Artists and Islamists going head-to-head

Rowan El Shimi, Tuesday 25 Dec 2012

Egypt's political Islamisation this year led to several conflicts between artists and Islamists through the media, in courts - and on the street

Keizer's street art with Om Kalthum saying 'Art is not a Sin' (Photo: Keizer's Facebook Page)

Islamists’ attack on arts and culture in Egypt since they came into power has manifested in several cases of conflict between Islamist sheikhs and politicians.

The Islamist stances vary between accepting only “art with a purpose,” to not having an issue with art as long as some restrictions are put on nudity and controversial topics. A more extreme Islamist stance sees artistic expression as a form of Westernisation that promotes values not in line with Egyptian Islamic tradition. Not only did sheikhs attack the arts, but so was it attacked on the streets, where Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist supporters had direct confrontations with artists, at times even impeding them from their work.

Many artists, on the other hand, denounce Islamists' limitations, considering it not only an attack on freedoms gained by the revolution but also on Egyptian cultural heritage and identity. Artists retort with public statements, protests, court cases and direct confrontations.

At the start of 2012 on 23 January, Egypt's Islamist-dominated now dissolved parliament – with 70 per cent of its members scattered between members of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties – inaugurated their very first parliamentary session. Outside parliament on the same day thousands of artists arrived from a march from the Cairo Opera House calling on the first people's elected parliament since the revolution to give utmost respect to freedom of creative expression. The contrasting scene did not end that January. A constant tug of war between artists and Islamist preachers and politicians ensued and continued throughout the year.

Street protests

The march on the day parliament had its first session was organised by the Freedom of Creativity Front; a coalition of artists and thinkers who vowed to defend freedom of creative expression in Egypt. Their movement was born from the concern over several televised statements by Islamist sheikhs and Parliamentary candidates on their stance on the arts and culture.

For example, the Salafist Call’s spokesman, Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat, called Nobel Winning writer Naguib Mahfouz an infidel and claimed his books promote homosexuality and atheism. El-Shahat also slammed pharaonic monuments saying they promote a culture that does not worship God, in addition to making statements on democracy being a sin.

“Freedom, whether of expression, social or political purposes, cannot be divided,” Iman El-Serafi, theatre director and member of the Front’s organisational committee told Ahram Online after the march. “We are against any form of monitoring, censorship or laws that limit creativity, except for the conscience of the artist,” he added, concluding that the people of Egypt who have come so far in the revolution have the ability to choose what kind of art and culture they want to be subjected to and no religious or governmental entity has the right to hold public custody in this regard.

The artists' march at the start of the year was one of many over 2012 where artists demonstrate for freedom of expression. This month, artists marched from Talaat Harb Square to the Tahrir Square sit-in showing their concern over Brotherhood rule in Egypt and the constitution that make a straight strike on freedom of expression, whether for artists or the press.

Artists staged a similar protest in August in Talaat Harb Square while the constitution was still being drafted against intimidation of members of the press as well as the constitution assembly's high Islamist domination.

These marches and stands, while they gather a lot of media attention, seldom have any effect on the decisions taken afterwards by the executive or legislative bodies of Egypt. The culture ministry, which has seen the minister of culture switched out several times and is now headed by Saber El Arab, hardly takes part in the ongoing crisis. Their silence is considered by many artists as complicity with - or even direct cooperation - the oppressive government.

Court cases

Last week Egyptian actress Elham Shahin won a case she filed in September against Sheikh Abdallah Badr who insulted her, along with several other actresses and filmmakers, saying she was "cursed and would never enter heaven" and accused her of acting in adulterous films. Badr was sentenced to one year in prison with bail set at LE 20,000 ($3,280). When the incident first broke out in September it caused an uproar among Egyptian artists ,who all met and vowed to support Shahin's stance on taking legal action against the sheikh.

On 6 September, President Mohamed Morsi held an open meeting with artists in the Presidential Palace, which was attended by Media Minister Salah Abdel-Maksoud, along with artists including actors Adel Imam, Mohamed Sobhy, Madiha Yousry, Ashraf Abdel-Ghafour and Karim Abdel-Aziz; musicians Mohamed Mounir and Iman El-Bahr Darwish; and poet/writer Farouk Gweida. Several artists boycotted the meeting, such as renowned actress Samira Ahmed, who told Al-Ahram Arabic-language newspaper she would not attend such meetings until real action is taken against everyone who insulted artists.

While some abstained from the meeting – many artists welcomed this dialogue with the Islamist president who promised artists that the state values their work and that culture is a major pillar of Egyptian society. However, many Islamist preachers were not happy with the president’s approach. Sheikh Wagdy Ghoneim, who publishes many controversial videos on his YouTube channels, released a video entitled Is this Art? denouncing Morsi's move to build bridges with artists, whom he calls “immoral.” He also charges that Egypt was a civil state and that it should follow sharia (Islamic law): the reason many voted Morsi into power according to Ghoneim.

