Iranian Artist Fights to Have Muhammad Art Displayed in Dutch Museums

For the third time in four months, the controversial work of an Iranian artist has been suddenly yanked from a Dutch museum exhibition.

The artist, who goes by the alias Sooreh Hera and who lives in exile in the Netherlands, said she received death threats after attempting to show her series of photographs entitled "Adam & Ewald, Seventh-Day Lovers."

Some of the photographs include depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali in poses that would likely upset any believer in any religion.

The most controversial images feature gay men posed in various stages of undress. In one, a man wears leather chaps with his buttocks exposed, wearing a mask of Ali, the son-in law of the prophet Muhammad. In other photo two men are shirtless wearing masks of both Ali (on the left) and Muhammad (on the right).

Click here to view photos by Sooreh Hera. Warning: Contains graphic material.

Museum directors initially planned to display the work of the 35-year-old artist. But now, citing fear of reprisals and political pressure, they've changed their mind, much to her dismay.

Hera says she is fighting for freedom of speech and freedom of expression in a nation that once was known for its tolerance and peace, but now is a hotbed of religious and social tension.

"Freedom of expression has become an illusion in Europe," she told in a phone interview from a home where she is currently in hiding. "We think we have freedom of expression, but in fact we live under a sort of hidden censorship."

But John Voll, associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said Hera's works cross the line and are offensive.

He said freedom of speech does not mean that one has the freedom to be as insulting as possible.

"It isn't as if we have absolute freedom in the United States to be offensive and insulting just to be different," Voll said in an interview.

"Can you imagine what would happen if John McCain used the n-word about Obama while campaigning? There are consequences. Free speech is not absolute," he said.

Hera said her collection's name is borrowed from the remarks of a Dutch Parliament member who has said that "if homosexuality were allowed, the Bible might have mentioned 'Adam and Ewald,' instead of Adam and Eve."

Adam & Ewald's first public exhibition was to be a three-month run, beginning December 2007, at the Hague Gemeentemuseum. One month before the show the museum retracted Hera's invitation. The museum "did not wish to become part of a political debate," its director, Wim van Krimpen, said at the time, calling the display of Hera's work "an invitation to unrest."

Next, MuseumgoudA offered up a venue, but that invitation, too, was withdrawn.

Art Amsterdam, an art festival that includes work from a selection of galleries and museums, finally agreed to show Hera's work, which goes on display next month, but on one condition: that the controversial photos not be included.

"Under difficult circumstances I had to agree to this exhibition because there was a lot of anxiety and unrest and a row about these photos if they would be shown at Art Amsterdam," Hera said.

Harry Ruhé of Galerie A, a gallery that is sponsoring her work in the festival, told in an e-mailed statement: "The decision not to select the photos with the masks had nothing to do with 'fear of retaliation.' The only criterion was to make a presentation of high quality."

Hera said she doesn't buy that explanation and is calling upon the Dutch Ministry of Culture to give protection to controversial art and artists. "What will be the fate of any controversial art if museum directors and gallery keepers are afraid?" she said.

The controversy surrounding Hera's work comes in a small country that has become the focus of anti-West violence by Islamic extremists.

— Last month, Muslims throughout the world protested the release of the anti-Muslim film "Fitna" by Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders.

— In February, Danish police said they uncovered a plot to kill the artist of controversial cartoons, first printed in a Dutch newspaper in 2005, that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. The publication of those cartoons set off deadly riots across the Muslim world.

— In 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered months after the debut of his revelatory work focusing on the abuse of Muslim women.

Hera said a fatwa, or religious pronouncement, of death has been issued for her as a result of her exhibit. "The fatwa was printed in the Iranian newspapers; they said they would kill me," she told, and saying she can't go out now in public. She's declined television interviews to answer her critics, and won't even attend her own art exhibition.

"I will not be attending [Art Amsterdam] due to safety reasons," she said. "It's like being forbidden to go to your own wedding."

She said her work is a direct response to the threats made by radical Islamists against her and against the Dutch government.

"I did this to answer the Iranian government," Hera said. "I made some new work. In one of these photos the deceased spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, is in leather trousers, half naked."

She says the point of this is to expose the hypocrisy in Islam about homosexuality and to get everyone talking about the freedom of expression and speech in the Western world.

"I'm hoping my work will arouse discussion," she said. "The thing that endangers the Netherlands is succumbing to fear and keeping silent about threats and not being alert in regard to freedom of expression," she says.

"The Netherlands is very much a flashpoint right now. It looks as if there is going to have to be some hard choices made about whether we're going to defend our civilization or not," Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch told

Spencer says this sort of pressure by Muslim groups "who don't hesitate to traffic in violent intimidation" will continue to undercut freedom of speech until it no longer exists.

"The ultimate goal of people making threats is to make it illegal or too dangerous or both for anybody to say anything considered to be insulting to Muhammad or Allah, to impose the Islamic code, which is the goal of Usama bin Laden, upon the West," he said.

"It's time to take a stand and say we believe in freedom of speech and that means some people will be offended."

Hera says she is well aware of how others view her work. "What I'm doing is totally crazy — I'm risking my life," she said. "They call these photos fatwa photos. I've got a fatwa on my plate but I'm doing it for freedom of expression, freedom of speech and I'm hoping that the government is going to take the responsibility and not leave all the responsibility to the artist. That was the reason Theo van Gogh got killed."

But she says she will not be intimidated.

"Yes, I am afraid, but I don't allow this fear to intervene with my work," Hera said. "I'm hoping my work will be a wake-up call."