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A cowardly response to MICE-IS

Stefan Rhys-Williams

Topics Free Speech

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The title of Passion For Freedom, an exhibition of ‘courageous’ artwork that ran at London’s Mall Galleries last week, was presumably not meant to be ironic. Now, after it was revealed that a series of works was removed from the exhibition because of its ‘potentially inflammatory content’, it will forever be remembered with a snort.

The series in question, ‘ISIS Threaten Sylvania’, depicted Sylvanian Families – that’s right, the children’s toys – being terrorised and intimidated by Sylvanian mice dressed up as members of the Islamic State – or MICE-IS, as the exhibition’s catalogue refers to them.

It’s very difficult to understand what might be controversial about these pieces; mocking IS is hardly improper. The crux of the issue here seems to be a perceived threat of retaliation. The police had apparently suggested that merely displaying these pieces would necessitate a £36,000 security detail, which led the organisers to discreetly remove them.

It’s true that some Muslims have reacted furiously, even murderously, to cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and satire of Islam more broadly. And, indeed, the artist behind the series, known only as Mimsy, has kept his or her identity secret for this reason. However, such attacks remain mercifully rare, and many Muslims across the West have condemned IS’s actions. The decision to pull the pieces was a bizarre act of cowardice, based on an anticipation of unlikely violent outrage.

But given that ‘security concerns’ are so often the justification for censorship nowadays, it seems that the fear of merely offending Muslims also played a role here. Exhibit B, which showed at the Barbican earlier this year, was closed down after the organisers gave in to protesters who claimed the show’s treatment of colonialism and slavery was racist. ‘ISIS Threaten Sylvania’, meanwhile, has not attracted a single protest.

This anticipatory attitude should trouble us all. It seems that nobody even needs to complain or threaten someone in order for free expression to be curtailed; the mere suggestion that somebody could be outraged is sufficient to close things down. What’s more, this episode reveals a troubling attitude towards minority groups. The organisers’ actions suggested that Muslims are so easily offended that cultural institutions – or the police – ought to censor things in order to protect them. This is far more offensive to Muslims than MICE-IS ever could be.

Stefan Rhys-Williams is a writer based in London.

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Topics Free Speech

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