Contemporary art has long claimed the privilege—indeed, the duty—of criticizing the images produced by the mass-culture industry.footnote1 Now, however, both media images and works of art are increasingly coming under attack for religious reasons. It often seems as if Islamist fundamentalism has effectively conspired with the Western media and their Enlightenment rhetoric to create a culture war that perpetuates itself from one event to the next. These events (and pseudo-events) range from the dramatic murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the Danish cartoon riots, Jack Straw’s remarks on veils and the decision of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin to cancel a planned staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo—in which the severed heads of Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha were to be shown alongside that of Poseidon. Sometimes there need be no event at all: media reports that some British banks no longer hand out piggy banks to children, so as not to offend Muslim customers, turned out to be just as unfounded as the end-of-year hysteria over the alleged banning of Christmas by overzealous, politically correct bureaucrats and managers.

So far, the art world has shown little inclination—at least on the institutional level—to respond to such real or perceived challenges to the spectacular regime of visibility that it is itself so keen on exposing. Nonetheless, individual artistic practices offer compelling reflections on the renewed vigour of monotheistic attacks on images and on the visual regime of the capitalist West as such; I focus here on Dutch examples, but within the broader context of the global religious contestation of the spectacle.

Many of the most prominent incidents in the current image wars involve the veiling or unveiling of the female body. In 2003, an Amsterdam tenement was decorated with a monumental mural of a nude woman, inspired by a poem by Jacob van Lennep, Ode aan een roosje (‘Ode to a Rose’), which was splashed across the façade and the body of the woman; a clothed man, presumably the author, floated over the text and the woman’s legs. Although the inhabitants of the neighbouring buildings, many of them Muslims, were polled prior to the work’s execution (apparently with largely positive results), once completed the mural was attacked both verbally and physically, with black paint. In the end, a compromise was reached: the woman’s pubic area was pixellated, turning it into an abstract grid. The ideological opposite of such revealing public art can be found in the town of Susa, Iran, in the form of a mural showing the upper part of a woman in Islamic dress, her face visible but her body concealed, her eyes demurely averted. An accompanying text proclaims: ‘A woman modestly dressed is as a pearl in it’s shell’ [sic].footnote2

Over the past few years, the appearance of women who adhere to a strict definition of hijab dress in European cities has provoked increasing controversy. This focuses above all on the veiling of the face, with only a slit left for the eyes—or even less, as in the Afghan burqa, which covers the eyes with an embroidered grille. After a group of Muslims who allegedly plotted to kidnap and kill a British Muslim soldier on leave from Iraq were arrested in early 2007, British newspapers showed a photo of three veiled women in Birmingham, one of them making a V-sign. Although this is an extreme case, images of veiled women have become a minor genre in European newspapers—one indication that the veil has come to function as a screen on which cultural anxieties and desires are projected, and not just from one side. This is not the place to explore the cultural history of the veil, which reaches back before the beginnings of Islam or Christianity, and often has social rather than religious connotations; nor to engage in the debate over whether the veil is actually prescribed by Islam, or is just a cultural habit; whether it is a means of oppression, or a choice made by strong and emancipated women. The fact is that the polysemic veil has become a logotype of the dangerous Muslim other; it has become a prop in today’s image wars. Islamists use it as a highly visible statement of their ability to protect Muslim values in the face of an antagonistic Western culture, while Western liberals perceive it as an attack on such a culture, often focusing on the question of women’s rights. In this respect they follow in the footsteps of the far-from-liberal Lord Cromer, British consul-general in Egypt in the late nineteenth century, who already ideologized the veil as a sign of the oppression of women. This reading at least has the virtue of being open to appropriation by Muslim women: a Dutch news photograph taken in late 2006 shows the full-body veil being used by Muslim women in a protest against their deportation to Afghanistan, where they would be forced to wear such burqas—they have wrapped themselves not only in burqas, but in pictures of the then Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, or ‘Iron Rita’.

The status of the veil as a media myth that would have delighted Roland Barthes—the veil as sign for Oriental mystery and danger, hiding an inaccessible, exotic feminine body—has been countered by (mainly female) artists including Shirin Neshat and Zineb Sedira.footnote3 The Dutch artist Fransje Killaars, who in the early 1990s switched from painting to making installations with textiles, has recently taken to draping some of her bedspreads, with their brightly coloured grids, on tailor’s dummies. These abstract and impractical full-body veils draw attention to their materiality and sensuality—to their own surface and texture rather than their status as obstructions of the gaze, as a hindrance to seeing what lies beneath. Titled Figures and posed in groups, they form a constellation that invites comparison and contrast. Killaars also shows one or two dummies that are not covered in the manner of a burqa, but around which a bedspread is draped from the neck down in the manner of a cape. In contrast to the burqa forms, the ‘cape’ Figures use dummies whose heads have been removed; the cape is crowned by nothing. By ‘exposing’ the veiled face as a void, these acéphales join the other works in privileging the cover over the covered, the veil over the veiled. If the media represent the veil as a blot that obscures the essence, the woman beneath—a woman supposedly in need of unveiling to make her free—Killaars’s Figures make the veil visible as something integral rather than exterior to the figure.

Important as work such as Killaars’s is, there is no denying that it remains marginal in a culture in which the veil has been hijacked by right-wing mouthpieces who routinely invoke the Enlightenment in a way that reduces critique to neatly packaged dogma for the age of the soundbite. One such Enlightenment fundamentalist is Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who during her years in Holland—she has since moved on to the us, to work at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute—wrote the script for a short film on the role of women in Islam. Programmatically titled Submission (part 1), the 2004 film was directed by Theo van Gogh, who famously described Muslims as backward ‘goat-fuckers’; he paid with his life for Submission when he was stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street in broad daylight by a young fundamentalist now famous as Mohammed B. Submission shows a woman wearing a dark but transparent veil that reveals parts of her body, upon which Koranic verses on woman’s submissive role have been written in ornate calligraphy. The film’s voice-over monologue contains harrowing stories of various forms of abuse, and depicts the veil as a prison, the innermost circle of an extremely restricted world. The element of truth in this is compromized by the reduction of the veil, of its ambiguity and contradictions, to a cartoon image. Turning women wearing veils into the faceless face of otherness allows Hirsi Ali and her allies to ignore the questions raised by the rise of the veil in Europe—questions that can be uncomfortable for the heroic defenders of western liberal values.

Mid-twentieth-century pioneers of radical Islamism such as Sayyid Qutb of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood saw capitalist culture as the return of jahiliyya, the paganism of pre-Islamic Arabia. This pagan state was characterized by shirk, the associating of other gods or beings with Allah; shirk functions as an equivalent of Judaic or Christian conceptions of idolatry. Like idolatrous Rome for the Christians, the jahiliyya was also associated with uncontrolled and promiscuous sexuality; indeed, the early Jewish conception of idolatry frequently compared it to adultery. Ever since Sayyid Qutb, the comparative sexual freedom and sexualization of the public sphere have been regarded as crucial symptoms of the new Western idolatry. Not only is thought itself turned into an idol by Western rationalists, as Qutb stated with horror; sinking even lower, the Westerners also idolize the body. But then, perhaps this is just a front for the true idolatry: as the Iranian thinker Ali Shariati stated, in an idiom that may seem oddly familiar, sexual freedom is ‘part of a new exploitation, a type of limitless deception, which the impure system of Western capitalism produces’. Behind the seductive appearance of commodified sexuality lie ‘great idols and the three faces of the contemporary religious trinity: exploitation, colonialism and despotism’.footnote4