Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Banning an artist to keep the ambassador happy | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

In an art exhibit held the Arab World Institute in Paris, the then Iraqi ambassador to France Abdul-Razzak al-Hashimi was seen shaking with rage outside of the gallery and angrily proclaiming that one of the exhibits within the gallery insulted the well-loved President Saddam Hussein. Al-Hashimi was talking about a cartoon by famous Arab cartoonist Ali Farzat which depicts a huge army general pouring military decoration into an empty plate being held by a poor and starving man. Al-Hashimi screamed that he would not move until this cartoon was removed from the art exhibit. Although the art director and Ali Farzat himself tried to convince the Iraqi ambassador that this was just a work of art, and that the army general with the impressive moustache drawn by Farzat had nothing whatsoever to do with Saddam Hussein, al-Hashimi maintained his position. So the then Iraqi ambassador continued to insist that the cartoon should be removed, whilst Farzat – along with all the other artists and the institute’s staff – insisted that there was nothing wrong with the cartoon and it should remain in the exhibit. In the end, it was the Iraqi ambassador who lost the battle following a huge media scandal.

Years later, a similar incident took place at a different institution and featuring a different artist. This time, the victim is an Arab youth named Malek Jandali, whilst surprisingly it is the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee that has banned him. Jandali, a Syrian-American musician, has been banned from performing in front of this anti-discrimination committee because he wanted to sing a song about freedom! It seems that the event’s organizers were afraid that this song would be about Syria, and in fear of angering their friend – the Syrian Ambassador to the US – disinvited Jandali from performing his song, even though this song does not once explicitly mention the word “Syria.” This incident turned into a scandal, with the media angrily criticizing the organization’s shameful stance.

This particular organization is one of the international Arab organizations that had received the most praise. It was established by Arab-Americans some 30 years ago in order to fulfil a specific objective, namely to defend the image of Arab-Americans who have been an object of derision and attack since the 1970s. This organization gained widespread support inside and outside of the US, and was successful in establishing itself as an anti-racism organization, fighting against the discrimination and racism that was prevalent in the American media at the time. This organization has also defended many of those who lost their jobs as a result of racism or who suffered discrimination merely for being of Arab descent, and this is a stance that is in complete harmony with US laws that prohibit discrimination on racial, sexual, or religious grounds. However as you know politics corrupts everything that it touches…so we were previously taken by surprise to see this organization siding with Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Due to this stance, regarded by many as defending a brutal and savage invasion, many people stopped backing the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for years.

The history of many Arab organizations based abroad has been harmed by political tampering, as well as disregard of the mission that the organization was formed to fulfil. The reason is that such organizations suffer from the same Arab defect, namely the politicization of issues at the expense of the organization’s principles, as well as the organization’s leadership exploiting this for their own gains. This is something that we have previously seen in the Joint Arab – Foreign Chambers of Commerce, the Boycott Israel campaigns and organizations, and indeed all Arab political organizations in general.

It seems that this is precisely what happened with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which is supposed to fight against discrimination, not discriminate against an artist because he wants to sing a song that does not suit the personal politics of the officials attending an event held by this organization.

Those in Washington, D.C. do not seem to be aware of what is happening in the Arab world. It seems that they have been left behind by the recent events in our region, and are blinded to the fact that people are demanding transparency and media accountability. It is no longer possible for a director to run his organization as if this were part of his own little kingdom.