Muslim Hate of Art and Artists
European art provokes Muslims
Egyptian artists worry about growing Islamic fervor in a nation long known for being a cultural and secular center in the Arab world
San Francisco Chronicle
Jack Epstein, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006
Cairo -- She found the death threat pinned to her car. The words "Your destiny" were scrawled near guns pointed at a photo of Anwar Sadat, Egypt's assassinated president.
It wasn't the first time Egyptian fundamentalists had tried to intimidate Inas al-Degheidy, Egypt's first female movie director, whose films typically depict heroines struggling against social discrimination and sexual exploitation.
"When I began making films in the 1980s, I didn't have many problems," she says. "Fundamentalism hadn't taken hold yet. Now, 10 percent of Egyptians like me. The other 90 percent want to kill me."
Degheidy, 52, and many other Egyptian artists say they worry about growing Islamic fundamentalism in a nation long known for being a cultural and secular center in the Arab world.
In recent years, hundreds of plays, films, novels and academic works have come under scrutiny by religious authorities, who have been given increasing authority over schools, radio, television and publishing houses by President Hosni Mubarak with the understanding that they will support him against the rising influence of militant Islam, many observers say.
Indeed, an Islamic revival is sweeping across Egypt.
Thousands of unregistered "popular mosques" have emerged in back streets; most Muslim women wear the hijab, or head scarf -- signs in many subway stations say: "If you love God, why aren't you wearing the hijab?"; many men have zabibas or indentations across their foreheads from bumping their heads on the floor during prayer; couples line up to ask imams for advice on marriage and divorce; filmgoers leave theaters in protest, demanding that certain scenes be cut out that they find offensive to Islam; and U.S.-style televangelists are attracting young people, as are pop singers whose songs praise the prophet Muhammad.
Moreover, two dozen Arabic-language satellite channels -- many financed by wealthy Saudis -- offer viewers a wide selection of religious programs. In one quiz show, contestants can win prizes by answering such questions as "Who was the first Islamic caliph?"
"The same people who tore down the twin towers have come here to tear down Egyptian culture," says Mohamed Gohar, managing director of VideoCairoSat, a private company that provides satellite television service to the Mideast. "I have to follow Saudi censorship. ... Men and women can't hold hands. Religion tells you how to cook a chicken. There are fatwas (religious rulings) for everything."
Most important, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Mideast's first modern fundamentalist political movement, won every seat in which it ran a candidate in parliamentary elections early this year under the slogan "Islam is the solution." They are now the leading political opposition to Mubarak's ruling party.
Film director Degheidy, who wore a low-cut dress and uncovered blond hair in an interview with U.S. editors, said she has to run to her car for fear of harassment and feels sorry for women who wear the hijab -- which denotes virtue -- out of fear. "I feel they have given in," she says.
Most recently, actress Hanan Turk announced that she would start wearing the hijab. Turk is best known for her role in the controversial 2005 film "Dunia" ("World"), which tells the story about a woman who breaks taboos in a society that asks women to hide their femininity.
Ironically, most political analysts say the rise of Islam can be traced to Sadat, who allowed Sharia (Islamic law that governs day-to-day life) to become "the principal source" of Egyptian law in 1980. He also freed many militant Islamists from jails, hoping they would become a loyal bulwark against his leftist opposition. Instead, an Islamic militant within his own army shot him to death in 1981 as he watched a military parade in Cairo.
In interviews, Egyptian artists said the religious revival began in earnest in the early 1990s after tens of thousands of Egyptian workers returned from Saudi Arabia, where they had been influenced by that nation's austere brand of Islam called Wahhabism.
"What we are facing now is a kind of social censorship that is far worse and pernicious" than government censorship of the 1970s and 1980s," says Yousry Nasrallah, who directed the 1995 documentary "On Boys, Girls and the Veil." "It's your audience that has become more conservative."
Alaa al-Aswany, whose 2002 novel "The Yacoubian Building" became the best-selling book after the Quran in the Arab world, has been harshly criticized for offering a sympathetic view of homosexuality in the book. The novel, which also addresses corrupt politicians, police brutality, terrorism and state repression, was initially rejected by several publishers.
Just this month, at least 112 Egyptian legislators demanded that gay love scenes between two leading characters -- an editor of a French-language newspaper and a police officer -- be cut from the book's $4 million movie version, which opened to packed houses last month in Egypt and premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Another scene facing criticism is a monologue questioning the way Muslims ask God for forgiveness.
"These scenes are rejected by religion and the values of the Egyptian society, even if the society suffers from these problems," Hamdi Hassan, a spokesman for Muslim Brotherhood members of parliament, said early this month. Aswany says rising pressure to conform to Islamic principles is also a result of years of authoritarian government.
"In the past two decades, there has been much poverty, corruption and no democracy," says Aswany, who is also an anti-government activist. "People were obliged to go to work in Saudi Arabia and came back with money and the Saudi interpretation of Islam, which is not tolerant. It is aggressive."
