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18 April, 2008
One wonders 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. For example, when the National Gallery of Victoria displayed Piss Christ in 1997, a petition against its displaying by Dr George Pell, the Archbishop of Melbourne, was rejected by the court in support of the artist‚™s right to express his mind.
This right to freedom of expression is the central hallmark of civilized societies. Upholding it, asserted John Milton in 1644, is central to the government‚™s duty to serve the people.
Therefore, 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 art piece. But most Western governments, the UN and the EU did exactly the opposite by summarily condemning Dutch politician Geert Wilders' recent 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, including 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 or 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 should better work on attaching the correct context or interpretation to 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 their reactions 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, the application of two opposite standards for two different religions in the same society is only unfair and hypocritical, but also will not work for long. In due course of 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 civilized societies‚the freedom of expression‚which was achieved after two millennia of struggle (which started with Socrates' insistence on speaking his mind, for which he was put to death in 399 BC), and at the cost of immense sacrifice and suffering.
Now in the 21st century, losing this prized achievement of human civilization 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 going through trying times.
Actions taken by the 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 in the 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.