An uneasy relationship between art and religion

Using the creative medium to challenge norms, not ridicule beliefs.

Muslim women all covered up 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muslim women all covered up 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Didn't we all know that this would happen again?  The international riots from several years ago that left over 50 people dead may have settled into the historical landscape but the deep issues that propelled a few silly, sophomoric drawings in an obscure Danish newspaper to the zenith of international events has once again emerged with fatal consequences.  The high profile killing of the American ambassador in Libya may have been a separately planned terrorist attack, but that doesn't change the fact that others around the world have died in these more recent riots. Just as before, the natural tendency is to hunker down and cautiously wait for this situation to blow over, and thankfully, it has. But without a brave, honest, open, if measured, discussion on the topic, this issue will most certainly re-occur with, perhaps, even more tragic consequences. 
Instead of Danish cartoon drawings, this time it was a trailer of an American film that has depicted the Prophet Mohammed poorly. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are on record condemning the film as hateful trash, which, of course, it is. Just as with the Danish cartoons, no one could accurately describe this miserable little film trailer as art. Unfortunately, we have nothing to contrast it with because artistic pieces challenging Islam on any level are conspicuously absent from the world stage.
It would be too easy to attribute this to fear of retaliation. Although that’s partly true. Fear of retaliation certainly does come into play.  But artists as a whole tend to be a fearless lot. The lack of serious art dealing with Islam may be due to an even more insidious and ironically, an even more anti-Islamic reality. Many writers and artists condescendingly dismiss Islam as a quaintly archaic, even primitive, religious custom not worth challenging. 
Those who have dared to confront some of the more troubling aspects of current Islamic practice, such as the late Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh, have found themselves casually dismissed by the creative community as a gadfly (to say nothing of his brutal treatment by the Islamists that he dared challenge). The best art is at least somewhat subversive yet artists and writers seem to have eagerly acquiesced into the politically correct consensus that the proper stance towards the current state of Islamic culture should be one of eyes wide shut, arm’s length acceptance.
To be fair, a certain amount of artistic self-censorship surrounds Judeo-Christian ideals as well but it does not approach anywhere near the level it does with Islam. Most progressive publications would have no problem printing a picture as offensive to Christians such as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (basically a crucifix submerged in urine, not one of Serrano’s better pieces but I guess the thought was there). Yet they would not dare show a work similarly disrespectful to Islam. You won’t even find anything as relatively innocent and benign (yet still so sublimely powerful) as Salvador Dali’s magnificently surreal “Crucifixion.”
It’s a shame that this unwritten; head in the sand policy towards Islam (but not other religions) exists in the Western art world, especially since the Islamic community actually has many talented writers and thinkers who share their thirst for expressive, artistic freedom.
Irshad Manji (The Trouble with Islam) and Reza Aslan (No God but God) are two Muslim writers who very articulately call for some type of reformation within Islam today. Aslan is particularly adept at putting Islam in an historical perspective while demonstrating its vital core. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (The Caged Virgin) is a former Dutch Member of Parliament and outspoken critic of Islam’s treatment of woman. After Muslim fundamentalists killed her friend and colleague, Theo Van Gogh, for making a film critical of Islam’s misogynist practices, they brazenly impaled his body a letter saying that she would be next.  She continues to speak out despite the fact that death threats against her have necessitated 24-hour protection.
Tragically, many more independent Muslim writers languish in prisons in Iran and Saudi Arabia for daring to even suggest simple, relative decimal point changes in Islamic practice. Even Amnesty International toes the politically correct line by ignoring the plight of these religious prisoners. Somewhat pathetically, others such as the Swiss writer Tariq Ramadan (Western Muslims and the Future of Islam) seem to draw their vitality (and in the process become the darlings of the Western media) by continually re-positioning themselves at the sterile center between the rigid fundamentalists and those Muslims who take real risks to put Islamic practice on some path of needed reform.
The situation may seem bleak but art has always existed and even thrived in some sort of constrictive environment. Art and religion have always had a warily symbiotic relationship. Each endeavor seeks to be a vehicle to ultimate truths. Religion has frequently inspired great art while the soul searing effect of art has often sculpted religious practice into a more socially relevant entity. 
There was a time when the Catholic Church strictly controlled almost every facet of life in Europe. Yet artists and writers still found a way to challenge and change the socio-political landscape. Dante made a powerful statement about the senior clergy by placing several popes in his mythic journey through purgatory and hell. Michelangelo and many other painters and sculptors all challenged the existing authoritarian structure through their work. Similarly, a host of Jewish artists, from E.M. Lilien, Hermann Struck, and down through Marc Chagall, all pushed the boundaries on the rabbinical prohibition of graven images with creative uses of personification. In many ways, Art Spiegelman’s iconic graphic novel “Maus” can be seen as coming from the same tradition. 
These artists actually made a difference. What they were really doing was reconnecting to the deeper spiritual values that had been obscured over the centuries by organizational prohibitions that, like weeds, had taken on a life of their own.  It’s important to note that artists did so by working somewhat within the existing framework of what was acceptable. Most importantly, they felt very strongly that the material they were chipping away at had a dynamic core worth preserving. The international creative community needs to support artists and writers with a similarly enlightened approach; those who at least know enough about Islam to have a deep respect and admiration for its dynamic, vital essence. 
These series of incidents may also present a good opportunity for those of us, whose values are not framed by nationalistic nor tribo-religious agendas, to address and influence the direction of these cultural trends. But this means rising above the currently practiced polar opposites of crude caricature and condescending cultural relativism. Instead taking strong stands for real artistic freedom while still respecting the dynamic, vital essence of sacred beliefs. 
Brian Fox is a freelance writer living in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA.