RSS feed


Creativity is a fundamental human right and we should defend it

‘The Bataclan attack in Paris is another example of art under siege. The west must raise its voice’
by Elif Shafak

The terrorists who attacked the Bataclan concert hall in Paris last week and massacred 89 young music fans, injured hundreds of others and terrorised millions of people across the world had chosen their target carefully. Not only because they knew they could cause the most damage at a sold-out concert, but also because the Bataclan held a symbolic value: a place of music, joy and freedom, all of which they opposed.

In the fight against extremism, political analysis dominates discussions while military solutions hover in the background. Culture, however, does not receive enough attention, even though it is at the heart of today’s conflicts. Extremist attacks on art and artists are neither sporadic nor isolated phenomena. Islamic fundamentalism, like fundamentalisms of all kinds, is at direct odds with culture.

In Syria, Khaled al-Asaad, a leading archaeologist and antiquities scholar who had for more than 50 years cared for the ancient ruins of Palmyra, a Unesco world heritage site at the crossroads of civilisations throughout history, was beheaded by Islamic State in August 2015. In March 2015, extremists attacked the Bardo National Museum in Tunisia, killing more than 20 people. The aim was not only to frighten tourists and damage the already fragile tourism industry; the attackers also objected to the rich collection of art and archaeology, particularly the marble statues of ancient gods and Roman emperors, which they regarded as idolatry.

In 2014, during a theatre performance in Kabul, a 17-year-old suicide bomber blew himself up and killed several members of the audience. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the slaughter, accusing the show of “desecrating Islamic values”. Once again the venue had been chosen carefully – a cultural centre where Afghans and westerners could mingle around shared notions of art and creativity. The musical playing on stage was called Heartbeat: Silence After the Explosion and it openly denounced extremist violence. The atrocity was condemned by French president FranÇois Hollande as a direct assault on “culture and creativity”.
Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter
Read more

In country after country, case after case, art is being choked back by extremist violence. But there is a wider issue than direct assaults. There is an entire culture of intolerance and bigotry that tries to silence artists in the Middle East and beyond. In Iran, artist Atena Farghadani was put behind bars for drawing satirical cartoons of Iranian politicians. Amnesty International announced that she was then charged with “indecent conduct” for shaking hands with her own lawyer in prison.

The prominent Egyptian poet Fatima Naoot was put on trial, facing up to three years in jail, over comments posted on Facebook in which she criticised the slaughter of animals at Eid al-Adha. The Turkish singer Leman Sam was brought to court when she spoke negatively about the same religious practice.

The Iranian poet Payam Feili has been censored and ostracised for being dissident and gay. In an interview with Index on Censorship he said: “I’ve got used to life being full of tension, horror, disruption and crisis.” The Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud, the writer of the highly-acclaimed The Meursault Investigation, had a fatwa issued against him by a Salafist imam. The imam and his followers claimed the writer deserved to be murdered as he was an “atheist infidel”. The Algerian film-maker Lyès Salem was the target of a fatwa issued by a TV preacher who accused him of making a “satanic film”.

The pressure on art is aggravated when religious fanaticism converges with state authoritarianism. After the Charlie Hebdo attack an Iranian newspaper was shut down for showing solidarity with the French satirical magazine. In Turkey, two columnists from the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet were put on trial, facing more than four years in prison after featuring the front cover of Charlie Hebdo in their columns as an act of protest.

Caricatures, paintings, museums and concerts are being picked out and attacked. Writers and artists are vilified, threatened with hate emails and fatwas to the extent that some are forced to flee or to live under police protection. Not that this supression is new. In 1994, one of the greatest novelists in the Arab world, the late Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfouz was attacked outside his home by fanatics. Accused of writing blasphemy and insulting Islam, he was stabbed in the neck, an attack he miraculously survived. In 1993 in the Turkish town of Sivas, radical Islamists set alight a hotel where musicians, writers and poets sojourned while they took part in a festival. Thirty-five people were killed.

While today’s terrorists use high-tech weapons and are certainly more capable of destruction than their predecessors, the mentality of hatred and intolerance has remained more or less the same. Isis has launched a systematic war against the arts. The massacre at the Bataclan was, unfortunately, only the latest in a series of horrific attacks against culture.

But if art is under siege, the opposite is also true. Art and culture are becoming significant spaces for building counternarratives to challenge extremism. What is also new is the way in which Middle Eastern artists are using their creativity to open up minds, reach out to hearts and create safe zones. In Saudi Arabia in 2015 young university students initiated a campaign called Art Is Halal. The slogan, simple though it might sound, was powerful when it peppered the streets on posters.

Now the question that faces us is how the artistic community in the west will respond to the systematic silencing of culture. Though deeply saddened and shaken by the events in Paris, there are no signs, so far, of a united, organised response. As artists and writers we are too isolated, too atomised in our own cocoons and imaginations. This might be necessary for creativity, but perhaps we are not fully appreciating the extent of the attack against culture.

Our colleagues across the Muslim world, from Pakistan to Egypt, have been paying a high price for voicing their opinions, defending the integrity and freedom of art. It is time for us to join their struggle, to build international networks of creativity and solidarity, to give a louder voice to the silenced, to speak up for culture everywhere. Creativity is a fundamental universal human right. And since it is under systematic attack, we must come to its defence together.


Posted from The Guardian, 20 November 2015