Lars Vilks, "Gay Muhammad" and "Freedom of Expression"

This past week brings news of yet another fracas involving Swedish cartoon artist Lars Vilks (CNN.com):

When Vilks entered a classroom where he was to deliver a lecture to about 250 people — all of whom had passed through a security checkpoint to gain admission — about five people started protesting loudly, Eronen said.

After Uppsala uniformed and non-uniformed police calmed the protesters, the lecture got under way at about 5:15 p.m. (11:15 a.m. ET), Eronen said.

But as Vilks was showing audiovisual material, 15 to 20 audience members became loud and tried to attack Vilks, he said.

As police stepped in, a commotion started and Vilks was taken to a nearby room; police used pepper spray and batons to fend off the protesters, Eronen said. Vilks did not return to the lecture. [Video footage of the event].

Last March, an American woman who called herself “Jihad Jane,” Colleen LaRose, was indicted in the United States for allegedly conspiring to support terrorists and kill Vilks.

In a 2007 interview with CNN he had drawn the cartoon of Mohammed with a dog’s body in order to take a stand.

“I don’t think it should not be a problem to insult a religion, because it should be possible to insult all religions in a democratic way, “ says Vilks from his home in rural Sweden.

“If you insult one, then you should insult the other ones.”

His crude, sketched caricature shows the head of Prophet Mohammed on the body of a dog. Dogs are considered unclean by conservative Muslims, and any depiction of the prophet is strictly forbidden.

Vilks, who has been a controversial artist for more than three decades in Sweden, says his drawing was a calculated move, and he wanted it to elicit a reaction.

“That’s a way of expressing things. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it. And if you look at it, don’t take it too seriously. No harm done, really,” he says.

When it’s suggested that might prove an arrogant — if not insulting — way to engage Muslims, he is unrelenting, even defiant.

“No one actually loves the truth, but someone has to say it,” he says.

Vilks, a self-described atheist, points out he’s an equal opportunity offender who in the past sketched a depiction of Jesus as a pedophile.

A few days later, Vilk’s website was hacked and the southern Sweden home of Vilks was hit by a suspected arson attack (The Washington Post).

In an act of deliberate provocation, Vilks’ film during his lecture included footage from the Iranian-born activist Sooreh Hera:

[Hera] photographed gay men in masks of Mohammad and his son-in-law Ali. Her video [Allah o Gay-Bar — warning: graphic sexuality] mixes photos of gay men and Muslim clerics, Islamic chants and the hard rock of “Gay Bar” by Electric Six.

The municipal museum in the Hague backed out of its plan to exhibit the photos from Hera’s “Adam and Ewald” series and a related video, according to recent news reports. Wim van Krimpen, director of the Gemeentemuseum, announced that the images were removed because “certain people in our society might perceive it as offensive.”

Hera, 34, accused the museum of caving in to pressure from Islamists, who also sent her death threats. Hera withdrew the rest of her photos from the show in protest, and another Dutch museum in Gouda has agreed to exhibit them in the future.

[…]

“Religion always wants to control human sexuality, most prominently with a compelling taboo on homosexuality,” she says in a statement on her site. “I have tried to show a recognisable beauty of homosexuals, but also an alienating beauty that to many may be unimagined, or dishonorable.”

Reactions have been all too predictable — this, for instance, from Nathan Harden (National Review):

These are the desperate acts of an extremist movement that is utterly bereft of moral courage, and awash in its own intellectual insecurity. Look at these Western-educated students in their designer clothes, calling down curses on a man who represents the freedom they hate so much, and yet have benefited so much from.

They are unaware of the irony they embody as they go about enjoying the fruits of Western civilization, while clinging to a repressive ideology that could never permit such a civilization to flourish. In defense of their failed belief system, they have nothing to offer but physical violence.

Ok, so there is some truth in Harden’s remarks. But I’m also tempted to ask: what is the ideology and belief system of artists like Vilk? What type of civilization is permitted to ‘flourish’ by providing a public forum (or financial patronage in many cases) to artists who strive to shock and offend religious sensibilities?

Consider the Vatican’s reaction to the Muslim outcry over caricatures of Mohammed in 2006 (aka. the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy)?

In an unsigned statement released by the Vatican press office Saturday, the Holy See stated: “The freedom of thought and expression, confirmed in the Declaration of Human Rights, can not include the right to offend religious feelings of the faithful. That principle obviously applies to any religion.”

“This principle applies obviously to any religion,” the Vatican said in response to several requests for the Church’s position.

Coexistence, the statement continued, calls for “a climate of mutual respect to favor peace among men and nations.”

The statement continued: “Moreover, these forms of exasperated criticism or derision of others manifest a lack of human sensitivity and may constitute in some cases an inadmissible provocation.

“A reading of history shows that wounds that exist in the life of peoples are not cured this way.”

Vilk’s depiction of a ‘Gay Mohammad’ calls to mind the recent, but non-violent, protest over a Texas film student’s plans to stage Terence McNally’s Corpus Christi — with a gay Jesus performing gay marriage; successfully canceled with pressure from Lt. Governor David Dewhurst.

There is no question that the Muslim reaction to Lars Vilks has been grossly disproportionate and ultimately contributes to the general caricature of Islam as a violent religion — after all, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary have been frequent subjects of ridicule by the Western media with nary a death threat, violent protest or firebombing.

Nonetheless, I find it disappointing that the controversy, at least in discussion among blogging conservatives, has been framed in large part as a conflict between “artistic freedom” vs. “religious censorship”; “Western freedom” vs. “Islamic fundamentalism” — with precious little attention is paid to questions such as:

  • Might Muslims be justifiably offended by Vilks’ and Sera’s “gay Muhammad”?
  • Should Western academia be providing a public forum or financial patronage to artists who continually assault religion?
  • When faced with our own depictions of religious blasphemy prevalent in the Western media, should we as Christians seek censorship?
  • Are there any limitations to such ‘freedom of expression’, or is it to be defended at all costs?
  • Is a preservation of complete and unrestricted license with relation to artistic expression condusive to the health of our society?
  • What is the purpose and calling of the artist?
  • What is the nature of freedom that Lars Vilks strives after?

In closing, some recommended food for thought on this topic (incentives for further discussion):

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands. May these hands be pure and disinterested. Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world. May that suffice to free you from tastes which are passing and have no genuine value, to free you from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions. Be always and everywhere worthy of your ideals and you will be worthy of the Church which, by our voice, addresses to you today her message of friendship, salvation, grace and benediction.

~ Pope Paul VI, December 8, 1965

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