In Egypt, well-known artist, Ganzeer** was arrested post-revolution for his politically engaged art. Attacks against his work continue unabated. Following his recent exhibition, “The Virus Is Spreading,” Ganzeer was accused of blasphemy in an online article. The author called for Ganzeer (and those like him) to be punished as an enemy of Islam in retribution for his artistic creations.
Rather than reside outside the country or ignore his critics, Ganzeer chose to speak to—rather than about—his attacker. The artist’s response provides a missing element in much of the discourse surrounding crackdowns on free expression in post-Revolutionary North Africa: a point-by-point refutation of the hypocritical and illogical reasoning of those who purportedly fight for Muslim rights in the West, while taking active measures to curtail freedom of religion and self-expression at home.
Lauded by the United States for successfully brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi faces a backlash over controversial measures taken during his presidency, most recently in the form of a constitutional decree insulating his decisions from judicial review. The Gaza ceasefire and Morsi’s value (in American eyes )as a partner in Palestinian-Israeli peace must not distract from the precarious situation facing freedom of speech in Egypt—particularly as debates rage about the place of Sharia in Egypt’s new constitution. Morsi’s recent decree, which also immunizes the Constituent Assembly from judicial challenge, is a very worrying sign, particularly in light of the withdrawal of Liberal and Christian coalitions from the process.
Despite complaints on Twitter and in the blogosphere that Egypt’s revolution will turn, once more, to dictatorship—this time, Islamist in orientation—Ganzeer’s response demonstrates that Egyptians will not—and should not—relinquish free expression without a fight.
The following is an English translation (verified by the artist) of Ganzeer’s open letter to his critic. Although the letter was originally written in Arabic, it deserves to be widely circulated among English speakers as well.
Speaking out carries many dangers, but it must be done—the stakes could not be higher.
On those Islam-Abusers and their Incitement to Violence
(for original Arabic text, click here)
On October 27, I received this “note” by someone calling himself “Ibn Salaama” on Twitter:
The language of this article surprised me. But I was truly shocked when I read Mr. Salaama’s essay—I’ve never encountered this level of vitriol in my life, specifically, the unique type of rancor clearly produced by an ignorant mentality and psychologically-disturbed, diseased mind.
Let’s systematically analyze Mr. Salaama’s article criticizing my art exhibition “The Virus is Spreading” (October 1 – November 1, 2012):
If we were in a State that respected the law of its Creator, “street and graffiti artists” such as Ganzeer (@Ganzeer) would not dare to show his pornographic “artistic” work without fear of punishment or reprimand! But the tragedy is that we are in a State whose intelligentsia defies the Sharia and the judgments of Islam, and would like to fundamentally obliterate it from the minds of each Egyptian citizen.
It’s truly bizarre that Ibn Salaama perceives any artwork not in accordance with his own viewpoint as unworthy of existence, and by implication, that these creations merit reprimand and punishment by the State. Here Ibn Salaama accuses any Egyptian artist making “un-Islamic” work of being an individual intent on obliterating Islam from the mind of every Egyptian. Clearly, Ibn Salaama isn’t aware that his own statements constitute the biggest proof against him—and those like him—who intend to obliterate all that is un-Islamic from the mind of every Egyptian.
Or maybe he is aware – and proud. But tell me, Professor Salaama: how does one distinguish this type of thinking from that of those who want to erase Islam from Europe and elsewhere? How can we defend the rights of Muslims in the West if we don’t defend the rights on non-Muslims in the East?
Do you not see that your logic replicates this injustice? You have to accept, Ibn Salaama, you and those like you, that Egypt, in terms of its nature and history of its people, is a country tolerating a variety of religions and movements. It’s nonsense to fear any thought with which you disagree, unless an organization restricts your personal practice. And this, Mr. Salaama, is what you, yourself, advocate: not only calling to restrict artists but to actively punish them for their art.
Leave artists to draw what they will, brother. No one is forcing you visit their shows. Make your own art, brother, in accordance with what you decide to be appropriate. No one will stop you; no one will force you to create anything you don’t want to create!
If freedom means the freedom for (Mohamed Fahmy)—known as Ganzeer—to depict a girl completely nude but for hijab, then clearly this freedom is poisoned! If the freedom of opinion he expresses in his “artistic creativity” means mocking Sheikh Yassir Barhaami and Abd al Moneim al-Shahaat, then it’s time to redefine “freedom of opinion” as insolence, lack of manners, and immodesty.
