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.

Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.