Late last year, three people died in Alexandria during Muslim protests over a church play about a poor young Coptic Christian drawn to militant Islamists, who try to kill him. Although church officials said the play attacked only Islamic extremists, protesters called it offensive to Islam.
Early this year, Muslims and Coptic Christians -- who make up 10 percent of Egypt's 70 million inhabitants -- fought for three days in Alexandria after a Muslim man killed a 67-year-old Coptic and wounded five people in knife attacks in two churches. The authorities said the attacker was mentally ill.
"We had little problems until we started getting a strange kind of unforgiving Islam from the Gulf," says Youssef Sidhoum, editor of al-Watani, a Coptic weekly. "Officials rushed to describe the attackers as insane, which denies the real problem. Alexandria is a bitter example of what is taking place in Egypt unless it is seriously addressed -- the infiltration of fanatical Islam in slum areas where unemployment is very high."
Human rights activists also point out the government's refusal to recognize the Baha'i faith, which began in Persia in the 19th century and has 6 million members but only 2,000 in Egypt. Its members are refused death certificates, and their children are often threatened with expulsion from school.
"They have had more problems since the Islamization process," says Hossam Bahgat, director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "They are seen as apostates, looked at with suspicion since the religion has its roots in Iran and has holy places in Israel."
Islamists, however, say they have no desire to be intolerant of other religions or return Egypt to the Middle Ages. Instead, they say, they merely want to restore dignity to their lives.
"It's about a way of life, moral, cultural, political," says Mona el-Karedi, a student at Cairo University, who was covered from head to toe.
And although Egypt is no longer the cosmopolitan country portrayed by Lawrence Durrell in his classic four-novel work "The Alexandria Quartet," the nation still stands out from its more puritanical neighbors.
Rich Saudis come to Cairo to drink and gamble in city casinos. Egypt is one of the few Muslim countries where women can give back a marriage dowry and file for divorce. Government censors are not as strict. And two national campaigns led by first lady Suzanne Mubarak, aim to educate girls and women (45 percent older than 15 are illiterate) and eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation.
Meanwhile, Degheidy says that despite the death threats, she will continue to make movies like "Cheap Flesh," about elderly Gulf men who pay poor Egyptian fathers to have sex with their teenage daughters; "Lady Killer," about women fighting back against abusive spouses; and "Memoirs of a Teenager," about under-the-table surgeries to restore girls' virginity.
"We feel the Islamists have the power, even though it isn't official," says Degheidy. "But if they kill me, I will die a hero."
Swedish artist goes into hiding following Al Qaeda death threat
As tension mounted over a drawing offensive to Muslims, Swedish police told artist Lars Vilks he was no longer safe at home.
By Tom A. Peter
The Christian Science Monitor
from the September 19, 2007 edition
Almost a year and a half after 12 Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad sparked worldwide protest that left scores dead, Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks has ignited similar controversy. After Mr. Vilks's controversial series of drawings featuring Islam's prophet with the body of a dog garnered attention in Sweden art galleries refused to display them Nerikes Allehanda, a Swedish newspaper, printed one in August. As with its Danish predecessor, the cartoon drew outrage from the Islamic world and has started a debate about freedom of expression. On Monday, the situation became even more serious, with Vilks going into hiding following a death threat from Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In a statement issued on Saturday by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group's leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, called for the killing of Vilks and his editor Ulf Johansson, reports Al Jazeera.
"We are calling for the assassination of cartoonist Lars Vilks who dared insult our prophet, peace be upon him, and we announce a reward during this generous month of Ramadan of $100,000 for the one who kills this criminal," he said.
"The award will be increased to $150,000 if he were to be slaughtered like a lamb."
Swedish police told Vilks that he was no longer safe in his home and have relocated him to an undisclosed location. Vilks, who says he's willing to move and can "do most of his work sitting in front of his computer," has remained defiant throughout the dispute, reports The Local, a Swedish newspaper. Despite being forced into hiding, when asked if the drawings were worth all of the trouble, he remained unapologetic.
"Yes, I still think so. I think the artwork has developed well so far and is on its way towards becoming superb," he said.
Vilks described the events and the debate surrounding his drawings as a repeat of the Danish caricature row, except on a smaller scale and so far without bloodshed.
"I still hold out strong hopes of a happy ending in that this too may end up as a farce," he said.
Vilks's inspiration for the cartoon sprang from a local art phenomenon and his artistic desire to engage his audience by shocking or even enraging them. In the cartoon, Vilks refers to Muhammad as a "roundabout dog," which is a reference to homemade statues of dogs placed in many of Sweden's roundabouts, or rotaries. The sculptures drew much attention this past spring and became something of a public joke. Open Democracy, an online news magazine, reports that Vilks tried to move this "new, rather innocent national emblem into a potentially charged political arena by adding a 'Muhammad' reference to his cartoon dog."
