Although radical outgrowths of modern Islam present many challenges to Western civilization, Westerners ought to be reminded that thought-suppression and violence are denounced by the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, and do not do justice to the rich history of Islam itself.
It is particularly dispiriting, then, to find the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York suppressing important artifacts of Islamic civilization, stunning works of arts created when Islam—the wellspring of modern mathematics and an example of religious tolerance—was on the ascendant. The Museum is omitting from the part of its permanent collection formerly known as the Islamic Art galleries three ancient pictures that depict the person of Muhammad.
Although the Met claims it is re-thinking its gallery displays pending renovation of its exhibition areas, informed speculation is that it is paying obeisance to the supposed prohibition in Islam of figural representation (a right reserved to Allah), and most specifically to visual representation of Muhammed. The point, then, is neither artistic or curatorial, but political: the Met wants to avoid controversy from those Muslims who object to representations of the Prophet.
Not only has the Museum instead created more controversy, its assumptions are faulty. As historian and archeologist Oleg Grabar demonstrated exhaustively in the New Republic, Islamic tradition is far from unified on the issue of representing living things in art, although figural representation is largely absent from mosques. However, centuries of experience produced a sort of modus vivendi whereby the Prophet, when represented in illustrations, was depicted as veiled or faceless.
In any event, the very existence of depictions of Muhammed in the Met's collection proves Islam has not, historically, been uniform in rejecting his portraits. Furthermore, if the Met wished to strike a balance between its cultural obligations and the hypothetical sensibilities of certain Muslims, all it needed to do was move the portraits to a separate room with appropriate warnings at the entrance.
No, the Met is engaging in ill-advised politicking, trying to show how sensitive it is to minority concerns. Great art, Islamic in inspiration and creation, could be a powerful tool for helping non-adherents appreciate the cultural legacies of Islamic civilization. The Met is even retooling its nomenclature, removing the tag "Islamic Galleries" and calling their contents art from "Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia." Depriving an entire civilization grounded in a common religious belief of credit for some of its highest achievements hardly seems sensitive to Muslims.
At the Berlin Museum for Islamic Art, established in 1904, Stefan Weber is overseeing plans to double its size and takes a wholly different view: "the Prophet has often been depicted by Islamic painters.... We shouldn't start censoring history." The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, features the largest collection of Islamic art anywhere in the world (housed in a structure designed not by a Muslim, but by I.M. Pei). It, too, eschews Met-style censorship, and will co-exist with an upcoming exhibition at the Doha Four Seasons of the non-Islamic art of Gina Lollobrigida, which helps celebrate "Doha, Capital of Arab Culture 2010."
The Met's suppression of three works of art is an affront to free expression, high culture, and religious freedom. What's more, unlike recent incidents involving the Berlin Opera and Denmark's newspapers, the Museum's decision was made out of sheer presumptuousness. It patronizingly seeks to protect Muslims from Islamic Art—based on a sweeping and fearful assumption of how potential radicals might react to it. This move suggests that every issue dealing with Islam must be viewed through the prism of its most radical, anti-civilizational aspects. The Met fails to see that to treat the vast world of Islam, in all its grand and overwhelmingly peaceful diversity, in this manner is an insult to Muslims.
George A. Pieler is an attorney and writer based in Falls Church, Virginia. Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum.