Doing the ayatollahs’ dirty work

The woke West has more in common with Iran’s rulers than its rebels.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture Free Speech Politics World

Some good news for Islamist hotheads in Iran: The Great Satan might not be as Satanic as you thought. In fact, some of the inhabitants of the licentious hellhole of the United States of America are on your side, at least when it comes to shutting down scurrilous commentary about Islam. Behold the extraordinary explosion of religious censorship at Macalester College in Minnesota this month. Following complaints from students, officials at this prestigious liberal arts college threw a black curtain – literally – over the work of an Iranian-American artist that depicted women in niqabs revealing their knickers and women in burqas with huge breasts. Hiding blasphemous art behind black sheets lest it cause ‘deep pain’ to Muslim students? They did you proud, Iran.

The artist is Taravat Talepasand. Her paintings and sculptures challenge Islamic conservatism and in particular Islam’s oppression of women. But you’re not allowed to do that anymore, it seems, even in the beautiful green surrounds of a private liberal college like Macalester. The artworks there included a painting of a niqab-covered woman flipping the bird and another showing two Iranian women in front of a looming phallic arch. Some in the student body were outraged. Mockery of Islam? Not on our watch. They submitted a petition saying the exhibition had caused them ‘deep pain’ and should be shut down. The college agreed – it ‘shroud[ed] the gallery in black curtains’. There’s an irony here that would be funny if it were not so sickening: a female artist who challenges the forced draping of women in black cloth finds herself being likewise veiled, likewise draped in shame, likewise hidden from public view. A censorship veil thrown over an artist who dared to make fun of the modesty veils thrown over women in Iran.

There was pushback against this disgraceful act of misogynistic intolerance. spiked’s friends at FIRE – the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression – drew national attention to the ‘sinister’ censorship at Macalester. Eventually, the college administrators backtracked on their ayatollahism and removed the shame curtains from the exhibition. But their paternalistic authoritarianism remained intact. The entrance doors to the exhibition were taped up, so that no poor soul would unwittingly glimpse these painful paintings, and two signs were attached to the doors. One was a content warning, the other a student-made leaflet telling people not to attend the show. So the exhibition was reopened, but students were begged not to enter. What a demeaning way to treat an artist whose only ‘crime’ is to make fun of Islamic extremism.

Here’s the most shocking thing about the February meltdown at Macalester – one of Talepasand’s works was a Tracey Emin-style neon sign that said ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ in both English and Persian. That’s the slogan of the revolt in Iran. That’s the cry of the women and men who have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to demand an end to forced hijab-wearing and other oppressive laws and measures. Take that in. On a liberal campus in 21st-century America, at an elite college that has a special ‘focus on internationalism’, the cry for freedom of brave Iranians was hidden behind a black curtain. It was shrouded from view. It remains, alongside Talepasand’s more provocative works, concealed behind a door smothered in construction tape with a plea to students not to enter this sinful sphere. This was more than just another act of petty tyranny carried out by ‘snowflakes’ and the college administrators who kowtow to them – it was a grotesque betrayal by elite students who enjoy every freedom you could imagine of people in Iran who enjoy so few.

Macalester was basically doing the ayatollahs’ dirty work for them. It did to Ms Talepasand what Iran would have done to her, though less violently of course: it censored her, branded her a social menace. It shoved this dangerous, hysterical woman behind a black curtain. Macalester aren’t the only ones doing the censorious bidding of the Iranian theocracy. Across the woke West, criticism of Islam is frequently condemned and in some cases punished. The Anglo-American world’s justification for crushing anti-Islamic ‘blasphemy’ might differ to Iran’s. We talk about protecting individual Muslims from the ‘pain’ of seeing their prophets and customs being questioned, while Iran focuses on the ‘pain’ caused to Islamic society, and to Allah himself, when people diss Islam. But the consequence is the same: punishment of blasphemy, diminution of freedom.

The madness at Macalester came hot on the heels of the Muhammad controversy at Hamline University, also in Minnesota, where an art-history instructor was sacked in December for showing students an artwork featuring the Prophet. A professor at Bristol University in the UK essentially went into hiding recently after students branded him ‘Islamophobic’, in part over a slide he showed about the 2015 massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The Iranian-born dissenter and feminist Maryam Namazie has been No Platformed from UK campuses for her fiery criticisms of Islamic conservatism. One wonders if the same fate would befall the current protesters in Iran if they secured refuge in Britain – physically beaten by ayatollahs, No Plaformed by our own woke ayatollahs? People have lost their jobs in the West for making fun of Islam. People have been murdered for ‘mocking’ Muhammad. Virtually every institution frowns upon ‘Islamophobia’, which often just means strong criticism of Islam, and even ‘hijabphobia’, which the Huffington Post describes as ‘unfounded hostility towards the hijab’. That is essentially what the Iranian tyranny is waging a vicious war on – the ‘hijabphobia’ of uppity women who are hostile to the idea that they should always be veiled in public.

The commonalities of wokeness and ayatollahism are chilling. Right-on Westerners have become willing, compliant footsoldiers of Iranian-style intolerance. They think they’re doing something nice and socially just: protecting Muslims from offence. But in truth they’re pushing unforgiving religious-style censorship and demeaning our Muslims citizens into the bargain. The idea that Muslims cannot handle difficult discussion and require educated activists to cover their frail eyes and ears is infinitely more racist than a painting of a woman hiking up her burqa. I’m starting to understand why there has been so little sustained solidarity with the revolt in Iran, which continues, by the way. It’s because so many over here have been inculcated with the belief that questioning Islam, mocking Muhammad and criticising the veil are bad things to do. This is the impossibility of solidarity with Iran’s rebels.

For students on a privileged campus in the US to speak of the ‘deep pain’ of being invited to view an Iranian-American’s rebellious art is actually quite repulsive. Pain? More than 300 protesters dead, scores lined up for execution, others severely injured by batons and bullets – that’s pain. And I have no doubt that your shrouding of their slogan and other pro-women artworks behind a black cloak of moral censure will have exacerbated that pain.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Instagram / artistvat and

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Topics Culture Free Speech Politics World


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