The Saatchi Gallery hosted an exhibition of artwork by London based artist SKU. Two paintings had to be covered up after demands by Muslim visitors claiming that it was offensive to them. Although the gallery refused to take the painting down, they did cover it up. Some considered this a sensible compromise.
When I found out about the artwork, I was devastated, hurt and angry. I thought to myself, how can someone create something so offensive in the name of art? Everyone knows how sensitive many Muslims are when it comes to Islam, our Prophet (pbuh) and Allah. It was incomprehensible that this should have been allowed to happen. But something didn’t seem to sit right with me. So I thought to myself, why am I not like this when I see half-naked statues of Jesus? What about when they make movies based on him and depict him? Why am I not consistent in my devastation, hurt and anger?
It got me thinking, why do we think we have an absolute right of what people can say or create about Islam? We have never considered owning the identity of Jesus whom we consider to be our Prophet, otherwise, we would be complaining about how he is depicted and demanding that that shouldn’t be happening. We would be demanding no one call him the Son of God, or even God himself because that would be to commit shirk (associating equals to Allah). We don’t seem to show that same lack of outrage when accusations of pedophilia are leveled at Muhammed (pbuh), instead our anger is strongly felt. So why are we like this when something is directly related to Islam? The answer is quite simple, many Muslims assume they have a monopoly on not only Islam, what a Muslim is, but the Arabic language.
The offending artwork by SKU featured a naked woman set on the backdrop of the American flag, with the Shahada (declaration of faith) running through it. The Shahada was written in traditional Arabic, which the Quran was revealed in and what many Muslims are expected to learn as a language to gain its maximum benefit. Arabic tends to be associated with Muslims, but did you know it is not only Muslims that use Arabic, but also religious minorities in the Arab world. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians all use Arabic not only in their daily lives but also in their religious worship. So since they too can have a claim to the Arabic language, wouldn’t they to be upset if someone used the Arabic term Allah in a derogatory way? I’m not sure they would, but I could be wrong.
The right to free speech is enshrined in law. It is a right we all have and deserve in a western democracy. It is not a right that should be limited due to the potential of the offense being caused. We cannot be restricted in our freedom of expression, because someone will get offended. Everyone has a right to offend, be offended and to also not take offense. It is up to you which you choose and how you exercise your freedom of expression. But the right to free speech does not mean you have the right to propagate hate speech or incite violence. Targeting Muslims for being Muslims is wrong and this is unacceptable.
The compromise to cover the artwork for Muslim visitors, tells me that in this instance, Muslims have an unfair advantage over anyone else. It means that they are using their identity to protect their religion. Islam doesn’t need protection, it doesn’t feel pain, it does not share the human emotions that we have, so let’s stop treating it like it is a living being. We must accept it is first and foremost a religion, a way of life that many Muslims follow. But like we Muslims don’t own the Arabic language, neither do we have the right to tell people how to express themselves freely. We don’t have to like what people say, but we need to remember there are people who don’t like what we have to say either. But that is what makes this country great, the fact that we have the right to say what we like because, without that freedom, we’re left limiting our expression and restricting our own creativity out of fear of offense.
A simple solution for the Muslims that wished for the artwork to be taken down is simple, observe your hijab. Lower your gaze, look away. No one is forcing you to look at it, no one is forcing you to attend the exhibition. In fact, no one is forcing you to accept that it won’t offend you, because we know it will. What we do expect you to do is accept the law of freedom of expression. You don’t have to like it and you can challenge it as much as you like, but what you can’t do is restrict someone from expressing themselves based on your sensitivities.
This isn’t about Muslims, it isn’t even about SKU, what it is about is upholding and respecting the law. The law doesn’t discriminate against an individual, it treats them all the same. Protected characteristics such as religious belief doesn’t mean you get to tell people how to express themselves, what it does mean is that freedom of expressions cannot target you because of your religious beliefs. If the artwork were promoting hatred against Muslims, then that would be a reasonable and legal position to have the artwork removed, but that isn’t the case. The artwork was about Islam, and whether we like it or not, Islam can and should be challenged, scrutinized and expressed in however individual wishes to. No one own Islam, Muslims or the Arabic language, and conversely, no one owns the right to tell people how to express themselves, particularly if it isn’t breaking the law. So quit the outrage, Islam doesn’t need protecting against hate, Muslims do.