The Dutch were debating the limits of freedom of expression last week after an artist who photographed gay men wearing masks of the prophet Muhammad was forced into hiding and her work removed from a museum exhibit.
Speaking on the telephone from an unspecified location in the Netherlands last week, the artist, an Iranian exile who goes by the pseudonym of Sooreh Hera, said she had been threatened with “execution”. She accused the director of the municipal museum in The Hague of cowardice for caving in to Muslim extremists.
Her story is a reminder of the tensions that have put the Netherlands and other European countries on the front line, sending dozens of people threatened by extremists into hiding since 2004, when a Dutch film-maker was murdered on the street and his collaborator driven into exile.
This leaves Hera, 34, in no doubt that she is in real danger. “They said to me, ‘We’re going to burn you naked or put a bullet in your mouth’,” she said, referring to menacing e-mails.
“They say, ‘Now you are locked in your home and you cannot go out any more’.”
She said that by photographing gay Iranian exiles in masks of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, and Ali, his son-in-law, she had wanted to expose a “hypocritical” attitude towards homosexuality in countries such as Iran, where men can be hanged for homosexual conduct.
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“They condemn homosexuality but in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia it is common for married men to maintain relations with other men,” said Hera. “Works of art can be provocative. It is not an artist’s job just to paint flowers. Art should shine a light on social issues.”
The photographs were part of an extensive collection of images by Hera of mostly Dutch gay men. Another part of her exhibit was a video featuring hard rock music and images of Iranian clerics interspersed with pictures of naked men.
Wim van Krimpen, director of the museum, initially praised Hera’s collection of photographs as “exceptional”. Last month, however, he announced that the masked men could not be included in the forthcoming exhibition because “certain people in our society might perceive it as offensive”.
This was no understatement. When a Danish newspaper published cartoons of Muhammad in 2005 it unleashed what the prime minister referred to as the country’s biggest international crisis since the second world war as Muslims staged violent protests.
“The museum director was very afraid,” said Hera. “He gave in to pressure from the Islamists. It is censorship.” In protest, she withdrew the rest of her photographs from the exhibition and Ranti Tjan, director of a museum in Gouda, agreed to put them on show. He received threats from extremists and was under police protection last week. Hera declined to discuss her own security arrangements.
She said she would like to attend the opening of the show in Gouda if it went ahead, but that it might be too dangerous. “There are times when I am very afraid,” she admitted, “times when I feel like a prisoner.”
The affair has highlighted deep divisions among Europeans over how to deal with the Islamic extrem-ism since the murder of Theo van Gogh over a film that criticised Islam’s treatment of women.
A note attached to his body with a knife threatened other people, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Dutch politician and his collaborator. She fled to America, accusing the Dutch of “appeasement” of extremists. She has since returned to the Netherlands and is said to be working on a film about the repression of gays in Islamic societies.
She may not get much support from the politicians, who seem determined to avoid confrontation even if some might accuse them of turning a blind eye to the erosion of artistic freedom. When Hera wrote to Ronald Plasterk, the culture minister, asking for his support he agreed to meet her but would not help to reinstate her photographs in the exhibition.
Wouter Bos, the deputy prime minister, seemed to take a stand for freedom of speech, saying: “In a democracy, we do not recognise the right not to be insulted.” The left wing de Volkskrant newspaper, by contrast, praised the museum for its “great professionalism” in excising the images.
For her part, Hera, who fled Iran seven years ago, says she has “no regrets”, particularly when she thinks about the young men and women being hanged there for offending the country’s code of sexuality. “I do it for them,” she said, “for the boys and girls with no freedom in Iran.”