Why the Louvre’s new Islamic art wing won’t “bridge the divide”

Pledges to forge an understanding between the West and Islam feel shallow.

This week the Louvre Museum in Paris opened up a new wing devoted to Islamic art. The structure, which cost a reported £80 million and took a decade to build, is fitted with a wave-like, gold tinted rooftop which has been likened both to a flying carpet and sand dunes in the desert. It has been granted a privileged position in the Louvre’s central courtyard alongside I M Pei’s glass pyramid, and will house the largest collection of Islamic art in Europe – a rotating selection from the Louvre’s 18,000 strong Islamic archive.

It’s all very exciting, but what, exactly, are the implication of this grand new home for the cream of the Islamic cultural crop? The new space is being billed as a symbol of tolerance in the face of growing unrest and misunderstanding between the west and the Islamic World. Sophie Makariou, director of the Louvre’s Islamic Art Department, said in an interview with the BBC: “We need to state that there is a distance between what the Islamic civilization was, its contribution to world history, and what is happening now. She went on to call the exhibition space a chance to “give Islam back its glory”. French president François Holland, who inaugurated the wing on Tuesday, called it a significant project at a significant time.  

And it’s not just those in camp west who see the endeavour in these terms. The gallery’s largest single donor – Prince Waleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia – made this statement: “After 9/11 all Arabs and Muslims have the duty and the responsibility to tell the west about real Muslims, about real Islam, and how peaceful our religion is.”  Substantial donations have also poured in from individuals in Abu Dabi, Kuwait, Oman, not to mention the Moroccan Royal Family and the president of Azerbaijan. An international project with ambitious intentions, no doubt.  

France has a long history of secularism, which has of late been invoked justification for cracking down on the country’s four million strong Muslim population. The 2004 ban of headscarves in public schools sparked protests, followed by further controversy over last year’s outlaw of the niqab in public spaces. In 2010, the mayor of the northern city of Roubaix initiated a row over whether the sale of halal meat in fast food burger chains let religion in where it didn’t belong. Then there's the recent unrest over satirical cartoons in the weekly Charlie Hebdo, and the banning of anti-Innocence of Muslims protests by the interior minister Manuel Valls.

In a sense, the museum's message is a harmless one – a politely reassuring statement of cultural collaboration. But in another sense it amounts to a failure to acknowlege the modern Muslim condition - an implication that only in the past did Islamic culture aspire to beauty, integrity, intelligence and refinement.

The Louvre has borne the standard for western high art since the French Revolution. Art from Islamic antiquity (the new wing will house work from the 7th to the 19th century), with its fondness for calligraphy, narrative painting and lush decorative textiles, ceramics and ornaments, conforms perfectly well to the aesthetic criteria of western art from the same periods. In previous centuries, eastern and western sensibilities were very much in tune. It’s the world today that the French seem to feel uneasy with – hence the appeal to an idealised past.

Ancient art is beautiful and important, no doubt. But for many young people today – those at the heart of the east/west debate - it remains inaccessible and elitist. The French youth might call the Mona Lisa an invaluable artefact, yes – but provocative? Topical? A catalyst for conversation? Hardly. Should we then expect Moghul mosaics to speak for the modern Muslim?

It’s comforting to imagine that misunderstandings and intolerance on both sides could be placated by a round of applause for what came before. But if all we can celebrate about Islam is its past, then we are ignoring the equally beautiful aspects of its present.  The Louvre’s new wing is a worthy home for a collection worth celebrating. But it is but a small bridge over a chasm that continues to widen. An honest celebration of contemporary Islamic art and culture is still needed and major art institutions like the Louvre should be doing their bit. 

The Louvre's newly opened Islamic art wing. (Photograph: Louvre Museum)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.