[Paleopsych] NYT: Essay: Navigating Expression and Religious Taboos

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Essay: Navigating Expression and Religious Taboos
NYT January 22, 2005

LONDON, Jan. 17 - Two senior BBC executives were under
police protection last week after receiving death threats.
An Asian-British playwright went into hiding last month
when her life was threatened. A Dutch moviemaker who
ignored similar warnings was murdered on an Amsterdam
street in early November. The three episodes had religion
in common. And in each case, the issue was blasphemy.

Have European artists been exceeding the accepted
boundaries of tolerance? Or is religion becoming a new
taboo? That such questions are even asked is a measure of
the new cultural pressures surfacing across Western Europe.

Since the 1960's, confident that artistic freedom was
assured by this region's liberal tradition and growing
secularity, Europeans have come to view cultural Puritanism
as an American monopoly. While American museums remain wary
of displaying art that could be considered obscene,
Europeans are no longer shocked by the use or exploitation
of sex in art, advertising and newspapers or on screen,
stage or television.

Similarly, as the Christian right expanded its influence in
the United States, religion largely vanished from the
agenda of European artists and audiences. When French
Christian groups complained that posters for Costa-Gavras's
2002 movie, "Amen," abused the symbol of the cross, no one
paid much heed. In contrast, Andres Serrano's 1987
photograph of a crucifix in urine led the United States
Congress to slash the budget of the National Endowment for
the Arts.

The responses to "Sensation," an exhibition of irreverent
British art, contrasted prevailing attitudes. When it was
shown in 1997 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London,
complaints focused on a portrait of a notorious child
murderer made with children's handprints. But when the show
traveled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999, it was
Chris Ofili's painting of "The Holy Virgin Mary," decorated
with elephant dung, that caused outrage.

Yet in just a few years, notably since 9/11, much has
changed in Europe as religion has re-entered public life
and begun challenging artistic freedom.

The main catalyst has been the region's large Muslim
population, which has responded to criticism and hostility
with new militancy. But followers of other faiths,
including Christians, are also showing fresh readiness to
defend their beliefs and practices. Indeed, religion
suddenly seems more intertwined with politics in Europe.
And perhaps for this very reason, some artists have felt
the need to address it.

One such artist was Theo van Gogh, a Dutch moviemaker and a
distant relative of the painter Vincent van Gogh. Working
with a Somali-born Dutch legislator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he
made a short television documentary, "Submission," that
denounced violence against Muslim women by filming words
from the Koran written on the lacerated flesh of women. Its
broadcast last fall brought cries of blasphemy and death
threats. Unlike Ms. Hirsi Ali, Mr. van Gogh refused a
police guard. On Nov. 2, he was murdered, and a Dutch
Muslim of Moroccan parentage was arrested.

The murder provoked outrage in the Netherlands, stirring
intense debate about artistic freedom at a time when many
Dutch consider their liberal values to be increasingly
hostage to religious intolerance.

So where, if anywhere, should the line be drawn? Like
Germany, France has "anti-hate" legislation, which is
applied to extreme rightists and neo-Nazis, but rarely to
artists. In 2002, a French novelist, Michel Houellebecq,
was cleared of inciting racial hatred when he called Islam
"the most stupid religion." And a popular French comedian
known as Dieudonné was acquitted on the same charge last
year after he dressed as an Orthodox Jew for a television

This week, a Greek court tried an Austrian writer, Gerhard
Haderer, in absentia and sentenced him to six months'
imprisonment for publishing "The Life of Jesus," a
comic-strip book depicting Jesus as the leader of a
drug-taking sect.

Still more dramatically, in Britain - where anti-blasphemy
legislation has not resulted in a conviction since the
1920's - two recent incidents have thrown the spotlight on
what is acceptable.

The first involved Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a writer born in
Britain of Sikh immigrant parents, whose latest play,
"Behzti," or "Dishonor," portrays sex and brutality inside
a Sikh temple. One week after it opened at the Birmingham
Repertory Theater, several hundred Sikhs - furious at what
they considered blasphemy - attacked the building, breaking
windows and clashing with police. The next day, fearing
more violence, the theater canceled the play's run.

This decision was widely denounced by British theater
directors as capitulation to intimidation. Salman Rushdie,
who had faced Iranian death threats for his book "The
Satanic Verses," chastised the British government for not
defending Ms. Bhatti, who by then was in hiding.

"Religion and art have collided for centuries," Ms. Bhatti
wrote in The Guardian of London last week, "and will carry
on doing battle long after my play and I are forgotten."

Yet the revolt against "Behzti" points to something new:
that an increasingly multiethnic Europe is forcing a
re-examination of the relationship between freedom of
expression and religion. In another essay in The Guardian,
Timothy Garton Ash, a writer and fellow of St. Antony's
College, Oxford, said that any move to protect religions,
races and cultures from what they might consider grossly
offensive could help assure civic peace but would also
bring a net loss of liberty.

The alternative, which he favored, was that "precisely
because Britain is increasingly multicultural, all
variations of religion, all 'cultures,' including, of
course, atheism, devout Darwinism, etc., should get used to
living with a high degree of public offense." He added,
"Either you try to protect everyone from offense, or you
allow offense equally for all."

The "protect everyone" option has support. In fact, it has
even spawned a loose interfaith alliance here in recent
weeks. Having drawn strength from Muslims' defense of
Islam, the Sikhs who objected to "Behzti" won support from
some Christian prelates. And when British Christian groups
charged that a BBC program was blasphemous, they were
supported by some Sikh leaders.

At issue was a planned BBC-2 broadcast of a live theater
performance of "Jerry Springer: The Opera," which satirizes
Mr. Springer's American "shock-horror" television show as
well as religious fanaticism in general. The musical -
which not only is filled with expletives and spoof songs
like "I Married a Horse" but also includes a scene set in
hell in which Jesus admits he is "a bit gay" - has been
drawing West End crowds without a squeak of protest.

Early this month, several Christian groups organized a
campaign in which a record 50,000 people telephoned or sent
e-mail messages to the BBC demanding it halt the broadcast.
One group, Christian Voice, posted the names and home
addresses of key BBC executives on its Web site, resulting
in threatening telephone calls. "If this show portrayed
Mohammed or Vishnu as homosexual, ridiculous and
ineffectual," the group's leader, Stephen Green, said, "it
would never have seen the light of day."

The BBC refused to back down. And on Jan. 8, the show was
seen by an estimated 1.8 million people, or 10 percent of
the total audience. But the storm did not end there.
Politicians, artists and even clerics joined the fray,
variously calling the show offensive, boring or
entertaining. Newspapers published scores of letters on the

For the first time in a century, blasphemy was at the
center of the news here.

What does it all mean? Perhaps artists are taking on
religion precisely because it is the last taboo. On the
other hand, if charges of blasphemy are accompanied by
threats of violence, artists or BBC executives may choose
to think twice before exercising their freedom on matters
of faith. Either way, religious tensions have begun
spilling into the cultural arena.


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