Having recently raised concerns about the (impending?) protests against the publication of ‘The Jewel of Medina‘ and the complaints about recent episodes of ‘Eastenders‘, another story relating to ‘Muslim outrage’ has hit the headlines. In The Telegraph on 10 October, ‘Sarah Maple’s Exhibition Poses Questions that Anger Muslims‘ reported that:
The artist, who has shown at Ronnie Wood’s Scream gallery, has a new exhibition with a headline picture showing a Muslim woman cradling a pig.
Already, Mokhtar Badri, the vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, tells Mandrake that his organisation plans to visit the SaLon Gallery, in Notting Hill, west London, to demand that it remove Maple’s painting when it exhibits it next week.
“Although we condemn violence, Muslims have a right to express their disgust at this work,” he tells me. “An artist has the right to free speech and to express him or herself, but people also have the right to protest. She clearly wants to provoke a strong reaction from Muslims and that is what she will get.”
Maple, 23, who was brought up as a Muslim, has already evoked Islamic wrath. Her exhibition at Rolling Stone Wood’s gallery earlier this year depicted Muslim women in provocative poses, including one suggestively sucking on a banana.
Badri explained the upset that would be caused over the image. “Muslims believe that all of God’s creatures should be treated with respect, but we are taught to keep our distance from pigs because they are unclean,” he said. “That is why this picture is so offensive to us.”
A spokesman for the gallery explained: “She doesn’t intend to offend anyone but simply wants to pose questions about Muslim culture and identity.”
It is difficult in these situations to work out exactly what it is that ‘offends’. As far as can be ascertained, there is no theological justification whatsoever for (some) Muslims being ‘offended’, upset, distressed or perturbed by pigs and especially nothing that encourages an outright hatred of pigs, let alone the painting of one. Just because Muslims – as indeed are Jews, Rastafarians and Seventh Day Adventists amongst others – are forbidden from eating pork, this clearly does not mean that ‘forbidden’ equates to ‘offending’, ‘upsetting’, ‘distressing’ or indeed anything else that might be similar.
Because of this, it would seem that when those in relevant positions of authority and influence subsequently decide to ‘ban’ such things, they are completely removed from what they believe to be ‘respecting’ or ‘tolerating’ the beliefs of others. What they are instead respecting and tolerating are not ‘religious’ beliefs but the personal whimsies and fancies of a handful of individuals.
Why is this so, and why is it that the response to all people’s personal gripes are not afforded the same levels of respect?
A useful and interesting analogy is that of Mary Whitehouse. Following her death, the BBC wrote:
To some she was the guardian of Christian family values, to others a self-appointed busybody.
For more than 30 years, Mary Whitehouse led the charge of the middle-class moralists to purge the “poison being poured into millions of homes through television”…
…She complained vehemently of the increasing “blasphemy, bad language, violence and indecency” she saw on television.
It went on:
She was the scourge of the “permissive society”, and pilloried by the media…tainted with an image of a blue-rinsed reactionary, Whitehouse endured years of abuse, stink bombs and pies in the face
As someone who was ‘offended’ and complained in response of this, Whitehouse was rarely afforded any credibility whatsoever. Instead she was regularly and repeatedly referred to as a figure of ridicule. Few took her seriously, even though she was able to mobilise 37 coach loads of supporters to lobby against the media in Birmingham Town Hall: a significantly higher number than those who have more recently bothered to respond to Maples, Eastenders or even the likes of Jerry Springer the Opera a few years ago.
Why then is it that we nowadays afford these similarly ‘offended’ individuals and groups a far greater credibility?
Why is it that we have a seeming tolerance for some who are offended but a complete intolerance of others?
Is there something substantially different underpinning the ‘offence’ experienced and voiced by Whitehouse and her ilk to those ‘offended’ by Maples and hers?
All legitimate yet un-answered questions.
Rather than society starting from the premise that some have the right to ban what ‘offends’, surely the way forward is that all have the right to be ‘offended’? Going against this and banning whatever a handful of vociferous individuals – Whitehouse or whoever – take ‘offence’ to is based upon an entirely subjective basis and one where those who shout the loudest will eventually gain the upper hand.
Which is a shame because the voices of those such as Maples herself get lost: dismissed as being Muslim, dismissed as having anything legitimate to say. And this is exactly what Maples is trying to challenge. In an interview that is reproduced on ‘Art Space Talk‘, Maples is asked to respond to the ‘controversy’ that her art causes:
My work with Islamic themes comes from my own experience of being mixed race. because of cultural and religious clashes I think it’s very hard to mix east and west. I think many Muslims get it so confused, for example I know people who will celebrate Eid by getting pissed, it’s such a contradiction! I suppose I get fed up with the ‘judgment’ I feel is put on me by other Muslims who may see me as substandard because I don’t pray or cover myself. This is reflected in my work.
The best example of this is my piece ‘White Girl’ (which is a derogatory term I discovered is used amongst Muslims for a non-Muslim or a ‘bad’ Muslim) I made this after feeling angry when speaking to an old Muslim friend about my art.
Being ‘offended’ may then be a useful smokescreen: one that hinders intra-, inter and self-reflection as well as the need to recognise that many other significant problems exist within today’s society that desperately need attention. Restricting the right to offend in any way whatsoever then is far from something that should be seen to be a victory: convenient for some, yes; a victory for all, no.
The question then is not whether the humble, lowly and ‘unclean’ pig (feel free to substitute with painting, soap opera, book and so on) is really worth all this hassle, but why so many are trying to make out that it is?
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.