Dubai - The reappearance in the media of the Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, following the arrest of three Muslims accused of planning to kill one of the cartoonists, has re-opened the debate on art and freedom of expression between the West and the Muslim world.
It is unfortunate that violent demonstrations in different parts of the Muslim world in response to such types of artistic expression have often overshadowed the opinion of the silent majority of Muslims who do not adhere to such a limited perception of Islam.
Danish newspapers described their publication of the cartoons as a sign of protest against the attempt by Muslims to gag their freedom of expression through fear tactics. Many people in the Muslim world, however, viewed the cartoons as an affront to their religious beliefs and expressed their anger through emotional outbursts and mob demonstrations.
This is not the first time that the West and Muslims have clashed on the issue of freedom of expression and religion. The works of writers and artists such as Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Naguib Mahfouz and others have caused a furore in the Muslim world.
It is sad, therefore, that the response to the Danish cartoons by Muslims who follow narrow interpretations of Islam reflects the gruesome bloodbaths that are committed daily by persons bearing the name Muhammad, in the streets of Karachi, Kandahar, Baghdad and elsewhere in the heart of the Muslim world.
Such Muslims, in my opinion, need to do a massive amount of soul searching and house cleaning before they lecture to others about values and morals.
To this end, it is helpful to revisit art in the Muslim world through the prism of history. How some Muslims perceive art in general, and representational art in particular, may have a lot to do with the way Islam began. Unlike most world religions, where signs, symbols, sculptures, arts and statutes play a pivotal role in conveying the spiritual message, Islam was founded on the notion of eradicating idol worship.
This may explain, for example, why some Muslims remain relatively indifferent to the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues in the Bamiyan province of Afghanistan.
One also has to remember that, historically, different kinds of art flourished in many parts of the Muslim world – such as Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Al Andalus and others. Even today art thrives in most of the Muslim world, although the degree of freedom of expression in what should be and should not be portrayed may vary according to the different religious schools practiced in the Muslim world.
Many argue that while in the West, the writer and the artist can indulge in their vocations with an individualistic approach, the Muslim writer and artist have often been bound to adhere to social conformity as prescribed by prevailing religious values.
However, this conformity has not always been the status quo, as many artists throughout history have explored their creative abilities through poetry and drawing, even painting pictures depicting Muhammad.
The problem may not, therefore, lie with art or freedom of speech per se, but more so with the interpretation of art through education, beliefs, culture and history.
What may be seen as distant history to the West still plays a role in defining the present in the Muslim world. Crusades, colonialism and many years of western cultural domination have left their marks on the psyche of the Muslim nation. And the regrettable situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere have served to re-open these old injuries.
It is unfortunately through this kaleidoscopic prism that some Muslims view every action that comes from the West as an affront to their religion, a threat to their identity and an insult to their pride. And with Islam as a centrifugal force of many Muslim nations, it is through religion that many view their world and measure all things, believing that art and other intellectual endeavours should succumb to its rules.
It is time that Muslims accept however that it is unwise and indeed unbecoming of a guest to impose his or her own rules on their host, in this case Denmark. We do not see Americans or Europeans rioting and burning embassies when conservative Muslim newspapers lampoon, and extremist Muslim clerics chastise, the West and call it names.
Borrowing the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz's words, "Art does not solve problems but makes us aware of their existence. It opens our eyes to see and our brain to imagine."
* Bashir Goth is a Somali poet, veteran journalist and author of numerous cultural, religious and political articles. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 18 March 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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