Shahin's case was not the only one that saw the inside of a courtroom. In April, comedian Adel Imam, who has been active in the film and theatre industry for over 40 years, was found guilty of “offending Islam” in a case filed against him by an ultra-conservative lawyer for his roles in The Terrorist, Terrorism and Kebab and Morgan Ahmed Morgan. Imam was sentenced to three months in jail and a fine of LE1,000 (roughly $170).  Though later on Imam appealed the case and won the appeal in September, the case was highly publicised and criticised among artists as well as several other circles. Some saw this as a purely political move and not quite an attack on artists.

Islamists also took a hit at underground musicians in 2012. In August, Islam El-Wishahy, a lawyer affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, filed a complaint to the interior ministry against the Sawy Culturewheel, for hosting a heavy metal concert – which he claimed were performing Satanic rituals on stage. Mohamed El-Sawy, the owner of the Culturewheel and a member of the now-dissolved parliament who was in charge of the Culture Committee, denounced these claims publicly and the case was eventually dismissed during investigations when many members of the culture community testified that heavy metal is a respectable genre of music worldwide.

Direct conflicts

The continuous struggle is not limited to courtrooms and televised attacks from both sides. The Egyptian street bears witness to many of conflicts between the two camps.

Most recently, during the sit-in at media city staged by supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the ultraconservative disqualified presidential candidate along with other Islamist-leaning members attacked film director Khaled Youssef's car as he attempted to enter. Youssef has several public statements and press interviews challenging the brotherhood rule and is a leading member of the Freedom of Creativity Front.

In another incident in December a group of women wearing the niqab (full-face veil) attacked contemporary dancer Mirette Michael while she was protesting outside a Cairo court, cutting her long hair with scissors. The incident was not unprecedented, as this had been reported in a school in Luxor when a teacher cut the hair of a young schoolgirl for not wearing a headscarf. A Christian girl also reported her hair being cut on the Cairo Metro by a group of women wearing niqab, and there have been other similar reports spread word-of-mouth. Perhaps this incident is not categorised directly under an attack on the arts, however it is an attempt to impose their dress code on all others and, naturally, people in the arts rarely wear the niqab.

The film sector, likewise, saw a hit this year. Filmmakers are struggling against the usual limitations and distance from taboos as sex and religion from censorship boards. Amr Salama, for example, has been trying to pass a film exploring Muslim-Christian relationships.

Salama's struggles are not isolated: filmmakers have always faced issues with filming on the streets, needing permissions and papers to get away with it. In February, Ahmed Abdallah – the filmmaker behind Microphone and Heliopolis – was refused permission to film a scene inside a mosque, with the explanation that it is against sharia to film inside a mosque. The filmmaker tried to object saying there were many films shot in mosques in the past and gave concrete examples, only to still be rejected.

"The next day we found a member of parliament from the [Brotherhood’s] Freedom and Justice Party at the ministry but we didn't get his name. He confirmed the objection to shooting in a mosque," Abdallah told Ahram Online at the time.

Another incident this year was during the shooting of television series Al-Daht, directed by Kamla Abu Zekry and starring Nelly Karim in Ain Shams University's Faculty of Engineering. The crew's female actresses and extras were dressed in short skirts, since the series was based in the 70s, and that was how most Egyptian women dressed. The crew was stopped by members of the student union belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood who said they would only allow shooting to continue if the actresses dressed "more appropriately."

Visual artist Mohamed Fahmy, more commonly known as “Ganzeer,” was attacked online from a conservative individual whose blog username is “Ibn Salama,” who called his most recent exhibition The Virus is Spreading of being blasphemous against Islam. Ibn Salama also accused Fahmy of "offending every Muslim" with his paintings that involve nude women and also question the institutionalisation of religion in Egypt. Fahmy replied to his blog post, point by point, on his own blog. What was interesting about this particular incident was not only the fact that it was online, but also that there was a confrontational conversation sparked around these artworks and what they are trying to challenge.

What's next?

Many artists continue to fear ongoing censorship as the Muslim Brotherhood grabs a stronger hold of the country. However, most artists are hopeful of the power of the need of expression and cultural dialogue that Egyptians have, especially after the revolution. Some intellectuals believe there has to be a fight to preserve and gain freedom of expression, while others believe it can be done through social dialogue.

The Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy) just launched a campaign called "A Culture for All Egyptians" with posters all over the streets and media campaigns affirming people's right to be part of the culture movement: culture with no boundaries on artistic expression. The campaign aims to make these changes in culture policies and law to give people a chance to be part of the artistic movement.

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