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France

'Misunderstanding' over Islamic art sparks near-riot

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2012-10-06

The accidental projection of a work of art based on Islamic holy texts nearly started a riot in the southwestern French city of Toulouse on Tuesday. The artist, shocked by the response of young Muslim youths in the city, has withdrawn the piece.

A Moroccan artist on Wednesday suspended one of his works from a major arts festival in southern France after his projections of Islamic calligraphy onto a bridge nearly set off a riot when local Muslim youths saw pedestrians walking on the words.

Mounir Fatmi’s exhibit at the month-long “Printemps de Septembre” art festival in Toulouse was meant to be shown at weekends, when cordons would be in place to insure the projections could not be walked on, as this is considered blasphemous by Muslims.

But late on Tuesday the video, made up of stylised calligraphy of verses from the Koran and “Hadiths” (sayings) of the Prophet Mohammed, was projected – by mistake – onto the city’s busy Pont Neuf.

According to Toulouse Police, the reaction was rapid. Up to 80 young people, many called in from the city’s housing estates, gathered on the bridge to stop pedestrians from treading on the verses.

One woman was slapped after she accidentally walked onto the projection, police said, although some protesters claimed she had deliberately provoked them.

Police sent in a riot squad, but a local imam and representatives of the Muslim community went to the scene and successfully appealed for calm.

The projection was switched off, and after meetings with the mayor, an apology was made to the woman who was slapped.

Tense relations

“This was essentially one big misunderstanding,” Hassan Idmiloud, vice president of the Toulouse Muslim Association, told FRANCE 24.

Idmiloud explained that tensions had been high in Toulouse since Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French-Algerian Islamist, went on a killing spree in March 2012 and was subsequently shot dead by police besieging his apartment.

Relations between the French state and its significant Muslim community have been strained in recent years by a string of controversies that have put the Muslim faith at odds with France's secular tradition.

Tuesday’s incident also took place amid heightened tensions following publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

“Young people saw the projections and thought they were a deliberate insult,” said Idmilud. “We stepped in to explain that this beautiful work of art was actually an homage to Islam, that it was a genuine mistake to project it on Wednesday before a cordon was in place. I think, and hope, that the message got through."

“But we shouldn’t pin all this only on religion. Many of these young people of North African origin are going through an identity crisis; they face high unemployment and communication with them is not what it should be.

“If anything, this incident has demonstrated that we need to increase our dialogue with these young people.”

‘I just don’t get it’

Despite the intervention of the city’s Muslim leaders, Mounir Fatmi, who describes himself as “a Moroccan of Muslim origin”, decided to cancel the projection of his work on the Pont Neuf.

“The conditions which I agreed to for my work were not met,” he said in a statement. “The result was that my art was not seen properly and above all, it was misunderstood. I’d rather the projection was suspended.”

Fatmi added that the piece, called “Technologia”, was in fact owned by the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar.

“When it was shown there for the first time, just a few kilometres from Saudi Arabia, no one was shocked,” he said. “That people were shocked in Toulouse is astonishing. I just don’t get it.”

Another of Fatmi’s works, projected onto the facade of the city’s landmark Hotel Dieu, will continue as part of the scheduled festival.

Date created : 2012-10-04

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