Using cultural and disciplinary difference as a driver

IFICAN Debate: Beyond the Eye of Reason


St.Georges House, Windsor Castle 8th June 2011

Transcrip of Provocation by Professor Maleiha Malik

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Maleiha Malik is a Professor in Law. She studied law at the University of London and University of Oxford. She is a barrister and a member and fellow of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. Maleiha Malik’s research focuses on the theory and practice of discrimination law. She has written extensively on discrimination law, minority protection and feminist theory. She is the co-author of a leading text titled Discrimination Law: Theory and Practice which was published in 2008. She is, along with Dr Jon Wilson from the Department of History at KCL, the co-ordinator of the AHRC project on ‘Traditions in the Present’ which explores the relevance of ‘tradition’ in contemporary societies. Maleiha Malik’s current research focuses on the intersection between sexual and cultural equality, and it explores the adjustments that may need to be made to feminist theory to accommodate increasing cultural pluralism. She teaches courses in Jurisprudence and Legal Theory, Discrimination Law and European Law to undergraduates and postgraduate students. Maleiha Malik will be presenting a seminar titled ‘Framing Women’ at the National Portrait Gallery in July 2011 which is an exploration of the lives of British women through a study of portraits.

Maleiha Malik
I just wanted to say what a pleasure it is to be here today and to add my thanks along with Gary to the LCACE, Difference Exchange, but also St Georges House for their meticulous organisation of this event.

I wanted to make sure like the good lawyer that I am to address the brief, and the brief that I've been set is to address a specific question. And the question is: 'Can the Arts Heal Religious Wounds' and like all good questions The question actually raises more problems than can be answered. Of course the problems include how we identify what these wounds are, whether or not art has a distinct contribution to make in relation to religious wounds. I think it also sets up another set of important questions about 'what is religion' and what is the religious perspective in the modern world. I've just got ten minutes to address these set of questions, so what I wanted to do was two things. Firstly, I did want to make some general remarks about whether or not the arts can heal religious wounds. And then I thought that the distinct contribution I could make is to say something specific about Islam as a religion. Both as a religion that may cause wounds, and whether or not art can make a contribution to healing those wounds, but also as a religion that perceives itself as being wounded, by the modern world and by many artists in particular in the modern world and I think that it's significant that one of the questions raised by this particular conference and this particular consultation is about bookburning, artworks being defaced and artists being silenced. And whilst it's true that it isn't just Muslims who are involved in this sort of activity, it's also true that since the Salman Rushdie debates and since the Salman Rushdie affair in particular in Britain it is Muslims who have felt wounded by western arts depiction and representation of religion generally, but Islam in particular, so I think there is a distinct set of issues around Islam that I hope I can open up; I know I can't answer them, but I certainly want to open them up for the discussion that all of us will be having.

If I can just turn to the first issue, which is just a general set of comments about whether or not the arts can heal religious wounds. I think my answer to that, if I had to choose a yes or no answer, is not an emphatic yes, but a tentative yes and I think the reason for that answer to the question that I’ve been posed is really summed up by one of my favourite poems and lines from Keats which is his observation that what the imagination sees as beauty must be truth and I think that what this reminds us is that imagination and the cultivation of an aesthetic point of view is a distinct point of view that can supplement reason, it can supplement our scientific approach to the understanding of the world in which we live and it can reveal truth and reality in an important way that reason and science can't on their own. And the reason that I think that arts themselves are important and arts organisations themselves – many are represented here today – have a pivotal role to play within that project, is that imagination and an aesthetic perspective is something that I think can be developed. It is also something that through experience, through exposure, that individuals can develop over a period of time. And the particular contribution that attention to art and the use of imagination can actually make in healing wounds is, firstly I think because they are a guide to the truth, I think they can both reveal what the wounds are; they can help us to develop the sort of human sensibility and the sort of imagination and the sort of emotional response to the world in which we live that can help us see the wounds in the first place, and I think this issue of seeing, this issue of vision, that contemplation of art can teach us, is a discipline. And I think that has to be the first stage, because very many of us manage to go through our daily lives without even noticing the wounds that need healing in the first place. So I think that is one set of questions about what is it that art can reveal. Whether or not it can reveal the wounds in the first place.

