Art has many functions and aspects—aesthetic, spiritual, political, entertainment—but a common element the power of art to express concepts, to invite dialogue, and sometimes to speak truth to power. A powerful example of art’s dialogical and truth-representative function has recently been on display at a mosque in Bangladesh. It was a photography exhibit by Bangldeshi artist Shahidul Alam, titled ‘Embracing the Other’, intended to combat Islamophobia and extremism.
A mosque would seem an unlikely place for a photography exhibit, given Islamic prohibitions on representation of human and animal forms in arts. But Alam aims to challenge these prohibitions. Alam is not only an artist, but also a writer, human rights and democracy defender, social activist and curator of ideas and images. Among other accomplishments, he has been instrumental in setting up Bangladesh’s first picture agency, first photography school, and first webzine, as we as the Banglarights human rights information portal. He describes his work as creating a “world where we can daily sense our conscience and our faith in the planet.
These are not easy tasks, considering some of the problems that have recently beset Bangladesh in the area of human rights, particularly FoRB. The chapter on Bangladesh in the recently released 2017 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), for example, notes an increase in violent and deadly attacks against religious minorities, secular bloggers, intellectuals and foreigners by domestic and transnational groups. Some of these, such as the recent attacks on atheist and LGBT activists and secular bloggers who criticised Islam and the terrorist attack on the Holey Artisan bakery in Dhaka have made international headlines.
Amidst this intense climate around issues of human rights, FoRB, and freedom of expression, Alam seeks to capitalise, in this mosque exhibit, on the way in which mosques, like art, have filled a number of functions in the Islamic tradition. As the description of an online collection of photographs from the exhibit attests:
The first urban element introduced by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to the city of Madinah was the mosque, which functioned as a community development centre. It was used as a centre for religious activities, for learning, the seat of the Prophet’s government, a welfare and charity centre, a detention and rehabilitation centre, a place for medical treatment and nursing, and a place for leisure activities. The Prophet is known to have permitted women to sleep in the mosque, and for non-Muslims to pray there.
This variety of uses of the mosque suggests that the mosque was not only a religious space, but a place of cultural interaction, exchange, and dialogue—with a notable nod to gender equality and religious tolerance, as well. Indeed, Alam remarks, ‘It is this openness and the ability to reach out to the other, that appears to be missing today, in everyday life and in the mosque’.
Ongoing CIFoRB academic research and Parliamentary networking activities are also showing a strong sense in Bangladesh that fora like Shahidul Alam’s ‘Embracing the Other’ exhibit are just the kind of cultural space that Bangladeshis are seeking for dialogue on matters of human rights and FoRB. For example, some of the recent attacks on secular and atheists bloggers, as well as academics, foreigners and others seen to be ‘secular’ in orientation has stemmed from confusion over the nature of what secularism is—and this in a country that self-describes as ‘secular’ in the preamble and freedom of religion provisions of its very Constitution. Future CIFoRB posts will examine some of these meanings of secularism around the Commonwealth. But in Bangladesh the recent attacks on secular bloggers seem to have been grounded in an idea that secularism means a form of atheism that is hostile to the faith of the nation’s 90% Sunni Muslim majority.
On that note, it might be wondered why there need be an art exhibit to combat Islamophobia and extremism in a nation where Muslims are the majority. With this focus, Shahidul Alam clearly seeks, working from within the Islamic tradition itself, to show how some of the openness within the Islamic tradition might be directed toward creating broader social openness. As he puts it,
It is the stereotypical representation of Islam and Muslims that has fuelled Islamophobia. . .What I want to do through this work is to establish that Islam (and pretty much all religions) by and large, provides a moral compass for our navigation. There are large magnets around that have changed the direction of our compass. I want to return to the original direction and to remind people that it is the carriers of these magnets both within, and outside, whom we need to challenge.
Shahidul Alam’s use of cultural space to promote dialogue on FoRB, human rights, and Bangladesh’s national identity in pursuit of these goals is an especially exemplary and creative one that bears close observation for the lessons it conveys about how artists can be instrumental in promoting discourses of peacebuilding and embrace of the other, within their own borders and within the Commonwealth’s vast expanse.