One of Islam's big selling points, as far as I'm concerned, is its robust monotheism. No 'idol' worship — worship of anything less than, or any one aspect of God — can be allowed to diffuse, divert or obstruct worship of the one God. I agree with this. This is the power and wisdom of a monotheistic religion, which I share.
Clearly the Christians' presentation of Jesus as 'God incarnate' and the portrayal of Jesus in innumerable pictures and statues must present the Muslim both with a puzzle (since Christians likewise claim to worship just one God) and a problem. As a Christian, I do have my answer to that conundrum, but that can be the subject of a different essay. The reason for making this point is to justify me, as a Christian, daring to venture an opinion about what is — and isn't — 'Islam' (that is, 'submission' to the One God). I'm trying to demonstrate that I do 'get it' — I do understand why it is important not to set up images of divinities of any sort, and worship them.
As I understand it, the Prophet Muhammed forbade any images being made of himself. Of course! This was in a culture in which idols were worshipped — in which many deities were given physical representation in art and statuary. In the polytheistic religion of the Greek and Roman world (whose cultural and religious legacy still shaped the known world at the time of the Prophet), the boundaries between the mortals, the 'heroes' and the gods were often blurred. There was every possibility that, after his death, the Prophet would first be canonised, then 'promoted' to demigod status and worshipped. This would have been completely counter to the revelation he had received — a denial of the essence of Islam — so images of the Prophet (or of God in any form) were and are forbidden.
The problem with images the Prophet, then, is that they could distract from worship of the one true God. Surely, it's not primarily to do with portraying the Prophet in unflattering ways? Indeed, a far worse — or should I say "more spiritually dangerous" — image would be an image that tried to be flattering . . . that sought to present the Prophet as some kind of saviour figure or holy being. A cartoon image of the Prophet such as is on the recent front cover of Charlie Hebdo is hardly likely to be interpreted as an image designed to evoke worship of the Prophet!
But 'idols' do not have to be given physical representation in order to be idols. There are many 'invisible forces' that have the power to fascinate and elicit 'worship'. Polytheistic religions have historically given these entities forms, seeing them as just one aspect of the Divine. In fact, although we no longer use the language of gods, idols or whatever, the old gods are still around doing great business. Think Aphrodite — image of the sexual instinct. Think Dionysus — the urge to drink and party to excess, whose sacramental presence may possibly be found in an ecstasy tablet. (A 'sacrament' is a symbol that also makes real in some way the 'thing' that it symbolises). In particular, think Mars (or Ares) the god of war and violence. It's clear that the young people who go out to fight with Isis in Syria are turned on by the images of war and violence. Why else would images of executions inspire them, whilst they revolt most people? This violence-worship is idolatry on a dangerous scale. In fact, the god they worship is given a physical representation : it's the gun, the gun that features proudly in the videos, being carried with pride — a 'sacrament' of the false god 'Mars', that can bring about the death and destruction it celebrates.
I was struck to learn that the blood-soaked terrorist cell whose British member was arrested returning from Syria and who now faces a life sentence styles itself 'Rayat al Tawheed'. I don't know what 'Rayat' means, but 'tawheed' I recognised instantly as the fundamental Islamic doctrine of monotheism. This cell — this violence cult every bit as pagan as the Viking worshippers of Odin — is not islamic at all because it is a living denial of 'tawheed'.
What this means is that these jihadists are not actually 'jihadist'. A jihadist struggles against anything — starting with anything within their own soul — that gets between themself and worship of One God alone. But these people have weakly sold their souls to Ares, Mars, Odin or whatever you want to call it . . the spirit of violence that lies within each of us. This is not metaphorical speech : they are literally 'worshipping' ('giving worth to') extreme violence; celebrating it. In short, they are idolaters . . 'infidel' ('unfaithful') to the One God.
Further, they have turned images of their Prophet into a powerful 'idol' that must be honoured by being avenged. The images seem to have such a powerful hold on their imaginations that they are willing to kill for them. I have to say, no image of Jesus ever had such power over me, however flattering or insulting. It's just a human-created thing, and I've never yet seen an image of Jesus that did anything for me. The ones that turn me off most are the ones that were designed to be beautiful.
Further still, if I am correct, it means that these people do not represent a hidden violence that is latent within Islam and which they have latched on to and amplified to the extreme. It is not there at all — I can't see how it can be there in any of the monotheistic religions. I write as a monotheist myself. If war happens, it could never be the will of the One God; it can only ever be the inevitable working out of colossal human failure, to be repented of, not celebrated.