Friday, April 29, 2011

Blaming the West

Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, fired Jack Persekian, the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation because Persekian had failed to recognize that a work by Algerian artist, Mustapha Benfodil, would be interpreted as obscene and blasphemous by local attendees at this year's Sharjah Biennial.

This is old news at this point, but the protests over the firing have inspired a curious op-ed published in The Art Newspaper. In what strikes me as a highly condescending and equally contradictory defense of the firing, Abdal Hakim Murad (Sheikh Zayed lecturer in Islamic studies, the faculty of divinity, theology and religious studies, University of Cambridge) offers a series of soothing-toned statements that essentially accumulate into "those amusing antics of the wicked West will be tolerated only up to a certain point." Or, as Hakim Murad actually argues:
A sophisticated appreciation of contemporary art as an icon of the fragmented secular soul of the west, and hence as a signpost that points Muslims back to the mosque, will draw the line at religious offence.
Where to begin?

First of all, Hakim Murad's position only makes sense if one assumes there is a less fragmented soul to be found in the Muslim world. This pan-Muslim, united utopia of patience that he seems to be writing from, though, must exist on some parallel universe invisible to the rest of the world. Fragmented would be among the first words I'd use to describe the sensibilities ripping the Muslim world apart as we speak. And as so, I'd recommend he consider gazing longer into a mirror than at icons of the western soul.

Second, the artist whose work caused the controversy was not from the West, but rather from Algeria, and the offending text described Muslim atrocities. Hakim Murad's conclusion that this somehow reflects the west requires a fair bit of twisted logic. One has to assume that he means to imply that without the example of Western art leading Benfodil to create this work, he would have, like a good Muslim, not created it. This is condescending on many levels. More than that, it essentially apologizes for outrageous behavior:
What shocked the public was a text on one of the t-shirts [on Benfodil's soccer-playing mannequin sculptures], in English and Arabic. It said: With each breath of the wind I see a hand on my pants and my hymen torn/Every night was a sharp body raid/Vaginal sacrifices for lustful gods/My nights were haunted by the cries of all those virgins whom they had/Scratched, molested, maimed, bitten, eaten/RAPED KILLED/After being blessed/By the penetrating holy word of Allah/The sperm of his Prophets/And the spittle of his apostles.

Benfodil explained that this is from his play Les Borgnes (The One-Eyed): “The words have been interpreted as an attack against Islam, but they refer to a phallocratic, barbarian and fundamentally freedom-killing god. It is the god of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, a sinister sect that raped and massacred tens of thousands of women at the height of the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s in the name of a pathological revolutionary paradigm, supposedly inspired by the Koranic ethics. My own Allah has nothing to do with the destructive divinities claimed by Algerian millenarian movements.”
Hakim Murad skips right over addressing this explanation of the work, returning instead to the easier task of pointing fingers westward:
Yet just as more secular vulnerabilities deserve protection, in the form of laws against libel, slander, racism, or Holocaust denial, so too do the no less tender sensibilities of religious believers.
How about laws against rape? Or Murder? Let's start with sensibilities that acknowledge those first, shall we? So long as we're being so civilized, that is.

What really offended me in Hakim Murad's op-ed, though, was his attempt to highlight hypocrisies that should neutralize any western objection to Benfodil's censorship. The logic used here is so inferior, it's an insult to Cambridge:
The same religionists are laughing at liberal attempts to explain why blasphemies against Islam are a valid expression of artistic licence, while certain western legal and moral taboos may be acceptably internalised by curators and by legislation. Yet even in Sweden, just two years ago, the Linköping municipality banned posters for a rock festival that showed Satan excreting on a cross. And in Denmark, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had defended its right to publish cartoons of the Prophet, retreated from its stated intention to publish a cartoon that lampooned the Holocaust.
The first person who finds a more obscure example of western censorship than a poster in Linköping, Sweden, do let me know, will you? The Sharjah Biennial is meant to rank among the world's most important platforms for contemporary art. Its standards for defending freedom of expression are thereby expected to be a bit higher.

Furthermore, as Benfodil has explained, his work was not intended as "blasphemies against Islam," so no one, liberal or otherwise, needs to defend it as such. If Hakim Murad interprets it as such, he should explain why. Avoiding the topic altogether, as he's doing here, makes his entire op-ed look like a game of "Whack the West" and little more.

Labels: Art and politics, censorship


Anonymous Franklin said...

Muslims have been arguing for years that freedom of speech does give anyone the right to defame Islam. This has taken place most visibly in the activities of the UN Human Rights Council, in which Muslim nations have succeeded in passing resolutions condemning the defamation of religion as de facto incitement of violence. Such resolutions have stated without irony that freedom of expression depends on the curtailment of speech that disrespects religion.

Murad, using rhetoric which is typical of this worldview, is saying that because we have laws against spreading lies about people, we should have laws protecting the "tender sensibilities of religious believers." Just the Muslim members of the UNHRC claim to want to restrict expression for the sake of freedom, Murad claims that “modern art” is likely to gain from censorship. This isn't merely a game of Whack the West – it's part of an effort to impose backward Islamic values upon free society.

Unfortunately for Murad, I don't suffer from “normlessness.” The values of liberty, free thinking, and secular civics are self-evidently and intrinsically better than the countervailing values put forward by Islam's autocrats and their professional apologists. To paraphrase the learned master, the sophisticated appreciation of religion as an icon of the benighted soul of fundamentalism will draw the line at the infringement of freedom. Or restated without Murad's unctuous phrasing, his conscience is his business, and he will have a battle on his hands if he tries to make it mine.

4/29/2011 12:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

"doesn't give anyone," ugh

4/29/2011 01:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the sophisticated appreciation of religion as an icon of the benighted soul of fundamentalism will draw the line at the infringement of freedom


(in a manner of speaking)

4/29/2011 04:18:00 PM  

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