Including many very worthwhile contributions, including those by Dutch Middle-East arts curator Nat Muller, who curated the Dubai Abraaj prize 2012 edition.

‘Arabs reject censorship of the arts’

Tuesday, May 22 2012

The Doha Debates

The Doha Debates

Doha, Qatar, May 22, 2012 – An audience at The Doha Debates has publicly expressed opposition to state censorship of the arts, still strongly enforced in the Gulf and the wider Middle East.

The rare display of frustration with the practice surfaced in a lively session as participants discussed a range of issues, including the frequent cuts made in foreign films shown here and the blacking out of bare female flesh in Western magazines.

A show of hands indicated that around a third of the mainly Arab audience still supported state censorship.

In the end, though, they voted 58 percent in favour of the motion: ‘This House believes censorship makes a mockery of the arts’.

Speaking against the statement, Iraqi American Nada Shabout said “local context and cultural sensitivity” had to be respected, especially in Gulf universities which had recently introduced classes in modern art.

“It reflects the needs of the audience,” added Shabout, the director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute at the University of North Texas.

“What is the point of shocking the audience?” she asked. “Art is about pushing boundaries and you slowly push them more and more to create the right spaces for debate.”

Arguing on the same side, Peter Florence, British founder and director of the Hay Festival which showcases writers from around the world, said the motion had to be opposed because it was “stupid and offensive” and because censorship did not work.

“You can kill the artist,” he said. “But you cannot kill the art. It survives in the public imagination.”

“Censorship does not make a mockery of the arts. It brutalizes the arts…and worst of all it is murderous!”

Nat Muller, independent curator and art critic living between Europe and the Middle East, said art was about pushing “the boundaries of what is acceptable in form, in aesthetics, in ideas and in concepts and about taking people out of their comfort zones”.

She added: “We cannot let the argument of cultural sensitivity become a euphemism for political or cultural repression every time governments, donors, audiences or others do not like, disagree or feel uncomfortable with the work of art.”

Arguing for the motion, Syrian Malek Jandali, who received the 2011 Freedom of Expression Award for his controversial song “Watani Ana” or “I am my homeland” said art was about life.  Anyone banning it was hindering progress.

He strongly rejected the argument that censorship protected people from inappropriate images. “Nature knows no indecencies,” he said. “Indecencies are only in the mind of people. We invented them.”



It is not sure whether one can conclude that ‘Arabs’ reject the censorship but the audience voted by 58% in favour of the motion.

Anyhow Nat Muller and Malek Jandali win with their excellent statements.
Watch the video streaming.

From an email conversation with Tarek Joseph Chemali in Beirut:
On 3 jun 2012, at 06:32, Tarek Joseph Chemaly wrote:

What happens on the surface is not what happens underneath in the Gulf States.
Let me tell you, everyone has a proxy to bypass censorship, art go
digital across boundaries, are printed in situ and people hang the
most incredibly erotic scenes in their homes in the gulf without
having seen them in a gallery.
As the joke goes “why do Saudi women prefer to be veiled from head to
toe? So that their husband’s friends wouldn’t know it was them they
had slept with the previous night.”
This “censorship” is nothing but an act of double standard and hypocrisy.
I worked in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) so I must know!


Dear Tarek,

Yes I know I think.
Rumour has it that the Emirs or the UAE bought some of the works that were censored out from the Dubai Art Fair, maybe including the Zurkhaneh art by Khosrow Hassanzadeh that had to be taken away from the fair the night before the Emir of Dubai would visit; but those might be wild rumours, however not uncharacteristic for what actually happens probably.
Maybe even because they know that the censoring, this aura of ‘forbidden art’ from the Middle-East, might heighten their value later.
This is certainly the case for some of the ‘controversial’ art from Iran.
This is not to deny that artists like Jafaari risk ending up in jail.

Tt has been like that for ages, everywhere of course, in all political systems.
To look for the boundaries has been the challenge for art, and sometimes it became very profitable, although others ended up in jail for it.

It is a pity that the presenter pushed the debate one or twice too often in the direction of being allowed to show an uncovered leg; at those moments the debate became sexist; I was disappointed by this.

Interesting that the topic of antisemitism was brought up by a Qatari, and it gave the debate meaning; same for the Prophet cartoons, where the speakers in a noticeable degree had to tread carefully, in this environment.
It should be noticed that this topic was brought up in the last moment of the debate, or was edited in a way that it looked as if it was the topic before closing time, in what was to be the last edition of the Doha debate series… this most sensitive topic in what was arguably the most sensitive topic of the whole series, as it was the least based on a discussion about ‘facts’, like inbred marriage etc. in previous programs, and the one the most related to cultural values.

It was also interesting that there was some sort of inbuilt booby trap in the set up of the speakers, as the opponents of the motion defended a radically opposed thesis, Nada Shabout defending the idea that in the Gulf, the Arab world and in fact everywhere it is better for the arts to observe cultural sensitivities (even if sometimes they are decided on by the rulers, who do not always necessarily respect them themselves as you pointed out in your reaction), while Peter Florence considered the motion too soft and wants a complete ban on censorship not just because it makes a mockery of the arts.
In this respect Nat Muller and Malek Jandali were the better couple, supplementing each other in a symbiosis, Nat speaking as the curator, and Malek as the artists, and a Muslim. And both were able to focus the debate on the arts, and in the case of Jandali on Islam when it was necessary to speak as a Muslim. However thanks to the limited time both were not challenged to speak out too extensively about if something can be considered as antisemitic art and if something is apparently offensive for Muslims, while I would say that a prerequisite on banning censorship on arts is total freedom of expression including the right to express something racist or offensive to religion; personally I am not sure whether there should be some limitations on this, while on the other hand on of the main challenges for people who want to express something racist or something religiously offensive is the fact that there are bans on this. If there would have been more time I would have added that it is not sure whether the ‘Danish cartoons’ are art, but then one can question whether to tackle some religious sensitivities may be a prerogative of art and not of cartoonists or others… not to mention the debate on what is art and what is not.


Dear Neil,
I was suprised of Nada Shabout’s reaction supporting
art-that-matches-the-sofa… Isn’t art supposed to ask questions, push
the enveloppe, etc? If we keep having the velvet gloves, keep not
challenging current states of mind, where on earth does that leave us?
Nowhere! We would end up with bland decorative arts and that’s it. No
thank you, there should be something more to it. And everyone is
playing austrich, trying to avoid things until they explode.
And even if they explode, what good that does do – look at Egypt and
all these other countries what the “Arab spring” has brought to them.
A different kind of dictatorship and more hidden emergency laws. Even
in the ’68 year which has supposedly rocked the world, the
powers-that-be returned with the same agenda and the same people.
And the profiteurs are there, for financial reasons and others as you
have indicated – stashing art for resale and fuck the artist he might
as well go to jail…. It will even raise the value knowing the person
is not capable of producing more of it…..

“I would say that a prerequisite on banning censorship on arts is
total freedom of expression including the right to express something
racist or offensive to religion; personally I am not sure whether
there should be some limitations on this, while on the other hand on
of the main challenges for people who want to express something racist
or something religiously offensive is the fact that there are bans on

But you see, this is exactly the excuse everyone uses to ban
everything!!!! They go to the extreme and prove their point through
the details “but what if someone insults the prophet?” therefore “let
us ban everything and God is on our side”…. Even that imbecile from
AUB I was in favor of him publishing his view about homophobia,
because it is his right to think that way – but the article should
have been edited and made more coherent and better not just some
ranting from someone who is afraid of everything and everyone.
It is good we are talking….

Author: Neil
Location: Posted on: Monday, June 4th, 2012