“All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.” – August Wilson, The Paris Review, Winter 1999.
“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“If the world were clear, art would not exist.” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.
In the artist’s realm, anything is possible. Art is subjective in that it inherently has a message – whether subtle or explicit. It is an extension of freedom of speech or expression. Take for instance, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a symbolic response to atrocities suffered during the Spanish Civil War. To this day, the 1937 painting stands for a political message against genocide.
The power of art in invoking emotion, thought, or action, is not a new concept. A moral question, however, is whether some art that broaches sensitive subjects such as religion, goes too far. A recent film production released on Youtube, “Innocence of Muslims” by a U.S. director “Sam Bacile” (his real name is disputed by media), sparked outrage in the Middle East and North Africa for its anti-Islamic nature. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Bacile reportedly said, “Islam is a cancer. The movie is a political movie. It is not a religious movie.”
CNN added, “Cartoonish scenes show Muhammad as a womanizer, child molester and ruthless killer. Other scenes show security forces ordered to do nothing as rampaging Muslims destroy Christian homes, and a donkey anointed the first Muslim animal.”
“The film is offensive to the prophet and immoral,” commented Egyptian Prime Minister Hashem Kandil. “We call on the great people of Egypt to exercise restraint when expressing their anger.”
Regardless of the “political vs. religious” distinction made by the director, the film provoked fury and unleashed violence in the Middle East and North Africa through its portrayal of Prophet Muhammad. Not only that, protests (likely supplemented by anger from the film’s disrespect of the Prophet) resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya, and in attacks on embassies in Egypt and Yemen. The filmmaker should have known that any religious reference to Muhammad would invoke passionate reaction – it is simply intolerable to Muslims. To make matters worse, Terry Jones, the Qur’an-burning Florida pastor, came out in support of the film, fueling even more hatred towards America.
More than eight years ago, the fate of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh – famous for his anti-Islamic writings – was sealed when he produced the film, Submission, critical of the treatment of Muslim women. After the film’s release, van Gogh received death threats clearly infuriating the Muslim community. In 2004, a Dutch-Moroccan killed van Gogh in response to the film. A year later, Danish newspaper cartoonist Kurt Westergaard depicted Mohammad as wearing a bomb as a turban, creating worldwide outrage.
Having been raised in an environment accepting of all multicultural beliefs, it is unfathomable to me why people target religion. The religious experience is a very personal interaction one has with a higher being (if one believes, at all) – whether that be God, Allah, or whoever else. This is not to say that freedom of speech is best limited, but it is a simply a plea that people consider the impact of their messages on others. Religion should never be used as a weapon, or broadly applied to drive a harmful agenda. I believe all religions must be tolerated, and never mocked at the expense of the believer. While in Egypt, I visited a Mosque and greeted with the utmost respect. The experience opened my eyes to Islam and revealed that society simply cannot blame all believers for the acts of terror perpetrated by a select few in the name of religion. I hope that artists privileged to create new art can stand behind their opinions, but exert caution when addressing touchy subjects. People are entitled to their own beliefs, values, and opinions, but should think about expressing these in a respectful way throughout the world. Cultural differences do not imply distance between people, but rather provide an opportunity to learn from each other.
Should art’s subject matter and free speech ever be carefully scrutinized or does that defy its purpose or intent? How might this film production harm relations with the Middle East & North Africa in the future? Is artistic expression with religious commentary treading on dangerous territory?