x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Muslim art needs a wider audience

The Muslim world needs to address offensive films and cartoons with more art of its own

In the last two weeks a great deal has been written about the film Innocence of Muslims. The controversial film-makers, their deliberately provocative efforts, the actors who were duped into making the hate-filled film and the political backdrop into which the film trailer was inserted have generated pages of opinion columns.

It was first released in California to an empty cinema in June, and its trailer uploaded onto YouTube two weeks later. The fact that it garnered Muslim attention only on September 11 does not mean Muslims should not be upset by it, but the way the incident has unfolded points to politics rather than religion.

Think of the current situation as a poker game of outrage - with apologies for using a gambling analogy in a religiously charged discussion!

All that is happening is that each side is raising the volume of outrage and political machination, until the other side matches and raises. On one side the trump card is freedom of speech, on the other the veneration of the Prophet Mohammed in Islam. But the game they are actually playing is politics.

This game cannot be won. Instead it must be changed. And the way to do it is to address such films, cartoons and books with better films, cartoons and books.

So the real question becomes, why does the Muslim world have so little arts and content as an alternative to such sad mediocrity? Why is bad content not addressed by better content?

This issue seems to repeat itself and progress is slow: Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons, the American book Jewel of Medina, to name a few. Rubbish like the Innocence of Muslims persists only until there is a weight of content that squashes such rubbish.

I recall when the book Jewel of Medina was published, a brassière-busting piece of romantic fiction of the trashiest kind, whose protagonist was one of the Prophet's wives, Aisha. People who were not Muslim genuinely asked: this sounds interesting, where can I read more? And Muslims have nothing in forms which connect directly to this audience.

I'm not saying there is no good content being produced, but it's limited (check out productions from Turkey, Egypt, even Bollywood and Iran). And it certainly doesn't hit the spot - in terms of approach, language or accessibility - that is required by such an audience, especially not fiction, one of today's key formats.

If the argument is about language - that this content is not in English - then while it might be a hindrance it is certainly not a barrier. In recent years, for example, UK TV channels have purchased highly popular Scandinavian dramas and subtitled them into English.

Clearly, financial resource is not lacking, especially in the Gulf. But what is lacking - and what this current situation with the film should alert us to, politics aside - is that Muslims don't necessarily understand the value of arts nor the importance of taking arts to the wider world.

Just think how the West has embraced the universal wisdom of Rumi, although many probably don't even know he was Muslim.

Muslims complain about the Americanisation of culture driven through exports such as film and TV - but what is going back from the Muslim world? What are Muslims investing in today?

If Muslims are to draw any lessons from the continuing discussion of this ludicrous film, it should be the impetus to create accessible, engaging and game-changing content of their own.


Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk