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'Offensive' art abuses religious symbols

Russia | Defamation of Religions

[Editor's note: The following is an edited excerpt from Andrei Zolotov's presentation to The Media Project's conference on religious defamation and press freedom in Jakarta. The full-text is available for download below.]

At the grass-roots level and in public opinion, the sanctity of religious symbols and beliefs has been one of Russia's hottest issues recently - particularly when those symbols come under attack in the media or in the process of artistic activity.

The sanctity-of-symbols debates also underscore an increasingly confrontational situation, in which atheists and agnostics oppose what they see as “clericalization” of Russian society, while the Church and other religious groups are increasingly vocal in condemning the “godlessness” of the modern world.

“The Orthodox Church is the main engine of this discussion in Russia, although the Muslim-related stories had been here as well,” human rights activist Alexander Verkhovsky said in an interview.

The first episodes took place in the mid-1990s. Verkhovsky recalled how a local publishing house in St. Petersburg decided to publish full works of Salman Rushdie, including the Satanic Verses. There was a press conference of several Muslim figures, who said they “cannot guarantee a correct behavior” of their flock. Ultimately the publishers published Rushdie but did not publish the Satanic Verses.

In December, 1998, contemporary artist Avdey Ter-Oganyan staged a performance entitled “Young Atheist,” in which he cut mass produced Orthodox icons with an ax. He was stopped and punched by fellow artists, who saw it as an offense to their religious feelings. Ter-Oganyan eventually emigrated from Russia under threat of a criminal case for “igniting religious hatred.”

By the late 1990s, a grass roots equivalent to a religious right movement began to form, to a large extent under the banner of combating the moral degradation of the liberal world. The self-styled Committee for Moral Revival of the Fatherland led by Archpriest Alexander Shargunov played one of the central roles in the mass demonstration outside the Ostankino television center in 1997 to protest the show of Martin Scorcese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

In this decade of the 21st century, there were prominent cases in Russia spurred by the re-printing of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed in some provincial Russian newspapers and magazines. At least one newspaper was closed, but its editor was eventually acquitted.

Two years ago, the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine printed one of the cartoons as a small icon, simply to highlight the topic of the discussion. Newsweek Editor Mikhail Fishman said in an interview that he did it entirely unintentionally, only as an illustration. But protests immediately followed from Islamic organizations, and his name and magazine were portrayed as enemies of Islam on some Muslim websites. Ultimately the magazine received an official warning from the government watchdog agency supervising the media. According to the Law on Mass Media, two such warnings can result in the court decision to shut down the publication. Fishman offered public apologies to Muslims and after a year of non-violations the warning expired.

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