Woah! The Pope Kissed a Muslim Leader?

November 20, 2011

Political Theory


Well, not exactly.

From images of death row inmates to people dying of Aids, the United Color of Benetton, a clothing store, is known for its shocking ads, which has often stirred controversy around the world.  In their latest campaign, unveiled this past Wednesday, it has offended the Vatican so much that it is taking legal action to prevent the circulation of a doctored image depicting Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading Egyptian imam.  The Vatican called the image “offensive not only to the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers.”  As a result, the company announced that it was withdrawing the image in response to the protest from the Vatican.  In a statement Wednesday, the Benetton Group said the “UNHATE” campaign was designed to “combat hatred” and promote “closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures, and the peaceful understanding of each other’s motivations.”

Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading Egyptian imam

Benetton's controversial advertisements

Besides the pope, the ads feature photomontages of world leaders locked in a kiss.  President Obama is shown with China’s Hu Jintao and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.  Also, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is shown with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.  The most controversial, however, was Benedict shown with Ahmed Tayeb, leader of Al Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most influential institution.  Mahmud Azab, a spokesman for Al Azhar, stated that the ad was “irresponsible” and so absurd that the institution was “still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response.”

I don’t find these images offensive at all.  Rather, I understand Benetton’s reasoning in creating such a controversial ad and believe it sends a strong, positive message.  I agree with Alessandro Benetton, deputy chairman of Benetton Group, when he described their motive as, “In a moment of darkness, with the financial crisis, what’s going on in North African countries, in Athens, this is an attitude we can all embrace that can have positive energy.”

However, did Benetton make the right decision by taking down these images?  Wouldn’t John Stuart Mill support this ad as being a practice of free speech?  In Chapter II of On Liberty, Mill states, “Absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological” Mill continues by stating “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”  Mill makes it clear that any speech should be given attention to no matter how immoral it may seem to everyone else.  Lastly, the only restriction to this free speech is described as“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  Are these pictures really endangering anyone?  What are your thoughts?

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4 Comments on “Woah! The Pope Kissed a Muslim Leader?”

  1. amgille Says:

    When I heard about this incident, quite frankly, I smiled. I absolutely love the idea behind the ad, not because of the ridiculous nature, but of the meaning behind the advertisement. I believe that the United Color on Benetton was on the right track with the advertising, however, I am also aware of the tension that can be seen behind this idea.

    To me, the images are not meant to hurt anyone, but rather to enforce the idea that they had going for the ad: UNHATE. However, others may see this differently due to the inherent nature of religion in society. People hold strongly to these beliefs and the values that they entail. I think the largest problem behind the ad for the Vatican wasn’t the depiction of the different religions, but the homosexuality that the Vatican probably thought was evident in the advertisement. Instead of looking at the idea of the kiss as acceptance, they may have determined that the ad was undermining the principles of family that the Catholic church holds onto.

    While I do believe that they have the ability to express themselves in the ways that they want, I also believe that they made the correct decision in deciding to bring down the ad. It is important to listen to the critics and to take in all sides of the matter before they make a judgement, which is what I believe that the United Color on Benetton did in this matter. While they could have left the advertisement up, they took down the ad in a move to possibly avoid the ramifications of what it would bring. This being stated, I then see their move as a purely strategic one in the corporate world.

  2. antuck Says:

    I agree with amgille when he says that the Vatican probably had more trouble with the homosexuality depicted than it did with the message that the Catholic church should do more to embrace Islam. If that is the case, I think the Vatican is completely in the wrong, and certainly needs to give some more thought to the idea of “UNHATE.”

    To answer the question posed by the poster: no, I don’t think Benneton did the right thing in taking down these ads. I think all they did was cater to homophobia. The fact that they are a store does complicate things slightly, because they have an obvious motivation to avoid offending customers. Nevertheless, I think Benneton should have stood their ground.

    Benneton tried to send a message about unity, tolerance, and mutual respect. But when homophobia pops up (disguised, of course, as “religious sensibilities”), Benneton immediately gives in. What kind of message does this send? It makes you wonder whether Benneton was just being a provocateur, and then it backfired.

  3. schoemad Says:

    When viewing these images, people will usually perceive them in two ways: the positive side of love or the negative side of hatred. Unfortunately, most people would see the negative side of hatred. I feel that this campaign is successful at showing the idea of UNHate. People too often focus on the differences between people, but instead people should focus on the similarities among us all.
    Although I agree with this advertisement, many others saw it as demeaning and outrageous. Mill would definitely agree that the Benetton Group has every right to keep the advertisements in the public eye. No matter how terrible and outrageous one’s opinion is, Mill believed people are deprived if they are denied any viewpoint. I completely agree with this sentiment. These images depicts two people kissing, and although almost everyday we can see heterosexuals kissing, homosexuals kissing in the media immediately are seen as controversial.
    We clearly know that the Pope has never locked lips with a leading Egyptian imam, but unfortunately, some people will always see it as offensive. I truly feel that these images harm no one. No one should be scarred from seeing this images because they are only kisses, nothing more.

  4. phillipschermer Says:

    From my point of view, the Vatican completely overreacted to Benetton’s “UNHATE” campaign. The core, philosophical message behind the campaign is clear: today’s political climate would be better off with less hate in it. Sure, the images might be atypical, but that doesn’t overshadow the core message. In fact, I would argue that the avant-garde nature of the pictures is exactly the kind of shock needed to get across as important of a point as the “UNHATE” campaign tries to express.

    The Catholic Church spends a lot of its time preaching that hate should be replaced with love, that one should “love your neighbor.” The philosophical message behind Benetton’s campaign is the same. It’s a shame that the Catholic Church didn’t see it that way.

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