Brussels exhibit tackles Islam in city scarred by terror

Sunday 24/09/2017
Difficult issues. Visitors stand near an installation by US artist Gregory Green in which a mock bomb is held in a Louis Vuitton vanity case at the “Islam, It’s Also Our History” exhibition at the Espace Vanderborght in Brussels. (AP)

Brussels - For months after the Brus­sels extremist attacks of 2016 it seemed an exhibi­tion on Islam’s legacy in Europe might never open in the city. At first, the creators and city officials felt the time wasn’t right and then they struggled to find a location willing to host a show cer­tain to be considered controversial.
The “Islam. It’s Also Our His­tory” exhibition at the city-owned Vanderborght Building opened Sep­tember 15 and is telling a story of the long Islamic presence on European soil that shaped Western culture in areas ranging from medicine, phi­losophy and architecture to diplo­macy, language and food.
“We want to make clear to Euro­peans that Islam is part of European civilisation and that it isn’t a recent import but has roots going back 13 centuries,” said Isabelle Benoit, a historian with Tempora, the organi­sation that designed the exhibition.
Funded by the European Union and Belgian authorities, the show was conceived many years before the deadly Paris attacks of 2015 were carried out by a Brussels-based ex­tremist cell and the March 2016 at­tacks that killed 32 people in Brus­sels itself.
It tries to build bridges in an era of distrust and fear by showing the rich civilisation that Muslims helped establish in Europe in the Medieval period when they ruled in the Ibe­rian Peninsula, today’s Spain and Portugal, for eight centuries. There they produced a rich civilisation and oversaw a long era in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peaceful coexistence, albeit with Jews and Christians as second citi­zens.
The golden era is recalled in Is­lamic architectural gems — castles and mosques-turned-cathedrals — that dot Granada, Seville and other parts of Spain, Portugal and even Sicily.
Jean-Francois Ravagnan, a visitor from Liege, Belgium, said he found the exhibition a “chance to set the record straight.”
“We no longer take the time to look at our common history. We’re no longer interested in the other, in their origins, in their traditions,” he said.
The show addresses difficult is­sues, including violent extremism and the problems that Belgium and other Western European countries have faced in integrating large Mus­lim communities.
While stressing that integration is often a success, the exhibition puts blame on both native populations and Muslim migrants for the times integration fails and says building bridges requires accommodation on both sides. To Muslim newcomers there is a pointed message delivered in a short video: Certain values are “non-negotiable” in Europe, includ­ing democracy, individual rights, secularism and gender equality.
A variety of traditional objects and installations are used to tell the story of three major periods of Mus­lim presence on Europe’s soil: The Arab conquest of Spain in the Mid­dle Ages; Ottoman rule over south-eastern Europe starting in the 14th century; and the Colonial era, which opened the way for Muslims from the Middle East and Africa to begin settling in Europe in the 20th cen­tury.
The unsettled problems of today, including the large-scale migration over the past few years and Islamic violence, are dealt with primarily with artistic installations, some of them provocative.
One installation — “End of Dreams” by Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen — is an ode to those who died trying to reach Eu­rope in dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean. Visitors find themselves in a dark room sur­rounded by large videos of the sea bottom, with bundles on the floor evoking the small bodies of children who drowned at sea.
Another section, in particular, provoked Muslim schoolteachers from Belgium on a recent visit — a Louis Vuitton vanity case holding a mock bomb, creation of US artist Gregory Green.
Nejia Adouiri, a 41-year-old pri­mary school teacher, said she found it “very confrontational” that the show “wanted to make a link be­tween Islam and what has been hap­pening recently worldwide.” She was also upset that it was among the last objects in the show — giv­ing it the power to linger in visitors’ minds.
In response to the criticism, or­ganisers said they intended to move the installation to a different place in the exhibition hall to give it less psychological weight and would probably add some textual context. They said they wouldn’t remove it entirely.
Eli Barnavi, a historian from Tel Aviv University and president of the scientific committee that developed the exhibition, said that, while jiha­di extremism is an aberration in the long history of Islam, it’s a reality of the current age that must be dealt with, too.
He said society must grapple even with these difficult issues and that while organisers and city officials were hesitant to open the exhibition soon after the 2016 attacks, the time was finally right.
“Slowly but surely everybody started to understand that that’s the moment to do it,” Barnavi said. “That precisely because of the strife and the violence and terrorism it’s important to have some kind of ped­agogical approach, some kind of dia­logue; and the exhibition is meant to do precisely that, to show that Mus­lims are very much part of Europe, that they belong here, that it’s a very old presence on European soil, that they had an important influence and impact on this civilisation.”
The exhibition runs through Janu­ary 21.
(The Associated Press)