Controversies United Arab Emirates

Defend holy sensibilities

Modern art is likely to gain from contradiction, and even, on occasion, from censorship

Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, who sacked the director of the Sharjah Biennial after a work was found blasphemous, and his daughter Sheikha Hoor, the biennial’s founder and president

By Abdal Hakim Murad

One never ceases to be amazed at the speed with which Islamic societies are allowing themselves to be modernised. A process that took Europe four painful centuries is being crammed into a few short decades, and despite inevitable sparks and cries of protest, the process appears strikingly successful. At first glance, the most astonishing case of this is supplied by the states of the Gulf, where a strictly medieval culture prevailed into living memory, but where art and architecture today reflect a local taste that seems decidedly postmodern.

What is intriguing about the recent furore in Sharjah is not that a work of art was banned and the biennial director sacked, but that it should have been there at all. Blasphemy is intrinsic to modern art, which is naturally hostile to tradition, to the sacred, and to the claim that a benign order underlies the apparent randomness of human experience. The work by Mustapha Benfodil, which provoked the sudden reversion to older patterns of discernment and exclusion, included phrases which, being in Arabic, attracted local attention for their irreligious content. But the ethos of his work, like almost all avant-garde art, is rooted in the modern rejection of the sacred, which it replaces with the expression, often enigmatic, of the inner life of the artist. Individualism can only make headway by eroding the collective and the transcendent.

It would be easy to deride the good burghers of Sharjah for failing to spot this most salient element of the modern. Expatriates often claim that Gulf Arabs like modern art because of the prestige of its association with the west, not because they understand it. This is a local version of the more widespread view that most consumers of contemporary art are attracted only by its mystique. (Asked how many people actually like modern art, Marcel Duchamp famously replied: “Oh, maybe ten in New York, and one or two in New Jersey.”)

In fact, Emiratis are not this naïve. Many find modern art interesting because it is a window onto the soul of the west, with which they have to engage. Its indifference to recognisable canons of beauty and truth, and its typical pessimism about society, are taken to be important lessons. Fundamentalists, in particular, appreciate the new galleries in the region for their sermonising potential; as an Afghan once told me, nothing would serve the Islamist cause better than a major Gilbert & George retrospective in Kandahar.

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.

Muslims are not slow to note these contradictions, and to observe with amusement the verbal acrobatics of western moralisers who seek to justify them.

Beyond the politics, however, lies the stubborn fact that modern art, to be itself, needs to be free to outrage and subvert, not only implicitly, but explicitly. Claims about God and society must be subjected not only to irony, but to lampoon, wherever the artist’s will dictates it. This is the more significant problem for the Emirates.

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.

The theology is clear enough. The omnipotent God of the Koran does not need defending. The Prophet, too, has been beyond the reach of human injury for 14 centuries. 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. To assume that the infringement of secular honour is of moral and legal concern, while religionists must be fair game, is arbitrary and unjust. It also neglects the uncomfortable fact that the greatest human tenderness is often connected to the sacred.

Surely the celebration of a world without intrinsic meaning or destiny, which is what contemporary art supplies, is enriched when challenged by those who insist on a meaning, and hold that irreducible damage to human dignity is caused by imposing the rage of alienated normlessness upon those whose good fortune it is to see truth in beauty, and holiness in human lives.

Modern art cannot become religious; but like any other cultural production it is likely to gain from contradiction, and even, on occasion, from censorship and exclusion, if only by being made to think about the values that it came to erase.

The writer is Sheikh Zayed lecturer in Islamic studies, the faculty of divinity, theology and religious studies, University of Cambridge

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24 Jul 11
22:44 CET


It is easy to offend when creating art (Im an artists and have done my fair share of angry and offensive art) and really the only way that offensive art is recognised is when people invest in that art for example a major art buyer, major art gallery or art critic who's opinion is recognised. So where you have censorship like in the Middle East they simply say 'What we says goes and if you don't like it tough, this discussion will go no further' As artists we have to be deeper than that which is currently not in fashion. Augustus Firestone

3 Jun 11
18:42 CET


Freedom of expression is a privilege to societies and cultures that posses it and a necessity to those wanting to evolve. I do not agree that blasphemy is an intrinsic quality of Modern Art nor do i agree that it is an "icon of the fragmented secular soul of the west" and frankly insulted by the claim that Gulf Arabs fail to understand Modern art and pretend to do so because of its association with the west. However, freedom of speech cannot be achieved by impeding on individual rights and beliefs of others. I do not condone the dismissal of Jack Persekian (in fact i find it dramatic) but if an artist decides to express his opinions through profanity, then that is what his viewers will see: profanity...and question the art in that (especially in a society that is still building up its tolerance) A successful artist would devise a way that does justice to his cause and at the same time be respectful of the platform given to him/her to speak from.

3 Jun 11
18:41 CET


Very thought-provoking and interesting article. Let me just add that the Municipality of Linköping was critized by the parliaments ombudsman as breaking the freedom of speech by taking down the poster (which actually showed satan excrementing on the head of Jesus). The image was published in a daily paper without much reaction.

11 May 11
15:2 CET


Sorry Mr Zayed but we secularists don't have souls.

10 May 11
15:51 CET


It's not often you see so many weasel words in one article, or so many strawmen, false analogies and straightforward misrepresentations. The contention that religious delusions somehow give life meaning is simply risible, the dog whistle endorsement of holocaust denial is shameful and the posturing moral superiority is just embarrassing. The truth is that the Sharjah Biennial appeared to have a seriousness that is lacking from most biennales which are rarely better than circus sideshow alleys. Subsequent events have simply demonstrated that powerful segments of its audience lacked the intellect to deal with that as his apologetics for censorship and religious delusionism demonstrate.

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