violence a week ago over satirical drawings of Muhammad published in September by Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. The paper said it wanted to make a point about media self-censoring criticisms of Islamic terrorism.
Omar Bakri Mohammed, the radical British Muslim cleric, told BBC Radio 4 yesterday the cartoonists should be tried and executed under Islamic law.
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.”
The Muhammad cartoons at the center of the current controversy have been reprinted in Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Jordan, Spain, Switzerland, Hungary, New Zealand, Norway and Poland.
In response, protesters in Turkey marched outside the Danish consulate, terror groups in the West Bank threatened Danish and European interests, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – an offshoot of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party – briefly kidnapped a German and thousands of Muslim demonstrators in Beirut clashed with police Sunday, storming the city’s Danish consulate and setting it ablaze. A nearby Maronite Catholic church also was attacked, prompting fears the protests could turn into a sectarian clash.
Saturday in Damascus, the evacuated Danish and Norwegian embassies were burned during protests that also damaged the Swedish embassy. Rioters reportedly tried to storm the city’s French mission but were held off by police.