WHILE “a leading” Islamic astronomer was telling engineers in Kuwait earlier this month that scientists had “proved” the existence of life on other planets, an arts college in Pakistan found itself facing the wrath of Muslim clerics for “homo-erotic” paintings that appeared in its Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture.
As far as I can make out, no one batted an eyelid when Dr Saleh Al-Ojeiri, described here as “a model to follow by those thirsty for knowledge” asserted that scientists had conducted research on other planets and discovered many creatures different from those on earth in terms of size and form. He stressed that Jupiter, for example:
Is 1,200 times bigger than Earth, and so are the creatures living on it.
But in Pakistan, don’t get ’em started on Uranus … or anyone else’s!
All hell broke loose at around the same time when the National College of Arts in the eastern city of Lahore – long regarded as one of the leading defenders of liberal views in the country – permitted a series of paintings depicting Muslim clerics in scenes “with strong homosexual overtones”, to appear in its journal
In the face threats of violence by Islamic extremists, the college shut down the journal, pulled all its issues out of bookstores and dissolved its editorial department.
But, having buckled to intimidation, it’s still not out of the woods. A court is now considering whether the paintings’ artist, Muhammad Ali, the journal’s board and the school’s head should be charged with blasphemy.
Particularly infuriating to conservatives were two works that they said insulted Islam by mixing images of Muslim clerics with suggestions of homosexuality.
One titled “Call for Prayer” shows a cleric and a shirtless young boy sitting beside each other on a cot. The cleric fingers rosary beads as he gazes at the boy, who seductively stretches backward with his hands clasped behind his head.
A second painting shows the same cleric reclining in front of a Muslim shrine, holding a book by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho in one hand as he lights a cigarette for a young boy with the other. A second young boy, who is naked with his legs strategically crossed to cover his genitals, sits at the cleric’s feet. The painting has caused particular uproar because verses from Islam’s “holy” book, the Koran, appear on the shrine.
Mumtaz Mangat, a lawyer who petitioned the courts to initiate blasphemy charges, argued the image implied the cleric had “fun” with the boy before conducting the traditional Muslim call for prayer.
Aasim Akhtar, an Islamabad-based art critic who wrote an essay accompanying the paintings in the journal, wrote that Ali’s mixing of images was “deliberately, violently profane,” aimed at challenging “homophobic” beliefs that are widespread in Pakistani society.
Wrote Akhtar, an Islamabad-based art critic who is also listed as a potential defendant in the blasphemy complaint.
Ali redefines the divine through a critique of authority and the hypocrisy of the cleric.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, issued a statement after the paintings were published demanding the college issue a public apology and withdraw all issues of the journal.
College staff members also began receiving anonymous text messages threatening violence, said a member of the journal’s editorial board. They were afraid to push back for fear of being killed, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted.
Yahya Mujahid, the spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, denied the group sent any threats but said the state should punish those responsible. He thundered:
It’s part of Western and American plans to malign Islam.
Shahram Sarwar, a lawyer representing the college’s editorial board, said his clients did not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings but he was prepared to apologize on their behalf if they did.
The current head of the National Arts College, Shabnam Khan, denied the institution caved to pressure from hardliners, saying the editorial staff quit voluntarily. She said the department was closed because no one was left to run it.
Buy a member of the editorial board disputed this version of events, saying the college administration asked him and his colleagues to resign. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by extremists.
The school has long been a progressive voice. A research project at the college in 2008 focused on the idea that rising Islamic conservatism and violent religious fanaticism was a fundamental threat to peace and democracy in Pakistan. In the 1980s, when former dictator General Zia ul-Haq, a notorious Islamist, ordered all female students and teachers to cover their hair, the college pushed back.
Individual graduates have pushed the envelope with their work. Amra Khan’s latest work, which was exhibited at the college and a gallery in Karachi this year, included Muslim veils embroidered with a pink Playboy bunny and The Rolling Stones’ big red lips logo.
Hat Tip: Diogini and Great Satan