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August 31, 2007

Religious Offense: A Comparison

What happens when art that offends people of a particular religion is displayed? Let's do a comparative look. First, the Christians, in an article headlined, "Christians Mull Offensive Art Works".

The inclusion of two provocative entries in Australia's most prestigious religious art competition has again highlighted the issue of distasteful art and Christians' reaction to it.

Critics ranging from Prime Minister John Howard to church leaders have questioned the appropriateness of the two exhibits -- one depicting the Virgin Mary wearing an Islamic burqa, and another, a holographic image of al-Qaeda terror chief Osama bin Laden morphing into an image of Jesus Christ.

The works, submitted for a 55-year-old annual award called the Blake prize, are on display at a taxpayer-funded gallery in Sydney. Howard has called them "gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians."

"Regrettably, attempts to insult Jesus and Mary have become common in recent years, even predictable," said the country's most senior Catholic leader, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.

"Too often it seems that the only quality which makes something 'art' is the adolescent desire to shock," he said. "If this is the best the Blake prize can do, it has probably outlived its usefulness."

The chairman of the Blake prize, the Rev. Rod Pattenden, said in a statement it seemed that "a real nerve" had been hit.

"I have received several angry phone calls from people claiming religious allegiance who have expressed themselves with clear hatred and violence towards other religious groups," said Pattenden, a minister in the Uniting Church, a liberal Protestant denomination.

Mulling, questioning, and even some angry phone calls over this sort of art.

Let's look at the history of another religion.

The drawings show the head of a turbaned man attached to the body of a dog, in front of various settings including a football goal.

The publication, in the newspaper Nerikes Allehanda, came after several galleries had refused to display the drawings, apparently for fear of violent retaliation from offended Muslims.

Early last year, violent demonstrations erupted throughout the Muslim world after the publication in Denmark of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed which were also deemed blasphemous.

"Alongside the picture, we published a comment piece saying that it was serious that there is self-censorship among exhibition [galleries]," said the Nerikes Allehanda editor-in-chief, Ulf Johansson.

Last weekend, a small gathering of protestors gathered outside the newspaper's offices to demonstrate against the cartoon's publication.

That was followed this Monday by Iran summoning Sweden's chief diplomat in Teheran to express its own outrage. Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has blamed "Zionists" for the images but said he would not hold the Swedish people responsible.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said that Sweden's charge d'affaires had promised his government "shared the views of the Muslim community and termed the publication as unfortunate".

In Stockholm, the Swedish foreign ministry said it now considered the matter closed.

But last year's violent protests over the Danish cartoons has showed that initially little noticed drawings can eventually prompt widespread anger.

Yes, well, more than just "widespread anger"; over 100 people died. This particular situation has become an international incident, and it's working, since some places are afraid to display them.

Both situations -- the Christian one and the Muslim one -- are equal in that they offend some people of a particular religion and, in my view, also equal in that they should not be banned. I don't think public money should be financing them (and I have no evidence that they are), but banning insults is, to me, a slippery-slope freedom-of-speech issue.

But there is self-censorship happening in the case of art insulting Islam, not because of any sense of tact or taste (unfortunately), but because of the fear of what its adherents might do. For many, it's not OK to insult Islam because they might kill us if we do. Far too many folks who stand up for freedom of speech or for the arts are more than willing to throw out those principles before the angry mob show up. The "religion of peace" does not have a very good record at handling insults peaceably, with mulling and phone calls.

Obligatory disclaimer: Yes, I'm fully aware that a majority of Muslims don't take up arms over cartoons. But the point is, so many do, and so many Christians or Jews don't, that to the observer of these events, Islam does seem more violent than others.

Is Islam in need of a reformation?

Posted by Doug at August 31, 2007 01:05 PM

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i am a white caucasian woman 5ft in stature. i was with a male friend waiting patiently at a bus stop in costume for a birthday party. my friend was dressed as christ. we were attacked by a male christian who was offended by the fancy dress costume. he attacked from behind and not only abused verbally but physically assualted both of us..he was only dressed this way to cause a stir for a friends party that was sure to have many family members. we were not behaving in a way that was offensive, other than the mode of dress.
anyone decent, christian, atheist. islamic, whatever, would have either ignored it, taken it in good humour or would have commented rather than resorting without warning to violent behaviour. my point is that there are violent people on all sides from all religions, and for some while they will be forgiven in the eyes of their god, it does not make up for being a dispicable person on a day to day basis!
the bible is about accepting differences and learning to rise above them. if tolerance cant be practised by those with strong religious views and with works of literature teaching about it, where will it be practised?

my disclaimer is that i am baptised an confirmed roman catholic. i am open minded as a result of living in a multicultural city and making contacts and friends from many countries and religions. befriend some muslims! aren't we all big enough to get over the well publicised extremists in every religion?

freedom of speech

Posted by: freedom of speech at September 16, 2007 11:01 AM

my point is that there are violent people on all sides from all religions

Nobody's saying that, if you look close enough, you'll find violent people in any religion. What I am saying is that Islam looks like it needs some sort of fundamental shift in thought at the present time. This is not simply a case of "well publicised extremists"; what recent religious affront regarding Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism have caused believers in those religions to go into a world-wide rage of killing and burning?

Yes, most certainly, let's befriend the Muslims around us. I'm clearly not suggesting we pull away. I'm just noticing a rather large difference in the way Islam deals with offenses to its religion. Not all and not most, indeed, but certainly a larger minority than in other religions.

Posted by: Doug Payton at September 16, 2007 10:09 PM