My eminent brother, there are people who see beauty in this naked body. There is no one forcing you to visit the exhibition or my website. If the naked body is shocking to you, visit other exhibitions—such as the Islamic Museum, which contains antiquities and beautiful Islamic works far removed from the beauty of nude bodies.
As for these two Sheikhs, I don’t know this Barhaami, and I didn’t depict him in any of my paintings. As for al-Shahaat, you should know that the show’s depiction of him is merely the reflection of many people’s views. Preventing the display of such art work will not change the reality that it mirrors the perspectives of these people. Certainly, freedom of opinion includes the expression of opinions with respect to speech, writing, music and drawing, even if this opinion includes an opinion or viewpoint about an individual. If this human reality weighs so heavily on your chest, you have the option of moving to one of the many fascist dictatorships in countries such as Angola, Cameroon, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, for example.
What quality of individuals does this strata of “intelligentsia” include, who allow a person like this (Ganzeer) to sell his drawings in a Zamalek gallery, knowing that some of (the work) offends the feelings of every Muslim? Is it merely a question of a blatant challenge to Muslims and a demonstration of their ability to insult Islam’s rituals and sacred spaces?
I don’t know who gave you the right to speak on behalf of “every Muslim,” Mr. Salaama, but I do know one thing: you’re wrong. Many faithful to Islam visited my exhibition and didn’t take offense to its content, but on the contrary—were impressed. I can’t figure out how you’ve decided that I insulted the rituals and sacred places of Islam.
The biggest mistake that you make is that you consistently speak on behalf of others, and not merely on behalf of your own soul alone. And you think that your personal opinion obligates you to assign punishment on behalf of the State! What a bizarre command of yours, brother.
Does art mean (Ganzeer / Rusted Chains) can draw an image of a veiled Muslim woman in the upper half, depicting an exposed vulva and legs in the lower half? I will not say where is Islam—but only ask where is taste, where are manners and the most basic principles of modesty? What, then, is the difference between French infringements against (the rights of) Muslim women in the streets, and the infringements of an arrogant revolutionary and his art against Egyptian Muslim women?
Do these liberals hate that the people of Egypt are returning to the religion of their Lord? Do they want to render it as salacious, corrupt and pornographic as they are?! They, by God, are those who love to see scandals spreading among Believers, and have an allergic reaction at the sight of a modest lady or bearded youth!
And here lies the trap of your illogic, Ibn Salaama. How am I like Frenchmen who violate the freedom of Muslim women in Europe, when in these, your own words—it’s you who violates the freedom of those you perceive as un-Islamic?
You quickly place me in the list of “liberals,” and just as rapidly portray these liberals as engaged in a war against Islam and piety. Hey, Muslim guy, have you ever heard of a liberal Egyptian preventing a Muslim from praying?! Ever heard of about a liberal woman attacking a Muslim woman in the subway? Do you know any group of liberals that have prevented the construction of a mosque? Has a liberal person ever criticized an art exhibition on the grounds that it was Islamic—and even sought punishment for its participants? Where, Muslim, does all this evil and injustice originate? No one prevents you from living your life in a manner you consider to be Islamic, and you should never forbid anyone else from living according to his personal beliefs and convictions—and particularly when you see that Muslims in the West have the right to live their lives Islamically.
They revealed to us what is in their sick hearts; when will we show them the consequences of their actions? When will the glorious age return where even the brothers of the Devil were not as flagrant in defiance as they are today?
Sick hearts? Brethren of Satan? And you want see me punished too? In legalese, that’s known as “incitement to violence.” Based on your article alone, I could bring a suit against you that would certainly end with you locked up. “Incitement to violence” is no trivial matter. Your article, Ibn Salaama, uses extremely terroristic language—but, because we are fellow countrymen, I’ll do the right thing and ask God Almighty to forgive you and guide your sick heart.
This is a picture of one of the walls of the exhibit before the drawing was finished. It shows a street sweeper drawing the Anarchist symbol, but altered to form the word ‘no’. The other wall shows a picture of a faceless girl wearing hijab and lipstick, and a long umbilical cord with a fetus attached to the end coming out of her vagina.
It’s amazing that you can’t see Life! It’s shocking that you are unable to see the beauty of a child emerging from a woman’s vagina! It’s incredible that you see a woman’s vagina as something shameful and pornographic rather than a beautiful source of life! I wonder which one of us has the sick heart?