Portrait of the Artist as a Dhimmified Man
Given the history of Islamist violence directed at European artists, writes David Rusin, their fear of critiquing Islam is justifiable. However, the current level of self-censorship is deeply problematic. "Their eagerness to assume the role of subjugated infidels living under Islamic rule can only demoralize the population and embolden the extremists."
January 10, 2008 - 1:00 am
“Art is not what you see,” noted Edgar Degas, “but what you make others see.” Ninety years after his death, a new maxim applies to Europe: The art that you do not see reflects what everyone already sees. And what we see is the preemptive surrender of public freedoms in the name of appeasing the continent’s restive Muslim underclass.
Grayson Perry serves as the ideal poster boy – or perhaps poster girl – for this discomfiting trend. A Turner Prize recipient and England’s most famous cross-dressing potter, Perry has been heralded for his controversial explorations of religious imagery, which include a vase entitled “Transvestite Brides of Christ” and a portrayal of the Virgin Mary that is best left to the imagination. Yet apparently there are some boundaries that even groundbreaking artists dare not cross.
“I’ve censored myself,” Perry told the Times, admitting that he treads lightly around radical Islam. “With other targets you’ve got a better idea of who they are but Islamism is very amorphous. You don’t know what the threshold is. Even what seems an innocuous image might trigger off a really violent reaction so I just play safe all the time.” Self-censorship thus boils down to self-preservation. “The reason I haven’t gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat.”
His fears are not without logic. On the morning of November 2, 2004, hours before Americans would vote in an election shaped by the conflict between radical Islam and the West, that conflict violently manifested itself on the streets of Amsterdam. There, filmmaker Theo van Gogh succumbed to a rain of bullets from the gun of Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan extract. Bouyeri proceeded to slash his victim’s neck to near decapitation before leaving a pair of knives impaled in his chest. One pinned a letter outlining his grievances and threatening ex-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
The controversialist’s life and death form a microcosm of Europe’s new realities. An equal-opportunity offender, van Gogh loathed all religions and never missed a chance to insult the faithful – Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. However, his demise was directly linked to Submission, a short film written by Hirsi Ali that depicts the abuse of women in Muslim cultures. The contrast is striking. Christians and Jews responded to van Gogh’s provocations with the occasional letter or picket sign, but a young Muslim chose an HS 2000 firearm as his instrument of “protest.”
Van Gogh’s murder was neither the first nor the most recent case of Islamists employing violence to intimidate the Western creative class. Just ask Salman Rushdie, the British author of The Satanic Verses, who is now completing his second decade of sequestration following the death sentence pronounced by Iranian clerics. Renewed pledges of retaliation rose up on the heels of his knighting in 2007. The danger is undeniable. Several translators of Verses were assaulted at the behest of the 1989 fatwa; one, Hitoshi Igarashi, was killed.
Violence also erupted in the wake of the infamous Mohammed cartoons, first printed by the Danish broadsheet Jyllands-Posten in fall 2005. Dozens perished across the globe, consulates were set ablaze, threats of murder and kidnapping were issued, and several of the artists went into hiding. Islamists also marched on Denmark’s London embassy, raising placards that read “Europe you will pay, your 9/11 will come,” “Behead those who insult Islam,” “Freedom go to hell,” and “Be prepared for the real holocaust.”
Ironically, the cartoons were put forth as a protest against the type of self-censorship described by Grayson Perry. Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose commissioned them after learning that a Danish writer had been unable to find an artist willing to illustrate his book about the life of Mohammed. A report noted that “one [declined] with reference to the murder in Amsterdam of the film director Theo van Gogh, while another [cited the attack on] the lecturer at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute in Copenhagen.” The latter victim was assaulted for reading passages from the Koran to an infidel audience.
The cartoon controversy has only accelerated self-censorship. A museum in The Hague recently declined to display a photograph by Sooreh Hera that shows two gay men wearing masks of Mohammed and Ali, based on fears that “certain people in our society might perceive it as offensive.” Though critics of this action were assured that “all Dutch museums are free to choose what they exhibit,” Hera disagreed. “Apparently a Muslim minority decides what will be on display in the museum.” The artist has now retreated to an “unspecified location” following emails promising to “burn you naked or put a bullet in your mouth.”
Similarly, in October 2006 London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery removed erotic works by the surrealist Hans Bellmer. According to the curator, “the motive was simply to not shock the population of the Whitechapel neighborhood, which is partly Muslim.” The pictures were pulled merely one week after a Berlin opera house had cancelled – then sheepishly reinstated – performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo, in which the title character grandstands with the severed heads of Poseidon, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed. Needless to say, the severed heads of Poseidon, Buddha, and Jesus were never an issue.
Amir Taheri has compiled other disturbing cases from across the continent: German carnivals prohibiting costumes that might look “Islamic,” Spanish towns canceling traditional festivals marking the victory over the Moors, the blacklisting of books deemed critical of Islam, and the removal from public view of illuminated manuscripts that feature images of Mohammed.
Even art aimed at children has not been immune, as evidenced by a British school that excised the pigs from The Three Little Pigs to forestall Muslim objections. “If changing a few words avoids offense then we will do so,” a teacher explained. The school later reversed the decision. Likewise, British author Kes Gray just postponed a reprinting of his “inclusive” children’s book so that Mohammed the Mole could be renamed Morgan. “I had no idea at all of the sensitivities of the name Mohammed until seeing this case in Sudan,” he said, referencing the teacher imprisoned over a class teddy bear. “As soon as I saw the news I thought, ‘Oh gosh, I’ve got a mole called Mohammed – this is not good.’”
Particularly “not good” is the preemptive nature of these capitulations. “At this point, it seems, terrorists don’t even need to issue a specific threat in order to intimidate us,” observed Der Spiegel. Indeed, many of the above productions or exhibits faced no threats at all. Some Muslims are even helping to expose the hypersensitivity for what it is. Regarding the Pigs fiasco, the Daily Mail reported that “Islamic leaders condemned the politically correct move as misguided and said decisions like this were turning Muslims into ‘misfits’ in society.”
There can be no true freedom in a climate of fear. Given the history of Islamist violence directed at European artists, a significant portion of that fear is justified. However, the continent’s groveling cultural elites have needlessly exacerbated this atmosphere. Their inability or unwillingness to distinguish between Islam and Islamism magnifies the perceived strength of the radicals, while their eagerness to assume the role of dhimmis – subjugated infidels living under Islamic rule – can only demoralize the population and embolden the extremists.
Will Europe ultimately choose to preserve the foundational values of classical liberalism forged during its Renaissance and Enlightenment? Or will it suffer a long, slow decline into the dark ages of dhimmitude? For now, only one conclusion appears certain: somewhere in a Dutch prison cell, Mohammed Bouyeri is smiling.
David J. Rusin is a Philadelphia-based editor for PJ Media. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania.