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So Now Abdallah Adhami Is an Art Critic?

The New York Times asks the former “Ground Zero Mosque” imam to weigh in on the religious correctness of the Met’s new Islamic world galleries

Ah, the New York Times. Its Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section can usually cure any bout of insomnia, with tiresome articles on artistic “trends” years old. But this week’s front-page summary of the Metropolitan Museum’s freshly redesigned Islamic art galleries manages to open some old wounds and set new records in abasement to the least liberal interpreters of Islam.

The author, Randy Kennedy, has structured his very long article around the non-issue of whether the museum should display art that—contrary to Islam’s injunctions against figurative representation—depicts Muhammad. The exact nature of the prohibitions isn’t clear; they are in the hadiths, or oral tradition, rather than the Koran itself. It seems that one of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha, provoked some of the hadiths, or sayings, of Muhammad by purchasing pillows or curtains depicting animals for their house or owning stuffed animals (she was only nine when she was married). Outside of Persian miniatures, there is almost no Islamic art that depicts Muhammad, so this is not a central concern for the Met exhibit. Nor does Kennedy—who began his Times career as the subway columnist and does not appear to know much about the art under review—quote a logical expert, such as Princeton professor Michael Barry, one of the Met’s own consultants in the redesign of the galleries and author of a massive tome on figuration in Persian miniatures.

Instead, Kennedy trots out Abdallah Adhami. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s not because he’s an expert on Islamic art. (Adhami’s only university degree appears to be a bachelor’s in architecture from Pratt.) Nor is Adhami a graduate of Cairo’s ancient Al-Azhar University or any of the other universities known for producing Islamic scholars.

No, Adhami’s name sounds familiar because he was “for a brief period chosen to direct religious programming for the proposed cultural center and mosque near ground zero.” In this brief period, Adhami managed to draw the ire of publications from the Huffington Post—who outed him as a homophobe who has stated in public lectures that being gay is a “painful trial” and implicitly endorsed the death penalty for apostasy—to the New York Post, which pointed out that Adhami designed the Brooklyn mosque of Imam Siraj Wahhaj, an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and “a character witness in the trial of convicted terror plotter Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.” Wahhaj, who Adhami features in a “Celebarating Goodness” series on his Sakeenah website, is a Nation of Islam preacher who has skirted, if not embraced, the more extreme reaches of Islam in America.

Kennedy invites Adhami to censor the Met’s collection:

On the question of works from that past presenting representations of Muhammad, Mr. Adhami holds a nuanced view. “Theologically it’s unacceptable, and that’s pretty straightforward.” But he added that he believed the images should be seen in context, as pieces of centuries-old history. “Let’s say that I would leave the room on a vote on this kind of question, figuratively speaking,” he said.

How “nuanced”! That’s big of Adhami, to not take it upon himself to tell the Met what to exhibit.

Kennedy continues to grovel before fundamentalist sensibilities, writing, “To ask art and artifacts—even magisterial examples from a sweep of more than a millennium—to make a difference, or even a dent, in American anti-Muslim sentiment might be expecting too much.” Hello? The problem is American bigotry? Not some people who hijacked planes on September 11, 2001?

I would wager that a surprising number of Americans know that Muslims have made great art. They know of the Alhambra and Topkapi, if nothing else. Those who have “anti-Muslim sentiment” do not believe that Muslims are people without culture, any more than those who were revolted by the Germans after World War II believed that Germans were people without culture. The problem was barbarous behavior by a few, and silent toleration of it by the many.

Revulson dies over time, and with real changes in nations. The Germans have shown that they have put Nazi barbarism behind them—and have condemned it whenever it has raised its head. When the world’s Muslims send the pathology of their terrorists to the same dustbin, they can expect to see the disappearance of anti-Muslim sentiment. The Arab Spring may—or may not—accelerate this process, as Muslims understandably enraged by tyrannical government take their own destinies in their hands. And by his foolish choice of “experts,” Kennedy has probably done as much as anyone to stoke the very bias he condemns.

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