[I]t is relevant to note that Lars Vilks's artistic premises rest on challenging his viewers by making them angry, engaged or amused. He is known not only in Sweden but in various parts of the world (including Canada) for his self-consciously "outrageous" installations. A less toxic example than the dog cartoon was his intervention at a nature compound near Kullen in southern Sweden, where Vilks - without a building permit - constructed a monument made of pieces of lumber and rubbish he had hauled in. The local community board protested - and with that Vilks had fulfilled his core purpose. Whether or not his piece of junk was to be confiscated was no longer the real issue, which for Vilks was the artist's right to provoke.
Lars Vilks, with his cartoon drawing of the Mohammed roundabout dog, pushed the same issue beyond the realm of local Swedish opinion and communal politics. Sweden has a large Muslim population composed of immigrants and (now) the children and grandchildren of immigrants, which has increased steadily during the Iraq war. It does not constitute a homogeneous group, and many of its members define themselves in secular terms. Yet a considerable number too view Vilks's roundabout dog as a deliberate act of defamation of the Muslim religion and an attempt to increase Swedish Muslims' alienation from mainstream society. Thus, even if the primary self-identification of Swedish Muslims is far from narrowly religious, as an ethnic group they feel offended by this act.
Fallout from the Vilks incident has not ballooned to Danish-cartoon proportions. But Al Qaeda in Iraq also threatened to attack Swedish businesses if Vilks failed to apologize. "[E]xpect us to strike the businesses of firms like Ericsson, Scania, Volvo, IKEA, and Electrolu," said the group's statement against Vilks. The Times of London reports that Swedish firms in the Middle East are taking the threats seriously.
Swedish companies lowered their profile in the Middle East yesterday amid fears that a newspaper cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog could spark bloody reprisals.
Åse Lindskog, a spokeswoman for Ericsson, said that staff had been told to keep a low profile in Muslim countries and to take extra care in deciding where to go or park their cars.
While the vast majority of Muslims have responded peacefully to the cartoons, the drawings have sparked outrage among some. Earlier this month, a number of Muslim nations officially condemned the cartoons. "The publication of this cartoon, which seeks to attack the character of the prophet Mohammed, is unacceptable, rejected, and condemned," a Jordian government spokesman told the Agence France-Presse. The Guardian reported that the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments responded to the cartoons, saying, "Such an irresponsible act is not conducive to friendly ties between the Islamic world and the West." The Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group representing 57 mostly Islamic nations, issued a statement calling the cartoons an "irresponsible and despicable act with malafied and provocative intention in the name of so-called freedom of expression."
The freedom of press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders came out strongly against those behind the death threats for Vilks and his editor. In an official statement, the group offered the cartoonist and his editor their "total support."
"Freedom to draw cartoons cannot be taken away by such barbaric fundamentalism," Reporters Without Borders said. "Making death threats to the author of a cartoon by promising people a reward if they kill them is a shocking lack of humanity that must be soundly condemned."
"The Swedish authorities and Muslim organisations in Sweden have done everything to calm the situation and head off a major crisis of the kind that erupted after publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in Denmark in September 2005," it said. "Those making the threats now are pouring oil on the fire."
Cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad elicit such strong responses from the Muslim world not necessarily because they are critical of Islam, but more so because Islam forbids representations of Allah or the prophet. The British Broadcasting Corporation explains that though the Koran does not expressly ban such images, it says, "[Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth ... [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him." The passage is largely interpreted to mean that images of Allah or the prophet are forbidden. Express bans can be found in other Islamic teachings and traditions.
Islamic tradition or Hadith, the stories of the words and actions of Muhammad and his Companions, explicitly prohibits images of Allah, Muhammad and all the major prophets of the Christian and Jewish traditions.
More widely, Islamic tradition has discouraged the figurative depiction of living creatures, especially human beings. Islamic art has therefore tended to be abstract or decorative.
Shia Islamic tradition is far less strict on this ban. Reproductions of images of the Prophet, mainly produced in the 7th Century in Persian, can be found.
Depicting the prophet with a dog's body made the cartoon even more inflammatory for Muslims, because culturally, dogs are looked upon as unclean and, in some cases, devil-like creatures. Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic scholar, explains Islam's perception of dogs in an essay.
In a fashion similar to European medieval folklore, black dogs, in particular, were viewed ominously in the Islamic tradition. According to one tradition attributed to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, black dogs are evil, or even devils, in animal form. Although this report did reflect a part of pre-Islamic Arab mythology, it had a limited impact upon Islamic law. The vast majority of Muslim jurists considered this particular tradition to be falsely attributed to the Prophet, and therefore, apocryphal. Nevertheless, much of the Islamic discourse focused on a Prophetic report instructing that if a dog, regardless of the color, licks a container, the container must be washed seven times, with the sprinkling of dust in one of the washings.
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