And I think the second set of questions is about whether or not art has a contribution in healing these particular wounds. I think I'm more hesitant about reaching a conclusion about whether art has a specific role in healing these wounds. And I think part of my hesitance is about instrumentalising the process of the aesthetic experience of the imagination and also of the arts, including arts institutions and arts funding in the times in which we live. I think one of the distinctions between the arts, between imagination and between creative and cultural industries if you like and the sort of work I'm involved in; law and the social sciences and scientific analysis, is the degree of coherence, the degree of certainty we can have about what the results are. The degree of certainty we can have about the way in which art and the imagination impacts upon both our own experience and our ability to forecast what the response to art will be is much less clear.

So I think and I'd be interested to know if you agree, there is an indirect way in which the arts can heal religious wounds, but I'd be very hesitant about trying to demarcate a plan of action about how one could go about doing that.

If I could just move on to the second point that I want to make, which is about the religious wounds, firstly, that Muslims themselves or Islam is perceived as inflicting in the modern world, or that Muslims themselves perceive as being inflicted upon them. I think here, my own sense is that arts – not only Islamic arts, but art generally has a contribution to make for all the reasons I've already given. But in relation to Islamic art, not only non-Muslims, but Muslims themselves I think can contemplate the aesthetic heritage that emerges out of Islamic civilisation and can contemplate the way in which that can reveal the wounds that they cause and the wounds that they have actually suffered. For Muslims, a close attention to beauty, the natural world and artistic creation is often represented within the Islamic tradition and is often considered a kind of freedom allowing a movement away from reality and a movement towards transcendent truths. And most Islamic sources emphasise contemplation of both natural world and of beauty itself as an important way of having a connection to the truth and to ethics themselves. And I think there are resources in the Islamic tradition that coalesce between its perspective and modern approaches and allow a contact between traditional Islam and modernity. And I think that the way in which not only non-Muslims, but Muslims can get access to this particular heritage of art is through contemplation of the outcomes of Islamic art; architecture, literature, poetry, calligraphy and also other arts and I also wanted to end in the last few minutes just by taking you through some of the visual images that help us reflect on Islam in the modern world and give a very different perspective. And I wanted to introduce these with a story.

I was in Bilbao at the Guggenheim museum in April (I don't often lead such glamorous life, but I was invited there for a law conference). I popped in and there was a modern installation there by a Lebanese artist. The installation was 50 armchairs with televisions in front of it and individuals were encouraged to sit in the armchairs and watch videos coming out of the televisions. And the videos were all of violence coming out of the Muslim world; coming out of Lebanon, from Iraq, from Egypt for Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, from Afghanistan. And it struck me very much that that is how Islam, Muslims are actually visually experienced by all of us – Muslim and non-Muslims, living in the West. And so what I wanted to end with was a different visual perspective on Islam – its architecture and that's the Blue Mosque, both its exterior and its interior, it's traditional Islamic calligraphy, which is the highest of Islamic artforms and I just wanted to show how this distinction between Islamic art and the aesthetic perspective is actually breaking down. In the work of Ahmed Mustapha we see the representation of calligraphy in a more modern form.

And finally I wanted to end with a wound that is very current. It's in the news now. And that's Libya. Because this in an image of the letter Kaf by the famous Libyan calligrapher Ali Oma Ermes. It can be found at the British Museum, so you can go and see it yourself. And I think what's interesting about this is that the letter Kaf is represented here and it is a sign within the Islamic tradition of that which is uncertain, but an access to spiritual truth. And I think that the contemplation and thinking about the emergence of that particular artform from Libya at the moment raises more questions than it answers. We're not sure at the moment about what the nature of the ethical intervention in Libya is, we don't know who's wounding whom in that situation. And so although contemplation on that allows us to think about Libya and the conflict in Libya in a different way, it raises more questions than it actually answers.
Thank you.

Supported by Arts Council England, London Centre for Arts and Creative Exchange and St.Georges House