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Overruling religious sensitivities

By Muhammad Hussain - posted Wednesday, 16 April 2008

One must wonder what would be the reaction of Muslims if a museum in Riyadh or Islamabad, or in any Muslim country, displays, for example, a Piss Muhammad photograph like the one of Jesus by American photographer Andres Serrano, which depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine.

Displaying such as an art-work even in a European, American, Canadian or Australian Museum would be impossible - thanks to the super sensitivity of Muslim feelings. But Andres Serrano's Piss Christ photograph was exhibited in art galleries and museums of most Western countries albeit amid whining complaint from Christians. Complaints against its display were rejected on the ground of artistic freedom and freedom of speech. When the National Gallery of Victoria displayed Piss Christ in 1997, a petition against it being displayed by Dr George Pell, the Archbishop of Melbourne, was rejected by the Victorian court in support of the artist’s right to express his mind.

This right to freedom of expression is the central value of all western democratic societies. Asserting that the freedom of expression was central to a government's duty to serve the people, John Milton urged the British parliament in 1644, "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties".


Freedom of expression as a fundamental human right was first adopted in the French Constitution in 1789 and in the US Constitution two years later. All western liberal democracies gradually followed suit. In 1948, the UN also adopted it in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads [Article 19]:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The duty of western democratic governments and of liberal institutions, such as the UN and the EU, is to enforce tolerance for one's right to free expression, not to trample it. Authorities in western countries have done exactly that by rejecting Christian objections against the display of Piss Christ. But most Western governments, the UN and the EU did exactly the opposite by condemning Geert Wilders' film on Islam, Fitna, as "highly offensive". The film depicts the consistency of certain Koranic verses with the activities of Muslim Imams, radicals and terrorists.

As Wilders' film was released in remote Internet sites, the Dom Museum in Vienna, an art gallery attached to the historic Catholic cathedral of St Stephen, was running an exhibition of artist Alfred Hrdlicka's works, which included a rendition of the Last Supper of Christ and His Apostles, in which they are engaged in a homosexual orgy.

Obviously, the UN, the EU and Western governments did not find this depiction of Jesus as a homosexual (who holds quite the opposite image) offensive at all. Muslim Imams and radicals, on the other hand, frequently point to passages from the Koran and Prophet Mohammed's example to justify their hateful speeches and violent actions. One is left to wonder, how putting together such Koranic passages with widely circulated images and videos of Muslim Imams and radicals and their actions - as Wilders has done in his film - becomes "highly offensive".

Muslims have complained that the film misrepresented their religion by misinterpreting those Koranic verses and by taking them out of context and unfairly linking them to speeches and actions of a small number of extremists. If that is the case, instead of condemning Wilders - they would be better off attaching the correct context or interpretation of such apparently violent and hateful Koranic verses in order to prevent those extremists from causing havoc in the West as well as in their own countries.


It is likely that Alfred Hrdlicka's art, depicting Jesus as a homosexual, will be exhibited all over the world without any reaction from the UN, the EU and western governments. But how will they react if an artist creates a similar art-work based on Mohammed (more appropriate since Mohammed had an overly active sexual life) and wants to display it in a museum or art gallery in a western country? It is not be difficult to guess what the reaction will be.

But whatever the reaction, the UN, the EU and western governments are duty-bound to uphold, not condemn, freedom of expression. More importantly, it is impossible that the application of two opposite standards for two different religions will work in parallel for long in the same society. In time, the censorship of criticisms and offensive depictions of Islam, will lead to similar censorship surrounding Christianity and other faiths.

In the end, the liberal western democracies will end up losing the most treasured achievement of civilised societies - freedom of expression - which was achieved after two millennia of struggle (it started with Socrates' insistence on it, for which he was put to death in 399BC), and at the cost of immense sacrifice and suffering.

Now in the 21st century, losing this prized achievement would not only be a tragic loss, but also an utter disgrace.

"Preserving freedom is harder than achieving it," said some Indian political genius. With the burgeoning super sensitive and intolerant Muslim populace - the western democracies are undoubtedly passing through trying times.

Actions taken by governments will crucially determine whether freedom of expression, an inalienable human right, will end up in the gutter, or be preserved in the heart of societies for decades to come. Let us hope that humankind will not have to sacrifice blood once again to achieve the right to offend any racial, religious and ethnic groups, because of the failure of western governments to uphold their central duty.

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About the Author

Muhammad Hussain is researcher and freelance writer.

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All articles by Muhammad Hussain

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