Censorship of Cultural Expression in the Middle East

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Censorship of Cultural Expression in the Middle East

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One man's filth is another's tour de force

'How Free Is Art?' symposium in Beirut stirs up passionate if sometimes unfocused declamation and debate

By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff
Thursday, November 15, 2007

BEIRUT: Censorship is one of those topics that never seems to go stale. It occupies the space between postindustrial societies' two contesting values - "individual freedom" and "the common good." Discussion about restricting artistic expression is as fraught as that of media censorship. This is particularly true in Lebanon, where secular-humanist individualism clashes particularly loudly against the sectarian state.

So the debate during the symposium "How Free Is Art? Censorship of Cultural Expression in the Middle East" was lively. Beirut's Goethe Institute organized the two-day event, along with Umam Documentation and Research and Alexandria's Anna Lindh Foundation.

The event was interesting for the breadth of voices it assembled, with local artists and cultural workers rubbing shoulders with a smattering of journalists, academics and state and religious functionaries from Lebanon and abroad. As you might expect, the symposium stirred up some passionate, if sometimes unfocused, declamation and debate.

Since the event had such a strong German flavor, it seemed only appropriate that a German deliver the keynote address. Roland Seim is a writer, editor and sociology lecturer at the University of Muenster. His paper "'Censorship Shall Not Take Place,' Even in Popular Culture?" suggested one European model for censorship against which the Arab participants could gauge their own experiences.

Seim's paper invoked the tension between the freedom of speech embedded in the German Constitution and the practical necessity of proscribing certain behavior. Censorship in the German context is, he argues, an ambiguous process because as soon as authorities issue an index of cultural products to be restricted or banned, it becomes a shopping list for those titillated by their transgressive nature.

At present, Seim informed his audience, there are some 15,000 videos, books, comics, records, computer games and Internet sites indexed by Germany's Federal Office for the Control of Publications Harmful to Youth - a body staffed by members of "socially relevant interest groups, such as churches, youth-welfare organizations, teachers, publishers and distributors" - and so forbidden to minors. Among those indexed are such familiar book titles as Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" and William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch."

The creme de la creme of the proscribed material are the 600 titles that the German courts have banned outright for reasons of pornography, glorification of violence, libel or hate speech. The state is particularly sensitive about limiting the freedom of any expression deemed Nazi propaganda - understandable, perhaps, given Germany's unfortunate experience with national socialism. Seim pointed out that hundreds of print and audiovisual titles have been banned as "xenophobia, hate speech, right-wing extremism, race hatred theories of Jewish conspiracy or because they question the Holocaust or German war guilt."

Given the weight of Holocaust war guilt in the German consciousness, it's perhaps no surprise that some among the Lebanese were interested in German attitudes toward criticism of the state of Israel and its policies in Palestine.

The symposium's opening panel, dedicated to "Art Legislation and Freedom of Expression," provoked lively discussion. Represented were Lebanon's advertising sector (Public Arena's Ibrahim Eid), as were the NGO communities in Lebanon (Article 19's Sarah Richani) and Jordan (Cultural Resources' Basma al-Husseini) and Egypt's academic community (AUC sociologist Samia Merhez), but the Beirut audience's attention was drawn to Major Eli Asmar, deputy director of the General Directorate of Lebanon's Surete Generale and the chief of its censorship bureau.

Asmar's presentation described how censorship works in Lebanon - the basic division between newspapers and publications on one hand and film, theater, television and DVDs on the other. He took pains to underline that Lebanese censorship is not arbitrarily imposed but grounded in law - quite a liberal reading of the Lebanese penal code, in fact - that decisions didn't stem from him alone but emerged after discussions with the other ("university-educated") officers working at the censorship bureau.

The official's delivery betrayed traces of both defiance and defensiveness and, though he emphasized that he and his colleagues are only state employees, he tended to justify their interdicts in personal and moralizing terms - detailing the sort of films that his staff have censored, for instance, and remarking: "Would any parent allow their children to watch such a thing?"

Asmar was vocal throughout the symposium, often reply-ing to remarks arising from Lebanese artists, journalists and cultural workers. During the question period, Lebanese cultural journalist Pierre Abi Saab remarked upon the pa-ternalistic tone and content of Asmar's presentation, observing: "You speak as an employee but you speak like a legislator. With all respect, it's irrelevant to us what sort of movies you want your children to watch."

The question period became incendiary after Roger Assaf (founder of the Shams collective and the Sunflower Theater) asked Asmar why producers have to pay a fee of $100 to be censored. Asmar replied that these fees are only LL10,000 and defied anyone who would accuse him of taking bribes.

The spirited audience response was reiterated the next morning during the panel "Government Censorship and Religious Censorship: Hand in Hand?" It featured contributions from Ammar Ahmad Hamed (the art critic who heads Syria's censorship office), the Catholic Information Center's Youssef Mowannis, the Higher Shiite Council's Mohammad Rizk, Dar al-Fatwa's Sheikh Mohammad al-Noukary and Umam D&R's Lokman Slim.

It's difficult to synthesize such a symposium that ranged over censorship in a wide variety of media produced over an equally wide region but a number of pertinent themes were discussed or at least raised.

One of these was the phenomenon of "popular censorship" - cases where citizens take legal (and even extra-legal) action against artists because they have moral objections to the content of their work.

It's the sort of thing that would have been unheard of when strong authoritarian states were the norm in the Arab Middle East, and the scenario that the censor in Lebanon (the poster child for the minimalist state hereabouts) seeks to circumvent.

The current fashion among this region's once-authoritarian states is to divest itself of its secular prerogatives, often deferring to religious authorities (whether gradually, as in Egypt, or radically as in Iraq). If the trend continues, it may be that state censors will come to see their role in terms similar to that of their Lebanese colleagues - which one local artist compared to that of a primary-school teacher breaking-up quarrels on the playground.

"How Free is Art?" provided more than one amusing moment. The most pertinent of these came during Major Asmar's presentation. While he was explaining how Lebanon's censorship bureau respects all religions and treats them all equally, a propitious power-cut plunged the hall into darkness. Gales of laughter erupted. By the time the generator kicked in, even Asmar was laughing.
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